High-profile performance

High-profile performance

By Michael Pickard
May 28, 2024


British actor Charlotte Hope reflects on her taxing experience playing a serial killer profiler in South African drama Catch Me A Killer, why the job got under her skin and being surprised on set.

As South Africa’s first serial killer profiler, Micki Pistorius was an outsider in a male-dominated world as she sought to find, confront and then understand some of the country’s most dangerous people. Understandably, her intense job also took a devastating toll on her personal life.

It’s a situation to which actor Charlotte Hope can now somewhat relate, having stepped into Pistorius’s shoes to play her in Catch Me A Killer. The 10-part biopic is based on the journalist-turned-psychologist’s own book about applying her academic background to police work and the pursuit of justice that almost pushed her to breaking point.

“It is really dark, but there was something about this crew. Getting to go to work with them every day was such a gift,” Hope tells DQ. “Also, truthfully, it’s rare that jobs that stretch you this much come along. As an actor, every time I get a job where I get this much to delve into… it’s so lame to be like, ‘I’m so grateful,’ but I really am so grateful. I love acting so much and I love getting to be immersed in that world all day, every day. You don’t think about anything else.”

Hope’s television credits include Game of Thrones, Bancroft, The English Game and The Spanish Princess, the Tudor-era royal drama in which she portrayed Catherine of Aragon. But it’s the crime genre that she finds particularly fascinating. In fact, she spent much of the Covid-19 lockdowns watching true crime documentaries and footage of police interviews on YouTube, giving her a better understanding of the “completely fascinating” psychology of criminals.

It would all stand her in good stead for her leading role in Catch Me A Killer, which is produced by CMAK Films with Night Train Media for South Africa’s Mnet and streamer Showmax. Abacus Media Rights is handling international sales, with buyers including SBS in Australia, BritBox in North America, UKTV’s crime-skewing Alibi, BBC First in Benelux and Poland, AXN’s Mystery Channel in Japan and Cosmote TV in Greece.

Charlotte Hope as real-life serial killer profiler Micki Pistorius in Catch Me A Killer

“I’m also just a big geek in general. Psychology in general is fascinating, and I’ve spent a significant amount of my life in therapy,” she says. “It’s an exercise in empathy, essentially. Micki has this thing that the psychometric profiles of actors, journalists, psychologists and lawyers are really similar. But it is about understanding what makes someone else tick, understanding what makes them work, not judging your characters.

“As actors, we’re always told not to judge our characters. But for Micki, it’s also really important that she doesn’t judge her suspects because, if she’s able to empathise with them, it’s not that she’s condoning what they do, but she’s able to understand why they act as they do and then essentially catch them quicker.”

Hope has gone on to discover a huge love of psychology, and read lots of books in preparation for playing Micki – someone who is “complicated but brilliant,” constantly overlooked and underestimated. That’s why the actor describes the 1990s-set series as a “real underdog story, where she gets to prove everyone wrong in this very male-dominated, very macho society – and she rises to the top. Those stories always really appeal to me. It means you get to constantly be fighting.”

Each episode of the series sees Micki (Hope) on the trail of real-life serial killers, such as the Station Strangler – a man who killed 22 young boys – in the opener. The fact that the show was dealing in so much fact, rather than fiction, meant Hope couldn’t ever step away from the reality behind the drama and the knowledge that the faster Pistorius worked, the fewer people would become victims.

“She was living under that level of pressure,” Hope notes. “There’s a scene in episode one where I find a hand in the sand dunes. It’s a prop – we had an amazing production design team – but when I saw that hand, that was the real hand. I remember it really knocked me off centre.

The British star was in regular contact with the real Pistorius during filming

“It only happened in the 1990s. It’s not so distant a memory that it becomes history. A lot of the crew that were working with me, especially in that first story about the Station Strangler, they remembered that time and how afraid their parents were. None of it was abstract. The proximity made it very scary, but also compelling.”

Hope didn’t have to perfect a South African accent for the series, instead speaking in her natural English due to a decision to enhance the sense of Micki as an outsider. That said, she still faced a demanding audition process.

“I got sent the scripts by my agents and they genuinely were just some of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time,” she says. “Then I made about 10 audition tapes over two months. At that stage, they’d sent me all the scripts so I was just picking out scene after scene. By the end, my poor boyfriend was like, ‘No more,’ and it was also during a heatwave in London so we could only film at 11pm because that was the only time it was cool enough that there wasn’t sweat running down my face.

“The audition process I remember just being quite brutal, but thankfully I ended up getting a job and then it was all worthwhile. I like to think of the audition process as pre-prep. It meant once I got the job, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve actually done a huge amount of research already here.’ It felt a bit less stressful.”

Filming took place in South Africa between September 2022 and February 2023, and Pistorius herself was on hand to provide support to Hope as she tackled emotionally gruelling days on set.

Hope previously led the cast of Tudor-era drama The Spanish Princess

“She’s a psychologist and she understood on so many levels what I was going through,” says the actor, who says her intention wasn’t to mimic her real-life counterpart. “More than anything, she just held my hand throughout the process. We texted a lot on WhatsApp and she was incredibly supportive. She’d seen a few photos where I looked like I was veering quite close to the edge, so she whenever she saw those, she’d always just send me a message and tell me if I got too far into the abyss, she would come in and rescue me.”

As Pistorius’s professional work takes its toll on her personal life, viewers will see Hope portray her deterioration when her initial “sassiness” fades away and the character stops eating and sleeping and starts chain-smoking.

“That’s true to life,” says Hope, noting how Pistorius suffered PTSD from her attempts to live in a world of serial killers in order to better understand them. But the actor’s efforts to pay respect to Pistorius and to live in that same space meant she too felt the show’s subject matter weighing heavily on her mind and her body.

“If you live in that world, it has an effect on you. For me, your body doesn’t understand when trauma is real or not. By the end, I wasn’t sleeping much. I had a huge amount of respect for Micki, what she’d been through and for the story we were telling. I wanted to do that justice.

“It annoys me when you read a script and it says she looks awful but you have an actress on screen who looks amazing. I really wanted to make sure I did look and feel awful by the end of it.”

On set, Hope worked with British director Tracey Larcombe and South African counterparts Brett Michael Innes and Rene Van Rooyen. The latter provided her with one particularly memorable experience when they were filming an interrogation scene with co-star Carel Nel, who plays William Truter in episode six, The Cape Town Prostitute Killer.

She is also recognisable for her role as Myranda in Game of Thrones

“Rene is one of the most brilliant directors ever. She and I were very close and I really trusted her, so I said to her at the beginning, ‘I want to be knocked off centre, I want to be surprised. It’s less acting for me,’” Hope says. “So we did this scene where she spoke to the other actor, Carel, in Afrikaans and I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Then halfway through the scene, he just grabs my chair and brings it forward. I loved it. I didn’t have to do any acting, I was so shocked. You can’t do that sort of stuff all of the time but Rene is such a phenomenal director and Carel such a phenomenal actor that I knew I was going to be completely safe. Then we just got to play around.”

Despite the “emotional toll” of playing Micki, the actor hopes there might be more Catch Me A Killer to come in the future to provide her with a chance to reunite with the cast and crew that supported her on the show.

As for why the series has drawn so many viewers around the world – Catch Me A Killer was also screened at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year – she believes this is down to the show’s psychological edge and its focus on ‘whydunnit’ rather than ‘whodunnit,’ with many of the killers’ identities revealed early on in each episode.

“It’s about unpicking what has made these serial killers act the way they do. What is it about their childhood, what is it about their socioeconomic circumstances, what is it that’s led them to violence? In understanding the psychology, Micki is able to catch them much quicker,” Hope says.

Importantly, “it doesn’t feel sensationalised,” she adds. “It feels like it’s a deep dive into the psychology so she can catch them as quickly as possible. Its empathy to an end; it’s not just so she feels sorry for them. If she can empathise with them, she can catch them quicker and the cases get solved quicker.”

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