Holt McCallany on ‘Mindhunter’, Preparation and What Actors Should “Do in Every Scene”

“So much of what’s interesting about a scene or a moment is what happens between the lines. I have to remain available and open to be able to process internally the things that I’m hearing.” – Holt McCallany

In Mindhunter, the Netflix series co-produced by filmmaker David Fincher, actor Holt McCallany (alongside Jonathan Groff) portrays FBI agent Bill Tench. It’s the latest of several law enforcement roles for McCallany, and one of his most high-profile roles to date. In an interview with The Thrillest, McCallany speaks about his role in detail.

McCallany points out that the opportunity that he has to play a character on such an acclaimed series is a result of just how good television has been for the last few years. He talked about the advantages of being involved in such a series:

“We’re very lucky that we’re living in a Golden Age of Television. Never before in human history has a medium existed in which its possible for an actor to explore a character in this kind of detail. There simply isn’t enough room in a two hour movie or a three hour play. Season 1 of Mindhunter was 10 hours long; Season 2 is somewhere around 9 hours long. It’s a lot of time. When the writing is good and when you have a fascinating subject and when you’ve been given a really interesting role to play and when you have the great fortune of working with one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, to be honest with you, it doesn’t really get any better than that in TV.”

The interviewer points out that on the series McCallany is often involved in lengthy “interview” scenes that require being on point with the scripted dialogue. In talking about the challenges of those scenes, McCallany explains:

“You have to be very prepared. You can interview 10 different actors and get 10 different interpretations of what the work is about. Everybody’s process is very unique. But I kinda believe in something very old fashioned that Laurence Olivier said a long time ago, which is that acting is 90% preparation and 10% inspiration. When you’re talking about 10-12 page scenes, which David likes to film from the beginning all the way to the end, and he likes to do multiple set-ups and many takes in each set-up, you really have to do your homework. You have to make sure you show up ready to shoot those scenes in their entirety and you have to be ready to do them over and over again.

Once something is set in rehearsal, he likes it to be what we set. You’re always welcome in the rehearsals to present ideas, but once something has been set, he wants it to be consistent with adjustments that he’ll give you in between takes for editing purposes. So you’ve gotta really concentrate and you’ve gotta be really prepared. And you need to do a lot of subterranean research because even if certain questions might not show up in the dialogue, you want to become as well versed as possible with each of these different serial killers: their personal histories, the crimes they committed, the way in which they committed these crimes, and all the relevant details.

When asked about a specific scene in which his character mainly listens, McCallany speaks about how he played the scene. He says:

You used the operative word, which is “listening.” So often in television, you’re always cutting to whichever actor is talking. If it’s my line, the camera’s on me and then it’s your turn to talk, so we cut to you. But so much of what’s interesting about a scene or a moment is what happens between the lines. I have to remain available and open to be able to process internally the things that I’m hearing. OK, I’m a detective, I’m conducting an interview. In this particular instance, I can’t look at the person I’m interviewing, but there’s still a lot of things I can glean from the tone of his voice, the phrases that he uses, the emotions that I hear. I’m trying to process that and make as many determinations as I can. Do I believe him? You’re listening very carefully, and that’s an activity. You have to keep it active and keep it alive. It’s something that actors should always do in every scene.

Later in the interview, McCallany talks about as an actor that he has to adjust to the physical appearance of the character — despite normally taking pride in his own physical fitness. He explains:

Here’s the thing: You’re talking about a chain-smoking, hard-drinking middle-aged bureaucrat who teaches road school and is always on the road eating crappy food and the only exercise he ever gets is an occasional round of golf. He’s not going to have a beach boy body. But me personally, in my own life, I’m an amateur boxer and I’m into weight-lifting, running, yoga. I’m a guy who likes to go to the gym every single day. I had the privilege at one point in my career to play a professional fighter, so that’s what I looked like. That’s not who Bill is. That’s one of the important things you learn working with David: Forgo your vanity and focus on the details of the character. So that’s what I did.

More: Interview: Holt McCallany Talks ‘Lights Out’

About Author

In college, overachiever Christopher McKittrick double-majored in Film and English because he loves to read, write, and watch movies. Since then Chris – who was born and raised on Long Island, New York and currently lives in Queens – has become a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a contributor to entertainment websites, and has spoken about literature, film, and comic books at various conferences across the country when he’s not getting into trouble in New York City (apparently it’s illegal to sleep on street corners...) For more information about Chris, visit his website here!

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