Among the most intriguing elements of “Mindhunter” is the way it interrogates the very reason some viewers watch it in the first place. Based on the real experiences of an FBI agent who initiated the bureau’s profiling of serial killers, the Netflix drama undoubtedly benefits from the American public’s timeless fascination with true crime. And yet it also questions the soundness of that fascination from time to time, highlighting the agents’ biases to deconstruct the mythology surrounding these notorious offenders.
This becomes especially apparent in the second season, which premiered last week. Special agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) has harbored a quiet obsession with Charles Manson since the pilot, when he upsets a room of police officers by suggesting Manson’s criminality may have been a product of his harsh upbringing. A season and some change later, Ford and his partner, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), finally get the chance to explore Manson’s motivations for themselves when they visit him in prison.
That’s a lot of buildup to a single scene, in which Australian actor Damon Herriman (perhaps known most for FX’s “Justified”) plays the maniacal man. Ford looks at him with a slight sense of awe, while Tench makes his distaste abundantly clear. But for viewers who can see past all the prosthetic makeup, a different sort of recognition might set in: Herriman is, in fact, the same man who plays Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” released just a few weeks ago.
“It’s really just a crazy coincidence,” Herriman recently told The Washington Post. “There were two projects where they had the character of Charles Manson shooting this year, and I’m guessing a lot of people auditioned for both, especially because he has a certain physicality in his look and height that narrows down the pool a bit. … Bizarrely, they ended up filming within a few weeks of each other.”
Herriman only briefly appears in Tarantino’s film, when Manson scopes out Sharon Tate’s Cielo Drive residence in February 1969. (His followers show up that August with the intention of committing the murders.) The scene in “Mindhunter,” set more than a decade later, carries more heft, as Ford and Tench aim to understand the psyche of each criminal they interview. Their conversation showcases Manson’s ability to “manipulate people and philosophize,” Herriman said.
In the months between booking and shooting “Mindhunter,” which he did before “Once Upon a Time,” Herriman got his hands on all the Manson material he could find. He had read “Helter Skelter” — a book written by the Manson trial prosecutor and named after the apocalyptic race war Manson frequently spoke of — in his 20s and had seen a few documentaries on the subject, as well. But to physically become the cult leader, he closely studied Manson’s vocal patterns and tics from videos of him in prison.
Oscar-winning makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji transformed Herriman’s face, and a very tall actor was cast as a prison guard so Herriman would, by comparison, look as short as Manson was said to be. (“Manson is really small, like really small,” another felon warns the FBI agents. “Try not to stare.”)
“Most of it was something that I’d seen him do, or that we’d been told he did,” Herriman said of his on-screen behavior, adding: “I didn’t want to be too inventive with a character like that.”
He also listened to auditions tapes and music Manson had recorded amid his rock star ambitions in the late ’60s, some of which Ford listens to in “Mindhunter” and claims is “not bad.” While Herriman approached both projects as if he were playing the same character — which, of course, he was — he found the music more helpful in informing his “Once Upon a Time” role, given the timing.
“I knew I’d be playing him younger, and I did want to seek out whatever I could from that time,” he said. “You can listen to an audition he does as a musician. … He’s talking more than he’s singing. It’s a different-sounding guy than the one you hear in prison. He’s lighter, he’s less gruff, he doesn’t sound angry or bitter. He sounds kind of joyful. He’s got this impish glee to him.”
The overall process of researching and playing Manson back-to-back was “equal parts fascinating and horrifying,” Herriman said, extending the description to the true-crime genre itself. He finds it a bit odd that documentaries, podcasts and even semi-fictional works such as “Mindhunter” have become water-cooler talk in recent years, given that they deal with “the most terrifying experiences you could imagine.”
Maybe the fascination has to do with “human beings liking great stories, combined with the fact that something is real,” he said. “It’s a strange thing, and I definitely have it myself. I hear about some unusual crime and I want to watch documentaries on it, or I want to hear a podcast about it.”
But Herriman would like to take a break from inhabiting these disturbing characters himself, given that, in addition to the Manson projects, he recently played a rapist in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” He had auditioned to play a slave owner in Barry Jenkins’s upcoming “Underground Railroad” series but was happy to instead land the part of a man who helps the protagonist escape slavery.
“Most actors will say playing villains is more fun, especially when they’re well-written. There’s just more to sink your teeth into,” he said. “But I also think there are only so many you want to be playing. … It’s nice to be playing someone doing something nice.”