Attention: Spoilers ahead for season two of Mindhunter.
On August 16, season two of Mindhunter became available for streaming on Netflix. In the wake of the season premiere, The Hollywood Reporter released an interview with Jonathan Groff, who stars in Mindhunter as Holden Ford, an FBI agent tasked with interviewing serial killers in an attempt to crack unsolved cases in the 1970s. Season one ended on a dark note for the detective, who had proven his aptitude for conversing with killers. Alienation accompanied this skill, and Holden grew increasingly estranged from colleagues and loved ones alike. After paying a visit to serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), Holden suffered a panic attack.
His panic attacks carry on into season two, even though Holden attempts to mask his mounting anxieties with ego at work. “Though Holden is still engaged with doing interviews with serial killers, now he’s getting a little snobby about it,” Groff told The Hollywood Reporter. “He only wants to interview the killers that he personally deems worthy.”
Groff continued to discuss his character’s deteriorating mental state, noting important distinctions between season one and two of Mindhunter.
“I was so interested to see how the writers were going to pick Holden up off the floor after the finale,” said the actor, speaking to Holden’s psychological collapse at the end of season one.
Groff then tackled a question on what it was like to portray Holden in that moment, and how he transitioned his role into the new season. “In terms of the continuity between his panic attack in the hospital [after seeing Kemper] and his panic attack at the end of episode one after Shepard [Cotter Smith] talks to him, I realized that any time there’s a mirror held up to Holden and he can sort of have a moment of self-awareness and really look at himself, it sends him into panic mode. That’s what Ed Kemper did at the end of the first season, he was turning the mirror back on Holden, and I think that’s also what Shepard does at the end of the season two premiere.”
Depicting panic attacks on-screen required finesse from the seasoned actor, who is known widely for his roles in Frozen and Glee. “When we were filming the season one finale, in the moment right before Kemper hugs me, David [Fincher] had me do this.” Groff paused to breath in and out rapidly, demonstrating Fincher’s instructions. “Just a lot of breaths really quick in and out,” he said. “I think just to get all of the blood out of my face. I did almost pass out. That was the scene right before I run out of the room. The panic attack scene in the season two premiere was sort of the same thing — we did it at varying levels, and I started out by overdoing it. I think I was making noises, it was a lot, and David was like, ‘OK, Groff, take it down a notch.’ I love working with him because he can say something like, ‘Take it down 50 percent from that,’ and I’ll know what he’s talking about. I tend to just throw it out there, and then he shades and shapes the level of explosion.”
Season two of the show highlights the Atlanta child murders, despite there being many unanswered questions on the case. This meant that Groff had to heavily research the murders prior to filming season two of Mindhunter.
“I listened to [podcast] Atlanta Monster and read James Baldwin’s book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. And Courtenay Miles — who was our first AD in season one and one of our head writers on season two — could have a degree on the subject of Atlanta between 1978 and 1982,” he said, described the ways in which he educated himself on the Atlanta child murders in preparation for his role. “She did so much research, she spoke to police officials that were there during that time, and tried to really get all the conflicting opinions and ideas about what happened. They really try to lay out in the scripts the political atmosphere of what was going on at that time in Atlanta — the first black mayor had just been elected, ‘white flight’ was happening in the city center, the new Atlanta airport that we now know as this giant hub was about to open in 1980.”
“It was just a huge moment of change in Atlanta,” Groff continued. “And the last thing that the city needed — in some people’s minds — was a lot of publicity about these children being murdered. On top of which you have the FBI coming in there and trying to prove this core theory of the Behavioral Science Unit, that you can actually take this psychological work and these interviews, and make a profile of someone and use that to catch an active criminal while it’s happening.”
As season two unravels, Holden is steadfastly convinced that his concept of the case is correct. “One of the conclusions the BSU has drawn is that serial killers rarely cross racial lines, and so Holden firmly believes that this killer is black,” Groff said, speaking to Holden’s theory of the case. “A lot of other people think it’s the Ku Klux Klan, some people think it’s a child pornography ring, there’s a bunch of different theories. But Holden is there to help catch what he believes is a serial killer, in order to help the city of Atlanta and also to prove his theory right, to prove that this method of profiling works.”
Following this comment, the interview shifted to Jim Barney, an African American agent portrayed by Albert Jones. With audiences well-accustomed to seeing Holden work alongside his colleague Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), his professional relationship with Jim marks a shift in the show.
“I love Albert, he’s a phenomenal actor, and they knew in the first season when they cast him that he was going to come back to play this bigger part,” Groff explained. “What’s interesting in those interview scenes is that this season, though Holden is still engaged with doing interviews with serial killers, now he’s getting a little snobby about it. He only wants to interview the serial killers that he personally deems worthy, which is a stark contrast from the first season where he’s like, ‘Feed me, I want everything, I want all the information! I want to meet everyone!’ Now he’s a little more picky about who he’s gonna spend his very valuable time with.”
Groff then described a particular moment in season two that reflects Holden’s newfound pomposity in an interaction with Jim. “So in episode three,” he said, “he sort of begrudgingly agrees to go to Atlanta to meet with these killers who he deems unintelligent, and Barney ends up being sort of the Holden in those interviews, in that he’s the one that’s actually engaging with the person in a deep way, and ends up gleaning the information that Holden would normally glean. I loved reading that when I got the scripts, because there’s a clear evolution of these interviews in the second season, now that Holden kind of thinks he’s above it to a certain extent. Obviously not Charles Manson or David Berkowitz, but he maybe feels he’s outgrowing the interviews a little bit, and the character of Jim becomes my foil in that regard.”
Given that Holden is based on a former FBI agent turned author and consultant, Jim Douglas, Groff took a moment to discuss the likelihood of Holden following in his origin’s footsteps. “I don’t know this for sure and I’d have to ask John,” he started, “but my feeling from meeting him and reading his stuff is that he didn’t move away from the FBI because of disinterest. He had a total mental and physical breakdown from how intense the work was. He was, I think for his whole career, a very obsessive worker. His breakdown happened much later [than Holden’s], when he was a little bit older and had been in the thick of it for much longer, so I think Holden’s panic attacks are kind of a nod to that. We deviate a lot in terms of the characters’ personal lives.”
Eventually, Holden is hospitalized. This prompts him to call Bill, who has to fly across the country in order to meet him. This forces the character to confront an unfortunate truth: he does not have anyone else to call.
“I think at the end of the first season, we saw him kind of shut everybody out and go off on his own, so in my mind when I was reading that, when he says, ‘I didn’t have anyone else I could call,’ it was a moment of self-awareness,” Groff described his take on this pivotal moment in season two. “He realizes that he has put himself on an island. I mean, the only person he could turn to at the end of season one was Ed Kemper! But when he calls Bill, I thought it was kind of a beautiful nod to the fact that at the end of it all, the person I’m gonna call, for better or for worse, is the guy that I’ve been through all this shit with. Sometimes we have those people where we experience something insane, and the only person who gets it is the one who was in the room too. I think that line from Holden is a reminder, at the top of the season, that these two are kind of bonded forever, in a way. As different as they are, they have this very specific fucked up world that will bind them together for the rest of their lives.”
Season two of Mindhunter is available for streaming on Netflix.