'Mindhunter' Star Holt McCallany On Working With David Fincher And His Standard For Excellence [Interview]

Bill Tench looks like he has the world weighing on his shoulders in season two of Mindhunter. The hunch, the looks of worry and distress, you can feel the restrained F.B.I. agent often coming so close to breaking, especially during a stunning scene in which he confronts, not questions, Charles Manson. The character remains endlessly fascinating to watch, as does the rest of Mindhunter.

Season two marks another one of the many collaborations between actor Holt McCallany and director David Fincher, which is a relationship going back to Alien 3. In-person, McCallany is just as captivating as he is on screen. He has such a great voice, so after hanging onto his every word during our interview with him, I left the Mindhunter junket thinking, "No wonder David Fincher loves filming this guy." Today, he's perhaps the closest we have to old school actors like, to name an example, Burt Lancaster, sharing a similar combination of authority and vulnerability. McCallany looks and sounds like a movie star straight out of the '50s, making him all the more perfect for Bill Tench.

I only saw a handful of episodes before speaking with the actor, hence no questions about the scene with Charles Manson, but he discussed with us the Son of Sam sequence, his longtime collaboration with David Fincher, and Bill Tench's worldview.

Now whenever anyone asks me my favorite show on right now, I say Mindhunter.

Oh thanks, man. I appreciate that. Well, you know what? All the credit goes to a guy named David Fincher. It's really been an incredibly fortunate experience for me and for Jonathan, for all of us, because he just demands a level of excellence from every department that makes you really motivated to go to work in the morning because you know you're working with one of the great directors of his generation. And it doesn't really get better than that in television.

Obviously, you worked with him on Alien 3

I did.

Not the best circumstances for him, but can you see a lot of similarities between the guy he is now, the filmmaker he is now, versus then?

It's a great question. People have asked me that before and to me, honestly, he's the same guy. He's got the same personality, that same keen intelligence, that same dark sense of humor. The difference is that now he's tremendously accomplished. And when I first met David on Alien 3, it was his first movie and I don't know that people understood who David Fincher was going to become.

For season one, you were working 10 months straight, six days a week. Did you have a similar schedule for season two?

It was a tough schedule. We do often work a six-day week, you're right, because we have to do, sometimes we have to do reshoots and different things. And so it's long hours. My days start very early, but even on the days off you have a lot of preparation to do. And the reason for that is because it's really a dialogue-driven show. So many of the scenes are long and complicated. Some of the interview scenes might be ten pages or more. And David likes to shoot them all the way through from beginning to end. And then he likes to do a lot of setups and many takes within each setup. So it demands a high level of concentration.

He's also a director who likes, he prefers once something is set in rehearsal... And mind you, in rehearsal, actors are permitted to present ideas, whatever those may be. He may not embrace them, but you're always allowed to present them. But once something is set, then that's what it is. So he doesn't want you doing something completely different in take 30 than you didn't take three. It's the same performance and he's going to give you small adjustments between takes and you kind of massage it and it continues to get better and better and better.

But yeah, it's a very challenging way to work. But I find it very exciting and frankly, when I work with other directors who have a much more kind of run and gun type of a style, I always worry that you didn't get enough coverage. You didn't do enough takes. You're going to get into the editing room and you're going to be missing something that you really wanted and it's because you didn't spend the time. On Mindhunter, we spend the time.

I heard David Fincher say in a commentary once, "You fly all of these actors to a location, you've got all these cameras, why stop? Why not get as much as you possibly can?" People talk about all the takes he does, but it makes so much sense. 

That's absolutely correct. The expensive part is not doing another take. The expensive part was getting us all here. Do you know what I mean? Getting the train rolling down the tracks. Now that we're rolling, let it go. So, no, it's a real privilege and look, you don't need to talk to me to know that this guy is one of the truly exceptional directors in American cinema. You can ask anybody and they'll all tell you that. I've just had the privilege of working with him very closely over the past couple of years and it's been a real transformational experience for me in my career.

He can even make a scene with Bill grilling during a BBQ filled with so much tension. The way he cuts, the heat intensifying, you can just feel the tension rising in the guy. How much does David Fincher talk to you about the psychology of his shots?

Well look, I try to learn a lot from David by watching him as he sets up a shot and trying to identify the things that are important to him and trying to just soak up as much as I can in case one day, I may attempt to direct something myself. You never know. But even though I try to watch closely, I'm always continuously surprised when I see the final product because it might be a simple thing like every time that Bill shakes hands with somebody, you see a little... [reaches out his hand for a loud handshake] There's a little sound effect. Do you know what I mean? Which is a tiny little detail, but it's meant to convey, that Bill is a powerful presence. Do you know what I mean? And that his handshake is a firm handshake. And it's a tiny little thing that you add in post, but when I see it, I notice it like, "There's one of David's touches." This is the attention to detail that separates him from 99% of the directors in the world.

How specific is he about hand gestures and movements? The way he shoots, body language looks like it heavily influences the way he moves the camera and cuts. 

Yeah. No, let me say this to you, David will sometimes give very precise pieces of direction and that can absolutely include the position of your head, the moment that you'll choose to avert your eyes, the way you take a drag of your cigarette. It's very easy to put your trust in somebody like David Fincher because there's one thing that you can be absolutely certain of, when David Fincher steps onto the set, you are no longer the smartest guy in the room, if you were before.

[Laughs] I've heard that from a lot of people.

Right? And it's also exciting to work for David because he's actually, I think, much more collaborative than people might imagine. Yes, he's meticulous and precise and with great attention to detail. But he has this mantra that you hear him say frequently, "The best idea wins." And I'm an actor who likes to come with a lot of ideas. Doesn't mean that he's going to embrace them all, but I'll present something. "I'd like to do this. What about this?" And he'll either say, "Yeah, we can try that." Or he'll say, "No, that's not going to work for this reason," or whatever. And, but you never are made to feel like, you're just there to hit the mark and say the line. He wants you to be engaged.

mindhunter season 2 review newThere are two scenes I want to ask you about specifically: Bill and Holden interviewing the Son of Sam, and when he's interviewing a survivor of the BTK Killer in Wichita. When you first read those, what were your initial ideas of how to play them? 

The scene with Kevin in Wichita, the only survivor of BTK, was a really well-written scene and I thought it was one of Courtenay Miles', who kind of emerged as our lead writer in season two, I thought it was one of the best things that she wrote all season long. And it didn't change much from the very early draft. He was kind enough to let me read some early drafts and I recognized how powerful that scene was the first time I read it. And what I also noticed was that it didn't ever go through many revisions really, that I saw.

It was interesting to play because I can't look at him, but as a detective, I still have to try to glean as much information as I can from that interview. And so paying very close attention, not only to the words that he chooses, but to his intonation, to the emotion. Do you know what I mean? That he invests into what he's saying. To tiny details that may not seem important to him, but that could be important to the investigation. or me, that was always the scene that really kindles inside of Bill, a personal interest in that particular case. Do you know what I mean? And I continue to think about it and continue to be obsessed with it for the rest of the season.

As far as Son of Sam, look, I was born in New York City. I was a teenager. I remember the way that David Berkowitz brought New York to its knees. The way people were absolutely terrified. The way the women would dye their hair blonde. The way that people wouldn't sit in their cars. His correspondences with Jimmy Breslin. We had hired the prosthetic makeup team who did a Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, so the actor who plays David Berkowitz does six and a half hours of prosthetic makeup before, and he looks exactly like Berkowitz.

I didn't think for a second that was makeup. 

Yeah, well I mean they're the best. Kazu is the guy's name. He's the guru and we got a particularly strong performance from him and also from the actor who plays Charles Manson.

Holden and Bill are such an odd couple, but in the first few episodes of season two, watching your two characters apart, I started to wonder if they have more in common than they think. Do you think that's true?

It's a really interesting question because in some ways, we're a study in contrast. We're from different generations. We have different world views. We have different histories. We have very different personalities. And yet, we have many things in common as well. We're both very driven as detectives. We both take great pride in our work and I think to a degree, they both enjoy the limelight a little more than they let on.

I was saying earlier today to somebody that the characters of Holden Ford and Bill Tench are loosely inspired by the real life detectives, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, who of course, were partners and conducted this famous series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers. Well, if you read "Mindhunter," John Douglas barely mentions Robert Ressler and if you read "Whoever Fights Monsters," which is Ressler's book, he barely mentions Douglas, and yet these guys were partners and did every interview together. So, there was a lot of competition for glory and maybe that's to be expected, but it was something that really struck me when I read the books.

For you, how much does Bill, being from the generation he's from, continue to shape his mentality and worldview? 

Look, I always saw Bill Tench as a guy who was born in the 1930s and joined the military, fought in the Korean war, was in the military police, decided that he liked being an investigator, came out of the military and went into the FBI, has been in law enforcement for 20 years, and is very much a product of his time. And that's really, for me, a very important thing, is that you not invest a character in 1979 with a mentality that belongs in 2019. The truth is that a lot of things were different back then. And then you also have to remember that when we meet Bill for the first time, in the late '70s, he's already well into his forties.

Do you see what I mean? So when did this guy come of age? In the Eisenhower administration. So, what were those guys like? What was that worldview? And now you're talking about a pretty conservative guy, even by the standards of his day, right? So, it's always having that in the back of your mind and not falling into the trap. Do you know what I mean?

No disrespect to television writers. We've been blessed with great writers on our show and great scripts and I think that that's really at the heart of why we've been successful, but you have to take responsibility for your own character. Do you know what I mean? And if a line doesn't feel right because it doesn't feel like it adequately reflects the mentality of the character that you've created, then you need to speak to your director and ask permission to make a modification to the dialogue.

Both Bill and Holden appear more at ease talking to serial killers than dealing with their personal problems. You even see Bill show a little frustration with civilians and not quite connecting with them. What do you think it says about Bill he's more comfortable questioning serial killers? 

It's a real interesting question because it really depends on the guy. I had a very close friend who was in law enforcement, who said to me one time, "Holt, here's my advice to you. If you ever get arrested for a crime, right? Be cordial. Don't antagonize the officers that have arrested you. Don't incriminate yourself. And if you don't want to answer their questions, be cordial." So with a guy like Kemper, I'm able to have a very civilized conversation, but much less so with a guy like Brudos. Do you know what I mean? And, as you'll see in season two, have you seen the Manson one?

I haven't yet. Only the first three episodes. 

Okay. So, they're able to push my buttons. And I don't share much of Holden's... Holden, I think, has a more glamorous, perhaps, a picture of them than Bill does. Bill is less forgiving. And at the end of the day, most of the guys that I met and spoke to in law enforcement as I was preparing for the role, they don't believe in rehabilitation. Interestingly, Robert Ressler, the guy that my character is loosely based on, is one of the few guys in law enforcement that I read about who, he died in 2013, so I was never able to meet him, I was able to meet Douglas, he opposed the death penalty. Most of them don't. Most of them will say, "Yeah, I'd like to interview Bundy. Give me four hours with Bundy and then you can send him to the chair." Ressler didn't believe that. Ressler believed that they were more valuable to us, institutionalized, where we could study them and their psychology over a long period of time, that there's no reason, we've got them now. They're no longer a threat. Right? Let's really study these guys and try to figure out why it is that they commit these horrible crimes.


Mindhunter season two is now available to stream on Netflix.