Best Performances is TV Guide's Emmys video series highlighting the best acting performances of the year. Actors take viewers behind the scenes of their Emmy-nominated performances and explain the secrets of their craft.
Have you ever met a serial killer you wanted to grab a coffee with? That's the weird, conflicting feeling that many people felt while watching Cameron Britton play the respectful, intelligent and terrifying Ed Kemper, a real life serial killer, in David Fincher's Netflix series, Mindhunter. He is the last thing you'd expect, especially after the show spends a third of an episode describing Kemper's horrific crimes before Britton even appears on screen.
"They build him up for about 20 minutes. He's killed his mother and he's killed all these people, but then when you meet him he's very respectable, polite and engaging," Britton told TV Guide as part of our Best Performances video series. "I wasn't asked to do an impression. In fact, David Fincher mentioned that we're not paying homage to these people, but I did want to catch his vibe. So I watched him quite a bit [on YouTube] and then ... instincts would take [me] — if Ed is arrogant, which he is, I want to be arrogant, but it doesn't necessarily have to be Ed's [arrogance], if that makes sense."
Britton's subtle but thrilling portrayal of the series' most sociable killer earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Performance in a Drama, but the actor reveals the trick to finding Ed was actually in Fincher's infamous insistence of doing several dozen takes.
"We did do a lot of takes. The goal is to stop acting, so if you do enough takes you can no longer do what you've prepared. You just have to be alive and surprise yourself in the moment," Britton said. "I thought the most important thing for Ed was that he needs to be a regular person. It needs to feel like these murders mean nothing to him. It's more realistic and ... more frightening if you believe this person could be someone that you'd meet at the grocery store or that you've already met them."
Viewers don't ever actually see Ed's horrific crimes play out; the majority of Britton's scenes in the series involve conversations with Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford. Still, it's no less affecting to hear Britton, as Ed, describe the crimes. In fact, the ease with which he details the murders makes it even more terrifying than if viewers had to watch the deaths on screen.
"I had to just cut all of my emotions out. I had to not look up any of the victims names or lives so that I would have no empathy for them," Britton said of those horrific monologues. "I had to just be completely shut off and cold. That allowed me to say these things as if they were nothing."
It took the better part of a year to film Mindhunter, and Britton remained in character for the duration of the shoot. Naturally, living in the skin of such a deranged man for so long was hard on Britton, but he said he had a special trick to help cleanse himself of that killer "vibe."
"At the end I was hoping, 'OK, that's it,' and I could turn it off, but it didn't quite work that way. The Beatles helped, and ice cream," said Britton.
The Emmys for guest performers will be handed out as part of the Creative Arts Emmys, which will be held over two nights, Saturday, Sept. 8 and Sunday, Sept. 9. The telecast will air on FXX Saturday, Sept. 15 at 8/7c.