Just three weeks after Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story dropped on Netflix and became a hit for the streamer, the duo have released their next true-crime take with The Watcher.
While the Jeffrey Dahmer limited series received backlash from the family members of the serial killer’s victims for their lack of involvement in the project, the cast of The Watcher said they’re not concerned with their limited series receiving the same criticism.
Based on a true story, the series follows married couple Dean (Bobby Cannavale) and Nora Brannock (Naomi Watts) after they purchase their dream home in Westfield, New Jersey. Soon after meeting their strange neighbors — portrayed by Mia Farrow, Terry Kinney, Richard Kind and Margo Martindale — the couple begin receiving sinister letters from someone named “the Watcher.” Through the letters, the stalker starts to terrorize Dean, Nora and their kids.
The real events were detailed in a 2018 article in New York Magazine’s The Cut, though most of the cast members said the show is heavily fictionalized. “I didn’t try to meet him. I’m not really playing him. The story is based on that story, but really, it’s a Ryan Murphy creation,” Cannavale told The Hollywood Reporter about how he prepared for the role at the New York City premiere on Wednesday. “The story itself is just a jumping off point for what he wants to do.”
About his character, Dean, Cannavale added, “I worked very closely with Ryan in coming up with this guy. It’s a portrait of the American dream, so you talk about it and decide on what version of that you’re trying to tell.” He noted, “The kind of themes Ryan is trying to explore go beyond the actual story of what happened at that house.”
Watts admitted she also didn’t feel pressured to meet the real-life woman she’s portraying or learn much about the actual family. “I really trusted the scripts. After reading the article, that was plenty, so we didn’t need to go reach out to the real people, although the story was quite known,” she said. “As individuals, they weren’t particularly known, so it’s not like an audience is going to go, ‘Oh, well she’s not walking like her. She’s not speaking like her.’”
The show, in its opening title card, is billed as being based on a true story. But Martindale said the real people on whom the show is based shouldn’t be worried about their portrayals. “I don’t think they’re depicted in a bad way,” she said. “It stays true to a lot of the facts of things that happened to them, but then it goes off into darker places.”
“You don’t really want to trigger anyone,” actor Henry Hunter Hall added of the pressure he felt to tell the real-life story on screen. “You don’t want to make people uncomfortable or feel like you’re smearing their story, but you also want to entertain.”
Kinney also revealed that fans might be disappointed if they’re expecting the miniseries to be completely accurate. “There’s a lot of people that are very invested in this story that are waiting for it with bated breath and, I dare say, they want the exact story to be told,” he said. “I don’t think that they’ll get that. What they’ll get is something far more interesting. Far more theatrical and much more of a rollercoaster.”
Meanwhile, Kind argued that dramatizing the story will make it more enjoyable for viewing. “I’m not a fan of reality TV, but I’m a fan of good drama,” he explained. “If you can take a good story and make it entertaining, then it rises above. If you can make it thematically interesting, shot well and acted well, then tell it.”
And unlike the widely retold Jeffrey Dahmer story, several cast members shared that they weren’t familiar with “the Watcher” incident before booking their roles.
Martindale said she didn’t know much about the real events, but instantly agreed to the project due to Murphy’s involvement. “I love this genre,” she added. “I find it wildly fun. There’s some liveness to it.”
Kinney, though, was one of the few stars who was well-versed with the story before landing his role. “My daughter is one of those online sleuths. She devours all of the true-crime stories that are often being solved by citizens,” the actor explained. “She sent me this story some years ago when it came out and said, ‘I’m obsessed with this.’ So when this came up and I told her I was going to audition for Ryan for it, she was like, ‘You have to do it.’”
The Watcher is now streaming on Netflix.