Interview: Holt McCallany talks Mindhunter, serial killers and Netflix
Matthew Turner | On 15, Oct 2017
This weekend sees the release of David Fincher’s new Netflix series, Mindhunter, following its premiere at the London Film Festival (read our review here). The show is based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by two real FBI agents, who introduced the idea of criminal and psychological profiling to the FBI.
Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff play the two agents who set out on that sinister investigative odyssey to discover the brutal answers to what crazy means. We sat down with Holt to talk serial killers, David Fincher and Netflix.
How did you get involved?
So, I had had the privilege of working for David Fincher on a couple of previous occasions. I was in his first film, Alien 3, which we shot here in London, 25 years ago or more. More. And then, of course, I had a role in Fight Club, which is an iconic film. I personally think it’s a masterpiece, but it certainly was an amazing experience for me. And then, I hadn’t worked with David for about 20 years, so when I got the call that he had requested me, it was very exciting for me, because David can have anyone he likes – everybody wants to work with David Fincher, he’s one of the most amazingly talented directors in Hollywood and everybody knows that.
But I guess what was really exciting was when they sent me the Bible of the show, the whole five seasons laid out, and when I read that I realised that Bill Tench, the character that I play, is a very interesting part. The show Bible was written by a gentleman named Joe Penhall, who was the writer who David and Charlize [Theron] hired to write the first season of scripts, and in addition to that first season, Joe Penhall had written a Bible which was not, you know, five seasons worth of scripts, but about a 60 or 70-page document that gave an overview of what the journey of the central characters will be.
And I saw that it was dual protagonist, and I thought that that was really interesting, because that’s unusual in television. So we were going to follow two guys and they were going to be together, and sometimes they were going to be apart – I won’t spoil anything for you. First of all, I feel like the great advantage to television is that never before in human history has there been a medium in which you can examine a character in as much detail as you can in television. There simply isn’t enough room in a two-hour movie or a three-hour play. You have many more possibilities, you can be in so many more situations, you know, I remember taking the story seminar with the famous screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, and the first thing he said to us was: ‘Tony Soprano is a more complicated character than Hamlet.’ And we all looked at each other, like, ‘why is Tony Soprano more complicated than Hamlet?’, and he said: ‘Well, because we got nine seasons of Tony Soprano.’
So when I recognised that that’s what David was talking about – because you have to understand that, sure, I’m in Alien 3, but you know, I’m a very young actor, I had no resume, I was lucky even to be there. I was very grateful to be there but, you know, it’s a small part and in Fight Club also, I mean it’s Brad and Edward that the movie is about and I play the mechanic – I have a couple of nice scenes, I think, but it’s very much a peripheral sort of a character. But now I was invited back in a major role, in one of the leads, so this was for me, like a big promotion, and for David to show that kind of confidence in me was very gratifying. It’s hard really to overstate it, five years of your life, which we hope will be the journey that we will get to take as these characters. I’m very confident [that we’ll get to do more seasons] because I’m very confident in David’s ability. He’s a very successful guy for a reason. I think that no matter what walk of life he had chosen, if he wanted to be a head coach of an NFL football team, he would have multiple Super Bowl rings, and if he was a general in the army, he would go from victory to victory, it’s just he’s a leader.
For your research, did you interview any real serial killers?
You know, I didn’t. I went to Quantico and I met with the guys in the BSU, the guys that are currently working in the Behavioral Science Unit in the FBI. I met with John Douglas, who wrote the book. I did an enormous amount of reading. You know, John Douglas has written 15 books – the guy that my character is loosely based on, Robert Ressler, who died in 2013, wrote five books. And there are also volumes upon volumes that are written about each of these serial killers, because we’re talking about famous guys, the names that you all know, so there’s so there’s an endless amount of research to be done. Also, it’s a period piece set in the 1970s, so it’s a very different social and political context. So you have to take that into consideration as well. But it would interest me – you know, Manson is still alive, although he’s hard to get in to see, and they’ve recently moved him to a medical facility, which people are saying means that he may be at the end of his life.
Did anybody involved with the series get to see him?
I don’t think they got in to see him, although John Douglas did. John Douglas, obviously, knows all of them, so we got to be with John in that respect, but it really would interest me to do it, you know, David Berkowitz is still around and I may yet do it, because some of these guys are very reticent, very suspicious, don’t want visitors and don’t want to talk about their crimes. Others have a very different attitude, like Ed Kemper. Ed Kemper would be an example of a very affable and intelligent guy. And some of the crimes that he committed are truly, truly astonishing, you know, cutting his mother’s head off, putting her voice box down the garbage disposal, burying women’s heads in the backyard looking up at his mother’s room, and when you really start to look at some of these guys and the way that they commit their crimes…
There’s a famous story about Kemper, one of his victims was a Korean girl. He used to pull his car up and offer rides to people. In those days, there was a lot of hitch-hiking – you don’t really see that anymore, but people would take rides from people, and once you got in the car, unfortunately there was no way to get out, the handle had been removed from the inside, the window doesn’t roll down, the door only locks on his side. So on this one occasion, he would take them to the woods where he would torture them and rape them and then mutilate their bodies and he carried all of his gear in the trunk, his tools of the trade, if you will. So he gets out of the car and closes the door and he realises that he’s locked himself out of the car. And the girl is inside the car, so she’s essentially safe from him, in a way. And so he has to talk her in to opening the door and letting him in and so he basically sweet talks her and it takes about 20 minutes before she finally opens the door and lets him in, at which point she’s promptly killed…
I thought the egg salad sandwich scene between Holden and Kemper was almost like a metaphor for that idea
Precisely correct. Because that’s the thing about sociopaths – they don’t have empathy, they’re narcissists, it’s only about how something is going to affect them. What do they want? He wants a sandwich. The fact that you don’t want a sandwich is irrelevant. We’re going to have sandwiches now.
Speaking of narcissists, there’s a line about the rise in criminality being a response to the lack of general authority in government that was very interesting. Do you see a parallel with Trump’s America?
Well, I would say that things have changed a great deal with respect to the types of crimes that Holden Ford and Bill Tench are investigating on Mindhunter, because from the 60s through to the 90s is sort of the heyday of this period of these sort of sexually motivated crimes. There were a lot more of them. Now, what we’re seeing are more religiously motivated crimes, we see jihadis, we see terrorist attacks, we see mass murders – we saw one in Las Vegas, but they’re different. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still sexually motivated homicides, but the majority of mass murders are now committed for different reasons, it seems to me, than during the period in which our television show takes place.
One of the things I read Fincher saying was that he wanted to de-glamorise these killers and take away their Hannibal Lecter mystique. Was that something you were all conscious of when you were making it?
Absolutely, very much so. I mean, this was one of David’s mission statements from the very beginning. And this is not to take anything away from Sir Anthony Hopkins and an amazing performance and a wonderful, wonderful character in a wonderful film, but this exceptionally witty and charming and clever opera aficionado and he’s also a gourmet chef and would be the perfect dinner guest if he didn’t want to put you on the menu type thing, you know, that is not what these men are like in real life. They are these deeply fractured, troubled, tormented, depraved, sadistic, scary individuals. And they they commit horrific crimes. You start looking at the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, the John Wayne Gacys of the world and you start to go, ‘oh my God’. And I think that there was a real conscious effort on David’s part and on the part of our writers to tell those stories authentically, to show these men in the way that they really are and so those interview scenes are taken from trial transcripts, from interviews and, again, we can be very detailed, because a lot has been written, so it’s not like we’re relying on the imaginations of TV writers, we have the real stuff.
What was it like working with four different directors, who have done very different things from each other?
So every director is different, just like every love affair is different. And they have their different styles, they have their different expectations. David oversees the entire production, so if he’s not happy with something, we’ll reshoot it. But I really liked the guys that he chose and I’ll tell you why. Because, for example, Asif Kapadia, who’s a British documentarian, who did the Amy Winehouse documentary among others – not the kind of guy who typically would be offered episodic TV in the US, directing drama series. He’s never going to get hired at CBS. No, because what do they do there? They won’t consider anybody who hasn’t already directed 25 episodes of different shows. You have to be on that little hamster wheel already before you can be considered. Tobias Lindholm, who is a fabulous Danish director, who directed an amazing film called A Hi-jacking, which you may be familiar with, really smart guy, really talented guy, but again, is that guy going to get offered an episode of Law and Order? Never. So this is the great good fortune that we have, one of the many ways in which we’re tremendously fortunate to be with David, because if David thinks that you have the talent, David will give you an opportunity where others would not.