Holt McCallany on 'Mindhunter,' David Fincher and Visiting Real-Life Killers

The actor discusses his intense preparation for the Netflix series, the physical challenges of the part and working with the notoriously exacting Fincher.
Antoine Verglas

You’re sitting in the visiting room of a notorious maximum security prison, the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York. You’ve driven two hours north from the city to get here. You have surrendered your belongings, passed through a metal detector, gone through a weeks-long security process to be approved for this visit. And now you wait.

You wait for long enough to know that something is wrong. You wait until finally, a corrections officer approaches to tell you that David Berkowitz — the infamous serial killer who terrorized New York throughout the summer of 1977 under the moniker “Son of Sam” — is refusing your scheduled visit. 

This is not a scene from Mindhunter, David Fincher’s richly drawn, subtly unsettling Netflix series chronicling the birth of criminal profiling in the 1970s. It’s a scene from the recent life of actor Holt McCallany, who plays one of Mindhunter’s two protagonists and has been hunting a few minds on his own time. In the show, McCallany’s Bill Tench and Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford travel across the country interviewing incarcerated serial killers, in the hopes of gleaning insights that could help catch others like them. Every episode of the show is a psychological treat from beginning to end, following the duo as they face down monsters from Richard Speck to Berkowitz to Charles Manson, probing some of the most demented minds in American history while trying to hold on to their own sanity.

"I wanted to have an experience that approximates Bill Tench's experience," McCallany tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Berkowitz visit. "I wanted to understand what my guy was feeling when he went into these places and had these interactions. What's wonderful about this job is that you get to go to places and meet people and have experiences that you would never have otherwise had. But," he acknowledges, "not every actor is gonna want to do that type of research."

McCallany is not every actor. His deep knowledge of criminal history, both as depicted on Mindhunter and beyond, is striking — a lunch with The Hollywood Reporter in West Hollywood kicks off with a debate over whether Berkowitz’s crimes were or were not sexually motivated. Like his character, he’s unwilling to settle for easy answers when it comes to the criminal mind; after spending extensive time with police officers and federal agents, he believed he was only getting one side of a complex story.

"When I would talk to guys in law enforcement, they would often use this analogy," McCallany recalls. "They’d say, Imagine you’re trying to bake a cake, and you put in the eggs and the butter and the flour and the sugar, all the ingredients you’d use to make a nice cake. Right before you put it into the oven, some motor oil spills into the batter. Now when you take that cake out of the oven, can you get the motor oil back out of it?"

This idea — that criminals are born bad and can’t be rehabilitated — is one of the arguments Tench and Ford come up against early in Mindhunter as they try to carve out a path for the then-unknown science of criminal profiling. It doesn’t sit well with McCallany. "I’m not a criminal psychologist, I have not spent my career in law enforcement, but it seemed to me a mistake to paint them all with the same brush," he says.

Along with Berkowitz, McCallany also wrote to "the co-ed killer" Edmund Kemper (played with hypnotic restraint onscreen by Cameron Britton), who never wrote back. And he met with Bobby Beausoleil, a Charles Manson associate who has been in jail for 50 years for murdering the musician Gary Hinman on Manson’s orders.

These real-life prison visits are just one aspect of McCallany’s extracurricular commitment to Mindhunter; another is "the Bill Tench diet" he shifts into during shooting. "I gain 15 pounds when I step off the plane in Pittsburgh," he jokes. "Early on, I recognized that Bill is this chain-smoking, hard-drinking, middle-aged bureaucrat who's on the road 40 weeks a year, eats crappy food, and he just wouldn't have a beach boy body."

More troublesome than the food is the chain-smoking, which becomes all the more challenging thanks to Fincher’s notorious methods. "David does a lot of takes, and he likes a performance to be very precise. We set it in rehearsal, and then that’s what it is," he says. "So if you smoke at a particular moment, you better smoke at that exact moment every single time, in every single take, no matter how many takes we do."

McCallany doesn't smoke but puffs on actual cigarettes for the sake of authenticity onscreen, so Tench's habit became a physical challenge: "What you learn over time, and it took me most of season one to get this, is to be a little judicious. That big drag that you take off the cigarette when Charles Manson says something that particularly annoys you? Think it through!"

Tench is a compelling study in contradictions. He’s introduced in the Mindhunter pilot as a somewhat stodgy veteran who loves to golf, but also a sharp-witted agent with enough vision to immediately see the potential in Groff’s aggressively eager Holden and his radical ideas. As the notion of trying to understand criminals — rather than simply locking them up — is met with a mix of suspicion and open hostility at the FBI, it’s Bill who goes to bat for Holden with higher-ups, and brings in Anna Torv’s Dr. Wendy Carr to add some scientific legitimacy to their work. But toward the end of season one, and especially in season two, Bill’s faith in Holden is tested by the younger agent’s recklessness, arrogance and mental instability. 

"Holden is a brilliant but overconfident and impetuous kind of a guy, who has been at the FBI for a very short time relative to Bill, and has a tendency to listen to no one but himself," McCallany says. That’s never clearer than in the season two premiere, in which Bill is forced to fly across the country to retrieve Holden following his psychological collapse in the season one finale. His response to learning that his partner has suffered a panic attack is unsympathetic by modern standards, but fits right in with the character’s mindset.

"I absolutely wanted him to have a 1970s mentality," McCallany says of Bill’s tough-love approach to Holden. "This guy was born in the 1930s, he was a teenager just after [World War II], he was in the military, then he went into law enforcement. He’s not only a guy from a different time, he's a particular kind of a guy from that time. It’s not gonna be a lot of hand-holding." For McCallany, the tense bond between the two men — born out of endless nights on the road and the unique trauma of the work they do — is the core of the show.

"I think they're something more than colleagues, but something less than friends," McCallany says of the relationship. "There is a paternal aspect to it, although he’s very much Bill’s equal, and fathers get frustrated with their sons. At the end of the day, irrespective of how infuriating Bill finds Holden’s behavior, or how many decisions he disagrees with, he also recognizes how talented he is. Bill admires him, even if he often drives him crazy."

McCallany is effusive in his praise for Groff, "such a kind and decent person, such a talented actor, always in a good mood, always with a big smile. Even though we’ve worked so closely for two years now, truthfully never a cross word has transpired between us, and I think we could do five seasons and it would be the same thing." Despite the long hours, endless takes and punishingly dark subject matter, the Mindhunter set sounds more jovial than one might imagine: "There were one or two occasions when [Jonathan] and I were laughing so hard that David was getting annoyed. He'd make us take a walk around the building."

Mindhunter is McCallany’s third project with Fincher, following appearances in Alien 3 and Fight Club, and he describes the director as "a much more collaborative person than I think some people understand." That’s not to say he isn’t meticulous and exacting, but “he has this mantra that the best idea wins. As actors, we’re always encouraged to ask the question: How would it be if I did this? It encourages you to really do your homework and come with choices that you can present.” He notes that Fincher even made room in the season two production schedule so that McCallany could simultaneously film his French movie debut in Jalil Lespert’s upcoming comedy Le Dindon, an opportunity that "never could have happened without the international profile of a show like Mindhunter."

The Netflix show came along five years after the cancellation of McCallany’s last TV project, the critically beloved but low-rated FX drama Lights Outin which he starred as a beleaguered boxer. "That was incredibly disappointing," he admits. "I think the networks have understood in recent years that people's television viewing habits have changed, but in 2011 you only really got credit for people who sat down on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. and watched. I'd like to think that if the show were on today, we could have gotten a second season, because our writers had great ideas for what the show could be going forward, and I loved playing that character."

Both Lights Out and Mindhunter focus on the toll a vocation can take on a person, and though their paths are wildly different, McCallany sees some similarities between the two characters. "They’re both guys who are struggling to find how to be a good husband, a good father, and a good provider," he says. "And they're both guys who worry it's just possible that their best years are already behind them."

On the subject of Bill’s home life, which will play a much larger role in the new season, McCallany treads carefully to avoid spoilers. Fans have speculated that the Tenches’ adopted son Brian — who is largely non-verbal and displays some worrying tendencies — could be a serial killer in the making, modeling some of the "red flag" behaviors that Bill and his colleagues have identified in their research. "There is a major season two storyline involving Brian," he confirms. "Without giving too much away, my son witnesses a crime, and the consequences of that for the family eventually put a tremendous strain on my marriage."

All of which adds up to a pivotal season for Tench. The increased demands on him at home are piled upon mounting pressures at work, as he and Holden investigate more active cases and interview more high-profile killers — including their longtime white whale, Charles Manson, to whom Tench takes a particular and pronounced dislike. 

"He’s a superb actor, that kid," McCallany says of Damon Herriman, who has a Manson twofer this summer, playing the role both in Mindhunter and in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For the former, Herriman went through roughly five hours of daily prosthetics to achieve his uncanny resemblance to the cult leader, McCallany says. "When he steps onto the set, he looks exactly like Manson, it's extraordinary. I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and I liked it very much, but I was just a little disappointed that Damon didn't have more to do. He really does get an opportunity to shine on our show."

Mindhunter is yet to be renewed for a third season, but McCallany hopes and expects to be playing Tench for many years. "My hope going forward is that we’ll just continue to meet some of these really well-known criminals, where you start to talk about the John Wayne Gacys, the Ted Bundys, the Jeffrey Dahmers. I’m not certain what David has in mind, but the heart and soul of the show seems to be these two guys going to prisons and conducting these interviews together and trying to understand, why the hell would a person do this?"

After two seasons in Pittsburgh, the show will be moving to a different production location, and McCallany hints that season three could represent "a complete reimagining of the show." In their very first meeting about the project, McCallany recalls, Fincher laid out a very specific timeline for him. "He said ‘Listen, are you ready to do this for five seasons? Because even if I fuck it up, it's gonna go five seasons, and I don't intend to fuck it up.’ So I'd like to think that we will continue, for as long as David is intrigued by telling this particular story."