Manson’s Lost Girls premieres Saturday, Feb. 6, at 8/7CT on Lifetime.
Most of us have seen their pictures. Three pretty young girls walking shoulder to shoulder in a courthouse hallway, looking serene as angels. Look closer and you notice crude swastikas etched by their own hands into their foreheads.
They’re Manson’s girls — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — a trio of troubled young women seduced into the legendary cult leader’s “Family” by the promise of free love and free rein at the height of the hippie movement. And all three loved their leader enough to kill.
Lifetime’s new original film Manson’s Lost Girls looks at life in the Family from the rare perspective of these women. The film is centered on a fourth Manson acolyte, Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mauzy, The Bold and the Beautiful, Forever), who finds her way to Manson’s commune on George Spahn’s ranch after her drug-peddling husband leaves her and their young daughter alone and penniless. Kasabian quickly learns to love the tight-knit bunch — and their mesmerizing leader. But as the string of petty crimes the members rely on to keep themselves fed, the drugs plentiful and the ranch operable escalates into murder — and before she is forced to kill, herself — Kasabian flees, eventually turning herself in and becoming a key witness in the infamous Tate-LaBianca murder trial.
We caught up with Manson’s Lost Girls’ own Manson, 29-year-old actor Jeff Ward, to talk the man, the film and the chilling modern ideologies and organizations that keep this story relevant.
And if you think he took the role lightly, you’ve got another thing coming.
Channel Guide Magazine: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before and will be asked this again, but tell me — why revisit this horrific chapter in history?
Jeff Ward: I think that there are several reasons.
The first one is that I think it is a really important part of American history. The Manson murders were a turning point, culturally. When the murders happened, the older generation — whether that was the government or the parents of the hippie generation or whomever it was — they were able to hold these pictures up of these young, good-looking, normal-looking kids who had done this awful thing. They were able to use the Mansons as the poster child for why the hippie movement is dangerous. People started locking their doors because of the Manson murders.
The hippie movement is obviously based on peace and love — and Charlie had started out that way. An interesting thing is that Charlie never considered himself a hippie. He hated the term “hippie” and would never refer to his followers as hippies. He considered himself a “beatnik,” which is a very different thing.
More cultured and sophisticated …
He always said, “I’m of the Bing Crosby era — that’s who I am.” It’s interesting because he gets lumped in with the ’60s psychedelic scene, but he’s actually not really into that scene.
The second reason is the fact that everybody is still so obsessed with it. I don’t think there has ever been a film that really depicted the events leading up to the murders as realistically as we have. For a story that is so important in the canon of American history, it’s important that people understand the real story and the whole story.
Tex Watson [played by Michael Madsen’s son Christian] and Leslie [Greer Grammer] and Susan [Josh Brolin’s daughter Eden, a standout] and Linda and Patricia [Isabel Shill], they’re all considered crazy murderers. I maintain that those were people at a crossroads that a master manipulator was able to catch in his net — and really destroy their lives in the process. I understand that those kids, they did these very, very heinous things, but they never would have done them without Charlie. I think that’s an important thing to know about them.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Scientology documentary Going Clear?
It’s incredible. I watched it a month before I had gotten this part, and I actually think I got the part because of watching those people talk about it, watching people that were in the church for 10, 15, 25 years and talking about being sent off to a house and there was no windows and no cameras and there was nothing allowed there and they were beaten and starved.
The world’s worst game of musical chairs.
Exactly. The musical chairs thing is what always sticks with me, because when they’re all circling the chairs and obviously somebody doesn’t get the chair and they’re like, “All right, you have to leave Scientology,” they literally get down on their knees and beg to stay — in this condition where they’re being starved and beaten. There’s flies all over them because they’re not bathed. It was exactly the same thing for Manson.
People can be taken advantage of if you get them in the right position, if you get them at the right time. It happened with L. Ron Hubbard, it happened with Hitler, it happened with Manson … Jim Jones. It continues to happen. People want purpose. People want meaning. Charlie would go after people that were “cracked, not broken” — people, and women specifically, that had confidence issues, father issues. The depth of strategy for the way he would do this was limitless.
Another thing that this has been compared to is ISIS — the way a lot of young men and women are being so lured in by a way of thinking, by purpose, by meaning, by martyrdom. It’s a very similar thing. We don’t really have a chance to get into it in the movie, but I think Charles Manson’s story is a cautionary tale of “be there for your kids.” Because the guy was searching. I really, really believe that. His father bailed on him. He never knew his father, so he was always searching for a father figure — go figure, he becomes one — and he was always looking for a place to belong and a place to feel loved.
He certainly knew how to use those ideals to manipulate people.
I’ve told this story a couple times, but it’s just so good and it’s so appropriate: When Charlie was 5, his mom went to jail because she was trying to rob someone because his father left and she had no money. So, at 7, he was living with his uncle and he goes to his first day of school and the teacher made him cry. She was this notoriously mean teacher in Kentucky in the early ’50s and she really tortured Charlie on the first day of school. He came home crying. His uncle was the only father figure in his life and his uncle got so furious that he was not “taking it like a man” that he took his daughter’s dress and put it on Charlie and made him sit through the entire next day of school in a dress. A couple weeks later, there was a boy in the class that was making fun of him for that and, on the playground, three or four girls beat the boy up that Charlie didn’t like. Charlie was called into the principal’s office and he said, “I didn’t do that. Those girls were doing that. I had nothing to do with that.”
The fact that he had already picked up on that strategy as a 7-year-old — and it was the same one that he would enact in court at age 36 — it’s just wild. I feel like he’s a monstrous person, but the guy never really had a chance.
Watching the film, it also occurred to me that, with the Internet and social media, now kids don’t even have to leave their rooms to be lured in by people with less than honorable intentions. Plus, if Facebook isn’t a prime example of how readily we all believe that 900 people are our good friends — and how easily that some people will fall for anything — I don’t know what is.
Exactly. I haven’t talked to anyone yet about the kind of connection with social media. It’s fascinating. Especially with trolling — people do have this darkness, especially when it’s shielded by anonymity. It’s like everybody has a darkness inside them — it’s just how it’s appealed to and when and by whom.
I think ISIS is a pretty good example of people that have really been able to take social media and use it as its most powerful recruitment tool and have really taken advantage of exactly what you’re saying. That’s something that parents should be cognitive of. The internet is a dark f–king place — and it’s already a dark world — so it gives access. You’re bang on about that.
A ton has been written about Manson and the more lurid escapades of the Family and his own personality — but how much research did you do into that particular era and the conventions and mindsets that were prevalent? In the age of AIDS and communicable diseases, to understand the whole idea of the free love movement in the first place — then add the racial and social tensions that were a deadly electric current through it — is tough stuff.
That is tremendously important and I studied it a lot.
Charlie was a perfect storm. I really believe that if he had gotten out of jail in ’65 or if he had gotten out in ’71, this wouldn’t have happened. If he had gotten out in Ohio, where he was in jail before that, this wouldn’t have happened. But he happened to have been sent to right outside San Francisco, right smack in the middle of the free love, hippie, kind of super-rebellious movement. He just so happened to come out of jail at a time where, from what I’ve learned, the largest generation gap between children and their parents was probably at that point — the children of the ’40s and World War II and this new hippie, revolutionary generation.
I actually love that at the beginning of our movie, they allude to Linda being 16 years old and just up and going to California. People did that! I’m 29 and that’s unfathomable to me. My mom would’ve f–king killed me! That was not a thing! But Linda arrives at a time where there are these children — literally children, 15- to 19-year-olds — that are running around in San Francisco where they have all these food banks and they kind of set up a city of these young, directionless, homeless people. They were able to eat and have shelter. Drugs were passed around for free.
It couldn’t have been a more ripe environment for Charlie to go to the Panhandle in the Haight and go “fishing.” He would sit there with his guitar and he would spew a mix of Scientology, Christianity, and honestly How to Win Friends and Influence People. He would play his guitar and sing and women were transfixed by him. People were literally looking for gurus. Charlie was one of seven that was in the Panhandle at any given time. You could walk 35 feet more and there’s another guru talking about eternal enlightenment and what that means and how to achieve it. Charlie, he was just one of out of a lot. It just happened to be the perfect, time, location, socioeconomic climate and political climate — and all the children that were looking for some kind of leader.
And when you’re talking about an impending race war, Helter Skelter, to these people — granted they’re on acid all the time, literally every day — but when you’re convincing this group of people who are starved and beaten and not in good shape that there’s going to be this impending race war where the blacks are going to murder all the whites and they’ll be too stupid to run the world once it’s over so they’re going to annihilate everyone. You hear that now and you’re kind of like, “What a f–king psycho. That’s ridiculous!” However, this is during the Watts riots. This is a time where statistically every other day, there was some kind of riot attributed to race relations in the United States. So every other day Charlie is talking about all this stuff and he’s holding up a newspaper that says that all these things are true.
So again, if it was two, three years later and the race riots weren’t quite at such a fever pitch — but it happened to be so many perfect circumstances that were set up to create this. It’s perfect in how awful it is. It could not be more awful.
I read this book by Jeff Guinn called Manson, and it was amazing because it really took into account the historical context of the whole story, and it really makes all of it kind of click.
You obviously did your homework. So then you set foot on set and you start filming and you start speaking the lines and the words that Manson said and bringing them to life and embodying that power that he had. What was that like for you, to go, “Holy cow, I’m actually living in his skin right now”?
It was crazy. There were a few scenes that lingered on the drive home. I found him to be a very rageful person. That might sound obvious, but I think, in the truest sense of it, it’s not something that every horrible person has. He was just so viciously racist. Everything was so viciously angry that I sometimes would kind of have to shake that off a little extra hard on the car ride home.
It was also weird because I started to get so close to the rest of the cast — and I was manipulating them and being mean to them and hitting them and stuff like that as him, and when I was doing it, I didn’t really think twice of it. Then it would end and I’d be like, “Oh, f–k, that sucks!” I hated that. I’d feel so dirty. It was a weird sensation. But it was also fun in the sense that somebody that ill-intentioned is so far away from me personally.
And he’s such an enigma.
You know that Beach Boys scene, the party in the beginning, where I’m singing and playing? That was him, too. He’s so into it and he’s funny and everyone likes him and the party only gets going with him there. It’s just fun.
But the other one that really stuck with me for some reason was the scene where I send them to the Tate house to kill them and I say, “Leave something witchy” — because it’s obviously such an iconic line of his. I watched his Diane Sawyer interview before we shot that scene, and he really breaks down exactly what he meant. He explains the subtext, which is to say “If you’re going to do something, do it well” — and he’s smiling when he says it. That was crazy. It was crazy to translate those literal lines like that and it did feel almost otherworldly sometimes. I know that sounds extremely corny to say that but there were a couple of scenes that did feel like there was something else going on.
Eden Brolin — this is my first look at her and I was more afraid of her Susan Atkins than I was of you.
[Laughs] I really think Eden steals the movie — that last shot of her when it slams to black off of her smiling face? Mackenzie does a really, really fantastic job, too, but Eden was the perfect representation of the violence and madness and sweetness and love and total resignation of one’s soul to Charlie. I loved working with her because every time I looked at her, she made me believe that I was Charlie. I can’t say enough about her as a person and as a performer.
When she’s dragging Sharon Tate down the hallway, too, and I really loved the choice to not show anything except for illusions to it, it messes with me every time. I’ve seen the movie twice now and she is just haunting and amazing.
The scene of the killing lessons. I’m the most peaceable creature ever and would never own a gun, but I remember a former boyfriend take me to a shooting range in college. Getting the hang of what I was doing with this lethal thing was a very powerful feeling — even though I knew without question that I would never aim a gun at anyone or anything else. Can you talk about your own feelings during that scene and what you guys were talking about as a cast?
It’s funny because we all titled that scene “Murder School” and we would refer to it that way always. It’s such a true scene, it scares the @#$% out of me. He really did that. It became boot camp in this amazing hippie commune. I think it’s cool that we get to kind of see the idealistic utopia or utopic vision that they were going for in the beginning, and then we get to see that devolve into literal murder school. They’re learning all of these combat and killing instructions. It was weird.
All those guns that we had, they were all real guns that had been converted into props. I’m a huge advocate for gun control and I hate what is going on in this country with it. It devastates me. I can’t really read about it that much anymore because it makes me so upset. But I also loved toy guns when I was a kid and I loved Die Hard. I loved all the action movies with guns — so it’s a weird feeling because, holding the gun, you can’t help picturing yourself in Die Hard or whatever it is, and you do feel powerful. It’s something. This is not a power that humans were meant to have — to point your hand at something and be able to kill it.
It’s primal — goes against the rational. But Charlie himself never killed a soul.
Totally. That’s something that I really wanted to add into the script when Charlie went in to talk to the LaBiancas before anybody else. He goes in with a knife and ties them up, but, in the real story, he went in with a gun by himself, held them at gunpoint, tied them up, and then went outside to Tex, Patricia and Leslie and took all their guns away and said, “No, you have to do it with knives.” He went in with a gun — he wanted the security and protection of a gun — and then he was like, “All right, now you don’t need it. You’re all good now,” and he collected their guns and made them do it with knives.
It’s a wild experience. Those Super 8 scenes of me teaching them how to shoot and everything — it all felt very surreal.
So what is the stepping out process? The movie’s shot. It’s done. You’re done. How do you stepping off from this incredibly intense experience?
I actually really enjoyed the making of this movie and playing this part. I’ve never gotten to play a part this juicy before, to work on as a character this complicated and deep and interesting and dark.
But I stopped all my research at the LaBianca murders. I had several books and all of them, by the time we were finished shooting, were bookmarked to the last quarter of the book, because I didn’t want to know too much about where he ended up. I knew a little, but not nearly as much as I did about his entire childhood and life leading up to the murders. So when we finished, I thought it’d be a nice way to close the experience by finishing my books and reading what happened to him.
One book, at the end of it, it’s talking about after he’s arraigned — which, by the way, was months later due to inept work by two different departments of the Los Angeles police. The day after the LaBianca murders, they had him in custody for car theft and I think it was wrong information on the warrant that made them get released. So I read this description of him being walked out of the jail and into the courthouse and it said there were cameras flashing everywhere and there were huge crowds and there were girls that were wanting to join the Family and Family members and all this different stuff. I almost started crying, because my thought was, “Oh my God — he got exactly what he wanted!”
And learning so much about what had happened prior, you realize that all he really wanted in the world was to be a rock star.
Do you think a recording contract could have saved the world from Charles Manson?
Honestly, yes. I really believe that. I really believe that if Terry Melcher had given him a record contract that — but the thing is, he wasn’t that good. He was … OK. He was, like, Shitty Dillon. [Laughs] So who knows what would have happened?
But the fact of the matter is those people died because Terry Melcher didn’t give him a record contract. Terry Melcher used to live at Cielo Drive — that’s why they went to the Tate house. The reason it made me cry was I think maybe being a rock star was the second most important thing to him and the most important thing was to be revered — to be famous and be revered. And I think that he achieved it beyond his wildest dreams, but in infamy instead of fame. Especially in his younger days. Not anymore. I think the life has completely left his eyes now — but in the younger days, in every one of those interviews, he hates being in prison but he is pleased as punch about who he’s perceived to be.
His legacy. It was very frightening to read, post movie, that he got exactly what he always wanted and he’s now the poster child of bad guy/Boogeyman for a lot of people. He got what he wanted.
I’m sure you know this, but [Manson prosecutor Vincent] Bugliosi said that when they announced the death penalty, he looked in Charlie’s face and it was the only time he ever saw fear. It was the only time that he ever betrayed a sense of what he was feeling. Later, they were walking him back into jail and he turned to Bugliosi and he said, “You’re just sending me home,” because he’d spent so much of his life in prison. When the death penalty was lifted and all of their sentences were changed to life sentences instead of death, Bugliosi was devastated, because he was like, “Oh my God, he prefers prison.”
He was in jail for 8 years for forging a $42 check, which is a federal offense. When he was getting out, he said to the parole board, “Please don’t make me leave! I don’t know how to operate outside of prison!” — and that was two years before the murders. He begged them to let him stay and they all but kicked him out. So he said, “@#$% it. I’m going to find the road to fame one way or another.”
And he did.
And he did.
Manson’s Lost Girls premieres Saturday, Feb. 6, at 8/7CT on Lifetime.