'Mindhunter' actor Sonny Valicenti on working with David Fincher and Steven Spielberg: 'Both are wildly creative, masters of their craft'
Sonny Valicenti, who portrays the BTK Killer Dennis Rader in 'Mindhunter', muses upon the similarities of working with David Fincher and Steven Spielberg and fondly remembers a note Fincher gave him on set.
Serial killers are not monsters, they are your sons, your husbands, your mothers, they are everywhere. Sonny Valicenti, who plays the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer Dennis Rader in 'Mindhunter', talks about how the series looks at the human aspect by "stripping away some vague idea of evil." The notorious killer who murdered ten people in the Wichita, Kansas metro area once infamously said: "When this monster enters my brain, I will never know. But, it here to stay ... Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. He has already chosen his next victim."
In this exclusive interview with MEA World Wide (MEAWW) Sonny clues us in on how the show's creator David Fincher stressed upon quashing the image of a "psycho killer" for Rader while filming the series, which is based on real investigations by FBI agents John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler. The actor also painted a vivid picture of the filmmaker's similarities with Steven Spielberg, with whom he collaborated on the 2017 historical-political thriller 'The Post'.
There are many shows about crime and serial killers, but what makes 'Mindhunter' different is how the makers outline the human side of the criminals. How did you bring it out in your character and how did it change your preparation for the role?
Mr. Fincher would always strip away any choice that telegraphed the idea of a “psycho killer" for Rader. He was not interested in that kind of approach. It was always brought back to simple human logic. He directed the scenes from the foundation of the thesis. The series looks at the human aspect. It’s about stripping away some vague idea of evil and trying to give—without flinching—an honest look at these people in the world, who live among us.
The series has a scene in which Ed Kemper says "Manson is small". What are your thoughts on Charles Manson's portrayal in the show—how much artistic liberty would you say the makers have taken with the character?
I was actually so grateful for the way they approached this character. I couldn’t comment too much on their creative choices, because I only had a basic understanding of who he was and what he did. But to explore the psychological manipulation felt like the best way to understand Manson. To ask the audience to hold two realities in their head, and to posit that both are true in some way... that is masterful storytelling. It is the kind of cognitive dissonance that this show bravely offers.
Most of the focus is on Atlanta Child Murders this season. While Wayne Williams has been suspected, he still hasn't been charged for the murders. What did you think about the ending of the series and the interpretation of the makers?
The makers of this show have a deep unflinching commitment to truth and are not afraid of ambiguity. When the credits rolled on the last episode, I turned to my fiancée and said: 'Gosh, that felt like such an abrupt wrap up of that case.' And she said: "That’s how it was. And probably how it felt. And still feels.'
How was it filming with David Fincher and did this season also involve a lot of takes? What’s the most valuable tip from Fincher that you will never forget?
So many takes! And it is a blessing. To have that kind of space and time to work something out, to craft something, and to strive to discover the crystal vision he has in his head... it is nothing short of a blessing. The most valuable tip? He gave me a note one day: “Can you do a take that is not so loaded? You know what, do nothing. When in doubt, always do nothing!” Simple. And human. For someone who overacts as much as I do... this will forever be the best note I ever get.
You also made an appearance in Steven Spielberg's 'The Post' and there is much talk about how Spielberg's works have had a profound effect on David Fincher. Did you feel that and how would you compare the two experiences?
Working with Mr. Fincher came first. And when I arrived on set for 'The Post', I had done some reading about how Mr. Spielberg works. The phrase “the best idea wins” was something that frightened me. I knew I was going to be so nervous. How could I possibly offer an idea to Steven f’ing Spielberg?! But immediately, I came across a simple man, constantly in a creative flow state. And that was contagious. He would ask me to do something simple, and when I acted on impulse, he’d say: Yes! Exactly that! Do that! It was a holistically accepting environment, which allowed (that’s the keyword) inspired choices to arise.
Mr. Fincher’s set was more held. It had a razor focus towards a goal. Both the filmmakers are wildly creative, but each of them provides a different flavor of presence while on set. On the set of 'Mindhunter', I felt almost like I was on the football team. It was about hustle, focus, and giving the “fourth-quarter energy” in every take. On 'The Post', it felt more like group therapy. Everyone shared. Everyone’s experience was valid. And there was a deep source of wisdom and acceptance from Mr. Spielberg and his team that led us through the entire course. The similarities between these two incredible directors are their relentless excitement and creative flow states. Both are masters of their craft, engaging in deeply complex camera work... and never falling behind schedule. Absolutely amazing!
Tell us about your projects and plans lined up for the future.
Currently, I’m performing in a production of Sam Shepard’s 'Fool For Love' in Los Angeles. We open Friday 8/30 and run for two weeks at the Broadwater Theater. Being on stage, where it all started for me, has been a wonderful experience. It feels like I can open all the windows and let the light and the breeze come pouring in. Next month, I’ll play a part in a film about Marilyn Monroe. Another opportunity to work with a fantastic director. Can’t wait!
In case you missed it, catch Part I of Sonny Valicenti's interview here. The actor sheds light on portraying the BTK Strangler Dennis Rader on-screen and if getting into the notorious serial killer's skin ever troubled his conscience. "Over time, I started to fear that I was barely two or three common human traumas away from being like a serial killer," he says.
Watch 'Mindhunter' Season 2? Read the review of the Netflix series here.