“The character that I play, and the behavior that he exhibits, was kind of all that I was told.” – Sonny Valicenti on His Audition
What’s more difficult than playing a serial killer? Playing a character that may or may not end up being a serial killer, and playing both sides of the equation. David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter featured a character played by Sonny Valicenti who may be the BTK killer, the real-life serial killer who spent over a dozen years at large. Speaking with Esquire, Valicenti talked about playing a character that may turn out to be one of the most notorious killers in history.
Valicenti reveals that when auditioning for the role, he was not given a lot of information about the character. He says:
In the audition scene that I was sent, there was a bold line saying, “This is not your character speaking, this is a stock script that we’re using for auditions.” Once I got to set, I had a slightly better sense of how I would fit into the story, but I wouldn’t get pages sometimes until the night before [shooting]. I just knew that I was going to be a looming presence that transitioned from everyday activities to, perhaps, hinting at something darker.
The character that I play, and the behavior that he exhibits, was kind of all that I was told. In terms of the really wonderful theories [online] about who this character is and the future of the show. I’m just as curious as you are to see how this pans out.
One lesson that Valicenti learned on set is that while he might be playing a character who is a potential serial killer, director David Fincher says that the key was not to actually act like a serial killer. He explains, “In just about every scene I did, Mr Fincher would say ‘No, you’re not psycho killer, you’re not playing psycho killer.’ He just stressed the simplicity of it: There doesn’t need to be any weird facial tics, or weird intonations that let everybody know this is a psycho killer. In fact, the most effective way to show the behavior of this character is to just allow it to be very human and very simple, which is kind of the thesis of the show—to get out of that black-and-white way of looking at this behavior and really try and understand it from a human point of view.”
Of course, playing a possible serial killer takes a certain mindsight. He explains, “One of the first things I started to think about when working on the role, which made me lean in a little bit further, was: ‘What in my life do I have an insatiable desire for?’ Something that drives me towards it, and yet at the same time has great shame surrounding it. Whether it’s like, eating a whole pizza in a day—that’s a lame example, but I had to find what about that is similar to me. It’s a potent cocktail, that desire and shame mixed together, and once I landed on that, my fascination with the subject grew immensely.”
Finally, having a director like Fincher makes an actor try several — even dozens — of different variations on the same character. He continues, “Doing 50 or 60 takes really starts to cultivate a sense of, ‘I don’t know any more.’ Everything that I would prepare was stripped away within the first ten takes, and then we were in a realm of possibility, and I think that’s where the work really begins with Fincher, and it’s frightening. There is a lot of ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’ but with all the moment-to-moment craftsmanship that he brings to the project, you never feel unsafe and you never feel unsure, even though you definitely don’t know what’s going to come out. I think that’s where the art happens for him.”