Interview: Jonathan Groff talks Mindhunter, serial killers and Netflix
Matthew Turner | On 14, 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.
Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany 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 Jonathan to talk serial killers, David Fincher and Netflix.
Did you meet any real-life serial killers as part of the research?
No, I didn’t meet any serial killers – that I know of! I guess, right? I mean, perhaps I’ve met them and haven’t known it.
Was it tough reading about all these horrible crimes and then going back to your home life?
Well, it’s interesting because a lot of people in my life, friends and family, are obsessed – it’s like a cultural phenomenon. People are so into serial killers, there’s like books and films and TV shows and podcasts and whatever, and I didn’t know a lot about them – that was never my niche thing that I was into. So I learned a lot in preparation for the show, which was kind of great, because the characters start from kind of a blank slate and learn as they go along, so it was a nice parallel for me going into it. I read John’s book – Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit – and interestingly, reading John’s book, that was more intense for me then even acting in the show, because when you’re hearing it from the real guy who’s talking about what went down, I had to keep putting it down because it was just so… I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but I gave it to some family members and they were like, ‘what?’ My aunt who has a daughter who’s in college was like, ‘oh my god’. But in the actual doing of the show, we’re acting and the scenes are so delicious for actors, which maybe sounds a little dark and twisted for me to say, but the scenes that we have with the serial killers are my favourite scenes because they were so complicated, so interesting, so psychological and so we would do these long days on these scenes and I would leave on a high because it was such a thrill and a pleasure to get to act scenes that were so complicated and well written and interesting and so I really enjoyed it, actually.
Its such an intense scene, when you’re talking to Ed Kemper…
Yes, yes. That was scary. I mean he’s such an amazing actor, Cameron Britton. He’s so brilliant and it was so easy with him and with all the serial killers, to get lost in those scenes just like [sharp intake of breath]. Because it was just like hearing the stories and hearing them talk and they were all so exquisite, that it was so interesting to just do those scenes.
Were you surprised to get the call from David Fincher? Because most people know you from Glee and Frozen
I’d met David actually, years before, like seven or eight years before, when I auditioned for The Social Network – the Sean Parker part – and so I met him then and loved even just that audition experience, because he’s just so smart and so engaging and so awesome and so it’s a dream for anyone to work with him. So when the audition came through and it’s David Fincher, yes, I’m auditioning for that, regardless of what I’m about to read. So it was an immediate ‘yes’, and then the scenes are so complicated and interesting and the character was so awesome and multi-layered and from where he begins to where he ends at the end of the season is like such an awesome journey and was so fun to play, so yeah, getting to do that material with that director was a dream.
Did you have a sense of what David saw in you for the part?
Yeah, I think some of the qualities as an actor, or even as a human being, you align with in the character, and he’s talked previously about me in an interview with him that we did together, where he said I was a good student and a good listener, so that seemed like a good quality to have, playing this character. But one of the things that I didn’t have, or the biggest challenge, I guess, or one of the challenges, not necessarily the biggest one, was he told me early on that this character is not charming, he’s like, ‘you’re always smiling, you want to charm people, you’re a people pleaser and this character is not as savvy, socially savvy, as like, an actor in life would be’. So, for example, the scene with Debbie in the bar where I’m hitting on her and just like failing, failing, failing over and over again, you’re like, ‘oh God this guy is the worst’, and so we talked about that a lot and how that sort of articulated itself in a technical way was I smile a lot, as a person in the world. And he’d be like, ‘stop smiling’. I would be smiling and I wouldn’t even know that I was smiling, but it was like one of the ticky things that I did as a person that was one of the things that I fall back on, always, whether I’m acting or not acting, that David sort of zeroed in on.
Do you have fans who have followed you from Glee and Frozen and will just watch everything you’re in? And if so, do you think this will come as a surprise to them?
Maybe not for the eight-year-old girls who are dressed up like Princess Elsa – I don’t know if Mindhunter is necessarily for them. I don’t really think in terms of fans too much. I mean I hope that people that would like Glee or Hamilton or even Frozen would be open to and interested in watching Mindhunter. I think they’re all very specific – they’re all very different but they’re all very specific in tone, all of those projects, so David Fincher has got a certain way of doing things and a certain way of expressing himself and he’s such an artist and I feel that way about all the people that did those other shows as well, so hopefully there’s a through line in that, at least.
Dog Day Afternoon features in the series. As your character’s a hostage negotiator, did you watch it while preparing for the role?
I did! I had actually never seen it, I’m ashamed to admit, so it was in the script and I was like, ‘well, I guess I’d better watch Dog Day Afternoon’. And I went back and watched it and, amazing! It was so amazing, so ballsy, like that movie is so ballsy. The acting in it is so great and there’s even that hostage negotiation scene. I was doing the hostage negotiation scene in the first scene of the first episode so it was just cool to see how that played out in that movie.
I wondered if there was any additional significance to it, because it’s referred to twice in the first two episodes
I think that first hostage scene in the show, and in Dog Day Afternoon, as well, it sort of represents that period of time in that it was like the 60s and the 70s, where the culture started changing and the idea of good versus evil became less black and white. And Holden’s sort of energy, the kind of thing he’s bringing – because it was Hoover, up until the early 70s, right, and it was the FBI and it was the bad guys, and go get the bad guys and lock them up and we’re the good guys. It was very black and white. And then they – well, I guess John Douglas, but in this TV show, through Holden – and his girlfriend, Debbie, gets him going on that, the idea that you can fake empathy and maybe glean some insights into the other side. That it’s not just putting someone behind bars and labelling them as evil but perhaps you could gain insights from that person to prevent it from happening again. That was a new idea and a new thought and it was a reflection of the sixties and seventies mentality coming into the FBI.
What was the most horrible thing that you read in your research?
The most horrible thing that I read? Jeez, I mean take your pick, it’s all pretty horrifying. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the first one that comes into my head is this thing in the series that happens later, but I won’t talk about that. I mean, the Ed Kemper stuff, the idea that someone would work up to killing their mother, and that that was kind of the end-game. It’s so weirdly symbolic and psychological that he’s killing these college students because he resents the college students, because his mother teaches college, and then he works up and then he kills the aunt, right, and then he finally kills the mother and puts her vocal chords down the garbage disposal, right? It’s just so graphic and so intense – or even that he put the heads of his victims looking up in the backyard, at his mom, because she always wanted to be looked up at. I mean it’s just so twisted, and then it would be so that you could really go, oh it’s like he’s doing that all for a reason, and then he’s killing these college girls because it’s leading up to this thing that you can look back over his career and draw a line to finally killing his mom. And then turning himself in – when he was done he would turn himself in! That case alone is so incomprehensible and insane to me.
Do we see Kemper again, beyond episode 2?
I don’t want to give away anything, but I will say that Ed Kemper is a running theme of the first season.
You would have been a kid when Silence of the Lambs came out. Do you remember seeing that movie? Did you see it when you were maybe too young?
Oh, yeah. Not when I was too young, thankfully! I’ve seen it a bunch of times. I love Silence of the Lambs. I’ve even seen Silence: The Musical, which is a parody musical of Silence of the Lambs, which was hilarious, that played in New York for a while. But obviously it’s like Quantico and the FBI, talking to serial killers and all of that on paper is, like, the same. Even John Douglas – one character in Silence of the Lambs was based on him – but the whole conceit that David – at least, his mission statement that he told to us in the beginning – was he wanted to delude this idea of serial killer as genius comic book villain, brilliant moustache twirling, opera-listening, Chianti-drinking villain, and wanted to look at them in a really authentic, honest, sad, fucked up, deplorable way. You know, not to sort of romanticise the idea of serial killer but do but look at them in a realistic way. And it’s so interesting, in acting in the scene, and thankfully in watching it back, I feel like one of the things that does come across is you’re in that scene, particularly with Ed Kemper, you’re sitting there and you’re kind of like, ‘oh this is just like a normal conversation with like this guy’. And it sort of puts you at ease. When I was doing it I felt this even, of, ‘oh, it’s like a scene with kind of a meet cute scene between these two people. and then all the sudden he’ll walk across the table and put his hand on your neck and you’re like ‘holy fucking shit’ and suddenly the history of what this guy has done comes into focus in an instant, in a motion, and so it’s that back and forth of the banality of these people and then the horrifying reality of these people, the sort of in and out of that I find really interesting.
Are there any notable differences to working on a Netflix show and working on a network show?
Yeah, they give total creative freedom to the showrunner or the brilliant mind – in this case it’s David Fincher – they just give him complete free rein. I think it’s extra with David, because he directed the first episode of House of Cards, which was their first show that launched the whole thing, which is still so insane to even think about, that there was a world before Netflix and that now, it’s so a part of our culture.
Why do you think Netflix are more willing to do that than other networks?
It’s just their M.O., it’s their philosophy, it’s their brand, it’s their way of working.
As an actor, do you work on a Netflix show and then go back to a normal network show and push for more freedom?
Well, it’s just different tactics. On a network, it’s a lot of people collaborating on making a creative decision, whereas with Netflix, David was allowed to do what he wanted, and so it’s just a different way of working. It’s not necessarily that one is better or worse than the other, it’s that there’s just two different ways of making things.
Can you think of any specific examples, like something that David was allowed to do that maybe wouldn’t have been allowed elsewhere?
Yeah, even like just the simplicity of changing a line on set, on the day, because it’s David and he’s directing and he’s running it, he would come in with a line change, he was like, ‘what if you said this?’ And on network shows you have to run that up the flagpole to make sure that it’s okay to change the line and then you can change the line – you’re not as tied to that specific word on that specific line. David was allowed creative freedom to, on the day, make impulsive decisions, which is really exciting.
Does that extend to the actors? David’s allowed to change the lines, but are you allowed to change the lines?
We did it pretty much as written, and David, you know, it’s like refining. There wasn’t any improv on Mindhunter at all, that wasn’t the environment of the show, it was like we had the script and it was little changes and most of the line changes, or all of them, actually, came from David having a moment of inspiration. And what was so funny about that is it would usually be like, nine times out of ten, if it was a change, a late in the day line change, it would come from David and it would be brilliant and hilarious and it would be a comedic thing that just hadn’t even occurred to anyone that this could be funny in some way, but it’s that David sensibility and sense of humour where he would just do this little line change, or even a directional thing – ‘look over here when you say that’ or ‘smile when you say that and turn’ and it would be like, ‘oh my God’. And it was always the most human version of what it was and it made it funnier. Some of my favourite moments of working were when moments like that would happen.
Mindhunter is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.