Mindhunter: Jonathan Groff And Holt McCallany On What Makes A Serial Killer

The Stars Of David Fincher's gripping new series talk nature vs nurture.

Netflix's Mindhunter.
Mindhunter David Fincher is back in familiar territory. Image Netflix

“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”

Ever since the term was first coined back in the late 1970s, the “serial killer” has been a constant source of fascination to the watching public, with TV and film taking full advantage.Mindhunter is different though.

Adapted for Netflix by Joe Penhall from the true crime book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and produced by David Fincher, the series chronicles the early days of criminal psychology and profiling within the FBI. Fincher was eager to create a show based around conversations rather than the usual police CSI police procedural bullshit and has definitely achieved that – Mindhunter will do for serial killers what The Wire did for the war on drugs.

Centring on FBI agents Holden Fold (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the series is dark and powerful portrait of the evil of man. An early exchange with Cameron Britton’s serial killer character Ed Kemper (below) perfectly showcases the strength of this approach.

Netflix's Mindhunter.

Britton looks eerily similar to the Kemper – a real-life serial killer who murdered 10 people, including his grandparents and mother and engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism – and is able to deliver drama without the need for any Hannibal Lecter histrionics. There are no re-enactments of the crime. Instead, the camera lingers on Britton’s Kemper and his blank expression as he explains why he chose to decapitate his mother and have sex with her corpse.

Yet that is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Groff and McCallany, who took a deep dive into the subject of serial killers with loaded.

loaded: What makes Mindhunter different to most standard police procedural shows?

Holt: The writers have tried to be very authentic when it comes to the lives and the crimes of these serial killers and to really show them in a realistic way as opposed to the stylised Hollywood way they are often portrayed.

Our show is based on a real story and we’re playing characters that are inspired by two real FBI agents.  It’s a deeper and more realistic look at these men and these crimes.

loaded: Has working on Mindhunter changed your perception of serial killers or reinforced it?

Jonathan: It’s changed. I just had no idea. I’d never really been into serial killers. I’d never watched anything about them, it’s just not my thing. So spending so much time hearing the details of what these men were and are capable of was so horrifying to me.

The endless search into why and what is the motivation is just endless. You can constantly ask questions and never land on just one answer.You will just never fully comprehend what happens in the mind of a serial killer.

loaded: Did you learn anything about serial killers, during your research, that you didn’t know before?

Holt: It’s an endlessly fascinating subject. What you find is that although these men are very different, there are certain commonalities. Most of them have a very difficult relationship with their mothers. They are either abused by their mother or have a domineering or neglectful mother. Often there’s an absent father or alcoholic father. You often see them torturing animals when they are very young and setting fires.

Whenever somebody commits a crime like this, they don’t live a normal life up until the age of 25 or 30 and then just become a serial killer. There are warning signs. Behaviour reflects personality. When you look back on their lives you can see the moments, the triggers.


loaded: What is it that makes serial killers such a fascinating subject for TV and film?

Jonathan: I think it’s that it’s constantly happening. There’s always new and fascinating cases and it’s impossible to truly understand the motivations. All the motivations. So it’s constantly looking for why and never really getting an answer.

Holt: These men commit such heinous, brutal, crimes and I think that for those of us who can’t fathom how they can possibly do these things, it’s a fascination of the unknown. They are so different. We have to look at them and say ‘my God, how did this guy get to this point where he had to do these things?’

We had an event just recently in Las Vegas where a man named Steven committed mass murder and killed 58 people and injured countless more. A 64-year-old guy and suddenly one day he wakes up and decides he’s going to commit this crime. Why did it happen? What were the events that led him to this point? What triggered it? It’s a fascinating subject and there’s a lot to understand.

loaded: Do you have a favourite scene from the show?

Jonathan: For me, when Holt and I are in the rooms with the serial killers and you get the opportunity to do these 15 page scenes over the course of a day and really lose yourself because the scenes are so long and complicated and psychological and there’s so much going on; the serial killer expressing their story and we’re digesting that and finding new ways to get them to open up.


loaded: Where do you stand on the nature vs nurture debate when it comes to serial killers? Is anyone born evil?

Holt: The guys that we know that are in law enforcement will use this analogy:  If you are going to bake a cake and there’s eggs and milk and flour and all the ingredients you would normally use but just before you put it in the oven some motor oil spills into the mix. When you take that cake out of the oven, is it possible now to remove the motor oil? It’s not.

For those men, they don’t feel like rehabilitating these criminals is something easy to do, particularly with all the problems in our prison systems. I would come down on the side of nurture. I think those early days of a child’s development are crucially important and if he doesn’t have a loving mother, if he’s traumatised or if he’s abused I think, in many cases, you never recover from that.

Mindhunters is streaming now on Netflix.

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