Holt McCallany Is the Secret Weapon of Netflix's Serial Killer Drama 'Mindhunter'
Like the FBI agent he plays on Netflix's Mindhunter, Holt McCallany takes his work home. When I spoke with the veteran character actor, who portrays stocky, flat-top sporting investigator Bill Tench on the David Fincher produced serial killer drama, he immediately told me about his recent trip to the Lethal Amounts Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, where he saw an exhibit featuring paintings and personal artifacts of the murderous cult leader Charles Manson. In preparing for the second season of Mindhunter, which features an interview with Manson, McCallany immersed himself in Mason-related research and couldn't shake his personal interest in the subject matter. At the exhibit, he came face to face with Michael Brunner, the now 51-year-old son of Manson.
"A really strange experience," says McCallany. "A really personable guy -- can't be too easy you'd think to grow up with that particular legacy. But he seemed like a very open, cordial kind of person. So I had a little chat with him about his dad and stuff like that."
For McCallany, who has played law enforcement officers in shows like Blue Bloods and in movies like Blackhat, Mindhunter is more than just another TV cop gig. In addition to checking out Manson's art, he recently visited noted Mason Family associate Bobby Beausoleil at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, also the home of serial killer Ed Kemper, where he's currently serving a life sentence for the 1969 murder of musician Gary Hinman. Earlier this year, the 71-year-old Beausoleil's parole recommendation was rescinded by Governor Gavin Newsom, a decision McCallany doesn't agree with, candidly noting, "Between you and me, I think they should let him out."
He's had a long time to get invested in the material: Mindhunter debuted to strong reviews in October 2017, with many critics praising Fincher's taut direction and the sharp interplay between McCallany and his co-star Jonathan Groff in the show's carefully filmed, psychologically rich interview sequences. But it's now been almost two years between seasons, a choice McCallany says had to do with Fincher's desire to have scripts he was happy with. They weren't going to come back until they were absolutely ready.
Luckily, McCallany sounds more than ready in our interview, discussing everything from his appreciation of Fincher's notoriously demanding shooting methods, his need to get "out of shape" to play Bill, and his opinions on a certain popular Quentin Tarantino movie that also dabbles in the Manson mythos.
Thrillist: I was gonna ask you this later but because you brought up Manson, I wanted to see if you've had a chance to see Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and what you thought of it?
Holt McCallany: I have. Yeah, it's funny: [Tarantino] is a great filmmaker, but what I noticed in particular when I went to that event I mentioned, which was the retrospective about Manson and the family and the Tate-LaBianca murders, what I noticed among those individuals, people who really know the history of Charles Manson and what happened at Spahn Ranch and it's almost like an obsession for them, they were not fans of the movie. They consider it to be a kind of insidious, revisionist history.
I'm an actor, and I thought the performances in the movie were tremendous. I thought Leonardo DiCaprio gave an astonishingly powerful performance and I loved what Brad did. It's a really interesting film, but I don't know what it has to do with the Manson family. Do you know what I'm trying to say? That's not what happened. You know what I mean, brother? As a piece of filmmaking I found it very entertaining, but it has absolutely nothing to do Charles Manson or the Tate-La Bianca murders.
Yeah, I can see if you've done a lot of research and thought very deeply about that history, there's a flippancy to how Tarantino handles aspects of the story.
McCallany: That's the perfect word. And it's not in any way diminish Mr. Tarantino's unquestionable brilliance. He's a master filmmaker and I found the film very entertaining. But for those of us who are steeped in the research about the actual events, it just doesn't have anything to do with it.
Pulling back to your performance on Mindhunter. For Season 2, did you slip right back into the rhythms of the character or was it a more gradual process?
McCallany: We're very lucky that we're living in a Golden Age of Television. Never before in human history has a medium existed in which its possible for an actor to explore a character in this kind of detail. There simply isn't enough room in a two hour movie or a three hour play. Season 1 of Mindhunter was 10 hours long; Season 2 is somewhere around 9 hours long. It's a lot of time. When the writing is good and when you have a fascinating subject and when you've been given a really interesting role to play and when you have the great fortune of working with one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, to be honest with you, it doesn't really get any better than that in TV. It just doesn't. For me, I was thrilled to go back to work on Season 2, and I'm very hopeful there will be a Season 3, a Season 4, and a Season 5.
Is that the plan? I've seen a five season plan discussed before.
McCallany: That's what David expressed to me in the beginning. That's our hope. Everybody seems to like the show and there seems to be real excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the launch of the second season -- people are into it. And why wouldn't they be? It's a very well made show and we all work really hard.
The long interview sequences on the show are so unlike anything you typically see in movies or TV shows. What's the biggest challenge with those?
McCallany: You have to be very prepared. You can interview 10 different actors and get 10 different interpretations of what the work is about. Everybody's process is very unique. But I kinda believe in something very old fashioned that Laurence Olivier said a long time ago, which is that acting is 90% preparation and 10% inspiration. When you're talking about 10-12 page scenes, which David likes to film from the beginning all the way to the end, and he likes to do multiple set-ups and many takes in each set-up, you really have to do your homework. You have to make sure you show up ready to shoot those scenes in their entirety and you have to be ready to do them over and over again.
Once something is set in rehearsal, he likes it to be what we set. You're always welcome in the rehearsals to present ideas, but once something has been set, he wants it to be consistent with adjustments that he'll give you in between takes for editing purposes. So you've gotta really concentrate and you've gotta be really prepared. And you need to do a lot of subterranean research because even if certain questions might not show up in the dialogue, you want to become as well versed as possible with each of these different serial killers: their personal histories, the crimes they committed, the way in which they committed these crimes, and all the relevant details.
There's a scene in the second episode where you interview a witness named Kevin as he sits in the back of a truck and you sit in the front seat, and it's so dependent on your reaction. It's just you listening. How do you approach a scene like that?
McCallany: When I first read that scene I thought it was one of the best scenes in the episode. It was written by a writer named Courtenay Miles, who emerged as our lead writer for Season 2, and I thought it was one of the best scenes of the season, one that frankly didn't change a tremendous amount from the early drafts. They nailed it.
You used the operative word, which is "listening." So often in television, you're always cutting to whichever actor is talking. If it's my line, the camera's on me and then it's your turn to talk, so we cut to you. But so much of what's interesting about a scene or a moment is what happens between the lines. I have to remain available and open to be able to process internally the things that I'm hearing. OK, I'm a detective, I'm conducting an interview. In this particular instance, I can't look at the person I'm interviewing, but there's still a lot of things I can glean from the tone of his voice, the phrases that he uses, the emotions that I hear. I'm trying to process that and make as many determinations as I can. Do I believe him? You're listening very carefully, and that's an activity. You have to keep it active and keep it alive. It's something that actors should always do in every scene.
Before Mindhunter, you worked with David Fincher on Alien 3 and Fight Club. He has this reputation for being a really physically demanding director who does many takes of certain scenes. Do you like that process or can it be frustrating?
McCallany: It's exciting! He really cares and he really wants it to be good. He wants it to be the best it can possibly be. He's going to stay there until he gets what he needs, and he doesn't want to get into the editing room and find that he's missing something that he really could have used. So we're going to do more coverage and we're going to do more takes. I also believe that David feels that the longer an actor inhabits a particular scene and becomes more comfortable in that scene, he begins to discover things. It's not that we're not shooting what we rehearsed. But it is true that certain things might be apparent to me in take 25 that are not apparent to me in take 2.
To be honest with you, having worked so closely with David, I sometimes become disappointed and even frustrated when I work with directors who really just want to run and gun. Get one in the can and they're moving on. One or two takes, one set-up -- boom, boom -- and you see a lot of that. Why do you see a lot of that? Well, the filmmaking process is expensive. People have budgetary constraints and time constraints. Also, not everyone cares as much as David. Having been in situations where I'm working with people who don't care as much, I can tell you it's a lot better to be with somebody who cares.
I know David Fincher has spoken about his own memories of the time period portrayed in the show, particularly the public fear around the murders. What do you remember about that time and how does that inform your performance?
McCallany: I was living in New York during the summer when [Son of Sam killer David] Berkowitz was on the loose and writing letters to Jimmy Breslin. I was in high school during the Atlanta Child Murders and I remember that famous advertising campaign, "It's 10pm do you know where your children are?" But I think what's most important is that you try to remember what the mentality was of the period.
You don't take a character in 1979 and invest him with the sensibilities of a guy in 2019. Bill Tench would have been a guy born in the 1930s who came of age in the 50s and went into the Army and then law enforcement. He would have a certain kind of mentality and it's important as an actor to protect that. Occasionally, you can see something slip in that's not right for the period, not right for the guy, or not right for his mentality, then you're within your rights to say "maybe this is something that should be modified." You have to try to protect the integrity of the character.
I read in an another interview that you had to essentially get "out of shape" to play Bill Tench and that you were determined to get back into shape right away after Season 1 finished. So I assume you had to repeat that process for Season 2?
McCallany: Here's the thing: You're talking about a chain-smoking, hard-drinking middle-aged bureaucrat who teaches road school and is always on the road eating crappy food and the only exercise he ever gets is an occasional round of golf. He's not going to have a beach boy body. But me personally, in my own life, I'm an amateur boxer and I'm into weight-lifting, running, yoga. I'm a guy who likes to go to the gym every single day. I had the privilege at one point in my career to play a professional fighter, so that's what I looked like. That's not who Bill is. That's one of the important things you learn working with David: Forgo your vanity and focus on the details of the character. So that's what I did.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.