‘Silence of the Lambs’: The Complete Buffalo Bill Story
You never know what’s going to happen with an audition,” actor Ted Levine remembers of the first time he portrayed Jame Gumb, The Silence of the Lambs villain also known as “Buffalo Bill.” “I just pulled something out. It was scary. It felt kind of magical.”
“I read with the three final guys who were going to be Buffalo Bill,” says Brooke Smith, who played Catherine Martin, the U.S. senator’s daughter whom Gumb abducts in the movie. “When Ted walked in, it was so crazily obvious. I asked him, ‘What the hell did you do in that audition? You were so amazing.’ He was like, ‘Well, you know, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do, so I just drank a lot of coffee.’ He was amazing.”
Three decades have passed since the film first graced silver screens on Valentine’s Day in 1991. While critics and film buffs have rightly parsed every eerie eye twitch Anthony Hopkins made in his Oscar-winning portrayal of the nefarious, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the behind-the-scenes story of Levine’s harrowing, intimidating interpretation of the puzzling murderer Gumb who struts naked, plies Martin with lotion and raises moths (and “skins his humps,” to use the grisly description of the way he kills given by Jodie Foster’s Special Agent Clarice Starling) remains largely untold. Without minimizing the brutality of the character – director Jonathan Demme was insistent on honoring real-life victims – Levine and Smith both have fond memories of making the movie, which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year, as well as several Criterion Editions’ worth of fascinating revelations about how they filmed their scenes, how the movie’s success affected their careers and what they mean to them now.
“I read the script, and the script was great,” Levine recalls of why he wanted the role. “I read the book, and the book was better. I re-read the script, and realized it was pretty damn good. I met Jonathan and everything fell into place.”
In his 1988 book, The Silence of the Lambs – which revolved around his Red Dragon character Hannibal Lecter, who coyly assists Starling in finding Gumb, a man whose identity he knows – author Thomas Harris introduces Gumb with a police-like description: “white male, 34, six feet one inch, 205 pounds, brown and blue, no distinguishing marks.” He had a deep voice, thinning hair and budding breasts, the latter due to hormones. The naturally baritone Levine, who would later play Captain Stottlemeyer on Monk and appear in American Gangster and Shutter Island, was 33 at the time the film came out and, as his camcorder scene revealed, a bit leaner than Harris’ description. As for why he wanted the role, the actor explains, “I figured I could do a good job because I was pretty fearless in those days.” He would soon test his mettle when he began studying up for the role.
Although Harris, who has not given an interview since 1976 and politely declined to speak with Rolling Stone, has never officially identified Gumb’s inspirations, the character is an amalgam of sorts of several different serial killers. FBI Special Agent John Douglas revealed in the movie’s extras that Gumb’s first scene was inspired in part by Ted Bundy, who also wore a fake cast and would ask potential victims for help, only to clunk them on the heads when they got to his car. Gumb’s penchant for skinning his victims with the intention of crafting a “woman suit” potentially came from Ed Gein, who killed two women and exhumed bodies for the same purpose, also inspired Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface and Psycho’s Norman Bates. The way Gumb kept his victims in a pit in his basement came from Gary Heidnik, who killed two of the six women he kidnapped in the mid-Eighties.
As he prepared for the role, Levine visited Quantico, Virginia, where the FBI is headquartered, and met with staffers who allowed him to review tapes of a man, possibly Heidnik, who had dug a hole in his basement and abducted women. He found the experience demoralizing but it informed how he had to do the role. “I watched a video of him sitting on a chair, talking directly to the camera about what his intentions were,” the actor says. “He basically said, ‘I can’t get a freaking date and I feel like a little punk, and I’m going to have this power over women.’ This was another level.”
When Harris introduces Catherine Baker Martin in the book, she’s a stoner, “a tall young woman, big-boned and well fleshed, nearly heavy, with a handsome face and a lot of clean hair.” Smith, who would later appear in Interstellar and on the TV shows Ray Donovan and Grey’s Anatomy, among other gigs, was 24 when The Silence of the Lambs came out. She’d done some acting in the late Eighties, but this was her first major role. The role, as it was written, required her to gain 25 pounds and pose nude. “I was a young, single person, so I was like, ‘This is gonna be great,’” she says now, though she’s happy the latter requirement didn’t come to be.
“I was in an acting class with Vincent D’Onofrio when I got the role, and he had just done Full Metal Jacket,” she recalls. “So he said, ‘You gotta ask the producers to give you a credit card. They gotta pay for your food.’ So I did, and we always joked that that’s why they went over budget … because of my food.” She laughs. “They helped me gain the weight, but they didn’t help me lose it.”
Smith prepared for her role by visiting Tennessee, where the Martin character lives, to work on her accent. She also locked herself in a closet in her parents’ basement. “I think I stayed longer than I wanted to,” she says. “It was probably just a couple of hours, but it was trying to see exactly what it would feel like. I imagine he didn’t leave the light on when he left.
“People always ask me if I had bad dreams when we were shooting, but I had them beforehand,” she continues. “On, set, I was very relaxed. It was some primal scream therapy or something.”
Before they got to set, though, Levine needed to prepare for his role in other ways. As depicted in the movie’s infamous naked-dance scene, Gumb enjoyed crossdressing. The movie would later come under fire by activists, who disliked how its only potentially homosexual character was a killer, but Levine is adamant that he never considered Gumb gay. “This was a massively homophobic man,” the actor says of the role. “It’s somebody who would affect it. That was my intention with the portrayal.”
To find the character, Levine frequented transvestite bars. “Some of the people there had hormones and augmented stuff, but they all had penises and they’d all get out there and lip-sync to Barbra Streisand and the latest thing,” he recalls. “They were female impersonators and they were wonderful.
“I talked to a lovely, probably 5-foot-1 Hispanic boy-girl and bought him a drink,” he continues. “I asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ He said, ‘When I’m a dude on the street, I’m just a little Puerto Rican motherfucker. When I’m here, I’m a hot Latina mama.’ It struck me that it was about power. He was a pathetic excuse for a man on all kinds of levels. But by trying to become a woman, he gains power, and hence the moth – the larva turning into the butterfly, the whole thing blossoming – it was the same impetus as a female impersonator, but it became psychotic. It was donning the cloak of feminine power.”
Levine, who speaks in booming tones, also had to find a voice for the character. “I kind of did my mom a little bit,” he admits.
Harris’ book goes into great detail both about Gumb’s background and motivations. The movie, however, presents the killer more as a “cipher,” to use screenwriter Ted Tally’s word. In order to streamline the book for the big screen, he chose to tell the story primarily from Agent Starling’s perspective. “Jame Gumb was a tough one for me,” says the screenwriter, who won an Oscar for the script. “If I couldn’t go inside his head, then I can’t begin to explain how he got to be the way he is … flashbacks to his abusive childhood. … And then I was rescued by Ted Levine’s performance and Jonathan Demme. They just said, ‘Well, we’re showing him. He’s gotta be doing something. How does he dress? What kind of jewelry does he wear? What’s his makeup? What music does he like?’ They did that stuff on the set. It was very brave on Ted’s part.”
Tally also drew from Harris’ depiction of Martin as a tough-as-nails victim. In the book, she pleads with Gumb, promising her politician mother’s support, and in the movie she’s not afraid to scream at Gumb or even Starling. “It’s brilliant on Thomas Harris’ part, the way she fights back and tries to save herself,” the screenwriter says. “She’s not just waiting around to be killed or rescued. She’s trying to save her life. And it’s beautifully played by Brooke Smith.”
Gumb and Martin’s interaction begins in the movie after Martin speeds down a street singing along with Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” though Smith – who’d lived through the early New York hardcore scene –had been vying for the character to sing Bad Brains. The other song that was on the table was Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.”
After the killer klonks her and affirms that she’s a size 14, the rest of their scenes take place in the labyrinthine basement of one deceased Mrs. Lippman (briefly seen rotting in a bathtub during the showdown.) There are several rooms in the dungeon, keeping with the knowledge that legendary producer Roger Corman bestowed on Demme that the most nerve-racking scene in any movie is panning down a hallway to a closed door.
There’s one where Gumb keeps his costumes and does leatherwork on his skins, near his bed, which is draped with a swastika-adorned comforter. “We’re trying to convey here … that there’s a certain theoretical relationship and perhaps practical relationship that exists between fascination with Nazism, American patriotism and an impulse toward violence,” Demme has said. There’s the room where he raises moths. In the book, the insects represent a metaphor for the way amateur entomologist Buffalo Bill lays silent waste to living things; there are even moths that feed on mammalian tears, Harris wrote. And there’s a room in which he’s dug a deep well, where he keeps Martin.
They filmed the basement scenes in what was once a giant airplane turbine factory in Pittsburgh. The set was multilevel, so Smith would either enter the pit through a trapdoor at the bottom or through the sides, which opened. “I think I really messed with my own head to do those scenes,” she says. “I remember being aware that the camera was there and thinking, ‘I’m in all this agony and not only is no one helping me, but they’re actually filming me.’ I literally felt it. I did a number on myself.”
Smith remembers seeing a “mysterious man,” possibly an FBI consultant working on the film, approaching her on the set and telling her it seemed real, that he’d seen it in real life. “I still haven’t seen Room,” Smith says of the movie’s after effects. “I’m such a baby. I just kept going, ‘When will I ever be able to see this movie?’”
The first dungeon scene begins with Gumb holding Precious, his white toy dog, and instructing Martin in an effete way, “It rubs the lotion on its skin, it does this whenever it’s told.” She tries to bargain with him. “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again,” he rejoins sternly, to which the dog barks. She complies and he lowers a basket. “Now it places the lotion in the basket.” She pleads with him, and his lip trembles as he repeats the line and eventually yells. “Put the fucking lotion in the basket!” As he raises the basket, she sees claw marks on the pit wall and he mocks her cries, holding out his shirt as though he has breasts.
“I felt bad for that dog,” Smith says. “I just thought, ‘Well, how does this dog know that this is not real?’ The trainer was always there. If I was looking up at Ted, the trainer would be right next to them, and the trainer was almost scarier, because I was like, ‘I better not hurt this dog by accident.’”
Asked what was in the lotion bottle, Levine becomes annoyed. “It was lotion, don’t know what it was,” he says. “It was Jergens lotion. That’s right. No, I have no idea what it was. It was human semen. We went around and collected semen from the crew.” (He’s joking.)
Smith says it was just “crappy lotion,” nothing fancy. Moreover, the prop mistress, Ann Miller, gave her the bottle a few years later. “I was living in New York, and my doorman was like, ‘Someone left you this package,’” she recalls. “And it was the lotion, full on. It was just this little white, plastic bottle. And she taped a piece of paper to it that said, ‘It puts the lotion on its skin, it does this whenever it’s told. – J. Gumb.’ I don’t think I’ve seen her since then.”
The next time Levine and Smith are seen onscreen, the latter is shown fashioning bait out of a chicken bone in an attempt to capture Precious. She ties it to a bucket and tosses it out of the hole. “She really wanted to survive,” Smith says. “I don’t know if I would have thought up all that stuff with the dog and the bone.” Demme has describe the scenes of Martin in the pit as the hardest ones he had to film. “You’ve got to show just how horrible it is or you’re doing a disservice to the [real victims’] families,” he’s explained. “I told her she needed to be prepared to do anything to get out of that pit.” Eventually, Martin is successful in capturing the dog.
Meanwhile, Gumb is putting on makeup, listening to the synthy, dreamlike “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus while wearing one of his victims’ skin and hair (or maybe it’s a wig). The camera shows his tattoos and him playing with his nipple ring. “So many people find that so difficult to watch,” Demme has said. “That’s not a real nipple anyway.” He puts on necklaces, one of which Smith gave Levine for the scene. “I’d fuck me,” Gumb says to the mirror. “I’d fuck me so hard.”
He flips on the camcorder, a textile wrapped around him, his hair teased. “I was into David Bowie and Lou Reed and all that glitter rock, that glam androgyny,” Levine says. “I think Gumb at one point thought that he might be a rock star in the mode of a David Bowie, those guys who were really masculine but feminine at the same time. Bowie influenced that, the Gumb mentality because he definitely fancied himself this powerful glitter rocker feminine thing but obviously wasn’t.” Gumb stares into the camera, twirls his shoulders and sings along. Eventually, he looks down purposefully and backs up, stretching out the fabric like wings and revealing a tuft of pubic hair where his penis had been only minutes before. A similar scene occurs in Harris’ book when Gumb steps out of a shower.
“It’s something any boy can do at home,” Levine says. “I really thought it would make it very accessible. It’s something that I think most or a lot of boys who’ve got a little bit of imagination might have tried at some point or another. Just, ‘Ooh, what’s that? Ooh.’ I thought it was essential.”
“I remember [Levine] didn’t get to dailies after that,” Smith says with a laugh. “I remember being like, ‘Oh, my God, you are amazing.’ And he was just like, ‘All right, so it was good? It worked?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah it worked. Just a little bit.’” She laughs.
“I was as shocked as everybody else when I saw him tucking his genitals between his legs and posing,” screenwriter Tally says. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ When Jodie first saw it, she said, ‘This is really disturbing.’ Which is the idea.”
When Levine first worked out the scene with Demme, however, he wasn’t dancing to “Goodbye Horses,” it was Bob Seger’s dance-floor-thumping “Her Strut.” “I actually had a very sort of raunchy, stripper kind of dance rehearsed,” the actor says. “You know, ‘Oh, they do respect her, but they love to watch her strut,’ all that shit. When [‘Goodbye Horses’] came up, it served my purposes better. It made it a little gentler and stranger. It wasn’t just so crass and sexual. It was a little bit more feminine, and I liked that.”
Levine says the scene has resounded in ways he didn’t expect. “There’s a funny story that my ex-wife tells where she was flying to Vegas with a bunch of girlfriends, and there’s a bunch of boys going to a bachelor party, drinking, having a good time,” he says. “One of the guys says, ‘We do this thing that the freak does in that movie. We get liquored up at this bachelor party, and the guys that are brave enough to do it, do it. We’ve done it, like, four times.’ And my wife’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m married to the dickless wonder.’”
The film ends with a showdown between Gumb and Starling, who rings Old Mrs. Lippman’s doorbell only to find a man answering the door who calls himself Jack Gordon. She asks if he knew one of the victims, to which Gumb says no and brazenly asks, “Wait, was she a great, big fat person?” Starling takes visible offense and thinks she should investigate him further, while he looks for contact info for Mrs. Lippman’s son. They have a tense conversation until Starling notices one of the moths she’d been investigating sitting on a spindle.
Ray Mendez, whose credits include buggy films Creepshow and Joe’s Apartment, served as “moth wrangler and stylist” on The Silence of the Lambs. Everything regarding the moths, he says, was accurate in the movie; the filmmakers even used his cases in Gumb’s studio. The only thing he had trouble with was finding death’s head hawkmoths, since there was only one colony at the time, and it was in England and they’d had a virus. He then got the idea to use another species of moth and dress it in a little costume. He painted a death’s head onto a fake press-on fingernail and used a special glue to affix it to a moth in a way that wouldn’t harm it. “When she’s going down the corridor, there’s moths flying, and I’ve got all these moths that are ready to go in a box, and I’m running in front of the camera, out of view, throwing moths like the Romans used to do rose petals,” he says.
Once Starling recognizes the moth, Gumb laughs as he tries to find the contact info. It’s then that Starling pulls her gun on him. “He can’t help but start to laugh because she’s yet another ‘it,’” Foster said in the Criterion Edition of the film’s commentary, using “it” in the sense of “It puts the lotion in the basket.” “He can’t help but laugh at women, because women are nothing. They’re powerless and he’s basically about to get her for her hair. She pulls a gun on him, and he keeps laughing because he thinks he’s invincible. He can’t possibly imagine that an ‘it’ could ever kill him because ‘its’ are like bugs that you squash.”
“It was great working with Jodie, but we didn’t interact much,” Levine says. “We stayed away from each other, and I think that was a good choice when you’re the antagonist and you’re dealing with the protagonist. I want to keep that kind of thing going.” (That was not true, however, of Levine and Smith. “Jodie used to call me Patty Hearst, because I was always hanging out with Ted,” the actress says. “Maybe you have to compensate.”)
Smith, however, learned a lot from working with Foster. “I was screaming a lot when I was off camera,” she remembers. “And Jodie was like, ‘You should probably save it. You don’t really need to go that far with it, because you’re going to have to do this over and over and over again.’ I probably think about that now more, but back then I was young and there was nothing I couldn’t do. But I realized, ‘I guess she’s right. I don’t have to go all the way with it.’”
Once Starling descends to the basement, Gumb flips on his night-vision goggles and stalks her in an eerie sequence that they filmed in a 22-hour, punch-drunk marathon. She hears his gun click and shoots him first. “These guys want to get caught,” Levine says. “They’re looking for this demise. I have a theory that most homicidal people could just as easily turn the gun on themselves. Once you start, it’s a click away from suicide in a way. He toys with her as long as he can, because he wants to see if he’s met his match, if he’s met the powerful woman, if he’s met the Mother, his Creator.”
When Levine and Smith look back at the making of the movie, they remember it as being a fun experience. “There was a pervasive sense of humor around all of it,” the actor says. “Jonathan is a really intense dude, but for the most part he’s a beautiful spirit, real beautiful spirit. Everybody felt very secure on the set.”
“He hired all the people he wanted, and he believed that they were all the best people, from catering to Tony Hopkins,” Smith says. “He just trusted that we would all do our best.”
“I was so happy on that set, on a film that’s about death and darkness,” Foster told Rolling Stone in 1991. “That was strange to me, but Jonathan really taught me that you don’t have to be miserable. It doesn’t have to be a horrible event to make a good film.”
In the years since the movie came out and went on to become only the third picture in history to win Oscars in the five major categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Actress, Director and screenplay – both actors say they’re recognized for their roles on The Silence of the Lambs.
“People recognize my voice a lot,” Levine says. “But I’m grateful that I get as equal attention for Stottlemeyer on Monk. That’s a show a kid could watch with her grandma.” For a while after Silence came out, casting directors attempted to typecast Levine as a killer, but that changed when Jennifer Jason Leigh insisted he could play a stay-at-home dad supporting his wife in the 1995 movie Georgia. “I will be forever grateful to her for that.”
“I get recognized for Silence often enough, it’s that or Grey’s Anatomy,” Smith says. “I guess I don’t look that different. You always get somebody saying, ‘Oh, my God, my boyfriend does that thing where he tucks his penis in!’ And I’m like, ‘Really? OK, that’s great. Congratulations.’ You know, it’s just, yeah.”
In the past 25 years, Hannibal Lecter has been the subject of a sequel, a prequel and a chilling television series, but neither Smith nor Levine have watched them. “It feels like we already did it,” Smith says.
“I’m surprised The Silence of the Lambs has had legs for as long as it has,” the actor says. “I’m thrilled. I think it’s kept my career alive. But I deliberately avoided the sequels. I’m very selective about what I watch, and I don’t like scary movies.”
So then, when is the last time Levine has watched The Silence of the Lambs? “Oh, fuck,” he says with a laugh. “I never watch that.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published in 2016 for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release.