How Mindhunter star Holt McCallany channelled his late Irish father for role in Netflix's hit series
Irish-American actor plays FBI agent trying to understand the motivations of violent psychopaths in the 1970s
As one of the stars of the critically-acclaimed Mindhunter - which is back on Netflix today - Holt McCallany has reason to celebrate.
The Irish-American actor may be familiar from supporting roles in films like Fight Club, Sully, and Gangster Squad as well as TV series including CSI: Miami and Blue Bloods. However, given the response to Mindhunter, popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk (or, he jokes, internet dating) is likely to become a little more difficult for the 55-year-old actor.
Executive produced by Zodiac and The Social Network director David Fincher (who also helmed four episodes of the first series), with Charlize Theron producing, Mindhunter boasts some impressive credentials.
It also boasts some pretty gripping material given it’s based on the book by pioneering FBI serial killer profiler John E Douglas and draws from the real interviews he conducted with some of the most notorious serial killers in history, which led to the development of the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the FBI.
Response to the show and to McCallany’s performance was overwhelmingly positive - and led to a second season being given the green light.
“I’ve had the experience of being on television shows that did not get five stars across the board and I can tell you it’s a lot more fun when you get the five stars,” he laughs, all 6’1” of him curled over a dainty breakfast tea in a Dublin hotel.
READ MORE: Pick of the week: Mindhunter
“Really all the credit goes to our executive producer David Fincher. He’s just one of the finest filmmakers of his generation and - I’m biased, I’ve had the privilege or working with him several times, and I’m a big fan – but that’s an objective consensus among everyone that I know in the film business.
“He’s just an amazing talent so Jonathan Groff and myself, I think, are very fortunate to be with David and also to have a fascinating subject that people really seem intrigued by - the psychology of these serial killers.”
It affords him the opportunity to really round out his character. And although Fincher has a very clear vision about what he wants, McCallany says he’s also “very collaborative” with actors. Fincher has also been given free reign and complete creative control – there are no Netflix executives “sitting behind the monitor all day long” as they might do on a network production.
Mindhunter is the third time McCallany has worked with Fincher, having previously appeared in his first film, Alien 3 in 1992, and Fight Club in 1999. He says the director’s approach to the work has always been the same.
“On a certain level we all change a little bit but to me David has remained very much the same guy that I knew, temperamentally and in terms of his approach to the work,” reveals McCallany. “He demands a very high standard, he expects excellence from people in every department, and so we just sort of picked up where we left off as though Fight Club was yesterday when in fact it was 20 years ago.”
Mindhunter is set in the early 70s with all the casual sexism, homophobia, and racism the era entails, and Holt’s character, Tench, is a man of his time. Married with a troubled adopted son he has difficulty connecting, particularly with his son, and distracts himself with work.
There are echoes of his own father in Bill says New Yorker McCallany. His father, who died in 2000, was Dubliner Michael McAloney (Holt changed the spelling of his family name to the phonetic version to make it more easily understood in the US), a successful actor turned producer who brought the Abbey Theatre production of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, starring Niall Tóibín, to Broadway in 1970. He was also an alcoholic.
“Bill Tench would be very close to those kinds of guys,” he says referring to his father and his contemporaries. “He was born in 1934. My father was born in in 1928. It’s the same generation of guys. And they had a certain mentality and I know what that mentality is because I grew up with it.
“It’s very different than 2017 in a lot of very specific ways. That was one of the things I fought for, was let’s not make him a guy with a 2017 sensibility and transport him back to 1978 because that’s not how those guys think, especially a guy who fought in the Korean war, was in the military police, came out of the army and then went into the FBI. That’s a kind of a guy who’s going to have a certain way of seeing the world.
“There is a lot of my dad in Bill Tench. [My father] was a heavy smoker. And also the drinking. There was a very different dynamic in terms of male/female relationships. Men raised their sons differently. I worry occasionally… like I hope people remember it’s a period piece!”
McCallany had a “very troubled” relationship with his own father. His mother Julie Wilson was a hugely successful nightclub singer and Broadway performer (she passed away in 2015) and travelled a lot with work, so Holt and his younger brother Michael were sent to live with an Irish family and went to primary school in Howth, returning home to New York for the holidays.
When he was seven his parents divorced. His mother flew to Mexico where she could get it processed faster, unbeknownst to his father.
“He was sitting in a bar called Jim Downey’s on 8th Avenue in New York city, an Irish bar that was sort of the actors’ bar in those days. They had a big community table, a big round table, so if you were on your own you could grab your drink and sit down,” explains McCallany.
“My dad was sitting there and he was reading Variety and one of his friends came in and said, ‘Oh are you reading about yourself?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘Check the personals.’ My dad turned to the personals and it said, ‘Singer and actress Julie Wilson divorced producer Michael McAloney in Mexico City. They have two sons.’ That’s how he found out.”
The year after the divorce, Holt’s father finally brought the Abbey Theatre production of Borstal Boy to Broadway and it went on to be the first Irish play on Broadway to win a Tony Award.
“It was his obsession. It was all-consuming for him,” says McCallany. “And all those guys were drinking in those days. It was 1970 in New York with an all-Irish cast – it’s amazing the show got on at all! It did, but it cost him his marriage.”
He continues, “It’s funny, working on Mindhunter and exploring the early childhoods of these men who commit these horrible crimes, there are certain commonalities - an abusive or domineering mother who humiliates her child, an absent or alcoholic father. You see these things over and over and over again.”
The scourge of alcoholism had far reaching consequences for the family. Michael and Julie had married with Julie expecting to have children, but Holt adds, “I don’t think my dad, who grew up an only child having never known his own father, I don’t think that fatherhood was something that particularly interested him.”
However, he was happy to have one child with Julie, but when Holt’s little brother Michael Jr arrived he says his father “felt betrayed”.
“The truth is, and it’s a very painful thing, honestly, to discuss, and I don’t talk about it very often at all but to kind of get back at her he wasn’t very nice to my younger brother and he would say things like, ‘That one doesn’t look like me’,” he reveals.
“It was so obvious that even casual visitors to the house would remark on it; ‘Why doesn’t Michael ever speak to the younger boy?’ So in order not to be considered a complete heel he would lavish praise and attention on me. He would say things like, ‘You’re a direct descendant of the Irish kings. You’re my number one son, you’re the prince, you can do anything in the world because you’re just like me.’
“When you’re a little boy and you don’t know any better you start to believe these things and it becomes a part of you in a way, so you grow up with this notion that anything is possible; you could be a film star, you could be the President of the United States.
“My little brother didn’t get any of that. He grew up and he was sort of an angry guy, and violent and a Golden Gloves boxer, and dead at 26 years old.”
While his father and brother struggled with ‘the drink’ and he says he did himself “for a while”, Holt’s career has helped to maintain his focus. And he has chosen to forgive his father.
“Alcoholism is such a terrible disease,” he says. “You lose your health, you lose your job, and your family, and your friends. Everything goes by the end when it’s really bad. They can be very abusive, manipulative, dishonest. It affects many more people besides just the alcoholic themselves.
“It’s not uncommon at all for people to develop resentments and all kinds of grievances and I was no exception but I just decided at the end of the day, you know, to try to find forgiveness. It’s still me who has to get up in the mornings and shave and get dressed and get out into the world and create my destiny, whatever it’s going to be, and although you might carry some emotion related to that you can’t let it undermine you and affect the course of your life. That was him – that’s not me.”
The second series of Mindhunter is available to stream now on Netflix.
A version of this interview first appeared in 2017.