Until recently, actress Hannah Gross hasn’t gotten all that close to the mainstream. She’s worked steadily in New York’s micro-budget indie-film world — most notably Charles Poekel’s charming romance Christmas, Again — as well as landing a small role in last summer’s Marjorie Prime. But with a starring role in David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter, she’s gone from 30-day schedules and handheld cameras to a ten-month shoot with one of Hollywood’s most notorious perfectionists. Gross plays Debbie Mitford, a hippieish sociology grad student who begins a relationship with Jonathan Groff’s square FBI agent, Holden Ford. Opposites attract, as in all the best romantic comedies, and even though the show is a serial-killer procedural, it’s also, at best, a deadpan comedy. I talked to Gross by phone about Mindhunter, what it’s like working with Fincher, and how she approached such a unique blend of crime and humor.
You’ve worked on a lot of micro-budget films with really short schedules. Now you’re working with someone who’s a known perfectionist with high budgets and production quality. How was that difference?
It was something I never really got used to, even ten months after our start day. Just what is granted as far as time and focus and perfectionism, when you have pretty much unlimited economy. It’s not at the forefront of the set’s consciousness, but it dictates pretty much everything.
Did you end up doing those famous Fincher many, many takes?
Oh, yes. Which was really cool. It was one of my first days of shooting, and it was like, “Wow, this is one of the first experiences I’ve had in which it actually feels like I’m working.” [Laughs.]
Did you feel you were able to get deeper that way?
Yeah. Not only are there a lot of takes, but he’s famous for using a lot of setups as well. On top of a lot of takes per set, he’d average around four or five setups, at least.
Your ’70s costumes and apartment are so cool. Did Fincher have specific ideas about those details?
Yeah. That’s what was so remarkable about working with him is that he really knows every single person’s job on set, and knows it meticulously. He gives everyone room to do their work, but he knows exactly what they’re doing, right down to wardrobe measurements. Less so for me, but he knew the measurements of Holden’s suits.
Was there any detail of your apartment that he was specific about? It is such a great set.
Oh my God, I loved it. I never ended up doing it, but I was conspiring with the production designer that we would sleep there one night, even though it was in this really shitty production warehouse in Pittsburgh. I think there were rats, which was another reason why we decided against it.
Fincher was obviously involved with all this setup, but the show had three other directors too. Did they pretty much do their own thing? Or did he have oversight?
No, he was around. If he wasn’t there, he was very involved in what the episode would be like, and of course the overall tone, what it would look like. The other directors came in and used the container he made.
I was watching just your parts and I noticed that the dialogue scenes can be really fast-paced, like old-fashioned screwball comedy. There’s even a Howard Hawks allusion with your line about how you just put your lips together and blow. Was that something that was discussed, or did it just come out naturally?
[Laughs.] I think it just came out naturally. It was really fun because [Fincher] is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. So it’s really cool to see his sense of humor came out more directly than in his other work. But a lot of it was also Jonathan’s and my chemistry.
You guys had that natural kind of banter?
Yeah. Maybe a little too goofy… we were directed to take walks around the set to cool off, after finding certain lines really ridiculous.
What lines did you find so ridiculous?
Well, it’s been a long time… the breakup scene was pretty funny. Ironically, that was the scene in which we really lost it the most while shooting.
The breakup scene? When he’s analyzing your wine drinking?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Which is funny. I thought the humor would be a little more subtle. Just based on the performances and what was happening in the core of the show, the main event outside of our domestic bliss.
The serial-killer comedy.
Yeah, I wasn’t aware to what degree the humor would be present. On the page, it was a little more subtle than what he edited together. Not so much for me, but I know how Jonathan would describe the other scenes is that when the material is so heightened, it’s hard not to let yourself go into that level of hysteria. It’s just that weird human way of dealing with uncomfortable material.
That’s a good description of the sense of watching it, too. But let’s talk about that breakup scene. It really heightens the show’s theme of questioning if Holden is a psychopath or sociopath.
Did that resonate for you at all? The really charming guy who’s maybe a sociopath?
[Laughs.] Of course! I feel like any female can relate to that.
It’s true. I feel like it’s the underlying theme of most romantic comedies. “Is this guy really charming or is he a sociopath?”
It really comes out by the end of the season. Have you watched the whole thing?
No, I haven’t yet!
Oh no! When are you going to watch it?
I don’t know. I’ve been very oddly busy for the first time in a long time. There’s also some level of self-consciousness. I don’t want to watch it alone, so I’m waiting for someone to watch it with me. I also don’t have Netflix.
You should put that in your contract.
I think you’ll like it. You reminded me of Lauren Bacall or something.
Oh, that’s cool. In thinking about Debbie, I did a little bit of research and film watching. Obviously, I watched a lot of ’70s stuff, but I also watched a lot of comedies from the ’30s and ’40s, like The Thin Man and Woman of the Year with Katharine Hepburn.
Part of the thing that I thought was interesting was having a gay guy play the ideal straight guy. I mean, he’s an actor, so he can do anything …
Yeah. I mean, it’s not really been talked about at all in press stuff, which is like, thank fucking God. The only issues I can imagine on set with scenes like that would ever involve a straight man. [Laughs.] It’s all so distant anyway. Especially if it’s anything romantic, unless these actors are actually falling in love. It’s a more distant, performative experience than just a normal dialogue scene.
Oh, that’s true. Now I’m embarrassed I even asked.
No, don’t be! That’s obviously a question people have and have always had. That’s why [we had] the thankfully archaic adage that if you come out, you’ll never work in Hollywood.
I’m glad we’re passed that era. Hopefully.
Yeah, hopefully. I don’t know if totally, you still hear horror stories.
So I’m assuming there will be a second season of Mindhunter. Do you know if you’re coming back? Or can you not say?
I don’t know, and I can’t say. I can’t say, and I don’t know!
This interview has been edited and condensed.