This week, fans will see Jonathan Groff in an entirely new sort of role — as an FBI agent, trying to get into the mind of serial killers, in the new Netflix series "Mindhunter." The series takes place in the '70s — think Son of Sam and Charles Manson — and is produced, and directed in part, by David Fincher, who knows his way around a gritty crime story, having directed "Gone Girl" and "Zodiac." It's based on the book "Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit" by John Douglas, who spent many years developing psychological profiling to probe the minds of the country's worst killers.
Based on the early episodes, it will pull no punches: Somebody's head gets blown off in the first, and in the second, a serial killer describes truly unspeakable (even for cable) crimes. "It's not easy butchering people," the killer notes drily.
Groff's character, Holden — based loosely on author Douglas — is a fresh-faced newcomer to the FBI, and Fincher says the actor's natural sense of curiosity was ideal. "I met Jonathan when we were casting for 'The Social Network,'" Fincher said in an email message. "Part of what makes a great performance is there has to be an inherent thing in the actor that you know is always underneath the surface. In the case of Jonathan, (it's) curiosity and decency. With Holden Ford, it's a hunger to be better, a hunger to understand, and Jonathan naturally has that. He's a great student."
Groff sat down recently to discuss the part, and working with Fincher (the interview has been edited for length).
AP: This character's a departure for you. Had you ever wondered what it was like to be in law enforcement?
Groff: No. Being an actor and artist feels like the opposite. We're emotional, we're expressive, we're empathetic, and playing someone in law enforcement seems like the antithesis of that — which made it really exciting. Also the character of Holden is inquisitive, really interested in bringing psychology and sociology to law enforcement. He's kind of the New Age FBI agent.
AP: You come from theater. What's the difference in the two types of acting?
Groff: It's true that in theater, you get adrenaline from the crowd, but I've found that on TV, particularly something like "Mindhunter," there's a level of adrenaline that happens. When they say "action," everyone's really quiet on the set. ... There isn't a live audience, but my heart beats a little faster, and I get inspired in that space between "action" and "cut."
AP: In theater, you can keep refining your character. Can you do that in TV?
Groff: Yes, in theater, three months into it, I'll think, "Oh no, THIS is what it's about! If only I'd been thinking about that during opening." And then three months later I'm thinking, "Oh, actually it was the first thing!" You're always refining. With David, it's much like theater. You're always softening or sharpening the edges.
AP: That first interview with a serial killer in prison is bone-chilling.
Groff: It's sort of the moment everything comes into clarification. At one point, the killer asks, "Why are you so tense?" For two days of shooting, I'd been fidgeting and doing various things, and suddenly David came over and said, "What if you don't do anything?" It was genius.
AP: There seems to be a "Silence of the Lambs" dynamic here, with you as the Clarice figure.
Groff: Totally. But it's interesting, as amazing as "Silence of the Lambs" is, David wanted to blow up that notion of the comic book version of the serial killer, that brilliant omniscient genius, and really take a genuine human look at who these people are. They had mostly average IQs, and they're just sad, (messed) up people with a damaged story.
AP: The term serial killer didn't even exist then?
Groff: No, and that's the fun of the show. It's all this vocabulary that we're now very comfortable with, but back then it didn't exist. Watching these guys sort of shooting from the hip, going on instinct, is really interesting.
AP: So there's no Hannibal Lecter here?
Groff: It's almost easier to understand, if it's an Anthony Hopkins type. "Oh, they're an insane brilliant crazy person." But when it's, no, this dude is my weird neighbor that I ignore, that's really scarier.
AP: You had to leave "Hamilton" to begin shooting this show in Pittsburgh. Was that hard?
Groff: This opportunity was so extraordinary, it was a no-brainer. But it was bittersweet to leave the show, because I loved that group. And there was actually a moment when we were performing at the White House, ("Hamilton") director Tommy Kail was just reminding me of this, and President Obama got up impromptu and hugged everyone. And I was crying so hard. And Kail slaps me on the back and says, "Have fun in Pittsburgh!"
AP: Are you headed back to the theater soon?
Groff: I'd love to. It's my first love.