The Killing’s fourth and final season might have closed on a decidedly divisive note on Aug. 1, but there is one element of the show that’s universally hailed: Tyler Ross’ haunting performance as Kyle Stansbury, the enigmatic military cadet suspected of murdering his family. As the character endured a never-ending barrage of torment — both at the hands of his classmates and in his own mind — the 25-year-old actor conjured up a blazing intensity, making it nearly impossible for Detective Linden (Mireille Enos), Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman), and the audience to separate fact from fiction.
In order to properly bring the deeply disturbed character to life, Ross entrenched himself in so much misery, it actually proved to be inescapable. “I had nightmares and they don’t always go away,” Ross told to BuzzFeed of The Killing’s grueling two-and-a-half-month shoot, which still troubles him today. “I tried to make it as real for myself in whatever way I needed to in order to portray it as true and honestly as I could, but I would go home and have terrifying nightmares about shooting people I knew — and that was even before I knew that I was the killer!”
The revelation that a disassociated Stansbury actually gunned down his father (Bruce Dawson), mother (Anne Marie DeLuise), and two sisters (Avery Konrad and Peighton Brown) in cold blood came to light in the series’ final episode, and Ross only learned about it when The Killing creator Veena Sud delivered the script to the cast.
“I was in utter denial,” he said, still clearly struggling to completely rationalize his character’s role in the brutal murders. “I really didn’t think it was going to be me, but I also really didn’t want it to be me. I fell in love with that 6-year-old [Brown], who was the loveliest in real life too. I couldn’t understand why Kyle would kill her. It couldn’t be right. Veena explained to me it was because he couldn’t stand to see the look on her face, realizing that he was the monster she feared. That was really hard to wrap my brain around.”
But, as has always been the case with The Killing throughout its run on AMC and later Netflix, a criminal’s motivation is rarely cut and dry, and Stansbury was no exception. He snapped when years of abuse at the hands of his parents coalesced with the systematic bullying at work within the walls of his military academy. And the moment when his history was revealed — as Stansbury was forced by his fellow cadets to masturbate while looking at a photo of his mother, a cruel form of initiation — was the hardest scene Ross has ever filmed, but it was also, in part, why he signed on for The Killing.
“The reason I was so drawn to The Killing in the first place was because the writing portrays the characters in such human ways without being gratuitous. Nothing is gratuitous. It’s intelligent storytelling about people,” he said. “I have mixed feelings about the military in general,” Ross added, momentarily pausing to choose his words carefully. “I have military in my family, and I’ve seen what it’s done to them, for better or for worse. I can’t take a stance one way or another, but I think it’s a really interesting thing worth exploring.”
Ross continued, “I want to tell stories that get people to ask questions about everything. But that goes along with my definition of art because if you’re preaching at people, if you’re telling them what to think, you might as well be doing a sermon. I would rather present someone with an idea that makes them think things they normally wouldn’t ask themselves. That’s what I want to do because that can make people better.”
That artistic outlook was firmly cemented from the beginning of his career as Ross, a Florida native, first gained recognition for his work in Stephen Cone’s 2011 film The Wise Kids, which focuses on the crises of faith three friends (played by Ross, Allison Torem, and Sadieh Rifai) face as they prepare to leave their respective religious families for college.
He followed The Wise Kids with another bold indie — 2012’s Nate & Margaret, about the May-December friendship between a gay teen (Ross) and a wannabe comedienne (Natalie West) — before leaving his then-home Chicago for Los Angeles, where Ross began booking guest-starring gigs on a smattering of procedurals, work he calls “soul-crushing.”
“It’s hard for me to do a one-off guest spot,” he said. “I don’t really go out for them anymore unless I’m completely broke, which hopefully won’t happen again.”
Still, Ross has his limits. “I was just talking to my roommate the other day and he asked, ‘If you were offered $20 million to be the Green Ranger in the remake of Power Rangers, would you do it?’” he recalled. “And I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even do it for $100 million because then that’s looming over your head. I don’t want to have to sell out for money.”
Instead, Ross plans to target more projects that make him, and viewers, face uncomfortable questions, like 2015’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, another religion-tinged independent film written and directed by Cone.
“I definitely want to break into mainstream film,” Ross admitted, before quickly adding, “But I would like to break into something bigger so I have a little more clout and say in the story being told. If I can play the game long enough to get to where I need to be, I do feel like I can help change things.”