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You can’t always pinpoint exactly the moment when a show makes its big qualitative leap, but with Netflix’s Mindhunter, it’s easy. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), an FBI agent experiencing frustration at his colleagues’ antiquated approach to murder investigation, goes to prison to visit a notorious killer and comes face-to-face with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton).
Towering in stature, soft-spoken, viewing the world inquisitively through thick glasses, Kemper is intellectually vicious, yet unfailingly polite. By the end of one 10-minute conversation, we understand completely why Holden has been pulled into Kemper’s gravity and how this giant has instantly transformed his worldview.
It’s a show-changing character and a career-changing performance for Britton, making his first major TV role and earning his first career Emmy nomination. The actor talked with The Hollywood Reporter about his approach to the real-life killer, director David Fincher’s notoriously exacting standards and more.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. Did you know they were coming that particular morning, or did you keep yourself in the dark somehow?
Oh, I was waiting to hear the news. I was watching the live feed and then it was also just posted online all at once, so my live feed was interrupted by my manager calling, letting me know that I had been nominated.
I have to tell you how much I genuinely admire anybody saying, “I actually was paying attention that morning.” Everyone tries being all coy and, “Oh, I had no idea,” or “Oh, my manager woke me up.” I appreciate you admitting you actually cared about this.
Yeah! This is insane. I went into this job hoping to not get fired. Most of the conversations with my wife the night before we started shooting was, “Man, this is my first guest star, and it’s with David freaking Fincher. I hope to God I can just keep up and not make a fool of myself.”
The conversations were nothing around, “I hope this results in an Emmy nomination.” They’re just so unexpected and exciting once Netflix had been awesome enough to take it upon themselves to help do the publicity for a potential nomination, I thought, “Wow. Is this really possible?” And yeah, it ended up resulting in getting nominated, which is just surreal up to this point. I’m hoping it’ll sink in soon.
Take me back to that night before the first day and the conversations with your wife. Was that concern just your own inherent and inbred insecurity, or did you have actual specific things that you were worried about flubbing, messing up, screwing up, going into that first night?
It was both. If it’s a 50-seat theater, I am neurotic about whether I’m doing an honest performance. Sometimes I walk away happy enough with it. You know, it can always be better but sometimes I’ll walk away distraught, feeling like I missed the pulse of the character that evening. So both were scary going in, because not only was it just my inherent neuroticism but I was afraid, honestly, that I couldn’t keep up. I had heard we were going to do a whole lot of takes and I just worried that I’d get too tired. I had never acted like that, I had never woken up, had breakfast and then acted until I went to sleep, and the first day was exhausting. But by the third day, this sort of momentum built, this sort of high because you’re acting so much that you’re just getting lost in it and living in the moment. We’d finish a full day of shooting and I’d be up for hours. I’d only need three or four hours of sleep because I just was so excited to go back in and do more.
We’ve heard all of these kind of epic stories about David Fincher and all of the number of takes, et cetera, et cetera. How many takes are we talking about in some of these cases? With you, at least?
Well I wasn’t counting, but I’d say for the scene in total we were easily hitting 70. The part about the takes, it’s not the amount so much as how quickly we’re going back to the top of the scene after we finished. Typically you’re going to say, “Cut,” and you just deal with a bunch of light issues and tweaks and five minutes later you get back to the scene. With Fincher it’s like 15 seconds. You’re just staying in that world and it’s so helpful as an actor to be able to not have anything to overthink because you just simply don’t have the time.
What kind of modifications is he throwing at you on the fly? What sense are you getting of how Take 1 is different from Take 66?
He’s incredibly fluid and incredibly trusting of his actors to just go and explore every corner of the character in the scene. If he feels like you go too far astray from a point of the interaction of the characters, he’ll just nudge you in the direction that he feels tells the best story. So it’s more just keeping you on course than it is paving the road. It’s your character, you’re free to do with it as you choose. He’ll just keep you in line with his vision at the same time. No large, overall notes about the character. Just little, “I’d like you a little more arrogant here,” “I’d like this to be in the form of a question.” Just tiny tweaks.
Ed Kemper is a remarkably well documented figure. There’s a lot of stuff you can either read about him or watch of him. And since a lot of what was in the script was taken from actual video of Ed Kemper, is that a boon for you as an actor? Or does it run the risk of becoming too much of a reference point?
At a certain point you have to let it go. I think you set a base, you find different aspects of him. So you see the narcissist in him, so you see the pride in his work. That’s something I recognized from his interviews that’s he’s incredibly proud of his, at the very least, his knowledge on the subject. You then take that and you implement it into the scene and character work, but it may evolve into your version of pride, your version of arrogance, your version of narcissism. It’s more important that the aspects of who he is are in the scene, and not the actual impersonation. I’d find a couple vocal inflections that I found unique and interesting to him, his overall sort of energy and vibe. I felt like I wanted to capture that. But then after that it was, “Bring your inner serial killer out.” Sort of. I think Anthony Hopkins mentioned in Silence of the Lambs how instinctual of a process it was, developing him. And I felt the same. You just sort of trusted where the dark thoughts and elements took you.
So from a certain distance one can look and point out how your Ed Kemper is different from the real guy, and how Joe Penhall’s adaptation of Ed Kemper is different from the real guy?
Ed is a bit faster of a talker than the way I portrayed him. We just liked slowing him down. It just felt right. I liked the weight for him. He’s a little heavier than the real Kemper. There were more layers to him. I don’t know if there was a perversion because of his weight or if there was even a likeability from his weight, but I think it had a really interesting impact to what you see you on the film.
There was more that I took than I left out, I think. There was his level of eye contact, his way of being ahead of you in the conversation, his way of saying something and making you think you thought it up. He’d phrase things in a certain way that make you think it was your idea. His point came from your end.
This seems like such a stupid thing for me to say, but I’m sort of going to float it out there. I talk to actors who play real people fairly frequently, and a thing you often hear is, “Oh I wanna honor the real person and the experience,” or, “Oh I wanna make sure I get it right so that I’ll honor life.” When you’re playing a guy who’s a serial killer and probably not all that honorable a person, does that thought go through your mind? That you’re trying to honor a real person? Still?
No, if I was trying to honor anybody it would be the victims, to give an accurate account of what they went through with this guy. I didn’t have any interest in meeting him. I didn’t want to go on a personal level. I just don’t want to meet someone who’s murdered a bunch of women. You know, I just would never want to meet someone like that. Perhaps he would enjoy if I came to meet him? Perhaps he would find that as a feather in a cap? And if that were the case, then I most certainly don’t want to meet him. Even in the auditions we discussed not focusing on doing an impression of him, not paying homage, because that’s not what this is about. I found a lot of letters written to him from, I guess you’d call them fans? All of his stuff, and all of this baffles me. It almost feels like a lot of folks are encouraging this kind of behavior.
I want to go back a little bit. You are a guy of impressive stature and size. How did that limit the roles that you were even going in for before this? Were you seeing a lot of, I don’t know, body guards and bouncers and that kind of thing?
And construction workers! And I’ve got to say, I’ve never booked one. Never been a successful audition, not even so much as a callback when it comes to putting me in a role of being rough. I jumped at the chance to play Kemper because his creepiness comes from an intellectual end and that’s the sort of work that I’m drawn to. I don’t know if I could play intimidating in a way that’s physically a tough-type and it feels like since Mindhunter came out, auditions have been much more geared toward more intelligent characters. And that’s the kind of stuff I like to play. I just love characters that are complex, that you can dig into and keep itching the scratch and never quite be satisfied because they have enough going on with them that it’s like a giant puzzle.
Now this is a character who has a lot of bits of “business,” as it were. The shackles, the uniform, the mustache, those thick glasses. As you were getting into the external preparation of the character, was there something that allowed you to lock on and go, “Oh, OK this really helps me. I really have this guy, ’cause I have his mustache or his glasses,” or whatever.
Once they put me fully into the look, it was hard to look in the mirror. I didn’t realize how much I looked like him. I would get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and startle myself looking in the mirror. I just didn’t know who was in my bathroom with me for a moment there. If anything got me into character, it was the glasses to just put them a half-an-inch down the nose, there was a kind of stateliness. if you take your glasses and you just put them down a little bit and look up you almost feel sort of like a grandparent. And it gave this calm, sage, learned aspect to him that was really necessary. The more he was knowledgeable about himself and his crimes, the more you believe his side of the story. Yeah, I would just drop those glasses down a bit and I could feel myself slipping into the role whenever I did that.
You mention the calmness and this is a performance in a guy who is so still, I guess. Did you have moments of insecurity in those first days that what you were projecting would actually show up on camera? At all?
Yes! The stillness was a huge challenge. The hope was an active stillness. I don’t know the rules of it, but I can tell the difference between just not moving and not moving but it feels like any moment I could leap across the table. It reminded me a lot of a python. Where it’s seemingly still and calm and relaxed. And then slowly and silently puts itself in the position to strike. We shot it and edited it in a way that was exactly what I hoped for. I was hoping that a little moment felt like a big moment. If you’re still enough and calm enough, even just taking a bite of a carrot or shifting your legs, crossing your legs to the other side, would feel like an event. And it really did seem to happen, when I watched it I thought, “Wow, that really was what I was going for.” If you’re having a dialogue scene where people are sitting down, can you make a lean forward interesting enough that it regrabs the audiences’ attention?
And then in the finale you actually get to strike. You get to move, you get to be physical. When you knew that you had that opportunity to actually embody the threat that this guy possesses, what did you want to make sure you conveyed above all else?
Once he’s up and cornered Holden, I wanted a level of clarity you hadn’t seen in that scene yet. He’s sort of semi out of it in that hospital scene, so when he jumps up I wanted you to see how clear his focus was. There was this really interesting line to sort of find of making the audience not sure if he’s making a point by intimidating Holden or if this is genuine. Is he actually considering taking this man’s life? That was really fun to play in the first few takes. Fincher would call “action” and I was just coming at him practically foaming at the mouth. And Fincher let me get a few takes out and then he came in and said, “Man, that’s too much. We can’t sync it with the rest of the performance that you’ve been doing. He’s too intense and animated.”
But getting that out allowed me to then take it back and go back to the gathered calmness, but still the undertone that you can tell he’s excited, if you will. As long as you feel like, “Oh he’s in shall we call it, work-mode.” It’s the same guy, it’s the subtlest switch. He has the same sort of pace and demeanor but there’s just a little something extra that feels like, “Oh this is him when he’s in hunt-mode.” And I love Mindhunter because as much as that’s terrifying, if you step back, you realize we just watched a ten-hour thriller that ends with a hug. And it’s still effective. That was sort of the hope for the show is that you can scare people without any gore, or any violence. I think all a serial killer needs is a camera and a chair and it’s gonna be unnerving.
Since this premiered have you developed the ability to recognize both when people out in the street are struggling to figure out if they recognize you, and when the thing actually clicks into their head where they realize what they recognize you from?
Yeah that’s been one of my favorite parts of this! If you meet someone at a bar or something and they ask what you do for a living and you say, “I’m an actor.” They say, “What have I maybe seen you in?” And you mention Mindhunter, some of them you can see the light go on when you say Mindhunter. Or some will say, “Oh, I knew it! I knew it was you!” Or some will just say, “Oh what part were you?” And you’ll say, “I’m one of the serial killers.” And they’ll say, “Which one? The guy with the shoe? Or … ” You know, they’re not quite sure.
That’s the biggest compliment to hair and makeup and costume and to how different this person is to who I am. I love to know that the character doesn’t feel like me. I love to perform him because when I do I don’t feel like me at all. There’s just a different energy and a different pace and different intention in what I’m trying to get out of socialization. Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed the anonymity of walking around and not being recognized. I love the work so much and sometimes I want to talk to fans, and for a while I was kind of worried no one was watching the show because no one was approaching, but slowly I realized that out of costume it was hard to recognize me.
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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