I'm Not a Child Molester, I Just Play One on TV

For some actors, portraying a person who abuses children can be "a beautiful opportunity." For their audiences, it’s a chance to unpack how much we still don’t understand about the issue.

by Claire Zulkey
Sep 26 2019, 12:00pm

Illustration by Koji Yamamoto.

It was during the second episode of True Detective’s third season when the child molester showed up.

The appearance of this character wasn’t out of left field for the HBO drama, which often features deeply disturbed individuals: The first season’s villain, for instance, was a rapist serial killer who lives with his father’s corpse and is in an incestuous (and implicitly abusive) relationship with his mentally-challenged half-sister.

In the third-season episode "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," the show presents a new character who is so stigmatized that his torture and shame are played for a type of vindicated laugh it's hard to imagine would apply to other victims of police brutality. Ted LaGrange, a once-convicted sex criminal (played by Shawn-Caulin Young), has been interrogated and beaten up by two detectives (Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff) on suspicion of killing a child. After driving around Arkansas back country roads, the detectives pull over and open their trunk. Inside is a gagged and handcuffed LaGrange, wide-eyed and whimpering as the detectives threaten him with rape and execution for his past crimes against young victims. LaGrange sobs before the trunk is closed.

After the episode was over, I couldn't help but think about how it was somebody's job to play Ted LaGrange. What was that day at work like? How do you prepare for that role? The entertainment world is overflowing with stories about the ways actors deeply research or immerse themselves in the lives of the characters they play, from watching hours of footage in order to master accents and mannerisms to learning how to box or play the piano. But picking up a new skill is far from attempting to believably portray a child abuser or pedophile. How would an actor approach that?

As I would come to find out: not easily.

Shawn-Caulin Young on True Detective
Shawn-Caulin Young on 'True Detective'

In 2015, actor Ryan Devlin got a prominent role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He was excited not to have to audition for the part, which happened to be for Pastor Greg Eldon, a minister who is revealed to have impregnated two middle-school aged girls. "But it made me think," said Devlin, "what about me says 'pedophile priest rapist' so clearly that they didn't even want me to audition?’”

In contrast, character actor Dylan Baker, perhaps best known as a bondage-loving CEO in The Good Wife and Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard in Spider-Man, auditioned for the role of child abuser psychiatrist Bill Maplewood in Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness. "I was always more drawn to 'What is the thing that's stopping this person from behaving in a correct or proper way?'" he said of the characters he often plays. "'What is the underlying psychology of this person that draws them towards doing things that most people would find abhorrent?'"

Shawn-Caulin Young knows how he got pulled in to audition for Ted LaGrange, the True Detective molester. "I've become known around town as the guy who is really good at playing dirty rednecks," he said. (He also recently played a Nazi who gets eaten by Drew Barrymore on Santa Clarita Diet.) His agent told him about the role after the show's casting director, Victoria Thomas, put out a call for actors.

"How do you cast a child molester?" asks Thomas. "It's not like they're walking around with devil horns or something." The casting director, who has cast films like Django Unchained, Detroit and Con Air, uses a service wherein TV, film and theatre casting directors put out a notice to agencies and managers for the role and type of actor they’re looking for. Synopses of characters in scripts are sent out to talent representatives, who can then submit their clients' pictures, resume and videos to casting directors. (The Breakdown, the service Thomas and her team use, copyrights its listings, rendering inaccessible the casting calls for roles like Ted LaGrange. Much has also been written about the dos and don'ts of writing a successful casting call—an off-color breakdown can easily result in becoming the subject of a spirited conversation about everything from stereotypical to downright offensive casting choices.)

"Some guys lend themselves, whether it's the way they look or their intensity, to being effective as a bad guy, someone who you believe would kill somebody or beat somebody up," said Thomas. "There are other actors with more angelic faces who you don't believe that as easily. We all have stereotypes in our head of what we think certain people who do certain things look like."

She said it was difficult selecting the actor to play LaGrange. "I didn't want to cast a monster. On some level I was looking for someone who was not completely evil, but who was weak, who had something that was controlling him and him not controlling it."

Young said there were no notes in Pizzolatto's script on how he should play LaGrange. ("He is always very vocal about how he doesn't really do research. Everything comes out of his imagination," noted Pizzolatto’s assistant when I reached out.) "It was totally up to me," said Young. "Nic talked about some of the backstory for who he believed Ted was and that he had committed multiple acts against very young victims. That was the only thing I had. Everything else came from my own instincts and what I got from the text."

In Little Children, Jackie Earle Haley plays Ronnie McGorvey, a sex offender who has been released from jail to live with his mother, who holds out hope her grown son will be a good boy. When adapting the role of Ronnie onscreen, Haley (who is also well known for playing the morally absolute and socially alienated Rorschach in Watchmen) has said he didn't base his portrayal of McGorvey on particular research, but instead drew from his own life with a brother who died of a heroin overdose and a mother who stood by him. "I'll never be able to relate to this character's urges or his obsessions, but what I can relate to is his obsessive nature," Haley told Variety of the role. "I understand that. Ronnie is an incredibly self-loathing character who suffers from a great deal of low self-esteem."

Devlin as a pastor on SVU
Ryan Devlin, right, on 'SVU'

Digging into how a "typical" pedophile or child sexual abuser behaves, or thinks, can be more than a little daunting, both because the taboos regarding the subject have made it extremely challenging to research and also because, as sociology professor David Finkelhor notes, "most abusers are probably never caught, arrested, and convicted, which limits generalizations about this population." Thus we are left with entrenched assumptions and generalizations about who perpetrates child sexual abuse, including prejudices regarding pedophilia among homosexual vs. heterosexual men and the idea that child molesters are creepy and obvious, when many—for example, Larry Nassar—are trusted and popular members of their communities.

A primary misconception is that "pedophile" and "child molester" are interchangeable designations, which works to the detriment of understanding both classifications of people and is actually dangerous to children. "If the goal is to protect children from harm, as it should be, then we should stop stigmatizing pedophilia per se and start stigmatizing (or keep stigmatizing) those who actually sexually abuse children for whatever reason, whether they happen to be pedophiles or not," wrote Brian D. Earp in 2017 on the University of Oxford's Practical Ethics blog, examining the problems inherent in accusing politician Roy Moore of pedophilia (a disorder) when the criminal accusations against him are for sexually abusing a minor (a crime).

"We don't organize our lives rationally—we react to anecdotes, and prize the safety of our loved ones over compassion for people we see as evil, rather than afflicted."

Though researchers are still trying to discern the origins of pedophilic disorder, they have begun to generally agree upon a few things: that not all (or even many) child molesters have pedophilic disorder; that, in some cases, it can be treated (though not cured) with therapy and medication; and that it is not a malady people choose to be afflicted with.

Pedophilic disorder is considered a paraphilia, and the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) puts an individual in this category if their sexual fantasies are about children 13 or younger, last six months or longer, have been acted on, or if they upset the individual having them or result in legal issues. It also notes that the individual has to themselves be at least 16 and five years older than the prepubescent child.

The subtleties in this arena—the differences between, for instance, people who have feelings of sexual attraction for prepubescent children that they don't act on and those who have the same feelings and do, or have none of those feelings and are abusive anyway—tend to be missed by the general public. "Although from a psychiatric perspective the term Pedophilia is intended to define a recognized clinical entity, in the collective consciousness of contemporary society, the term has become a demonizing pejorative," famed—if often the subject of scrutiny—researcher Fred S. Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, wrote in a 2014 paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Adding to the stigma, mandatory reporting laws in effect in the U.S. since the late 1970s require therapists and physicians to report anyone they believe poses a threat to a child to authorities. "What we're doing has effectively banned them from getting therapy," said James Cantor, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who has specialized in studying the role of the brain in pedophilia. In 2016, he appeared in the Canadian documentary I, Pedophile, which features interviews with pedophiles to illustrate that better understanding of the disorder will more effectively protect children. The film opens and closes on a chanting, sign-holding group of residents protesting the neighborhood arrival of a convicted child molester. Policymakers, Cantor said, "congratulate themselves thinking that by sticking it to the pedophiles, they're making it safer but they're making it worse. They're driving everybody underground. Instead of a pedophile getting medication for their sex drive, they're getting nothing at all."

Ultimately, most of what is known about those with pedophilic disorder comes only from convicted child molesters and the stories of their victims, which Cantor said present an inaccurate portrait. "Their behaviors and what they're all about run the whole range of human personalities," many of which, he said, are people who think, "'Oh my god, I have to control and suppress this.' We'd never notice them and they'd blend into society." At the other end, he said, are people who are genuinely psychopathic, and don't care about the well being of others. "If they happened to be pedophilic in addition to being a psychopath, that doesn't make a difference whether they're going to commit a crime; it's going to make a difference who they'll pick as a victim."

With the character Ronny McGorvey, Perrotta said, "I wasn't trying to portray a 'typical' pedophile or child molester, if there is such a thing, but to imagine a very specific character, one who happens to be a sociopath as well as a pedophile, though this isn't clear until well into the novel."

Perrotta said he hoped this type of public fear was captured in Little Children: "a fear that was irrational and exaggerated from a statistical standpoint, but was based on a handful of real and horrifying stories (the one that inspired Megan’s Law, for example). We don't organize our lives rationally—we react to anecdotes, and prize the safety of our loved ones over compassion for people we see as evil, rather than afflicted."

This sort of nuance is generally lost on the public and in art. Characters like McGorvey are what the general public tend to imagine when presented with the term "pedophile." And, regardless of their actual criminal history is, it’s believed they deserve the same treatment across the board: ostracization, humiliation, violence, death. In real life, this can result in moments of extremism taken to its brink, like when conspiracy theorist Edgar Welch discharged an AR-15 rifle in the Washington, D.C. Comet Ping Pong restaurant in 2016, in his search for a hidden child sex ring. In the fictional realm, when the two True Detective police officers kidnap, assault, and intimidate LaGrange, who has been working, secretly, in a daycare, it's ultimately treated with a touch of humor, a hint of justice and satisfaction. After Ali's character closes the trunk on LaGrange, he and his partner joke over his use of a threat of rape in prison: "You will bleed black cock."

Dylan Baker in Happiness
Dylan Baker in 'Happiness'

With so little to go on about what really motivates actual pedophiles and child molesters, actors often plumb their own motivations. Since True Detective’s scripts gave Young no direction on how to play LaGrange (who has no actual scenes alongside children), he drew on what information he personally had gleaned over the years about pedophiles. "Many of them come from homes where their innocence has been taken from a very young age, they've grown up in homes of abuse," he said. (This commonly held belief is subject to much debate.) Young had also read research indicating that people with pedophilic disorder may have differences in the frontal lobe of their brains associated with behavior control, so as a youth acting coach, he tried to imagine what it would be like to be accused of misdeeds against one of his students. Finally, he decided to give Ted LaGrange a stutter, he said, to tap into "what it must feel like to not be able to communicate in a clear effective way."

"As hard as it is to understand, the only place that guy feels safe is in the presence of a child and that to me is like, 'Well what happened to you?'" Young said he was proud, in a weird way, after his scene was shot and his character was roughed up by Dorff and Ali. "I was so broken and such a mess and they said, 'We felt so bad for you. We are torn because here's this child molester and you’re making people feel for him.'"

The role, he said, "Pushed me to my utmost limits, being that I am a survivor of abuse myself. It was kind of a meta moment for me. It was a very heartbreaking and eye-opening perspective to be in the shoes of the perpetrator." He said he developed an emotional attachment to the character over their shared loss of innocence, although he opted not to think about the specifics of what LaGrange had done to children, and why. "Trying to wrap my mind around the acts that Ted would have done was too much and too overwhelming and, in my opinion, not healthy."

"Nobody thinks of themselves as a bad person," Devlin argues. "My character, for example, felt he was doing God's work, and although he was aware that what he was doing was illegal, he convinced himself that the law didn't apply to him. It's twisted, but as an actor, it helps to play the role if you feel you’re in the right."

Young needed some time to decompress from his True Detective role, possibly because he literally got beaten up in the process, opting to take some real hits during the scenes in which his character is interrogated. "Ted sat with me for awhile. I really went down the rabbit hole with it." After shooting in Arkansas, he said, "I sat in my hotel room and I cried for a couple of hours because I couldn’t shake it."

Devlin, on the other hand, was, at the end of the day, able to easily shrug off his role. "It's pretty easy for me to leave the work on set," he said. That day, though, he took his lunch break in his priest costume in Grand Central Terminal. "People kept coming up to me to ask for blessings, so I went ahead and blessed them. It was fun playing a nice priest instead of the guy I was playing on the show."

Jackie Earl Hayley in Little Children
Jackie Earl in 'Little Children'

Young's friends were excited to hear that he’d be appearing on True Detective—even when he warned them that it would be an unlikeable character, due to his experience playing bad guys and rednecks, they weren’t fazed. Until, well, they were. "The second I would say 'child molester,' everybody would stop in their tracks."

What do you tell your parents, your spouse, your friends, your children, your neighbors, or your fellow congregants when you’re excited to land the role of a lifetime and it’s of someone who abuses children? "'Pedophile priest rapist' doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of joy at the dinner table when the news is shared, said Devlin, who also portrayed a serial rapist who kept his victims’ hair on Veronica Mars. "I've played enough unsavory characters that my mom’s book club is starting to wonder what the heck is up with me."

Young said he considered whether his True Detective role might impact other jobs that come his way, and suspects they have: "I'm already seeing that there are certain doors that are closed to me because people perceive me as being able to play these dark broken people, when in reality I'm a super happy guy. I can't get into comedy stuff."

In entertainment, playing a child abuser, pedophile, or similarly stigmatized person can simply be a pivotal career move actors don’t want to turn down. "Playing a meaty role on SVU is great for the resume and the reel," said Devlin. Young notes that he wouldn’t have played Ted for a show with less prestige than True Detective. "I knew that going into that, when you have an opportunity to work for a network like HBO and the caliber of artists that were on that set, that’s a moment in one’s career where you’re like, 'Are you going to let your fear of how you're perceived dictate this beautiful opportunity?'"

Dylan Baker's daughter, now 26, has yet to see her father play Bill Maplewood in Happiness. "It might be a little tough for her," he said, especially given her reaction to seeing her mother, actress Becky Ann Baker, in a sex scene in Girls. "My daughter was in college at the time and she was in a room watching an episode when Becky had the scene with Peter Scolari in the shower. All of a sudden her mother was naked on TV. She got up and ran out of the room, screaming."

But Baker doesn't believe the fear of real life stigma of playing criminal or stigmatized characters is worth an actor hesitating over a role. "I always say go for the job. I think there's so little work out there that if you see a role that is abhorrent or he does terrible things, you've got to find a way to make it viable. We're a long way away from the guy that twisted his mustache and tied the young girl to the train tracks."

There was that one time, however, after Happiness came out, where Dylan Baker almost faced the consequences of being too believable as a child molester. He went to pick up his third grade daughter from school, and was observed by another school mother who later on approached him to confess that before she realized he was an actor, she'd thought he was someone much more sinister. "I'd never seen you before, but I'd seen the movie," he recalled her saying. "When I saw you with your daughter and talking to some other kids, this alarm went off in my head. I thought I'd have to run out and get the authorities and say 'Why is that man here at this school? Something's wrong.'"

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