Ask any casting director in Hollywood and they’ll tell you the same thing. Whenever it comes to casting a new project, a sexy doctor drama, a funny kids show, or even a show about serial killers, the producer will give them all the same mandate: NAMES. They all want name actors. It makes sense. After all, the writer wrote the series with Tom Hanks in mind, he even named the character Detective Hanks! Detective Hanks busts through doors with his partner Detective Denzel who are hot on the trail of the sinister bad guy Brad Clooney (Both actors could pull it off.)
A casting director could protest but they would get the usual response “Hey, Hanks, Denzel, and Clooney all did TV shows, go find them!” Producers don’t mean that metaphorically, as in “Find me the next Tom Hanks!” they mean “Find me Tom Hanks!” So the casting directors do as their told, and sheepishly begin making futile calls to annoyed mega agents who laugh before hanging up. Jim Carrey once famously defended his choice to do Ace Ventura Pet Detective by claiming the scripts he was getting had shit on the first ten pages due to more famous actors having wiped their asses with them before it ever made it his way.
The sad truth is the actor cast when it comes to television is usually never the first (or even tenth) choice. No one ever admits that mind you, especially once a show’s a qualified hit. All you’ll hear again and again is “We never even went out to another actor. They were our first and only choice. We would never have even done the show without them.” Truthfully it ends up not mattering. Once a show’s a hit, everyone wins. The actor chosen, gets their face on lunch boxes and T-Shirts, and Tom Hanks’ agent can regale his friends with secret tales of turning down Rick Grimes, Walter White, and Jon Snow.
All of this brings us to the marvelous new Netflix series Mindhunter.
Mindhunter is an excellent cerebral ten episode series by creator Joe Penhall and a slew of producers including some big names like David Fincher and Charlize Theron. It’s based on the real life work of FBI profilers John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler. Douglas and Ressler (who’s characters in Mindhunter are re-named Holden Ford and Bill Tench) helped create criminal profile techniques in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that were used to catch serial killers. Their studies became the gold standard for an FBI still finding it’s way after the death of J.Edgar Hoover five years earlier, and are still widely taught in law enforcement today. Their work went on to heavily influence writer’s such as Thomas Harris who used Douglas as his basis for his Jack Crawford character in both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, as well as countless TV shows like the CSI and Criminal Minds franchises. There’s good news when it comes to the casting of Mindhunter, there was no need to call Hanks and Clooney because Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany play the leads with expertise.
Groff and McCallany play an odd couple who don’t necessarily like each other but work really well together nonetheless. One of the reasons the show works as well as it does is the strange chemistry between these two unusual choices. The one/two punch, good cop/bad cop, brains/braun, approach to their work, for better or worse, produces results. Despite the usual pushback from the suits their undeniable progress in a field they are literally helping to create, is a beauty to watch.
Groff, the famous Tony Award winning Broadway star of Spring Awakening and Hamilton, does a great job as Ford. He plays him as a shy but confident guy who’s almost uncomfortable in his own skin. Ford knows he’s destined for better things but is somewhat stuck in the station he’s in. Once he gets his chance to make his mark he goes full force in pursuing it.
McCallany, who might be best known as the lead in the excellent but little seen boxing drama Lights Out, plays Tench a lot like who he really is. Tench is a guy who’s been around, people respect him, but he never really got his due. McCallany, due to his physical size and deep voice, usually plays the heavy or cop in a lot of things. Here he gets to do both.
The show also has two extremely talented actresses, Hannah Gross who plays Ford’s girlfriend who can do better than him, and Anna Torv who plays an academic who later joins the two agents in their work. Both women are strong equals in a world (1977) that didn’t see it that way. It’s important to note most of the violence described in horrid detail by the serial killers themselves was perpetrated against women. Having phenomenal actresses like Gross and Torv, puts a face to the women we only hear about as victims. Torv, as an academic working with the agents, sees and hears exactly what the men do, while Gross sees the toll it’s taking on Ford and on their relationship. The casting is pitch perfect when it comes to these four but it’s positively on fire when it comes to the actor who portrays “The Co-Ed killer” Ed Kemper.
Ed Kemper was a real life serial killer who killed his grandparents when he was only fifteen years old. Upon his release from the mental institution, when he was twenty-one, he went on a killing spree that included decapitating college girls and performing sexual acts on their corpses. After he had done that to several women he decapitated his own mother before casually turning himself in to police.
In real life Kemper was 6’9 and nearly 300lbs. OK, maybe don’t call Tom Hanks for this casting. But who can you call? Honestly how many guys in Hollywood (or anywhere for that matter) even fit that description? Enter Cameron Britton, a name you’ll want to remember. Cameron Britton, as Ed Kemper, is so good in this role, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lector himself, would say “now that guy can act!” Britton, who’s best known for being, well, unknown, positively steals the series Mindhunter. Without Britton, who’s pivotal to the work Ford and Tench are creating on the series, there is no show. Cameron Britton has a bright future ahead of him despite his size being an obvious obstacle. I have no doubt he’ll be offered other killer roles, or as a villain in one of the countless super hero movies (his agent has his fingers crossed for that one is my guess) but he has the sensitivity to be on a show like NBC’s This is Us and win an award, just like he should for playing Ed Kemper.
Mindhunter is plenty stylish in its own bleakness. It’s easy to see David Fincher’s stamp on the look of the series especially as he directed four of the episodes. The use of drab colors, wet streets, and smoke filled rooms set the scene for the disturbing underbelly the show examines. The use of music, especially the rarely heard “In the Light,” by Led Zeppelin, brilliantly lends a creepy score to the series final moments.
It’s worth mentioning if your looking for a car chases, slamming killers against the hoods of cars, and shoot-em-up firefights, Mindhunter isn’t for you. Most of the show takes place through conversations and interviews in dull places like, cars, airplanes, and dank basement offices lit by flickering fluorescent lights. It’s a thoughtful and deliberate puzzle the watcher pieces together bit by bit the same way Ford and Tench must do. There are plenty of “Ah Hah!” moments and is a very satisfying ride for even the casual crime show watcher. It’s also set in the real world therefore unlike many crime shows the layer of it all being just a TV show isn’t the same. These killings really happened. Knowing this is taking place in 1977 the audience is afforded a knowledge the agents trying to stop these men don’t have.
We know The Atlanta Child Murderer is coming, we know the Green River Killer, the BTK Killer, and perhaps worst of all, Ted Bundy, we know they’re all coming. Watching them come close to these discoveries makes me want to yell at the TV and help them. Perhaps the most disturbing notion in watching the show comes from the realization Ed Kemper is still alive incarcerated in California. I wonder if he gets to watch the brilliant actor Cameron Britton play his alter ego? Do his fellow inmates? I hope not.
The only true negative thing about Mindhunter is the title. Yes, it comes directly from John E. Douglas book on which much of the series is based, but it sounds so much like everything else. It’s also easily confused with Manhunter, the Michael Mann adaptation of Harris novel Red Dragon on which some of Douglas and Ressler’s work is based. With so much out there to watch nowadays it would be shame if people were put off the series because they simply flipped past it thinking it was something else they may have already seen before.
Netflix has already wisely ordered a second season of Mindhunter that will begin production soon. Mindhunter is cast by Julie Schubert, Laray Mayfield, and Katie Shenot. I’m certain, if the show remains at such high quality, will find Hanks, Denzel, and Clooney, calling them. I highly recommend this fine new series on Netflix with the caveat it’s not for the feint of heart.