Peter Ferdinando Interview
Actor Peter Ferdinando stars in Tony, a film about an awkward, depressed Londoner who’s so desperate for company that he kills his visitors so he doesn’t have to be alone. Here Ferdinando speaks with View London’s Matthew Turner about serial killers, bad haircuts and sympathising with sociopaths.
How did you get involved with the film?
Peter Ferdinando (PF):
Well, Gerard Johnson, the director, is my cousin and we started making shorts in 2001. We did a first short, then a second and then the third short was based on Tony. And we got it picked up by Paul Abbot. Paul Abbot saw the short, loved it and said, 'How would you like to make it into a feature?' and we jumped at the chance of doing that.
So you were always going to play the character, because you'd played him in the short. Did you create the character together onscreen?
Well, Gerard came up with the initial idea. He was always interested in the character – [London serial killer] Dennis Nilsen was inspired by the idea of killing for company [also the title of a book on Nilsen] and that was the initial inspiration for the character. And Gerard developed the script through the short and then obviously when we got to make the film we had to raise the bar with that and develop it more.
How much research did you do?
Quite a lot of research. I looked at a lot of serial killers, I read a lot of literature, studied a lot of photographs, documentaries. So Tony is a mixture of aspects of certain serial killers and actual people that we – Gerard and myself – know from life. So he's really a combination of several different people. And then it was a case of just making the character my own and just running with it, covering as much ground as possible. And I think the more ground I covered, the more aspects – the more avenues I looked at, the more choices I was able to make to build the character and make it my own, so to speak.
The look of the character is really great – obviously you look completely different in real life and I wouldn't have thought anybody would recognise you from the film. How did you go about creating the look of the character?
Well, he's quite under-nourished, the character, he's on a poverty diet, so it was important that I changed my shape, physically. I'm naturally quite slim but I normally work out and keep fit and stuff, so for Tony, he needed to look kind of gawky and sallow and under-nourished, so I lost about thirty pounds in weight – that was probably the main factor in creating the physical aspect of the character.
The hair is very loosely based on [American serial killer] Ed Gein and also, from when I was young boy and I mistakenly went to a barber shop and asked for a traditional, you know, just a trim and I got a bowl cut, like they do with OAPs. And I remember being in tears over that. And I never forgot that and I thought it would be quite good for Tony. The glasses probably came from Dennis Nilsen, just certain details, like the way he dresses, so yeah, I just threw a lot into the ingredients, really.
What about the voice?
The voice is from somebody I know and the walk is from somebody else. So there's people that we know in life and the obsession with videos, action films, so, yeah, he's a mixture of characteristics of people we know. They weren't serial killers, but we felt that there were just certain characteristics they had that fit into the character at the time.
It's interesting, because he's not really a serial killer the way that Ed Gein was, for example. You mentioned killing for company – can you elaborate on that?
Killing for company. Well, Dennis Nilsen, he actually killed for company where he didn't want people to leave his flat. He was very lonely and he invited a lot of people back to his flat and he didn't want them to leave, so to stop them from leaving, he killed them. And he would put them under the floorboards and then after a couple of days he'd get them out, bathe them, dress them and sit and chat to them.
And that was something that Gerard was very interested in, that aspect of the Dennis Nilsen character, killing for company and being able to control a situation that Tony is unable to do in normal society; able to connect with people, which he finds very difficult to do – he finds it really hard to make a connection and he's painfully lonely, which is such a powerful emotion and it's his way of controlling the situation.
Yes, he's more of sort of frustrated sociopath in that way – he doesn't lure the people to his flat because he wants to kill them, he lures them back because he wants friends.
Exactly. I don't see Tony as just a cold-blooded murderer, I see him as a victim, a victim of society, of his own circumstances and it's all stemmed from a child who's been starved of love, care, affection. His whole life, he's been ridiculed, abused and [spent] a lot of time by himself. And I think that's a recipe for disaster. So I sympathise with Tony and I had to, to play him. And I hope the audience will sympathise with him too – that's been our experience at screenings so far, anyway.
Do you have a favourite scene?
My favourite scene in the film is probably the one between him and the female neighbour that comes up for the plaster, because that shows Tony at his most disarmed and he doesn't have the need to kill. She's the first person that's shown him any real attention and love. I love that scene, because it's a really touching little moment and it's a side of Tony that makes you sympathise with him, I guess.
It's all set in Dalston, isn't it? Is that the area that you and Gerard are both from?
Dalston, Hackney. We're both from not far from that area. Gerard's lived in Hackney, I've lived in Hackney and the Dalston area. I'm from the East End of London, so's Gerard. I was brought up in Stepney, Whitechapel. Both our parents were publicans, retired publicans and we grew up in pubs and clubs from small boys, so that's our area, yeah, so we know it quite well.
It's very much part of the film. And it's a side of London you don't really see much in film. You might see elements of it but you don't really see it executed the way you do in Tony. And then the end of the film's in the West End and it looks amazing, the end of the film – I think it's really well shot. Our DoP has done some wonderful stuff, we've got some great shots at the end of the film there and I'm very proud of it.
Do you have a favourite line of dialogue?
Yes. ‘Would you like some beans on toast?’ in the middle of a dispute with junkies. It's just how accidental and clumsy Tony can be in a social environment – he finds it really difficult to say the right things and try to please someone and that always makes me laugh.