The Australian actress talked about the protective stoicism of her closeted character and why even serial-killer shows shouldn’t hit you over the head.
[This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of “Mindhunter.”]
The Netflix drama “Mindhunter” is about an F.B.I. unit that studies serial killers, but the series is all tell, no show — most of the violence is described rather than depicted.
Another sleight-of-hand is that one of the most compelling characters in the second season, which dropped on Aug. 16, is not one of the killers or agents but the unit’s coolly dispassionate psychologist on loan from academia, Dr. Wendy Carr, as portrayed by the Australian actress Anna Torv.
Torv first came to the attention of American viewers on the Fox series “Fringe” (2008-13), in which she played both the F.B.I. agent Olivia Dunham and her alternate-universe version, referred to as Fauxlivia. At one point they even fought each other, predating Tatiana Maslany’s clone wars on “Orphan Black” by a few years.
Wendy’s calm aloofness is most likely a byproduct of her analytical mind and of being a closeted lesbian in law enforcement, and Torv plays it with a minimalist precision that does not preclude a certain sneaky warmth. Watching her performance is like listening to Dusty Springfield in a world of Mariah Careys.
“She gives everything ‘depth,’” said David Fincher (“Seven,” “Zodiac”), an executive producer and director on the series, in an email. “Her perceptible thoughtfulness is always ‘on’ — even when it’s understated.”
He added: “She knows that Dorothy has to leave the Yellow Brick Road from time to time and that drama lies in the areas that are often ‘off limits’ or ‘out of bounds’ for what’s been established for Wendy.”
Season 2 includes major developments for Wendy, who conducts her first interviews with killers and develops a romance with a free-spirited bartender, Kay (Lauren Glazier). Yet throughout, Torv maintains a poise that is almost hypnotic. In a phone interview Thursday, she spoke from Los Angeles about the outsize emotional expectations placed on actresses, and about the extra challenges of playing such a stoic role. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
True crime has long inspired pop culture. Was it a subject you were ever interested in?
It’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, honestly. I started with John Douglas’s book, [“Mind Hunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” written with Mark Olshaker], and did a bit of research on the serial killers that we were talking to on the show. I don’t find it particularly pleasant to go deep into that. My character has a little bit more of an intellectual approach to it — not that it doesn’t seep into her life, which is a lot of what the show is about.
Then I started reading about psychopathy and sociopathy and all of these different personality biases that exist on a spectrum and don’t always result in someone’s becoming a serial killer. We all know narcissists [laughs]. They operate in the world and don’t all go out and kill people.
It has been said that Wendy is based on a woman named Ann Wolbert Burgess. Did you meet her?
No. When I started the book, I realized, “Oh, she is probably Ann Burgess,” but we took it so far away from her that I think it would do Burgess a disservice to say that. It’s just a completely different character.
Wendy shows very little outward emotion. The strong, impassive type is relatively common among male actors, but we don’t see that so much from actresses.
What I find fascinating is that when you’re an actress, you don’t even realize that the majority of the time you end up carrying the emotional weight of whatever scene you happen to be in. If someone’s going to cry, it’s going to be the girl. If someone is emotional and having a meltdown, it’s going to be the girl. And so you end up getting really good at it. Not even getting good at it — it’s just the expectation, so that’s what your instincts end up honing. All of a sudden to be in the skin of this woman who is just so dry … Anytime I showed a flicker of something, especially in the beginning, David would be like, “Please, pull it back.”
How much of it was in the script?
The writers do a beautiful job but, there aren’t a lot of physical directions. We do have the luxury of rehearsals. One of my favorite scenes is the first time Kay and Wendy sleep together after they’ve been on a date, and the aftermath of that. I really love that scene, and [the director Andrew Dominik] gave a couple of gorgeous, playable character notes.
Do you feel the emphasis on understatement when playing Wendy reflects the series’s general approach?
David has set up the show, and even though we have other beautiful directors come in, he was the tastemaker. Building suspense, drama or action in a show about serial killers with no blood, no action and no guns, that’s the choice. Sometimes people think shows or stories should just hit the audience over the head with what they’re wanting to say, and they don’t give people enough credit.
David always says this one thing that I think is so right: “I don’t want to see two people having an argument where one’s right and one’s wrong. I want to see two intelligent people who are both right.” That’s what makes the show smart and not engulfed in melodrama.
Is that what ultimately happens between Wendy and Kay — they are both sort of right and sort of wrong?
The heartbreak is that it was a relationship that could have been something, that should have worked. Wendy studies patterns of behavior, but she’s totally incapable of holding the mirror up, which I think is true of all the characters.
The show hasn’t been officially renewed for a third season yet, but Fincher is said to have a five-year plan for it. What would you like to explore with Wendy?
With the relationship with Kay, we were able to see a bit more of Wendy outside of the office. You understood her a little more, like you could go, “Oh, there are three dimensions to her — that side is just the way she has to live her life at the office.” I was incredibly grateful to have these opportunities. So I guess more of that [laughs].
Your character in the Australian thriller “Secret City,” whose second season came recently to Netflix, is involved in quite a bit of action. What was fun about that project?
I thought it was a really smart show and it was executed beautifully — and we shoot so quickly in Australia, it’s incomprehensible the kind of difference in that respect between shooting in the States and shooting in Australia. There, we do one, two takes max, and good luck. I also wanted to work at home. To go back to Australia and sit down to a table read with people you’ve come up with was warming.
And maybe they don’t mistake you for Carrie Coon over there.
Poor Carrie Coon! I feel terrible, but I’m also flattered because she’s fantastic and beautiful.
Credit: Elisabeth Vincentelli, The New York Times