Cameron Britton just earned his first Emmy nomination for his chilling performance as serial killer Ed Kemper in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” Britton is nominated in Best Drama Guest Actor, a category that has actually been won by actors playing serial killers before.
Britton recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about how he got cast as Ed Kemper, how the character stayed with him even after shooting, and the thrill of earning his first Emmy nomination. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Cameron Britton, you earned an Emmy nomination this year for playing serial killer Ed Kemper in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” For starters, for a character that dark and disturbing, what even is the process for getting cast in a role like that?
Cameron Britton: I didn’t envy them on the casting because you needed to find an actor — they submitted all over the country and maybe the world, because you had to find someone who was 6’5’’ or taller and at least somewhat looks like the guy and then someone who can perform it. I’m 6’5” so if I were 6’4” I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. I was lucky enough to get to do a self-tape and it was so much dialogue, such a dialogue-heavy show that I couldn’t quite memorize it so then they sent it to me again to do it off-book and then they brought me in three more times and then the screen test. So six times over six weeks, auditions went, and then we did a bunch of rehearsals. So I probably had the material for a few months before we first started shooting, which was invaluable with a character like this.
“Mindhunter” is so incredible because it doesn’t slouch on its guest stars. Guest stars aren’t just character engines that move the plot along. They’re a part of the show. It kind of feels like “X-Files” in a way, where Mulder and Scully almost kind of move to the side and the guest star becomes the featured character. It’s kind of refreshing for audiences, too. They don’t look at the same faces over and over. It was a heck of a process. The first thing I saw was him talking about being a regular guy most of his life, nice home, nice suburbs, had pets, went to a good school. Then he says, “But at the same time, I was living a vile, depraved, entirely parallel other life filled with mayhem and death.” That was the first thing I read on him (laughs). I was like, “Wow, this is really cool. Really unique.” I could tell he was very formal. I also from the audition sides didn’t know that this was a real person. You could just sort of tell from the sides these felt like quotes more than just lines. So then I looked up the name Ed Kemper and went down a rabbit hole for about two hours of really interesting and strange interviews and reading about him on Wikipedia and then I went back and found out [David] Fincher and Charlize Theron were involved and Netflix and I did that first self-tape ’til midnight, just trying to get it right.
GD: What was it like working with David Fincher as a director? He does have a reputation for being very exacting, lots of takes, wants to get it precisely the way he likes it.
CB: Yeah, I like working the same way. I like the surgical element to acting, the specificity to it, which, it doesn’t often go well with film and television because you don’t rehearse. You just show up and you have to pretend you and your wife have been married for 15 years and stuff. It’s pretty tricky, and I’m still trying to figure it out, but working with David is incredible because while it’s specific, you’re given a ton of freedom within that. If he gives you a note, it’s more of a general direction to go than, “I want the line this way, done here.” It’s more, “I need this a little more arrogant.” And that’s it. “However arrogant comes out of you, or however narcissistic comes out of you.” And after that, those takes are not for him to exact his vision all of the time. There is something specific he may be looking for to tell the story, but more it feels like, and for sure he just wants to get a performance out of you that you didn’t prepare. He wants you to be truly living, not taking, sort of like “Westworld,” “Oh, I need 40% more aggression and 20% less likability,” that kind of thing. It’s more can I just stop thinking and just be alive in the moment and truly just simply be? After that, the inspiration sort of takes care of itself. Whatever vision he had, maybe he lets go of, because I bring something new. Maybe the vision changes. I think that’s probably a credit to what a great director he is, willing to adapt and evolve his vision to the performance. So yeah, basically you’re free to do what you want and he’s more guiding you back on track than he is making a lab rat version of a character.
GD: What’s interesting about “Mindhunter” as a whole is that it’s about these very horrific crimes but we never actually see the crimes dramatized, at least not in the first season. So you’re playing Ed Kemper after he has committed these murders and he’s talking about them very openly but we never see them happen. What’s it like to play a character where everything that’s so central to that character is really all backstory and you’re really in the moment after all of this has happened?
CB: It’s definitely a fortunate thing that you’re doing a real-life person with so much written history about and he is truly in real life so forthcoming about who he is and what he’s done. A lot of serial killers are very private or they’re compulsive liars or they’re rambling Charlie Manson-types. You can’t understand a word they’re saying. So it really helps to be able to start, like, “What was he like at eight? What was he like at nine? What was he like at 15?” All the way through. That way, it feels like a real person. So if there’s a lot of mystery behind it, that mystery is grounded in reality and it only makes the mystery greater. As far as not showing any violence, it’s sort of my favorite thing about “Mindhunter.” A long way around it, I’ll try to be quick, is “Jaws,” the shark didn’t work. Because that shark didn’t work, [Steven] Spielberg was forced to make most of the movie without showing the shark until the end. And he credits 10s of millions of dollars in movie sales to the unfortunateness of the shark not working.
That imagination factor is so huge. I think it allows the audience to… Everybody gets their own version of “Mindhunter.” You’re hearing Kemper talk about what he did to his mother, you’re seeing something, the person next to you is seeing something completely different in their mind’s eye. That’s invaluable and that’s what we hope for. It’s hard to do, but you kind of want film and TV to feel like a book. You want people to feel like they’re meeting you halfway on the story, that they’re getting to bring their own imagination to the table, help create this story with you. Man, it’s really cool, my first guest star, to get to do something like that. I had started acting in 2013, for film and television. I’ve been doing it since I was 11 for theater. But to that quickly go from just doing some fun stuff, five lines or less, then to move so quickly to working with David and getting to see how the masters do it, you get excited talking about it. Yeah, it was special to help me realize a lot about how I like to do film and TV moving forward.
GD: Was there ever a point while playing this character thus far that you found was especially unsettling or uncomfortable? Obviously this character is talking about some really horrific acts. Did any of that sink in in a way that was difficult to come out of?
CB: Sure, I had to stop looking up the victims and their lives and their stories, as Ed would. These serial killers love following the papers on the victims, love trying to go to the funeral and stand in the trees or something. There’s a line where Holden asks Ed, “What did you think of those girls?” He’s talking about the first girls he killed. And he says, “What do you think of those two girls?” And he takes a moment and he says, “I liked Mary the best. I was lukewarm on Anita.” And it was really uncomfortable to say. It was one of the reasons I had to stop looking up the girls because I started getting empathy for them. That started growing, so I couldn’t have that. A line like being lukewarm on somebody, you don’t hate ‘em, you don’t love ‘em, you’re just willing to take their life when they’re fine, it was just so cold. That one was a hard one.
My mom had come had to visit and that was kind of weird. I had to get into a headspace. I had to think of sometimes she didn’t let me go to my friend’s house for playing video games as a kid. I had to think of ways to really be disenfranchised with mothers and just hate them with everything I have. So it was weird seeing her. I didn’t expect that, and I sort of held it together when she was visiting. When she’d leave I’d kind of take a minute like, “Wow, that was really weird. I didn’t expect that.” I’m not a method actor but I think if anyone’s doing a character, especially one that’s that dark, for nine months, you’re gonna develop some dark thoughts and they’re gonna become habitual, as anything becomes habitual over and over again. So once we were done shooting, I expected the character to leave but he didn’t want to. I could feel him again coming into conversations, a facial expression or a movement or something. It wasn’t going away on its own so I had to just start being active about making those habits go away (laughs).
GD: Is there a way to decompress between takes when you’re in the role or is it just staying in that mindset throughout?
CB: It’s a really instinctual thing between takes. Sometimes i would sit quietly. One time I went down the hallway and sat. I was waiting for them to turn the cameras around to the other side and I heard David tell everyone to keep it down and I was assuming he was talking to them in general as they work. What I didn’t realize is he was telling them to keep it down ‘cause a guest star, again, a guest star is working on getting into a place he needs to be. So when I looked up from my little moment in the corner and realized everyone’s quietly and patiently waiting for me to be in the place I need to be, I couldn’t believe it. It was an incredibly giving thing for him to do on a tight schedule. But then there’s other times that you’re just singing. [Jonathan] Groff is such an amazing singer and Holt [McCallany] is, too. His mother was a famous singer. I believe she was in “Singin’ in the Rain.” So I could sing one bar poorly and then let them sing after that. We tell jokes and keep it light and that was important to do, too, to remember, as weird as it is, we’re having fun here. It shouldn’t be work, in a way. This should start having an ease to it. So really, whatever was needed between takes, we’d just sort of roll with it.
GD: The closest work you do onscreen on the show is with Jonathan Groff as Agent Holden Ford. Of course, in the season finale episode of Season 1 they have that very intense moment where Groff just shatters, realizing how scary Ed Kemper really is. What was it like shooting that last scene between them in Season 1?
CB: That scene took a lot of work and a lot of rewrites. I got that in March. We didn’t shoot it ’til August and it was a completely new scene two and a half days before shooting. I just got an email and we kept a couple things. One thing that stayed throughout was the concept of spirit wives, and I shudder a little bit at that sentence but what an interesting concept. So that stuck in. For a while it was Ed holding Holden and talking to him. It eventually became what it was, which was a thriller ending with a hug, which is pretty cool. What I love about that scene, and I don’t get asked a lot about Groff so I’m happy to answer those, he’s the most giving performer in the world. All of Episode 2 and 3, it’s Ed’s scenes. He’s the focus. It’s about him. It’s about his character. And then also about Holden but for Jonathan to be that giving and give it up for this guest star was pretty cool.
For Episode 10, for almost all of that scene as long as Ed’s laying down, it’s about Holden. It’s Holden’s arc and Ed’s letting him. Ed’s sitting back and not trying to do much or say much but let’s see what this guy’s about. Let’s show his arrogance, how he’s become this insufferable know-it-all, which everyone else is putting up with, but that’s just not Ed’s style. So what’s great is you’ve got this sort of ambiguous scene. They’re not talking about much. Ed’s not that engaged. He’s just sitting there and then he stands up and it just sort of flops. Holden, he’s now back to just giving Ed the floor and Ed is a very precise, very clear person in that moment. He’s got a very big intention when he’s staring at him. That was really, really fun to shoot and whether or not the camera was on him, I don’t know how he has the energy. Jonathan was able to give it up every take, just that pure fear, that deer in the headlight look in his eyes. He gave it every time and it really helped. That only excites Ed more to have someone that vulnerable in his possession, so to speak. What I love most about that scene, especially when he stands up and hugs him is you don’t know, really, what Ed’s intentions are. You don’t know if this was a really aggressive moment or if he was just proving a point. You don’t know if he really likes Holden or what and it perfectly parallels the first time you meet Ed. You expect this maniac and then he walks in the room, very nice, affable, offering egg salad sandwiches. So from beginning to end of the show you just don’t quite know where Ed’s coming from. You don’t get characters often that are that in-depth, especially as a guest star.
GD: Now you’re nominated for an Emmy for Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series. What’s interesting about that category in probably a coincidental way is serial killers have won that before. Michael Emerson played a serial killer and won for “The Practice.” John Lithgow was a serial killer and won that, on “Dexter.” So what was your reaction to that nomination and what would it be like to join that weird tradition?
CB: Well, when I first heard, I was watching live on the Emmy announcements. I didn’t realize when they started that live broadcast they had also put it on their website. So it was interrupted by my manager calling and telling me that I was nominated, and I said, “Cool. That’s awesome.” He kind of went, “Yeah, it’s amazing!” And I said, “Yeah, I know, it’s great.” Like, it just didn’t hit and then my agent called, I talked to him, and I was able to call my wife and the phone was just ringing and suddenly I went from numb to it to just crying. She picked up and was crying even harder. We couldn’t believe it. To be with the serial killer group, it does feel like a fun little circle. I haven’t met any of those fellows, but if I were to get a chance to meet Anthony Hopkins or Charlize Theron or Christian Bale or John Lithgow or any of them — Ralph Fiennes, I believe, in “Schindler’s List” should be included — it would be hard to not fanboy. It really would, because I wanna ask them, “What was it like for you? Because it was such an indelible experience for nine months to be in that headspace. What was it for you?” Maybe that’s why I loved playing Ed, because the itch never stopped itching. I just kept wanting to know more and understand more about what it is to be one of these people. I think that’s why people watch true crime is it’s hard to really understand why someone would do these things. Once again, I’ve answered your question for six minutes to say yes, it’s an honor and I’d love to meet them and I’m glad to be a part of their group (laughs).
GD: Is there anything you could tell us about Season 2? Ed Kemper will be returning for at least a couple episodes in Season 2. Do you know anything about that yet? Have you started shooting?
CB: I haven’t heard that he’s being brought back yet.
GD: I heard he was, so hopefully he is.
CB: (Laughs). Yeah, all I know is that even if Ed doesn’t come back for seasons and seasons, even if he never comes back, all I know is I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut and shrug, whether or not he’s in it or what goes on in “Mindhunter.” I do know they released that Charles Manson will be in this one and I cannot wait to see that. I believe they got an incredible makeup artist, the fellow who did “Darkest Hour,” so we can expect Manson to look like Manson. That’s all I can say (laughs).
GD: Well, I wanna congratulate you again on your Emmy nomination and on the role in general and thank you so much for talking with me today.
CB: Sure Daniel, thank you. It was nice meeting you.