Rodney Burford had a dream of becoming a professional football player when he auditioned for Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Aside from his stint on the reality TV series Deaf U in 2020 and some accidental stage work in high school, Burford, who is Profoundly Deaf and has cochlear implants to help him understand the spoken word, had no acting experience.
In the show, Burford plays Tony Hughes, a 31-year-old Black deaf man who was murdered by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (portrayed by Evan Peters) in 1991. The episodes delving into Tony’s story have been deemed some of the show’s best, and Burford’s performance has been hailed as a standout.
“It took me a while to realize that this is a real person that I’m portraying,” Burford tells THR, with the assistance of ASL interpreter Gabriel Gomez. “I [wanted] to show so much homage to the person himself. I didn’t want to show Tony the victim, I wanted to show Tony the person. He had a life, and he accomplished a lot.”
Burford auditioned with the scene opposite Tony’s mom (played by Karen Malina White in the series) in which he is leaving for the club where he first meets Dahmer. “I said no to the audition twice, and then I got convinced to do it. And then it was mine,” he explains.
Burford watched Peters become Dahmer and took notes in order to physically and mentally transform into Tony. And while Peters stayed in character for months to prepare for the role, Burford says Peters made time to work with him on their scenes together.
“It was COVID, so we couldn’t really be together, but when we did our scene rehearsals, we got a lot done — you could just tell the chemistry was there. I knew my role, and all I had to do was follow his lead. I knew what he wanted, and he knew what I could do,” Burford says. “Evan stayed in character, but he wasn’t too deep. People around him knew he was in character, but when he was able to talk, he was a great guy. I got him to break character once. When he was trying to kill me, I got him to laugh. I’m going to take that W!”
The show became a huge hit for Netflix, but Hughes’ mother has criticized it for veering from the truth. Other family members of victims have accused the streamer and the team of not reaching out to them during production, but Murphy said on a panel in November that they reached out to 20 of the victims’ families, yet no one responded. When asked whether Burford reached out to Hughes’ family, he said, “I asked for a contact, but I was just told, do what I’m doing. To answer your question, no, I did not reach out.” About the negative response from the families, Burford adds: “I can’t feel any type of way. I didn’t lose anybody to Jeffrey. I pretended to be someone that I’m not, [but] that’s a real person to them. That’s her son. I just really felt bad. I was like, ‘I hope I didn’t disrespect you.’ I hope she knows that.”
Burford now works as an admissions counselor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., but plans to move to Los Angeles in August to focus on acting. “I’m still basking in the Dahmer glory,” he says. “It’s exciting, but it’s [all] happening a little fast!”
How ‘Dahmer’ Breakout Rodney Burford Approached His Small but Vital Role