Netflix’s gripping, unsettling psychological drama Mindhunter is a show in which two men – FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – interview dozens of incarcerated serial killers in the 1970s, developing the methodology we now know as criminal profiling. Between the male-dominated Bureau and the (so far) entirely male interview subjects, the show could easily become a testosterone fest.
But it never does, thanks, in part, to its numerous female writers, and in part to Anna Torv’s commanding, nuanced performance as Dr. Wendy Carr. A psychology professor hired to bring scientific legitimacy to Ford and Tench’s nascent work, Wendy’s role is to analyze what serial killers say about themselves and develop insights from there. As was hinted in season one and becomes much clearer in season two, Wendy’s unflappable exterior belies a complex inner life: she is gay, and unable to be publicly out in an era where homosexuality had only recently been removed from the DSM as a mental disorder.
ELLE.com sat down with Torv to discuss Wendy’s experience as a closeted woman in the 1970s, our cultural fascination with Charles Manson, and why it matters that Wendy is not “the heart” of Mindhunter.
The way Wendy navigates her male colleagues is fascinating to watch. How does that shift in season two?
It’s mostly unspoken that Wendy’s in a man’s world, but you so rarely even see another woman on screen at the FBI, and when you do it’s the secretary. My mum was a secretary. She went to secretarial college and learned how to pour the boss a drink, how to put the ice in properly, on top of learning how to write in shorthand and all the other things her job required. There are a couple of scenes in season two where we give more of a nod to that, to the realities of the era Wendy’s living in and the things she has to deal with as a woman – and then of course, she’s also gay.
Wendy and Bill seem like they’ve known each other for a while. Do you think he has any idea?
No. Because I think that he wouldn’t even suspect. In this era, that would be the last thing that Bill would think in a million years. Holden would think it before Bill, but I think either one of them would be more likely to believe that Wendy’s just not interested [in dating] than they would be to believe that.
There was a hint of that last season, when Wendy called Bill out for being narrow-minded when they’re trying to analyze Jerry Brudos, the cross-dressing serial killer.
Yeah, all they’re wanting to do is peg him as a homosexual, and Wendy has this line, “Cross-dressing is not an antecedent to homicidal behavior.” People have been doing it in every culture in every era! This season, she points out that actually, homosexuality has just been taken out of the DSM, it’s no longer classed as a mental disorder, and now it’s a “sexual orientation disturbance”. Meanwhile that’s her life. That’s her!
So she’s living a completely secret life, which has to be isolating. Are you consciously playing that loneliness?
That’s just kind of how she is, she’s completely isolated and she’s accepted that. But there’s also an element of her being able to handle it because I think her personality type wouldn’t be much of a sharer anyway. So even if she was married to a man, I don’t think she would want to be having dinners with the guys. I think that’s her nature. But then you think, well, why is that her nature? Because she’s been hiding!
Wendy is loosely based on forensic researcher Ann Wolbert Burgess. Have you spoken to Burgess at all?
No, I haven’t. When I was first reading up on her to go in for the audition, I did a lot of research, but from the very beginning we moved so far away from her that I didn’t. Not to not tip my hat to the work that she did, which was fascinating.
Burgess’s work focused on treating victims of trauma and abuse, which isn’t necessarily Wendy’s focus in the show.
Yeah, and when we first began I thought that’s what Wendy’s perspective was going to be. You know, where these guys are just wanting to solve the crimes, and then Wendy’s “the heart”. But instead we tipped completely the other way! I find it kind of fascinating, although it’s tough to play, that she just doesn’t play that female role.
The role of “woman in the room who does all the emotional labor”?
Yeah, Wendy’s not there to carry the heavy emotional lifting. If you’ve been acting for a while and you’re a woman, you learn to have that [emotional] stuff really accessible, because that’s primarily what you’ll get asked to do. You’ll be asked to cry when you don’t really need to cry, you’ll be asked to do all the wanting, the needing, the talking, all the emotional heavy lifting, always. So then to come on Mindhunter, and the biggest note for me was just constantly, “I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see [emotion].” It’s been interesting!
We see that at the start of season two – Bill is impatient with Holden after his breakdown, and Wendy’s reaction is a little different, but she’s also not particularly sympathetic. Which is the role you expect a stereotypical female character to play.
Yeah, she’s like “This is a problem and here’s what you need to do.” It’s not, “Oh my god! Let me give you a hug!” There are a few moments in the season where you see a softer side of her, but it’s only a softer side because she’s out of context, and she’s not at work. I think she has to have a kind of steeliness at work, because of all the things we’ve just been talking about. That’s how she gets through the day.
That softer side mainly comes out with her new love interest, Kay. What was that dynamic like to play?
It was so great. From a personal point of view, Lauren Glazier who plays Kay has become one of my best friends, and I just adore her. From a character point of view, it’s like how everybody last season had questions about the cat. Because ultimately that was the only time that you really got a little minute, or a little flash, or a little taste of Wendy not having to be totally masked up. The introduction of Kay means we get to see more of that, which was lovely.
I also loved the cat scene because you get to see Wendy doing these very mundane things. Eating tuna from the can because you’re too exhausted after work is very relatable to me personally!
Yeah, and doing your laundry at night when you don’t feel like doing the washing up… That’s what David does so much. He’ll linger on the little mundane moments that tell the story of the people that you’re watching. It’s walking down the path to open the car, it’s waiting in the elevator as it slowly goes down to the basement, it’s those little moments that let you really sit with these people.
The long-awaited Charles Manson interview happens this season.
It’s funny, because I’m not a serial killer person and I haven’t been obsessed with all of that stuff, so when I heard we were gonna do Manson I was a little bit like [rolls eyes] “Okay, great, but who cares?” Andrew Dominik directed that episode, and I remember asking when we were doing the read-through, what is the fascination with Manson? Why are people just so obsessed? And he’s obsessed. What they’ve done so beautifully in the Manson scene is that you’re all hyped up. All anybody wants to talk about is they’re doing the Manson interview! Both in the real world and within Mindhunter. Then they get into the interview and what you actually get is an illumination of the other characters. I think that was the fascination. Manson’s thing is: it’s not about me, it’s you. Who are you? It’s that reflective mirror back.
Wendy’s job involves listening to hours and hours of incredibly harrowing interviews about murder, and she seems unfazed by it – even in comparison to some of her colleagues. How is she able to do that?
I think she disconnects. She just doesn’t allow it to affect her, in the same way that I deal with it all day and go home and I just don’t think about it. But you do see the toll, increasingly, that the work’s taking on all of them. This season in particular you start to see the seams fray, and what coming home looks like after having your head in that. But actually – that’s not true. I keep saying I’m not affected, and that’s not true. I feel heavy, after finishing the season. Even though I’m not doing the stuff that the guys are doing. I do feel heavy, I feel like there’s a weight on me that isn’t usually there.
Credit: Emma Dibdin, ELLE