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Posted on
Oct 26, 2017

Anna Torv delves into serial killer psychology on ‘Mindhunter’

Anna Torv talks about her role in “Mindhunter” with Cameron Williams in the October 23rd issue of The Monthly.

The notion of a serial killer doesn’t exist yet in the new Netflix series Mindhunter. The idea is floated for the first time when an FBI agent (Jonathan Groff) proposes that there may be “sequence killers”.

Set in America in the late 1970s, Mindhunter tells the true story of an understaffed FBI behavioral science unit (Groff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv) that interviews serial killers and applies the knowledge to help solve ongoing cases. The series is executive produced by filmmaker David Fincher (who directs four episodes) and is adapted from the book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E Douglas.

This was a time when the FBI struggled to comprehend what motivated men such as David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) and Charles Manson. There was resistance to the idea of empathising with killers, and agents spent more time on the gun range than studying psychology. An FBI chief tells the team, “It’s not our job to commiserate with these people. It is our job to electrocute them.”

Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Panic Room and Gone Girl) is back in the same territory he explored with Zodiac, but this time the ’70s presents a crossroads. The aftershocks from the Kennedy assassinations and Watergate are still being felt. J Edgar Hoover, who built the FBI from scratch according to his strict vision, is recently deceased. And for Mindhunter’s investigators, men with no motive are a terrifying prospect. The bureau must adapt or be outsmarted by evil. There’s a chilling realisation that these killers aren’t the savages they anticipated; they are intelligent, articulate and manipulative. While the bureau stalls, people are dying and the wits of local police officers are being eroded by the horrors they witness.

Enter Wendy Carr, a psychologist loosely based on Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess, a trailblazer in the study of trauma and abuse on victims and perpetrators of crime. Played by Australian actress Anna Torv, she is one of few female characters in a male-dominated show, and her point of view is vital to the series, especially when most of the violence is against women. Think Clarice Starling entering an elevator full of her male peers in Silence of the Lambs.

When I spoke with Torv on the phone from Los Angeles, she was upbeat about her role as one of the small number of female characters with a pulse. “We’re in the late 1970s in the FBI and things are a little different but Wendy goes into a room and she doesn’t care – and I went with that,” Torv says. “You go in and fight your cause, not in an aggressive way but you fight for it.”

A graduate of NIDA, she began her career in small roles in Australian dramas Young Lions, McLeod’s Daughters and The Secret Life of Us. Along with a small role in the World War Two series The Pacific, she landed the lead in a major science-fiction series, Fringe, produced by JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and in the vein of The X-Files. Each year, unknown Australian actors descend upon LA for pilot season in the hope of landing a role on the next big hit television show. Torv nabbed the kind of gig every aspiring actor in Hollywood dreams about. Fringe lasted five seasons and after its cancellation she returned to Australia and appeared in Deadline Gallipoli, The Daughter and Secret City. She considers it a privilege that her success has come without resorting to female stereotypes.

“I am lucky, it has been a while since I’ve played the girlfriend or the wife. [In Mindhunter] I am following the boys, but my character is there of her own volition,” Torv says.

For actresses, there are “definitely less opportunities” to practise their craft in front of the cameras. “I look at my male friends, young actors starting out, and I see the number of little guest roles [they get] to figure out how a set works and how to prep a character.”

The roles written for young men and women are also often very different.

“As a woman, the emotional stuff gets pushed on you. If somebody has to have a breakdown it’s usually ‘the chick’. As an actress you learn how to cry, you learn how to be vulnerable and have those emotional moments. The guys don’t get that all the time, but with every job I’ve had, there has been a little cry or meltdown.

“I’ve had conversations with David [Fincher] about what happens: actresses learn to perform.

“If you watch all of his work, too, you can see he likes watching conflict between rational human beings, it’s not just emotional, messy stuff. It’s a little more intellectual. It was really interesting to pull that back because [being emotional] becomes the safety net that you go to as a woman – because it’s learnt behaviour, not necessarily because that’s where your character needs to go.”

Torv wasn’t intimidated by Fincher’s reputation and work ethic. Fincher is known for shooting up to 50 takes per scene, and, as a fan of digital cameras, he can shoot for hours.

“You don’t sit around for hours waiting for lights to get set up or talking about inconsequential stuff that’s not going to make it [into the show],” Torv says. “The time is spent just doing take after take after take, which you never get working on most shows.”

Mindhunter seeks to find common ground with people who commit heinous crimes, and Torv was drawn to the project as we try to come to terms with acts of violence such as the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“It’s so hard for us to wrap our heads around that fact that someone would do something without a motive. We understand revenge. We understand crimes of passion. We even get terrorism. But we can’t comprehend someone behaving so abhorrently for no reason,” Torv says.

“Psychopaths and sociopaths are on a spectrum – we’re still looking at how much is nature and how much is nurture. And the big thing that drives my character in the show is: Can it be prevented? That was one of the things in the book that I found quite interesting. They talk about myths like vampires and werewolves. We have conjured up these creatures over centuries as an offset because we can’t comprehend that a human would do something horrific for absolutely no reason.”

Shows such as Fringe and Mindhunter give Torv every excuse to keep working in America, but she has tried not to turn her back on Australia or feel the pressure to be pulled back for the sake of paying her respects. She comes back when she wants to, and for roles she likes.

Torv says it’s impossible to compare Australia with the American film and television industry. “The difference is that there isn’t the money in Australia. Even if you have an amazingly great film or TV show, it isn’t the same industry as it is in America. Australia doesn’t have a massive studio system.

She adds, “Years and years ago when people were just making stuff because they wanted to – guerrilla filmmaking, like Mad Max – people were just doing it for the sheer thrill of making a film and they weren’t looking at what they could get back. As soon as there was success, people thought, ‘Maybe we can monetise this.’ And then it becomes a checklist system: Do you have the star? Do you have the story? We need a dog in it! And then people start saying it needs to be really funny and Australian. And that’s not how great stuff happens. You just don’t know. That’s the magic of it. Sometimes you think you have all the ingredients that are correct and it doesn’t work.”

Despite the lure of American productions, Torv is still watching a lot of Australian drama, especially television. “I think the quality is really beautiful,” she says. “I’m proud of Secret City. I watched The Kettering Incident, how beautiful was that? The Principal and The Beautiful Lie were great.”

Torv has had her fair share of mainstream success but she’s in that position in Australia where you can place the face but not the name. With Mindhunter, she is surely set to occupy our thoughts.

Credit: The Monthly