In the very first episode of Mindhunter, Jonathan Groff’s eager young FBI agent Holden Ford efficiently alienates an entire room full of police officers by giving a misjudged presentation about Charles Manson. In the scene, Ford is trying to make a case for his then-radical ideas about criminal psychology—specifically, that criminals are not necessarily born bad, and that there could be value in trying to understand what shapes them into monsters.
It quickly becomes clear that Holden couldn’t have chosen a much worse example than Manson to make his point, and gets all but chased out of the room for trying to suggest that childhood abuse might have played a role in the man he became. Though the show begins almost a decade after Manson’s crimes, his name is still radioactive.
Throughout the first season, as Ford and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interviewed dozens of incarcerated killers and developed the science of criminal profiling, Manson still loomed large in the background. He was at the top of the agents’ interview wish list, and in Season Two, they’ll finally come face to face with Manson.
“There’s definitely been a lot of build-up,” Groff tells Esquire of the scene. “Mindhunter is always a little bit about subverting expectations, and the way that the Manson scene is constructed, the way that the three characters interact with each other, it’s very specific to our show, and to our version of that story.” In other words, don’t necessarily expect a retelling of the facts we all know about Manson and his crimes—in fact, the scene reveals as much about the agents as it is about their famous interviewee.
“What was interesting for me about the scene is that the two characters of Manson and Tench represent polar opposite ideologies,” McCallany adds. “You have one guy [Bill] who’s much more traditional and conservative, and another guy [Manson] who has a unique way of looking at the world—let’s put it that way!” Where many of the show’s previous interviews have centered on the psychodrama between Holden and a given killer, the confrontation with Manson becomes “a clash that occurs between Tench and Manson, and Holden in many ways the witness to it.”
Anna Torv, who plays Ford and Tench’s colleague Dr Wendy Carr, is not in the scene but has a very clear memory of reading it in the script for the first time. “What they’ve done so beautifully with that scene is, in some way, communicate the mind of Manson. What he does in the show more than anything is to illuminate the other characters, and turn a mirror on them, and that was his power. That was the fascination. His thing is: “It’s not on me. It’s on you. Who are you?’”
Actor Damon Herriman has drawn plenty of headlines this summer for playing Manson in two different projects: Mindhunter season two, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. “Sometimes the right actor has to find the right part, and then magic happens,” McCallany says, adding that Herriman spent several hours having prosthetic makeup applied in order to pull off his uncanny resemblance to Manson. “I felt like we could have looked for ten years and not found a better Manson than Damon Herriman. He was just superb in the part.” And while Herriman’s screen time was very limited in Once Upon A Time…, he gets a chance to shine in Mindhunter, McCallany adds, “I think he’s gonna get a lot of attention for it. It’s a tremendously powerful performance.”