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Before Jonathan Groff Could Nail Mindhunter, He Had to Stop Smiling

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As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fairs HWD team is once again diving deep into how some of this seasons greatest scenes and characters came together. You can read more of these close looks here.

THE CHARACTER: HOLDEN FORD, MINDHUNTER

If youve seen classic David Fincher films like Seven, Zodiac, or even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you know the infamously exacting director has a type: the obsessive who tries to solve a crime in the library or the archives, nimbly combing through databases and warehouses full of forgotten evidence. The Fincher obsessive starts their work unblemished—but by the end, it has upended their lives.

In the case of Finchers 10-episode Netflix series Mindhunter, that obsessive is Holden Ford, played by Tony-nominated actor Jonathan Groff. Holden starts as a textbook Groff character: neat, bookish, pretty, an F.B.I. choirboy who becomes a teacher and researcher after a hostage situation goes wrong. But soon, alongside behavioral scientist Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and anthropologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), Holden falls down the rabbit hole of a new line of thinking about killers, one that brings him a little too close to the murderers themselves.

Mindhunter tracks two things at once: the rise of F.B.I. profiling, and Holdens own revolution. As his work bleeds into his life—leading to both a sexual awakening and growing megalomania—so too does his ability to understand the likes of real-life killers like Ed Kemper and Richard Speck. Its a show about criminal minds, and its most exhilarating suggestion—as uncannily and subtly performed by Groff—is that by vicariously understanding them, Boy Scout Holden risks becoming the thing he studies. Mindhunter is implicitly a show about crime shows, one that trains its eye on everything police procedurals take for granted—the concept of criminal profiling, above all, and the ability to crack a case by trying to reconstruct the mind of a killer. Holden is at the vanguard of that new method—and his insights are both its best-case scenario and, as Holdens megalomania grows, a nightmarish display of everything at risk.

How He Came To Life

According to Groff, everything we see on Mindhunter—from Holdens plainspoken, unimpeachable professionalism to his sexual and ethical transformation—was present in the script, as early as his audition. “All the ten episodes had been written before we started,” he said. At the audition, he was given scenes from every episode, and told to chart Holdens emotional and behavioral turns on the spot.

“The scenes that they gave me were these sort of Mormon-y, sort of buttoned up, earnest, milk-drinking FBI agent,” he said. “And then all of a sudden in these other scenes, as it went along, he was mirroring serial killers—like, the tactics in order to get them to open up were him mirroring them, and talking in a slight southern accent.”

Fincher must have been as impressed by what didnt change in that audition as he was by what did. “He always talks about how he casts people based on the essence that they bring naturally,” said Groff. “Its just who they are as a person.” Hes also a director known for having his actors perform several takes, doing the same lines over and over until all the artifice is gone and the performance feels natural—because what comes naturally is what will persist through every scene and every take, no matter the conditions. “If we are working late hours and we are tired and whatever,” said Groff, “this quality will still be there. Its the quality you cant beat out of someone.”

For Groff—who said hes never really been a true crime fan himself—that unchangeable quality was natural curiosity. “No matter how tired you are, or whatever take we are on, or whatever month it is during the course of the shoot, “ Groff remembered Fincher telling him, “youre going to have this curiosity about you.”

Groff is also naturally chipper—an element Fincher didnt love. “Very early on, [Fincher] said, You smile all the time,” Groff laughed—an understandable affliction. “Actors are very needy and we want people to love us and were charming all the time.” But Holden isnt a smiler. Hes not a charmer, at least as Mindhunter begins; hes a young agent still figuring out who he is. So throughout the season, the exacting director was on an anti-grin crusade: “[Fincher] would be like, Were rolling, and Jonathan, stop smiling. And youre still smiling, youre still smiling, and action.” Seems excessive, maybe, but Groff attributed it to the difference between theater and television. “In film and television,” he said, “I feel submissive to the directors of the process.”

Fincher and Groffs keen sense of the character was key to Mindhunters success. Over the course of 10 episodes, Groff had to plausibly transition from educated, upstanding, even boring FBI agent to a man whose confidence morphs into chaotic risk-taking. By mid-season, Holden starts to bend the rules in his interactions with the serial killers he and Tench are interviewing for their study—and starts to involve himself in their psychoses to a dangerous degree, exposing dark nooks in his own personality along the way.

“I was really interested in the change, the turn that he takes,” said Groff. “Theres this one moment where I say to Anna Torvs character, Dr. Wendy Carr—were in the basement at the FBI and I say, I started this. And you sort of go, Oh shit. You see his ego blow up a little bit.” Which is to say nothing of the sexual element: “Hes having his eyes opened for the first time, and hes having this kind of discovery of self while talking psychosexual murders,” added the actor.

For gay viewers who were introduced to Groff through HBOs Looking, the sex scenes between Holden and his hippie grad student girlfriend Debbie Miltford (Hannah Gross) are especially fun; you start to wonder if Fincher, knowing that a subset of the shows audience will have this in mind as they watch Mindhunter, meant to add a winking bit of subtext. (A recent New Yorker profile of Ryan Murphy claimed that the show-runner weepily called Groff after seeing Mindhunter and marveled at an openly gay actor getting the chance to perform such “electric and real” straight sex scenes.)

For Groff, meanwhile, the real fun wasnt starring in Mindhunter: it was getting to watch everyone else—particularly during those long, theatrical interview scenes with serial killers. “Its kind of meta in a way,” he said. “Youre going in as an actor onto this set to watch someone kind of do these performances. They are playing these, in certain cases, iconic killers and iconic people.”

“Ive always been a watcher in life,” he added later. “I learned a lot back in the day from just getting in the wings of theaters and watching people act. Theres a reminiscent quality of that in this show.”

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