Breaking through with his first guest star role on David Fincher’s Netflix crime drama Mindhunter, where he would play terrifying serial killer Edmund Kemper, Cameron Britton found both an incredible artistic opportunity and a challenge that would daunt any actor, coming face to face with one of the industry’s most formidable auteurs.
In his first experience playing a real-life figure, Britton couldn’t have found a more deliciously complicated character than Kemper, who is still alive, living out his remaining years at California Medical Facility. Towering over his victims at 6’9” (Britton is 6’5”), Kemper’s dominance wasn’t only physical. Murdering 10 people, including his mother and his paternal grandparents—before desecrating their bodies—Kemper also possessed great intelligence and a knack for manipulation that made him a nightmare for his opponents, in life and in prison, where FBI agents (played in the series by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) tried to come to grips with his psychology.
“What drew me to the role was this dynamic where he’s this horribly violent, narcissistic, selfish person with no remorse, and yet he’s well spoken, he’s polite, he’s engaging,” Britton explains. “That sort of ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ concept, it’s always been interesting to me. If you are threatening and your opponent knows it, why flaunt it? Why not offer them the path of least resistance?”
To play Kemper effectively, Britton would have to dig uncomfortably deep into the psyche of a murderer who viewed himself as the hero of his own story, figuring out what it was that baffled psychologists—what made him tick.
From all appearances, Fincher was impressed with Britton’s work on Mindhunter—the actor will soon be seen in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, another project he’s shepherding to the screen—though Britton isn’t sure what role the director may have had in his casting. “I think Mindhunter has allowed me to get a chance to do larger projects,” the actor says. “But I haven’t spoken to him much about Spider’s Web, outside of our opinions of the books and the Swedish films.”
Do you recall your first read for the role of Edmund Kemper? What was your thinking, as you set out to portray a real-life serial killer?
The first thing I read was a little speech he has, where he says that he was a regular guy most of his life—with a nice home in the suburbs—but at the same time, he was living a vile, depraved, entirely parallel other life. I found that to be really interesting.
I’ve never played a real person before, let alone a real killer. I think if it’s a fictional character, there’s this urge to make them really big and cinematic, and I really responded to him being a real-life person, being able to see interviews with him. I found the realism to be a lot scarier, that he’s just a regular guy. That’s terrifying to me because I start wondering how many people that I’ve sat next to on a bus, that seem normal enough, can be incredibly dark inside of themselves.
Spending a great deal of time with Kemper in the making of Mindhunter, what’s your take on his psychology? Why is he cooperating with FBI agents attempting to understand his behavior?
I think his overall hope is to be liked and justified in the public’s eye, and I think the best way about it for him is to be polite, in his mind. I find that really interesting, that you can have the audacity to have cut off your mother’s head, and yet you’re offering people sandwiches for lunch, as if it’s her fault and not yours.
For you, is it possible to approach a character like Ed Kemper from a place of empathy? Is he a tragic character, or is that just the narrative he’s spinning for himself?
As actors, we’re supposed to never judge our characters, but I had a lot of trouble doing that. I found that the way to make him empathetic to audiences was to play him as someone who’s pretending they’re empathetic. I think the Kemper character wears a mask constantly. He’s sort of practiced this character he’s invented. It’s sort of a character within a character that wants you to feel sorry for him.
There’s an interview with Ed in real life where he started tearing up. I believe some of the dialogue is similar, used from his real interview, where he talks about killing his mother. Maybe 15 years later, he did a very similar interview and was upset with the interviewer for interrupting him during his moment talking about his mother—and instead of crying, he said, “Wait, wait, wait. You’re wiping out the moment.” Because they interrupted him. And that gave me a lot of insight into how to play him, that “wiping out the moment” thing. Like, Okay, you think of this as a spectacle. You’re on stage.
In terms of physicality, what was important to you in your portrayal of Kemper?
My favorite part as far as the physicality was the stillness. I loved playing this character that’s hardly moving, yet finding a way to try to keep it interesting. We’re trained as actors to be alive on screen and be moving; we sort of went the opposite direction with Kemper. That stillness makes him unpredictable. He’s kind of like a python. You don’t know if he’s sunbathing or if he’s about to strike, so that part was my favorite. I focused a lot on eye contact and not blinking. If I’d overthought it, I’d probably not be crossing my legs so casually during these tense scenes, but there was something instinctual about it—this guy, he’s got nowhere to be. He’s going to lean back and enjoy all the attention he’s getting.
Could you talk about your experience working with David Fincher? He’s known for a very specific, meticulous working method—usually, involving many takes.
I love specificity, and David is the master of specificity. A man who has as much on his plate as he does is still able to find the time to come to a guest star’s costume fitting. Any question you have about the scene or the character, the psychology of the character, he can answer so clearly and succinctly, and that’s what the takes are there for. It’s to get the most natural version of your performance out, where you’re no longer planning, you’re no longer thinking; you just simply are the character.
The ship he runs is so tight on set. There’s some projects you’re where you’re worrying that the continuity isn’t right because people aren’t watching after your hair or wardrobe or props, or you’re not sure you’re getting shot at the right angle. This one, all you have to worry about is your own job, and it’s really refreshing. The great thing about his sets is that everybody is so focused, so energy is up. Everyone’s driven. There’s a lot of sets where morale is low; people are just a little too mellow, and that’s infectious. So when someone calls ‘Action’, you have to spike your energy up and fight against the current of the room. With Fincher’s, you’ve got these incredibly driven people surrounding you, so it’s hard to be lazy. [laughs]
With Mindhunter, you had formidable onscreen opponents in Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, as the detectives digging into Kemper’s mind. What were they like to work with?
Jonathan is one of the more giving actors I’ve ever worked with. It’s an egoless performance. He knows that when it’s a scene with Kemper, it’s sort of Kemper’s scene. He’s the focus, and that’s not common in many show structures, and not common with many leads, that they’re willing to give up the scene to the other guy and make it about them. What was so great was shooting the finale, the hospital scene. It’s more Holden’s scene until the very end, when Ed stands up, but then the focus was given back to Holden. I really liked getting to see the focus on his character.
Between takes, Jonathon Groff is so light and easygoing and happy to sing with you, happy to joke around with you, and that goes for Holt. They both have beautiful voices and a great sense of humor, and it’s really necessary. This material is so heavy, and I spend enough time in these dark places when I’m working on them that those moments of levity are really beneficial. You always want to be enjoying acting; even with those characters, there should be a level of joy, and I definitely didn’t expect this project to be such a pleasure to shoot. I was coming in with this game face, really serious, like, “Wow, I’m working with Fincher, and I need to be terrifying and intense”—and when I got there, Holt and Jonathan were so relaxed and easygoing. I remembered that acting’s fun. Just relax and have a good time.
Your role here is unusually monologue-heavy. Were you given the freedom and the time to let your scenes breathe?
Absolutely. The script is incredibly tight and so well written, improv-ing would do it a disservice, but the relationship with the directors was [such] that they steered me away from going too far outside of the right direction. But after that, this incredible bandwidth that I’m allowed to weave in and out and explore, and those amounts of takes make you feel that much more free to do so.
Say a moment’s supposed to be arrogant, but you’re not necessarily feeling arrogant in that moment. It’s kind of hard to play it. But if you know, Oh, I can get that in a few takes when I’m feeling that a little more, awesome.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on this project overall?
The hardest line I had was that one: “I liked Mary the best; I was lukewarm on Anita.” Holden asks Kemper, “What did you think of those girls you killed?” The first two victims. He said, “I liked Mary the best; I was lukewarm on Anita.” That’s a really horrible thing to say. The idea of killing someone that you’re sort of indifferent to…You don’t hate them or love them, and those are real people. We used their actual names. That was the only real time we did that and that part was pretty difficult to do.
For a while, knowing that Kemper would know a lot about these victims after he killed them—that he’d be following their stories in the papers—I thought I’d do the same and know a bit about them. But I found the more I learned about them, the more compassion I had for them and I needed to be unattached to them. I needed to feel the same way you’d feel if you heard, “Oh, somebody in France died today,” where it’s like, “Well, I don’t know them, so I don’t feel anything.” I needed to feel very distant to them.
Honestly, this was my first guest star ever, so when we had to shoot the finale scene, I was really nervous. I kept relaxing when the camera was on Jonathan, and then when it would come back to me, I felt like this needed to be this climactic moment, so I was focusing on the climax and not just playing the reality of the scene. That scene’s also difficult because Ed is sort of directionless. He’s groggy and he was more curious to see if Holden would show up than he was to actually have anything to discuss. Then when you get to the end of the scene, when he stands up and he takes control, suddenly he’s laser-focused again. That part was a blast. I’d been working on him for months up to that point, and I finally got to let out some of the aggression he’s hiding, some of the intimidation that he has.
With the intensity of your work on this series, you also recently got to explore the opposite end of the artistic spectrum with Barry. How was your experience on that show?
When I read that script, I was so excited to see something that was seesawing back and forth from wacky funny, all the way to incredibly edgy and dark, sometimes in the same scene. They were able to capture that, to take it off the page, and get the same feel in the show.
For me, it was just great. My scenes were fun, and I was allowed to improv as much as I wanted. Having just a few lines, for [Bill] Hader to be willing to let me play around as much as I did was really fun, and he’s such a personable guy. On that set, I imagine it was a pleasure for everyone to come to work every day. I was only there a couple days; I wish I had more.