In the midst of our true crime obsession, few other shows have grabbed viewers’ morbid curiosity like Netflix’s Mindhunter. The series, which recently returned for its second season, follows the FBI’s first behavioral science unit – in particular its chalk and cheese lead agents Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – as they use killers to catch killers.
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While Ford mirrors our lurid fascination with the grimiest recesses of dangerous minds, Holt McCallany’s bullish Tench represents our morality, recognizing the value of studying serial killers but repelled by the trails of blood and pain they’ve left in their wake.
New Yorker Holt McCallany is no newcomer. The hard-working character actor has been on TV and in films since the mid-80s, but Mindhunter has elevated him to his most prominent leading role yet.
We caught up to chat serial killers, painstaking research and a project that couldn’t be further from the likes of Charles Manson and Ed Kemper.
You’re off to France tomorrow…
I’ve a film opening there called Le Dindon. It’s having its premiere at the Film Festival d’Angoulême. It’s by a wonderful French director and actor called Jalil Lespert and it stars Danny Boon, who’s probably the biggest film star in France. It’s going to be a fun trip more than anything else.
How did you get involved with the film?
I went to college in France, theatre school. I’d always loved French cinema. The tremendous success of Mindhunter in the international market made it possible for me to sign with an agent in Paris and the first project that she brought me was a wonderful comedy based on the play by Georges Feydeau, which was written in 1896.
This is a modern adaptation set in the 60s. It’s so funny. The director screened it for me the last time I was in Paris. I was just thrilled to be a part of it. David Fincher was kind enough to make a hole in my schedule so I could go to France and make the movie, for which I am eternally grateful.
It seems like quite a shift to go from making Mindhunter to this.
Boy, did you say a mouthful. It’s the polar opposite. A French farce is about as far away as you can get from Mindhunter.
Was that a tricky transition or was it more like something you needed to preserve your sanity?
That’s a great question. We get so steeped in the research of Mindhunter. We’re doing all these serial killers and they each have their different personal histories, they committed their crimes in different ways, they have different signatures.
You have to really do your homework and study them in great detail. It’s a very long shoot, so after a while, the possibility of taking your mind off of that for a short time and going to Paris to shoot a comedy, there’s a measure of relief in that. No question.
Do you need to prepare yourself, going into a new season, for the psychological toll that the research for Mindhunter takes?
It’s not only psychological, it’s physical. We shoot for as much as nine months at a time, so it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We shoot very long hours and we often shoot six-day weeks. It’s a completely engrossing experience, and as I said, there’s a lot of research that’s required.
Not only that, we’re a dialogue driven show. There are no action sequences in Mindhunter. So, there’s a lot of preparation required. David Fincher likes his actors to be super prepared. You don’t want to cost time on the set. He believes, and I agree with h63im, that if an actor shows up unprepared, it’s disrespectful to the entire crew. Everyone is there ready to work so you better be there ready to work.
Even the short amount of time off that we have, you’ve got to use that preparing for the next day’s work. It’s an endless rehearsal and it’s endless research. There’s always more that you can learn and understand about these killers, about the FBI agents, about the period, about the social and political context of the time. It’s really a lot and you want to be as well informed as you can be as an actor and not rely on the writers to do the research for you.
On a lot of TV shows and films, that level of research is done beforehand and the results are on the page. That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
One of the really exciting things about the job is that you get to learn things that you never otherwise would have learned and have experiences that you would never have had. So, by depriving yourself of that, you’re depriving yourself of one of the really special things about being an actor. It’s not simply about learning lines and hitting marks. That’s the easy part.
Did you have an interest in true crime and serial killers before or is this something you’ve acquired, so to speak?
I’ve always been attracted to dark material. I’ve always been fascinated by the oddballs, misfits and criminals in our society. But there’s no question that working on this series caused me to take a deep dive that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Do the things you learn stay with you? Do you find yourself checking the locks at night?
It’s very hard to shed. For me personally, it doesn’t mean double checking the locks at night. What it means is continuing to obsess about the subject, even when the filming is over.
I went recently to Vacaville, the California Medical Facility, where Manson had been and where Ed Kemper is currently. I met with an associate of Manson’s named Bobby Beausoleil who was convicted of the murder of the musician Gary Hinman in 1969 and has been in jail for 50 years.
I got to meet him and ask him questions about Manson and what happened in ’69. It was a fascinating conversation. I came away from the encounter realizing that this gentleman – whose parole was recently granted and then rescinded by Governor Newsom – deserves to be paroled and given a second chance in life. He was a very articulate, very intelligent, lucid guy. Even though he committed a crime when he was 21 years old, he’s 71 now and he’s a very different person.
I met Charles Manson’s son and had a very interesting conversation with him. He was a very open, sincere and wonderful guy and not an apologist for his father. He’d found a way to see his father as a person.
These experiences would never have been a part of my life if it wasn’t for Mindhunter. Is it really essential to meet these people and do this kind of research? Maybe not for some actors but, for me, that’s a part of it. It’s all a part of trying to understand as much as I can about what happened and asking the guys involved about what they were really thinking and feeling.
I really enjoy the acting, but the reason I love it is because I show up prepared. Muhammed Ali used to say that he won his fights in the gym or doing road work at five in the morning. That’s my attitude about acting. Olivier famously said that acting is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent inspiration. I believe that.
If you’re really prepared, then when you get there, the experience should be fun. Even if David [Fincher, director] asks you to do 50 takes, what’s the problem if it’s fun? Sure, it takes concentration. Sure, you can be fatigued. But you’ve got to put those things out of your mind and do what you came to do.
If you’ve done everything you could possibly do before you step on set, then there’s no fear involved, right?
That’s exactly correct. Gary Oldman said “I don’t get nervous.” Why would you when you’re Gary Oldman? He’s brilliant!
It’s interesting that you managed to see such goodness and redemption in someone like Bobby Beausoleil, especially as that feels like a conclusion Bill Tench wouldn’t ever come to.
It’s true that Holden is the character that shows more empathy than Bill. I would refer to Robert Ressler, John Douglas’s partner and the person my character is loosely based on. Ressler famously did not believe in capital punishment, which is interesting for a guy in law enforcement. Mostly they don’t believe in rehabilitation.
Ressler believed that these men were more valuable to society alive where they could be studied and understood. Why put them to death? They’re no longer a threat to society, they’re off the streets. They may have something that is useful to us going forward. Also, for me personally as an actor, I’ve a tremendous respect for the guys in law enforcement. They were very generous to us, especially John Douglas, Gregg McCrary and others.
I believe Governor Newsom is a talented politician who will do a lot of great things for the state of California and has a very bright future, but I don’t agree with his decision to rescind the parole of Bobby Beausoleil.
I spent five hours with Bobby and I’ve had numerous telephone calls with him. I got to look into his eyes and I can tell you that he is a guy who has shown remorse, he’s a guy who has been a model prisoner – he’s an accomplished videographer and did the instructional videos for the Corrections Department – he’s continued to make music and art and he’s been in jail for half a century. If he wasn’t tainted by his association with Manson, he would have been paroled ten years ago.
Do you think there’s enough attention is paid to the influence Manson had over people like Beausoleil?
Well look, it’s been endlessly debated. What really was the conversation that took place between Charles Manson and Tex Watson before Tex went with the girls and murdered Sharon Tate and her friends? What really transpired? There are different accounts. It’s very hard to know what the answer is.
Someone said to me that Manson sent Watson to kill Terry Melcher, he didn’t tell him to kill all those people. But then someone else will say that Manson knew Terry Melcher wasn’t still in the house. Then other people will say that Tex Watson and Terry Melcher were friends. It’s really hard to know.
That’s why meeting these people and watching interviews and reading about them was one of the most fascinating things about season two.
For me, Bill is almost the show’s conscience. While Holden is endlessly fascinated by the darkest depths of these killers’ psyches, it seems that Bill can’t help but react from a more moral standpoint. Is that close to your read on the character?
They’re very different men. They’re from different generations and have different world views. Part of what’s intrigued the audience about the relationship between Holden and Bill is that they’re almost a study in contrasts.
Holden is brilliant and it was his innovation to interview those serial killers and to see what we could glean from those interviews. I recognize that and I admire him for it, but sometimes he does try to cut them a little too much slack and take them at their word. Bill is far more innately suspicious of them.
This is your third time working with David Fincher…
I’ve had the privilege of a long association with David. My first time working with him was way back when we shot Alien 3 in London in 1993. I was one of only a couple of American actors who he brought over with him. The rest of the cast was all amazingly gifted British actors. That was the first really big movie that I’d ever been a part of.
Then I did Fight Club, which is an iconic film and remains, even after a 35-year career, one of the things that I’m most proud of. And now, I’m back with David again on Mindhunter. I don’t know what he saw in me all those years ago, but I consider myself extremely lucky to be working with him.
Mindhunter is streaming now on Netflix.