Thanks to the looming work week, Sunday nights have long been quiet shut-in nights dedicated to watching some of the best television that cable has to offer. The latest series that has us obsessing is AMC’s The Killing. Based on a Danish program, called Forbrydelsen, it’s a dark, bleak, and enthralling look at an investigation into the murder of a high school girl living in rainy and cloudy Seattle. What sets The Killing apart from other procedural shows is its multiple points-of-view into the case, with equal focus centered on the homicide detectives, local government officials, and the victim’s family.
As in any good murder mystery, there’s even a primary suspect: the dead girl’s teacher, played by young Canadian actor Brandon Jay McLaren. Played with vulnerability and compassion by McLaren, his character, Bennett Ahmed, is a tough guy to pin a killing on, despite all of the clues presented in each new episode. And that’s another facet that makes The Killing such engrossing television: We can’t quite figure out any of the characters’ motivations or secrets.
Complex recently spoke with McLaren about TV’s most addictive new drama, how he’s able to make an otherwise villainous character sympathetic, and why all of you armchair sleuths out there don’t know the half of what’s really going down on The Killing.
Complex: The show only recently finished production, back in mid-April. Have you been able to watch The Killing as it airs, like us common folk?
Brandon Jay McLaren: You know, I haven’t had a chance, I’ll be honest. I watched the pilot and the second episode, but I’ve been kind of busy since. But what I’m going to do is just wait until they all come out on DVD, so then I can just sit there and watch them all like it’s one day.
That’s the best way to do it. The Killing is one of those shows that ends each week and leaves the viewer dying to continue with the story. Those week-long gaps can be brutal.
Brandon Jay McLaren: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s how I used to be with Lost. I would never watch Lost on TV; I’d just wait until I could get at least five or six episodes in a row. Saved myself a lot of anxiety that way.
The Killing is a totally different kind of show than Lost, for sure, but it does have a similarly addictive quality. How’d you get involved with the show?
Brandon Jay McLaren: I read the pilot, and I really, really liked it. It was easily the best pilot script that I read all pilot season, so I called my manager and agent and was like, “Look, can I get anything on this? I just want to get in on this, be a part of it in any way I can.” So, I went in and went in with the executive producer and the writer twice, and, yeah, I got the part.
Were you looking at a lot of different pilot scripts at the time?
Brandon Jay McLaren: Yeah, it was a busy pilot season. Absolutely. But I think The Killing was the one that stood out to me the most. The writing was just so superb. You read a lot of pilots during pilot season, and not all of them really grab you. But then you get one like this where the writing is just so on point, and you’re really affected by it. That’s a great measuring stick on whether it’s going to be a good product or not.
They initially reached out to me and said that if I liked the script, the Bennett Ahmed character was the one they were looking at me for, and it was mine if I wanted it. So, of course, I said, “Absolutely.” And then they told me that I’d be in most of the season. That’s when I said to myself, “Oh, yeah.... This is the dream gig.”
As you were filming, would they only give you that episode’s script? The Killing seems like a show that’d be kept really secretive, even amongst the cast.
Brandon Jay McLaren: Yeah, I think they gave me, like, a six episode guarantee off the top, and that’s it. So I knew I was going to be in the first six. But as far as my character and where he was going, I really didn’t know. It was an episode-to-episode thing; I’d know as I would read it. I would be so excited every week to get the next episode’s script, you know? That made it feel like I was watching as it a regular viewer, which was really cool.
What was your reaction when you first realized that Bennett was going to be one of the main suspects?
Brandon Jay McLaren: Oh, I was thrilled, man! I was absolutely thrilled, because I had no idea. The show is based off of a Danish show, but I didn’t want any part of that. I didn’t watch that show, because I wanted to keep myself as fresh as possible. So as the scripts started coming around, and I realized that my character wasn’t all that he seemed to be, it was really exciting.
Is it extra challenging to play a character like Bennett, who everyone thinks is the killer, and not play him in such a suspicious way that the audience also thinks he’s the killer?
The thing I love about the show is that you think you know where it’s going, and how it’s going to play out, but then you realize that you don’t know. And it revisits people that might be suspicious, so you let one person go because you think they’re out of the running, and then two episodes later you rethink that. “Oh, maybe it was them.”
I read an interesting interview with the creator, Veena Sud, where she pointed out that the show would never have any flashbacks for the victim, Rosie, because the investigators wouldn’t have the luxury of seeing her flashbacks, therefore the audience shouldn’t either. I thought that was really clever. Little details like that help set the show apart, I think.
Brandon Jay McLaren: Yeah, yeah, it’s so detailed. Even, like, with the parents’ grieving process—they pick out these little moments that, as an outsider, you don’t really think of, and it really highlights those small moments that could easily be looked over but are incredibly important.
Your character has had a few of those moments, as well. What’s your take on Bennett? What do you think makes him tick?
Brandon Jay McLaren: My character is a good guy, you know? He really has a good heart, and he believes in what he does, almost to a fault, I would say. But I think that’s all I’m going to say. [Laughs.] I really don’t want to give anything away. The more I talk about the character’s specifics, the more I could potentially give away.
I can imagine that’s it’s tough to talk about the show without giving too much information away.
Brandon Jay McLaren: [Laughs.] It really is. I always like to give information in interviews, you know? But I find that I’m always pulling myself back when talking about this show. But I guess that’s a good problem to have. It’s better than giving everything away about a show because nobody cares enough to find out. [Laughs.]
The city of Seattle seems to be its own major character, specifically in its grittiness and gloomy weather. Did you spend a lot of time in Seattle prior to shooting, in order to immerse yourself in the scene there?
Brandon Jay McLaren: Well, I’ve been to Seattle a lot, so I know the city really well. I definitely had a base from which to work from, because I’ve been there so frequently. I don’t think the show would work if it was set in any other city; the rain and the clouds really adds another element to the show. It’s really its own character—the mood.
Interestingly enough, the show was filmed in Vancouver, right?
Brandon Jay McLaren: Yeah, it was, and that’s where I’m from. It was great—kind of like coming full circle. I got to come home and do this really, really amazing show. I’m pretty grateful about the whole experience.
Over the last couple of episodes, your character has gone from a guy everyone thought was the killer to someone who could just be connected in a really unfortunate way. The show does a really good job at blurring the lines of innocence, in that sense.
Brandon Jay McLaren: Right. Like I said, there’s a lot more to the story than you would think. Even when I read each episode's script, as a cast member, I was like, “Wow!” It just keeps going deeper and deeper, and uncovers more lies and cover-ups. There’s still a lot of things to be revealed in the next six episodes, or however many are left.
As you were first reading the scripts, did you have your own thoughts on who the killer was? And, if so, who’d you suspect the most?
Brandon Jay McLaren: Yeah, yeah. You always go in with some expectations. But every time I read the next script, my suspicions were flipped, so I didn’t really have a firm idea on who it could be, to be honest, and I loved that about the scripts. Like, when my character’s wife got introduced and that whole thing with her, that was big news to me.
Every episode there’s a new reveal that at least I didn’t see coming. I know there are some good detectives out there online. They write out all of the clues since episode one, and they try to figure it all out. For me, though, it was really, really surprising.
So you don’t think any viewers really know what’s going to happen, even if they think they might?
Brandon Jay McLaren: [Laughs.] I think so. I think it’s going to be really, really tough to figure everything out before the final episode. At least I hope so.