Manson speaks: Mindhunter actor on playing the cult leader again in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The 49-year-old Australian native found himself in a “pretty bizarre” situation, as he explains to EW: In 2018, producer David Fincher cast Herriman as Charles Manson in season 2 of his Netflix crime drama. Then, a few months later, he was tapped to play Manson again in Tarantino’s latest feature film. Starting with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which premiered in July, both of these projects released within weeks of each other in 2019. (Season 2 of Mindhunter premiered on Friday.)
“I’m not complaining because, obviously, it was an opportunity to work with two of the greatest filmmakers of their generation. So, I’m way happier than I am weirded out,” Herriman says.
Manson’s name lingered in the shadows of season 1 and, in episode 5 of the new season, Herriman finally made his debut as the white whale of interview subjects for Agents Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Tench (Holt McCallany) — a very different experience than in Once Upon a Time. Herriman filmed a speaking part as Manson for Tarantino, but his dialogue was dropped for the theatrical cut.
Following Mindhunter’s latest premiere on Friday, Herriman spoke with EW about how this casting coincidence came to be.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came first, Mindhunter or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
DAMON HERRIMAN: Mindhunter. Mindhunter came about six months earlier. By chance, they ended up shooting within a couple of weeks of each other. That was pretty weird.
When did you actually audition for Mindhunter?
I auditioned three times between, I think it was October and January between 2017 into ’18. The last time being January.
You auditioned three times?
Yeah. Obviously, they wanted to be sure.
I can’t even count how many roles are across your resumé now. Is that pretty standard when you’re auditioning for a role that ended up being one episode?
It’s not normally that, but it’s also not normally a scene like that. I understand why they would want to be sure about casting a role like that because it is a real person who everyone knows and is quite an important scene in the episode. Normally, no, you would probably audition for something once or [twice]. If it was three times, it would probably be for a bigger role in a feature film or something, but I do understand why they would’ve done that.
How did Once Upon a Time in Hollywood come about?
Two friends I had that were working on that film already put in a word for me. It was a completely separate situation. People assumed that one job led to the other, but absolutely not all. Nicholas Hammond who plays Sam Wanamaker, the director in OUATH, I know him from Australia because he lives here now and Timothy Olyphant, who I worked with in Justified, they had thrown my name about to each other because they both knew me when they were talking about who should be going for Manson. And then Tim spoke to Quentin because he knew that Quentin had been a fan of Justified, which I did for many years. So, once he made that connection, the audition came through from that. I was already doing [Mindhunter]. I had mixed feelings about it because I can’t say no to auditioning for Quentin Tarantino, but I also know that it’s highly unlikely that he’s gonna cast the same guy who’s already playing this character. As it turns out, he didn’t mind.
I imagine, from an actor’s standpoint, it must be an interesting exercise to play the same character at different points in his life.
Because one of them is 1969 and one is 1980, that is quite a distinct difference in the way Manson was appearing and behaving and speaking. And also, tonally, Mindhunter and OUATH are quite different. For me, it was fairly evident where the differences lie. The tonal thing you get from the script: Mindhunter was very much a drama, OUATH obviously has that Tarantino tone. And we did shoot a little more than what’s in the film. He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone, whereas in Mindhunter, Manson is in jail and he’s bitter and he’s angry at the world. [Editor’s note: Reps for Herriman later clarified that he was referring to “a lot” being cut from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a whole, not specifically scenes involving Manson.]
From a physical and vocal perspective, if you listen to Manson around the late ’60s, he does have a lighter tone to his voice and he has a lightness to him. There’s some audition tapes of his online from about 1967-1968 when he’s auditioning for a music contract. He speaks a lot in that and he sounds a lot different than in the jail interviews that you see. He’s got this playful court jester quality… Having read so much about him and watching so much of him was definitely helpful. When I auditioned for OUATH, it was different than any audition I’d ever done in my life because I spent five months at that point working on that very character, that’s a very rare thing to happen.
I was talking to Matt Smith a few months back about his performance as Manson in Charlie Says and, even with all his research, he still doesn’t really fully understand Manson and what his motivations were. Do you feel the same?
I completely agree with him. That’s really interesting to hear that. It’s nice to hear that because I spent a lot of time watching the guy, reading about the guy. I still don’t quite know. Partly because he’s so complex but also because he presented himself differently all the time. There’s an interview with Ron Reagan Jr. online. Ron Reagan Jr. interviews him like he’s a normal interview subject, and consequently, Manson doesn’t do his crazy schtick. He just talks pretty much normally back to him. It’s not like any Manson you’ve ever seen. And then you watch other interviews where people are baiting him and calling him crazy, and he plays up on that and he does all the crazy faces and he gets angry.
I don’t know either. I would say he was almost certainly schizophrenic and probably was suffering from a number of different mental disorders, but sometimes I’m not even sure he knew what he would believe because he would contradict himself a lot, as well. Part of me thinks his mouth just opened and he started speaking and what came out in that moment was what he thought in that moment. And he was an incredible speaker. For me, I can see why people were mesmerized by him. He was never short of thought or a philosophy on anything. But what he actually believes and what was the kernel of the guy, I really don’t know even now.
There’s a moment in your big scene when Tench calls Manson a “midget,” which we’re told by Ed Kemper is a big no-no. Did you have any conversations with the producers about what that does to Manson in that moment?
No, not specifically about that. He would absolutely arch up if there was any kind of anger or attack. He would certainly attack back at any given opportunity. There’s no question that calling Manson a midget to his face like that wouldn’t have made him happy. He would’ve laughed it off, but he would probably look at you like he wanted to kill you at the same time.
Your performance in Mindhunter is also very physical. He’s sitting on the chair, he has to be above the other two players in the room. How did you come up with that?
Just watching and re-watching as much as I possibly could and then I would watch him move in a scene and then I would get up in my living room and try to emulate that. He has a particular way of this slippery, snaky way of moving. He’s also quite hunched which is unusual for a short person because he made himself smaller than he even was, and he was already pretty small. When his hair is that length, he’s often pushing hair out of his face, so I made sure I incorporated that. You just try to get into that person’s body as much as possible. There’s an authority and an ownership of a room that he would have when he walked into it. Any room he walked into, when you saw any of those jail interviews, he thought he was the king and he just arrived. I don’t naturally have that feeling walking into a room, so I really had to work on feeling as confidant in my own skin as I possibly could.
Other than the tonal difference between Mindhunter and OUATH, was there any specific direction that Tarantino or [Mindhunter S2E5 director Andrew Dominik] gave you for how they wanted their version of Manson to be?
There was nothing in particular about the way they wanted Manson to be that comes to mind. It goes back to that tonal thing. In Mindhunter, it was all about the particular behavior that would be true for that moment. With OUATH, it’s hard to talk about in too much detail without referencing another scene that we shot, which I probably shouldn’t talk about. That may make an appearance at some point and I don’t want to spoil it for people. Certainly, with what I shot in total, the direction was more in line with the tone of the particular scene, which is a more humorous scene than anything I did in Mindhunter. But obviously the Manson we see in the film now, there’s nothing humorous about that at all and I think that’s obviously a choice that Quentin has made to keep Manson as this ominous figure who you just get a glimpse of but you don’t get to know at all. There’s something about that that works brilliantly in terms of what then hangs over the rest of the film.
Part silly question, part serious: Would you consider playing Manson again for a third time if given the opportunity?
A writer friend of mine is writing a miniseries at the moment and he would say to me, “I’ve got a role for you.” I’m like, “That’s exciting. What is it?” He says, “Well, so the main character at one point” — ‘cause it’s based on a true guy — “he’s in jail and he meets Charles Manson.” I was like, “Nooo!” He’s like, “Why?! It’s perfect. You’ve done it twice.” “No, that’s why I wouldn’t do it again. Are you crazy? Twice is plenty.” Never say never, but I think that would be highly unlikely and probably very stupid of me to be really sitting in concrete, the fact that this is the guy I play. “I have one string in my bow and it’s called Charles Manson.” I joke that maybe the only way you could do that a third time is if it’s in a comedy, but I still don’t think that’s a great idea. I’ve had my fair share of Manson.