In an interview with Awards Daily, TV legend Michael Learned (The Waltons) discusses being a serial killer’s grandma in Netflix’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Here, she talks about how being a grandmother and how the ease of working with Emmy-winner Evan Peters (Mare of Easttown) made it easy to be a grandmother to him. She also reveals that she still can’t believe Catherine Dahmer didn’t know that her grandson was a killer and wonders at the great power of denial.
Learned also talks about her past work in The Waltons, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, for which she received four Emmys for Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Plus, she tells this interviewer details about one of his favorite actresses when she randomly mentioned knowing her.
Awards Daily: I read you were excited to work with Ryan Murphy, calling him a “genius.” What did that experience end up being like for you?
Michael Learned: I met him briefly. He was very nice. The whole experience was wonderful because Evan Peters is such a doll that it was easy to love him as a grandma and not see the serial killer side of him. But Ryan Murphy was really a very quiet presence on the set. I didn’t even know he was there at one point. Somebody said, ‘Ryan Murphy is here.’ I found him, and we hugged each other because he’s a wonderful producer in terms of giving unknown people a chance. So I thanked him for that because Sarah Paulson is a good friend of mine, and he recognized what a great talent she is and kind of made her a star. That part was absolutely wonderful, but I wouldn’t say I got to know Ryan Murphy as a personal friend because he is a busy man.
Awards Daily: What was the experience like on set in general?
Michael Learned: It was very convivial actually. I wonder if that was because the subject matter was so dark. I think the actual crew and Evan were happy to have a couple of scenes where there was no murder happening, and our scenes were really quite benevolent. He (Jeffrey Dahmer) was a very sweet person with his grandma, and I think he really cared about her. She didn’t know, though. How you cannot know that someone is chopping up murder victims in your basement? How can you not know that? But somehow she didn’t, apparently.
Awards Daily: That actually goes into a question you kind of answered already. Your character is the loving grandma just trying to help him out, and it’s this great contrast to the more intense murders but also the emotional moments between the characters. What was that contrast like?
Michael Learned: For me it was just an acting job, and none of that got in because she didn’t know. But I’m with you. I wonder how this woman did not know. He was dragging bodies in a big bag up from the basement! How could the denial be so strong that she didn’t even suspect what was going on? I’ll tell you if a dead body odor was coming up from my basement I would go down and find out what’s down there. But apparently she didn’t, at least in the show. I do not know about real life. I did try to research her but there’s very little about her out there. There were mainly interviews with Jeffrey Dahmer.
Awards Daily: You have spoken about America’s obsession with serial killers and questioning what that was. Was being on a show about a serial killer and hearing some of the reactions afterwards give you any insight into that?
Michael Learned: No, but speaking for myself personally, we all have a dark side; everyone has a dark side and his dark side was a lot greater than most of ours. I think we are fascinated that we are comfortable in our little bedrooms in our beds watching something on TV that is grotesque, but we are safe in our little houses. I do not know what that attraction is but it is certainly there because the show has done very well. So people are interested and I don’t even know what my interest is, but I was! I listened to all his interviews and he did many. He must have had a very powerful ego. It was grotesquely fascinating.
Awards Daily: You have talked about working with Evan Peters being a joy. Is there anything you can say about the experience seeing him become such a dark character?
Michael Learned: Well, in our scenes he wasn’t he was just a grandson. I have a grandson who’s living with me who is just a doll and I love him so much. I just transferred that love on to Evan, and he was very warm and sweet both on and off camera so our scenes were really quite loving, nothing creepy in them from her perspective. I mean he did drag garbage bags full of bodies through her kitchen and she did notice a bad smell in the basement but I guess denial is a powerful thing. If you don’t want to find out something, you can just close your eyes and pretend it isn’t there.
Awards Daily: Looking over your filmography, you’ve taken some big breaks in recent years. What gets you interested in a new project?
Michael Learned: I love to work, period. So when this came along I auditioned for it. I have not auditioned in years, but I did for this. Actually what happened was I have a wonderful manager named Gerry Pass and he videotaped my audition. I am sure it was pretty ordinary, not very terrific, but at the end of it he said we need to do a full body shot now. And I said, ‘If I had known that I would have worn a bra.’ And I hoisted my you-know-what up and he left it in. I thought he was going to cut it but he left it in the videotape, and I think it probably cracked people up and thought, ‘Eh, they might as well use her,’ and I’m so glad they did because I love to work.
Awards Daily: You had the 50th anniversary with your Waltons cast. Had you kept in contact with them before this, and what was it like, all of you getting back together again?
Michael Learned: We always have a wonderful time when we get together. I was so blessed and, honestly I didn’t know it at the time, because I was always kind of torn that I was spending more time with my Walton family than with my own kids. So I always had that conflict going inside of my heart, if you will. We adored each other and we still do, so we all keep in touch and are very close. We are like a second family to each other and without all the baggage! We don’t have family baggage so it’s great!
Awards Daily: I will admit that The Waltons is a blind spot for me but my mother-in-law is a huge fan, and she was just curious what was your inspiration for playing that character and her mannerisms?
Michael Learned: Oh, what an interesting question. First of all I love my own kids. My kids were my joy as a young woman while they were growing up, and they still are but they are not kids anymore. They have kids of their own, but when they were kids they were my joy. So I was very fortunate that way because if you do not enjoy your kids, it’s a big job and the only thing that makes it palatable is if you enjoy your children and have fun doing it. So I transferred that into Olivia Walton. The mannerisms though, I don’t know. I had to use an accent which was probably a pretty generic Southern accent. And I watched Patricia Neal in “The Homecoming” (she originated the role) and she and I became very good friends later on. I said to her I was so glad she turned that part down. She said, “Oh, but darling, I didn’t turn it down; they didn’t want me.” And I didn’t know that because she had always been so gracious to me and I don’t know if I could have been as gracious about something like that. I didn’t know that she wanted the role. I was told she had turned it down. They let her do the pilot but didn’t ask her to do the series. I thought she was amazingly generous to me. I loved her dearly. But they were afraid because she had had a stroke and they didn’t want to take a chance. I am grateful though, because it turned my life around.
Awards Daily: You mentioned earlier being friends with Sarah Paulson, and as someone who’s been a fan of her since Jack and Jill, I just have to ask, what is she like?
Michael Learned: She is a doll. She is open. She’s just a doll. There is no other word for it in every way. She is open, friendly, and loving. She’s genuine. I can’t say any more nice things about her than that. She’s just wonderful. I met her I think when she was understudying a show that I did on Broadway; that’s how I knew her originally. Then over the years we sort of kept in touch and she was always just the most genuine person. We actors have to struggle to be genuine and she doesn’t have to struggle, she just is.
Awards Daily: You mentioned Ryan Murphy and all the actors that he’s helped, and a group of people that he works with a lot. Do you think you’ll be working with him again?
Michael Learned: Oh, I hope so but I don’t know. I do hope so, I really respect him.
Awards Daily: Any final thoughts?
Michael Learned: I am just glad to be alive. I’m not getting older anymore. I reminded my best friend we’re not getting older anymore, we’ve arrived. I’m just glad to be alive.