“The Following”: Michael Ealy Discusses His Serial Killer Character Theo

Michael Ealy is known for playing the good guy or the guy that you’d want to take home to meet your mom, but there are rare occasions when he’s played the guy you’d never want to meet. On today’s The Following, we’re finally introduced to his character, Theo. As you can expect from a show like The Following, Ealy’s playing a bad guy. A serial killer, to be exact.

I was able to participate in the conference call featuring Ealy, in which he answered several reporters’ questions about his character, the challenges of playing a character like Theo, and what part of himself actually influenced his take on the character.

On whether he prefers playing good guys over bad guys:

I think for me it’s about showing range and versatility, and when the opportunity to join The Following came up, it was the first or second time I was given the opportunity to actually play a villain.  You’re right, I have played a lot of good guys, but it’s a nice change.  It’s a really nice change of pace.  I don’t know if I prefer it so much as I just enjoy being able to go back and forth.

On differentiating Theo from The Following‘s main big bad, Joe Carroll:

I think for me it was kind of daunting to walk onto the show knowing that you’re going play a villain and the infamous Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, was already a well-established villain.  And I think one of the things that I tried to do that wasn’t always scripted was try and steer away from Joe’s rhythm of speech and the clever banter back and forth.  I think Theo, I wanted to make Theo a bit more terrifying and not be so, not go down the same path as Joe.  I didn’t want him to be familiar to Joe and so I think I tried to make him more scary.

On what makes Theo scary:

Theo has the ability to morph into various identities, both physically and logistically.  So if he takes on a different persona, or a different identity rather, he’ll change himself physically.  Not like a shape-shifter, okay, not like a shape-shifter or anything like that, but with disguises and all that stuff.  Even at one point I think he wears contact lenses.  We go through the motions, he goes into full detail whenever he takes on an identity to kill.  I think it’s his passion.  And when he does pursue his passion, he tends to morph into another identity as opposed to killing just as Theo.  And I think that, I hope, makes it clear.

And in terms of logistics, he is a hacking genius.  So all of his paperwork, everything about him adds up and so it makes him much more difficult to track because physically he’s transformed, and logistically he’s transformed.  I think that’s what Brett is talking about when he says he’s a chameleon.

On getting into character:

Obviously you look into certain serial killers and you read up on these guys and the narcissism behind them, and if anything, I kind of wanted to become somewhat of an anti-serial killer.  In that, unlike Joe, Theo does not seek the glory, the fame, the followers.  And that’s what I think, this is where I kind of separated myself from most serial killers.  Theo does not seek out the glory and the fame, he would rather be left alone and be able to fulfill that blood-lust, under the radar.

At the same time he does possess some of the narcissist qualities that other serial killers do have.  But one of things you’ll see in the first episode that comes up on Monday, is he doesn’t necessarily embrace just one particular style, or one signature.  He has embraced them all and he doesn’t believe in limiting himself to just one methodology or one signature, it’s pretty disturbing in that way.  And at the same time kind of fascinating because he ends up becoming more of a collective type of serial killer.

I think the challenge was to try and understand the character.  Previous characters that I’ve played, I’ve always been able to kind of identify with some element, if not most of the elements of the character, not only because they’re good guys, but because of whatever it is that they’re searching for in life.

What made Theo challenging to Ealy (and what made Theo scary for Ealy):

And what I found difficult about Theo was, I don’t have a blood lust, I don’t have a desire to kill, and more importantly, based on what I’ve read and doing research about these guys and sociopaths in general, being born this way is not something that can really be figured out or explained.  The idea that the difference between me and Theo is just a genetic code is frightening.  It’s kind of frightening because technically I could be Theo if I just had a different genetic code.

I wouldn’t be an actor, I’d just be Theo, and that was frightening to me.  But at the same time it was very alluring and it also made me realize that I’ve got to find something about the character that I identify with.

How Ealy’s own pursuit of privacy influenced his portrayal of Theo:

[W]hat I found was, what I was mentioning earlier, this theory of wanting to stay underneath the radar.

Oftentimes in my own career, I’ve chosen to stay underneath the radar and protect my family, and protect myself prior to having a family, and do my work, and retreat back into my little bubble.  That’s harder to do nowadays in this business, and so Theo wanting to not be Joe, not wanting followers, not wanting the attention from the media.  All of that, I think was my “in” for Theo.

Check out this clip from the episode to see just how terrifying Ealy is as Theo. I’ll be honest and say The Following is already a show I don’t watch on a regular basis because it’s too scary for me, but seeing Ealy’s character takes the fear to an even higher level.

You can see Ealy terrorize the characters on The Following tonight at 9/8c on FOX.

Ealy as Theo in The Following. Screencap. 

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