NEW YORK — Working on a show about serial killers, it’s only natural that you might get a bit paranoid.
While shooting Netflix’s Mindhunter in Pittsburgh, “I would go running by the river before the sun came up, and it would cross my mind, ‘Wow, someone could just pull over right now and kill me,’ ” says actor Jonathan Groff, wide-eyed. “It forced me to turn on my location settings on my phone,” and later, “call my brother and tell him that he needs security cameras on his house.”
In the slow-burning 1970s crime drama (streaming Friday), Groff co-stars with Holt McCallany as FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, who work in the agency’s behavioral science unit. Faced with a new wave of serial killers who rape, murder and mutilate victims, seemingly at random, the detectives take it upon themselves to make unauthorized prison visits and interview criminals in an effort to better understand them.
Mindhunter is based in part on former FBI agent John Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s 1996 non-fiction book. The series is executive produced by Charlize Theron and Gone Girl filmmaker David Fincher, who directed four episodes and worked with McCallany on Fight Club and Alien 3.
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Having played minor roles in those movies, “what was so exciting (about reuniting with Fincher) was coming back as a major character,” says McCallany, 54. “Bill is a really complex, sometimes troubled guy,” although his wry partnership with Holden echoes The Odd Couple and Laurel and Hardy, he says.
“There’s a sense of humor and a brotherhood that gets more complicated as the season goes along,” adds Groff, 32, who starred in Broadway hit Hamilton and voiced Kristoff in Disney’s Frozen. “They both learn a lot from each other and need each other, and are put in the most extraordinary experiences together.”
Mindhunter‘s first season tracks the development of criminal profiling, a series of techniques used to help narrow a list of suspects based on the crime, how it was committed and any discernible motive. Ford and Tench, both fictional characters, develop “profiles” of real-life serial killers starting with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), a necrophiliac who butchered his victims. Over the course of several interviews, he freely shares details of his childhood living with an abusive mother and killing family cats — red flags that can predict murderous tendencies at an early age, Douglas found.
Sitting in jail cells listening to actors recount their characters’ childhood traumas and gruesome acts, “there are certain themes that appear in all of them, and certain dots you can connect that are related,” Groff says. “(Our characters are) just in the dark shooting from the hip, figuring everything out as we go along. I didn’t know anything about serial killers before we started this, so it was a complete education for me.”
As for whether all that brain-picking has helped Groff better empathize with criminals, “the verdict is still out for me, it’s so complicated,” he says. “That’s one of the running themes: What’s wrong with complicated? The show does a great job of asking a lot of questions without giving a lot of answers.”