Interrogation scenes are central to Netflix’s Mindhunter, a series structured around the interviews conducted with convicted serial killers. But unlike the good-cop-bad-cop routines on so many other crime shows, the conversations that FBI agents Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) have with criminals, as well as occasional suspects or witnesses, never seem formulaic or predictable.
McCallany recently spoke to Vulture about two of this season’s most significant interrogation/interview scenes: the conversation with Kevin Bright, who narrowly escaped being murdered by the BTK killer, and the explosive face-off with Charles Manson. McCallany, who worked with Mindhunter executive producer and director David Fincher in the past on Fight Club, provided some insight into what goes into the interrogation scenes on Mindhunter, including extensive rehearsal and Fincher’s famous tendency to do multiple takes.
(Note: Some minor Mindhunter spoilers lie ahead.)
I want to start by asking about the conversation that Bill has with Kevin Bright, the brother of Kathy Bright, a victim of the BTK killer. Kevin doesn’t want Bill to look at him, so you’re sitting in the front seat of a car, not being able to see his expressions. What can you tell me about filming that scene?
When I read the early drafts of season two, I always felt that that was one of the most powerful scenes in the entire season. And that’s saying a lot because we have a lot of powerful scenes. Obviously the stuff with Manson is very powerful. The stuff with [David] Berkowitz is fascinating, too. It’s an embarrassment of riches in many ways on Mindhunter.
I had watched Kevin Bright’s interview, the real Kevin, when he spoke at Dennis Rader’s sentencing. [Rader was eventually identified as the BTK killer and pleaded guilty to ten counts of first-degree murder. He is currently serving ten consecutive life sentences in prison.] Some of the families of the victims got up to talk about their loss and what the consequences of his actions had been, not only for his victims but for them also. I was so astonished because he really felt so much like that character. The interview’s online. You can look it up on YouTube. I mean, the way that he speaks, the words that he chooses, the emotion that he’s going through — it was all there. Hats off to our writers because this is what I’m always talking about when I say that they go to great lengths to try to make things as authentic as they can possibly be. That particular scene is a good example of that.
For me as an actor, the scene posed certain, specific challenges. Because I can’t look at him, and yet as a detective I’m still trying to glean as much as I can from this interview. So I’m paying particularly close attention — not that I wouldn’t be paying close attention otherwise, but we are visual creatures. So much of what we understand about our environment and the people in it comes from visual cues. When you don’t have that, you have to rely on other things. Listening to the words that he chooses, to his turn of phrase, the details of his descriptions — you know, the emotion behind the language. And trying to learn as much and ascertain as much and process as much from that as I can. I didn’t realize that in the final edit this scene would play quite in the way that it does, but, you know, I thought David’s decision to keep Kevin in shadow was a very powerful choice cinematically.
I noticed in that scene that Bill isn’t really taking notes, which he normally does. Was that something that you deliberately decided not to do?
I decided that I was going to give this guy my full attention and not be distracted by anything else and just try to listen very, very carefully. He had already been interviewed multiple times, right? So I have the record of his previous testimony, which I’d been able to study before my interrogation of him. So what I’m really looking for is anything new, anything that I haven’t read before. It would be different if it was the first time that he was being debriefed.
Sure. And I’m thinking as a viewer, and for you as an actor, without the notebook there’s no distraction.
I didn’t show up with my notebook on that occasion, although I usually do — you’re quite right. But if I had, my strong instinct is that David would have asked me to put it aside.
As you know better than I, Mr. Fincher is known for doing a lot of takes. How many takes of this scene did you do?
Oh my God. Many, many, many, many, many. I can’t give you the exact number, but you have to remember it’s not just the number of takes; there’s also the number of setups, you see what I mean? There’s a wide angle, there’s a wider angle, there’s a two-shot, there’s a three-shot — there’s a lot of different coverage, and then it’s multiple takes within these setups. David likes to do these things properly, so you’re not breaking it up in pieces. You’re doing the whole scene every single time. And then we do it again, and we do it again, and we do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again until he feels that we have it from that angle. It does require a lot of concentration. You want to make sure that you’re super-prepared. But this is what’s so exciting about working for him. It’s because he really cares about the work.
It’s really exciting to work with a guy who is, inarguably, one of the great directors of his generation. And it kind of spoils you, in a sense, because a lot of directors don’t work that way, you know? I mean, guys get one or two [takes] that they like and they move on. As an actor, you can sometimes say, “Hey, can I get one more?” But you can’t ask for more than one more.
I’m the “one more” guy. But you can’t say, “Hey, can I get ten more? Because I’m used to working with Fincher and I don’t think you have it. And when you get into the editing room, you’re going to realize that you don’t have everything you need, but it’s going to be too late because we can’t get back here.”
I would imagine that you’re discovering different things the longer that you work on the scene.
That is absolutely correct.
With this scene, what did you discover as you worked on it?
This is part of why David insists upon doing so many takes. It’s because he believes that the longer that an actor inhabits a particular scene, the more that he becomes comfortable in it and comes to understand it and lets go of the artifice and the preconceived decisions that he may have made in his hotel room the night before the shoot. It becomes more relaxed, and it becomes more real. That’s a big part of doing it. Which is not to say that we’re improvising. That’s a very different thing. Because David likes things to be very precise. So we do an extensive rehearsal and in that rehearsal you’re allowed to ask questions. You’re allowed to present ideas. How would it be if I did this kind of thing, right? But once something has been set in rehearsal, then that’s it.
So if Bill is smoking in a particular moment, he’s going to need to smoke in that moment in every take that we do, no matter how long we spend in this particular scene. But you see, that doesn’t mean that what you’re describing won’t occur. Because it will. Because you will continue to understand certain things. To realize, you know, that there may be a more subtle way of playing a particular moment. A more interesting way of processing a certain piece of information. Then at the same time, you have David on the other side and he’s giving you small adjustments, so it’s not like we’re just doing take after take after take after take in a vacuum.
What’s striking about this scene with Kevin is that Bill is such a paternal figure. He’s asking really good questions, but he’s very gentle with him. It struck me that this is what he could and maybe should have done with his own son and doesn’t.
I think that for a lot of guys, and certainly for a guy like Bill, the most devastating thing that you could ever believe about yourself is that you didn’t do everything that you could to protect your family, to provide for their well-being. Bill is absolutely haunted by that kind of self-doubt. And what I sense in Kevin is this deep regret that he might have done more. That his sister would still be alive if he had only fought harder, you know what I mean? If he had only understood how to operate the gun. That he’ll spend his life playing over and over that day in his mind. And what I’m trying to do, to the extent that it’s possible, is to relieve him of some of that guilt by trying to suggest to him, “You did behave in a heroic way, and you couldn’t save her. But you did the best that you could and that’s all that any man can do.” You’re right, there is a paternal aspect to it.
I want to talk about the Manson scene, which is a big moment, obviously, in this season. When you shoot these scenes, especially that one but really any of the scenes with the “real” serial killers, do you ever get creeped out?
I’ve said this before in interviews, but it bears repeating: What a tremendous, powerhouse performance from Damon Herriman, the actor who plays Charles Manson. We may see other versions of Charles Manson in future projects, and we certainly have seen Charles Manson in the past, but we will never see another actor who portrays Charles Manson as convincingly as Damon Herriman. And then the other thing is, of course, that the scene is exceptionally well written. What they’re exploring is the confrontation of two opposing ideologies. Two different philosophies of life, two different worldviews. And this is something that really interests David. You have two characters in a scene who are both absolutely convinced they are right, and that’s what we have in this confrontation between Charles Manson and Bill Tench. So it’s not a question of being freaked out, but it is possible that there could be one or two moments over the course of a long day of filming where you find yourself looking at the actor opposite you and thinking, My God, this guy is good.
Manson is really blaming Bill in a way that he can’t even be aware that he’s doing because he doesn’t know what’s going on in Bill’s personal life. As you said, the way that scene is written with the constant emphasis on “your children,” and that sense of blame that he keeps throwing at Bill, that’s what really seems to trigger him.
This is why Bill ultimately loses his cool. You have to remember that Charles Manson was nothing if not one of the most charismatic and hypnotic and instinctual people in the world. He was. And very adept at having an instinctual understanding of somebody and their psychology and their weaknesses. This is, by all accounts, a large part of the reason that he was able to get all of those young girls to be followers of his, girls that had perhaps not been valued in their lives in the way that they deserved to be valued. Or didn’t have a high enough sense of self-esteem and Manson would be there to say, “You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’re not only physically beautiful but you have a beautiful spirit and I love you.” You could say that it’s all just the hustle of a con man, but boy, it’s an awfully convincing one, isn’t it?
You said before that you rehearse these scenes and there’s certain things that stay the same from take to take. In terms of what finally triggers Bill to stand up and walk out: Did that always happen at the same point in this exchange or did you try it at different moments?
No, we absolutely do try it in different moments during the really extended rehearsal process that we had for this scene. We had extensive rehearsals with Andrew Dominik, who directed that sequence, and, of course, with David Fincher, myself, Damon, Jonathan [Groff] — multiple rehearsals in which all of these things were dissected and discussed and many different things were tried. But ultimately, as I said before, we arrive at a decision about when is the right moment for Bill to do what you just described.
How did you collectively decide that this was the moment?
What did I say about Kevin Bright? I said that the most devastating thing is when a man believes he hasn’t done enough for his family and that Bill is plagued by those kinds of self-doubts. And what Manson does in that scene is, he causes those emotions to boil up, and I think Bill gets to the point where one of two things is going to happen: either I’m going to leave the room or I’m going to grab the fucking midget by his scrawny neck and I’m going to stuff him in a fucking garbage can. As an FBI agent and as a law-enforcement professional, it simply won’t do for me to be beating up a famous convict. So I leave the room. Because I’m afraid of what I might do if I stay.