What Ted Bundy's Former Girlfriend Thinks of Zac Efron's Portrayal of the Serial Killer
By Stacy Lambe
Getty Images / Netflix
In 2019, there was renewed interest in Ted Bundy thanks to two Netflix projects from director Joe Berlinger -- the four-part documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the scripted film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron -- both of which were released 30 years after the serial killer was executed in prison.
Now, his former longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall, is speaking out about life with Bundy, how the Netflix projects led to her participating in director Trish Wood’s new Amazon docuseries, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, and what she thinks of Efron's portrayal.
In May 2017, Kendall first learned that Berlinger was working on a scripted account of Bundy's life as a serial killer “told from the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend,” she recounts in the introduction to the updated edition of her 1981 memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, which has been updated and republished and also serves as the inspiration for the new documentary.
Her memoir had not been optioned for a screen adaptation, but “if the story was going to be told again, the only way we could influence the outcome was to work with the film and documentary makers,” she writes. “We decided this was the most empowering way to proceed.”
Despite some initial problems, Kendall writes that collaboration between Berlinger, herself and her daughter, Molly, turned out to be “a good one,” and that the filmmaker “respected and acted upon our input.” The project eventually moved forward, with Lily Collins cast as Kendall and filming taking place in January 2018.
“The first day of filming, I'll never forget,” Efron recalled to ET about shooting on location in Kentucky. "It's freezing cold [and] I smell like a thrift shop because my clothes were all from the ‘60s and I was just getting used to walking in this style. I walk in and I know my lines, I'm ready for the day and it was the first warm-up scene… Lily was ready to go right then at rehearsal [and] gave a perfect performance in the rehearsal. And I literally walked outside and I almost had a mental breakdown.”
The end result was a shocking transformation by Efron, who channeled his undeniable charm and notorious good looks into his portrayal of Bundy, who had a way of endearing himself to his victims and onlookers alike. Bundy was the type of guy “we were all supposed to marry,” Wood says. “He looked like a Ralph Lauren model. He was getting a law degree. So, that was sort of the aspirational boyfriend.”
Later, the actor explained to ET that “the movie itself is really deep. It doesn't really glorify Ted Bundy. He wasn't a person to be glorified. It simply tells a story and sort of how the world was able to be charmed over by this guy who was notoriously evil and the vexing position that so many people were put in, the world was put in.”
Kendall reveals in her memoir that “we were able to face our fears and watch the finished film,” which debuted on Netflix in May 2019. “It was well-directed and well-acted. We were left with the feeling that Zac Efron and Lily Collins got it right,” she writes of the stars’ performances.
Despite her positive review of the film, she and Molly “realized that with the dramatization of a true story, things must be omitted, condensed, or combined to help the story fit within time constraints,” and that’s why they “decided it was essential that we tell our story in our own words as we experienced it.” Not only did that lead to the reissue of her memoir, which had previously been out of print, but it’s also “what motivated me, after so many years of silence, to participate in [Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer],” Kendall reveals.
Debuting Jan. 31 on the streaming platform, the five-part series sees Kendall and her daughter -- as well as many women -- speaking out on-camera for the first time as they recount their experiences with Bundy and how they moved forward with their lives in the decades since his arrest.
In addition to the Kendalls, the docuseries features Barbara Grossman, a reporter at KUTV Salt Lake City; Kathleen McChesney, a detective for the King County Sheriff’s Department in Seattle, Washington; Py Bateman, founder of the Feminist Karate Union at the University of Washington; Phyllis Armstrong, a student at the University of Washington and friend of Bundy victim Georgann Hawkins; Karen Sparks, a survivor who is believed to be Bundy’s first attempted victim; Polly Nelson, one of Bundy’s post-conviction lawyers; Laura Healy, sister to Bundy victim Lynda Healy; and many more. For most of them, it is the very first time they are speaking about Bundy on camera.
And while the Netflix projects may have spurred Kendall’s participation in the Amazon docuseries, Wood says it was O.J.: Made in America that made her want to recount these women’s experiences. “It seemed logical to look at murder cases through the lens of gender in America,” she says, in the same way that the ESPN project looked at O.J. Simpson’s story and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson through the lens of race. Ultimately, Wood says, “we’re telling a story about women who were affected by him in various proximities to him and the crimes.”