Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany play FBI agents interrogating murderers: 'It’s so psychological and so intense'
Today is the much-anticipated premiere of Netflix’s Mindhunter, the compelling new serial killer series from executive producers David Fincher and Charlize Theron. But Mindhunter isn’t Seven or even The Silence of the Lambs: it’s a slower, more psychological study of murderers through the eyes of FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). The series, which shot for 10 months in Pittsburgh with Fincher there for the entire production (he also directed 4 episodes), can be chilling but also oddly funny thanks to the chemistry between Groff and McCallany.
EW sat down with the pair to talk about working with the legendary Fincher and why you’ll probably never see a shootout on Mindhunter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This show is so secretive. I don’t know what happens after season 2. Did you know where it was going or was it just based on David Fincher?
HOLT McCALLANY: No. There were scripts that were written and there was a bible for the first five seasons. Now it was just very broad strokes but it existed. We were permitted to read it.
Where is the Mindhunter bible kept?
JONATHAN GROFF: It’s now like destroyed and blown up.
McCALLANY: It’s completely irrelevant now. I think once David took control over the arc of the story, everything has changed considerably from the original scripts that were turned by a talented British writer named Joe Penhall but who is no longer with the project. From the point of Joe’s departure David sort of really began to rework the scripts and the bible and everything changed a lot.
There are so many stories about David Fincher and doing multiple takes. Jonathan, you had never worked with him before. How was it?
GROFF: There’s this mysterious aura about him going in. But then the revelation for me is that he just loves to work and wants to make something great. That’s it! Every time we would do another take — and sometimes we did a lot of takes and sometimes we didn’t — it would depend on the situation and the moment and he would do what he felt was needed to get as much as he could. I think perhaps the thing that’s unique about him is, we’re not going to leave until we get it. I would say nine times out of 10 you work with people who are like, Well we might not have gotten all of it but I’d rather go to dinner and go to sleep. David, I don’t know when he sleeps. He would go home and watch the dailies and come in the next day with rough cuts of the scene. He just is obsessive and loves working. We ended up having an amazing time for the 10 months we were there.
Did they read you guys together to see chemistry because so much is Bill and Holden alone?
McCALLANY: No but the great thing is that Jonathan has chemistry with absolutely anything in the world.
GROFF: But I do think one of the things that’s so surprising to us and to David is we ended up having this kind of rapport, this kind of older-cop-younger-cop dynamic; there was a lot of humor to be mined in little moments sprinkled out.
McCALLANY: A lot of it wasn’t on the page and a lot of it was born out of the relationship that Jonathan and I discovered as these characters, and David seemed to embrace it.
Did you guys do any training?
GROFF: [Turns to Holt] Do your famous line.
McCALLANY: It will be the only series in the history of American television where two FBI agents go for multiple seasons and neither one of them ever goes, “Stop! FBI!” Anything is possible and we don’t know what the future holds. I guess the point I’m trying to make is, it’s a much more cerebral type of a show than the other FBI shows.
GROFF: And the thing I think that’s interesting with the characters is, Holden is an FBI agent but is a complete fish out of water when it comes to being in a jail with an incarcerated maniac. There’s a sort of blank slate quality to the whole experience because at this time “serial killer” wasn’t even a phrase. The idea of talking to these people and gleaning information from them was completely new. So they’re breaking ground and falling on their face and trying for the first time. As the season goes along, Ed Kemper is really forthcoming with his personality but as we interview other serial killers they aren’t all as forthcoming. So a lot of the dynamics that happen in the jail cells is, how do we get the person to talk? Are we offering up too much or too little?
McCALLANY: And what are the potential consequences for the convict. If he’s seen to be having long meetings with FBI agents, what are the possible repercussions for him?
What are those interrogation scenes like to film? They’re long scenes and dialogue-heavy.
GROFF: My audition scenes were these long, 15-page scenes. I had never read anything like that for a film or TV audition — only a theater audition. It’s a running theme throughout the show. We do these long, deep-dive interview scenes and I f—ing loved it! It’s so psychological and so intense. With David, you get a lot of opportunities to do them and find every bit of nuance and detail to lay into them. In some ways, those scenes are our action scenes. The ways that the scenes twist and turn hopefully play out with the intrigue and excitement of an action scene. You just never see that on television.
The guy that plays Ed Kemper is incredible. Did you guys get freaked out in these scenes?
McCALLANY: That kid’s name is Cameron Britton. Talk about a breakout performance that’s going to put a young actor on the map. I think David really liked him and everyone talks about how amazing his performance is. I won’t mention who they are but later in season 1 we will potentially meet other serial killers but I can promise you they are all equally well-cast.
What can you say about the rest of the season? I heard there’s a chance that the influence of these killers may rub off on you.
GROFF: Yeah, totally. Both my character and Holt’s character are having existential crises in their lives. What an interesting psychological situation where these two people are coming to a head in their life and having revelations about who they are while in a jail cell talking to an insane person? The reverberation that causes in their personal lives is significant, in their relationship with the FBI and in their relationship with each other. It gets incredibly complicated. The way David lays it out is, it’s this slow burn. The arc of the season isn’t arched like a normal television show. It’s over these 10 episodes but some are longer and some are shorter. It’s more like a novel. From where we begin and where we end, there’s a whole world.
Do we meet Bill’s family?
McCALLANY: You will meet my family in subsequent episodes. Bill is in a marriage that’s failing. He’s got an adopted son who’s troubled and with who he has a difficult relationship. He’s kind of running away. He’s kind of a guy who’s no longer chasing a promotion. In a certain way, he’s kind of floundering because he’s forgotten why it’s so important he be an FBI agent. It isn’t that he doesn’t enjoy the work, but what happens when Holden comes into his life is, Holden kind of shakes him up and reminds him why he wanted to be an FBI agent.
And Anna Torv (Fringe) becomes like a third part of the team?
McCALLANY: She’s an academic and sort of an expert in criminal psychology and someone I had met in the past at seminars I attended. One of our cases takes us to Boston where she works and we go to see her to get some advice from her on the work we’re doing, and she becomes very intrigued by it and ultimately ends up working with us to kind of give the whole project more structure and make it more scientific.
Now that you’ve spent so much time with this subject matter, do you feel like you can be an armchair psychologist and analyze people’s behavior?
GROFF: A lot of times we’re listening and sitting in these rooms and helping them open up, so I would say, weirdly, I’ve become a better listener throughout the course of this show. We sort of fake empathy with these guys to get information from them. So when you spend time thinking about that and thinking about ways to ask questions, I’ve gotten information out of people perhaps quicker if I hadn’t done this show.
McCALLANY: When this horrific incident happened in Las Vegas, I found myself immediately thinking, What motivated that? I think before I started working on this project, it would have been easy to say, “Oh, what a nutjob!” But because of the experience Jonathan and I have had over the past year working with David and because this subject is so fascinating, I find myself thinking nobody wakes up when they’re 64 years old and becomes a mass murderer. There were warning signs; I can promise you that they were there. So what was this man’s journey? What is it that makes a guy commit a heinous crime like that? It’s fascinating to me.
All 10 episodes of Mindhunter are now available to stream on Netflix.