Interview with a Cult Leader Jeff Ward brings ‘Helter Skelter’ Into 2016

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 12.03.26 PMJeff Ward, star of Lifetime’s Manson’s Lost Girls takes a deep dive into the mind of the  man responsible for the love & Terror cult of 1969. — Dio Anthony (@diodiehard)

Charles Manson is a household name in 2016, nearly 50 years after painting the city of Los Angeles red with blood, committing murders that decades later remain in the public conciseness and “brain-washing” a group of juveniles that would come to be known as “The Manson Family”.

Jeff Ward is the latest in line to take over the role of the infamous mastermind, and he’s doing it with much pleasure, diving deep into into the psyche of one of the most evil, yet fascinating public figures of the 20th century.

What as filming like, with the story being set in 1969 and all? 

I’d never done a period piece before so it was already different than anything else I had done before. I loved that, because it was so immersive and so far from me. All the clothes, the cars, the props—everything really was authentically vintage, from the 60s. Wearing the clothes, and the smell of them, it really helped set the tone. Also, Los Angeles is such a big component in the story. And so, filming here and being on a fake movie set, as they were at Spahn Ranch was a bit surreal. I think we did a really good job at creating the world for the film, and I’m really confident that it’ll translate on screen.

The bits that have been released for promotion paint a very intense story. How did you particularly prepare for the role?

I did lots and lots of research of course. I’ve probably watched about every interview there is out there, and there’s about 50+ hours of footage. It’s really interesting because all of these interviews and videos are all at different stages of his life, particularly sometime after our film takes place. However, I had to take everything with a grain of salt, because I think he’s very aware that he’s on an international soap box. He’s well aware that the cameras are switched on.


What was it like getting into the mindset of such evil?

I had a lot of fun collaging a few of my favorite villains in doing this. I took some of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, and Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. The Cheshire cat was also another one that I liked to use, [laughs]. So, getting to take all my favorite bad guys into one thing was really fun.

Take me into your process if you will. 

Well, we were filming till about three days before the anniversary of the murders. I live in Silverlake, a mile away from the LaBianca house and it is pretty much completely in tact to how it was that night in 1969. The night before filming the scene where they invade the home, I went over there and turned my car off and walked up and down the street in front of the house. It was so wild. It was exactly the same thing that Charlie would have seen walking around that night. There was an electricity to that, that was pretty memorable.

The perfect mix of creepy and cool, right?

Exactly. I started feeling kind of perverse, because as an actor you can’t hope for a character as good as Charlie Manson. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do in a character. He’s so brilliantly evil, and complicated, and has real, very human motives that turned into violence once he was drunk on his own power. It’s been incredible.

I like to ask actors this question. When you think back on it filming, and the whole process—what sticks out to you? 

This is going to sound really uncool but, I was really pinching myself the whole time. The story is so rich, and relevant and interesting. For something so infamous and so well known, I think a few people know the real story. It was just a dream come true to go to work everyday on work on scenes that were that meaty.  There was so much there.  But, I think what really sticks out is the relationship I built with the cast. We all showed up with all these stories—-have you read this book? Have you watched this interview? Have you heard this story? We were all trading information feverishly, and so excitingly. We also had to shoot quite a few sex scenes, and so because we went to such weird places together it just formed a bond naturally.

The story of Manson and his girls has been told over and over gain. Especially in recent years. Why do you think that is?

I have theories! I think people are obsessed with it because the fact that he didn’t do any of the murders himself, is a big part of it. It keeps his legacy alive, and his image and his name and the crimes in the public consciousness. Not to mention, “Squeeky” whose real name was Lynette Fromme tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975, and in the public eye, Charlie was doing that from Jail. It reignited the fear. This story is also just so bizarre. The details are so bizarre. Truthfully, the more you go down the spiral of learning more about the story you’re in disbelief by the coincidences. It’s insane! [laughs]. For me, having so many actor friends, it draws a parallel. This could’ve been a guy we knew that we could’ve found annoying, someone always around us. Then he doesn’t get a part in a film and goes on a killing spree. It’s such a wild discovery.  I think there’s more than one reason why it’s managed to stick around. The fact that it was backdropped against this Beatles song that to him was about an impending race-war, I mean, you can’t make that stuff up.


Do you have any particular favorite element or part in the movie?

I have to say, I think Eden Brolin who plays Susan Atkins is really spectacular in the movie. I think people are going to be really blown away and frightened of her. So is MacKenzie Mauzy, who plays Linda Kasabian. The two of them are phenomenal. The whole cast is, but every time I watch it, I’m particularly taken aback by them two.

There are some moments that I remember very fondly filming, and when I watch it— in my head I was Charlie Manson, but on screen, i just feel like it’s little ole’ me, [laughs]. There is one scene, though, that is set to a Beach Boys song and it’s all a montage. It’s really well done by the director, very well edited. There’s no dialogue, but you see Charlie instructing the girls to go over to men at a party. It was fantastic because it was so real. Charlie would essentially go fishing. He’d use his girls as bait to get whatever he wanted. Wether that has more woman, protection, cars, money, drugs, whatever it was.

Towards the begging there’s a scene that makes it seem kind of fun, but for people to really understand the context of what’s going on it’s also very disturbing, but it’s not at all shot that way. It’s shot in a very light and fun way, which I think is really neat.

Having seen the crazy interviews of Manson in court, jail etc. would you have interviewed him given the chance? 

I genuinely would have, there was just no time. Truthfully you don’t know what you’re going to get. I think you’d get a lot of lies. But I’ve always desperately wanted to know the answer to the question, that I don’t think even if I was sitting across from him he’d ever answer. The question that I have is, did you really believe that Helter Skelter was real?

Obviously it was Charlie’s rejection from the music industry is what pushed him towards violence and revenge. But it was all propped up on Helter Skelter. He had an impressive amount of racism. But did he start to believe in the lies he was dishing out to his followers? Or was it just a tool, that he used over and over again.

Back in 68 and early 69, almost every other day, somewhere in the united states, there was some violent riot or demonstration that was because of race issues. With all of that happening, and he’s able to pick up a newspaper that says “Another Riot Breaks Out,” and show his people, it’s not that absurd when you take in all the factors.  I don’t think he was schizophrenic or anything like that. I think he was a narcissist  and sociopath, and just curious if he believed his own bull.

Don’t miss Manson’s Lost Girls Saturday February 6th, at 8pm. Only on Lifetime.

About The Author

Dio Anthony
TV Columnist, Features Editor

Hailing from Philadelphia, PA, child of the internet-age, Dio Anthony is a self-confessed pop culture observer, lending his expertise in story telling to various aspects of the entertainment industry. An avid television viewer, and columnist with a profound knowledge of the history of American TV & film, he has reported for many of entertainment’s top online-news sites. A connoisseur of old-timey sitcoms from Hollywood’s golden age and on, he believes the answers to life lie in a very well crafted scene.

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