Jonathan Groff’s subtle transformation in Mindhunter is easily one of the best performances of the year. Why isn’t he a slam dunk for this year’s Emmys? I remember seeing Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening on Broadway a little over a decade ago. The musical was a huge sensation, and he was slowly becoming a household name, especially among die-hard musical theater nerds like myself. With his youthful demeanor and charming smile, it’s easy to see how audiences of stage and screen could fall in love with him. His work in Netflix’s Mindhunter, however, is a completely different animal. His performance is quiet and cerebral–and it’s one of the finest performances of the year. Consider him for Lead Actor in a Drama Series.Despite working as a hostage negotiator at Quantico, Groff’s Holden Ford innocence comes through in the premiere episode. After a stand off goes particularly wrong, Ford doesn’t reach for a bottle of hard liquor–a glass of milk will do just fine. A superior calls him “smart, idealistic–more than a little sensitive,” and you can even see how different he looks than everyone else who holds a position. Ford looks at least 10 or 15 years younger than his colleagues. When he meets Debbie at a bar, he’s embarrassed by how much she teases him about his suit before eventually discussing sociology and deviancy.
One of the most celebrated and discussed interactions comes between Ford and Ed Kemper in the second episode. Ford’s partner, Bill Tench (an understated and similarly brilliant Holt McCallany), thinks the interview is a bad idea, but Ford is able to easily speak with Kemper as if they are old pals. There is a fascination in Groff’s eyes that is both genuine and concerning. Ford tells his colleagues and students that you need to find a commonality with the people you are trying to negotiate with, and he infuses that practice when he speaks to all of the killers in Mindhunter. When Ford and Tench interrogate Dwight Taylor about the abusive relationship between him and his mother, Groff’s gaze is tightly fixed on Taylor as they break him down. He almost doesn’t blink in an effort to not lose one second of focus. There is a boyishness about Groff–with his open face and receiving eyes–that would make even the most skeptical person open up.When the teams interviews Richard Speck about a different murder, he uses some language that some might find shocking or out of character. It’s a moment that leads to a true test between Ford, Tench, and Wendy Carr (a great Anna Torv–this whole cast is astounding) and the future of the team. The moments surrounding the redacted interview and its destruction made me look at Ford in another way. Is his assurance evolving into cockiness and arrogance to a point where his pride could affect his future investigations? Groff’s quietness unsettled me in the later episodes of season one. He’s interviewing jittery, awful serial killers, but there is something scary about how Groff listens to people and absorbs their stories and information. When he later brags that the team has “Manson and Berkowitz on the wish list” I was both excited and terrified to see how those conversations would go with Ford patiently nodding his head and trying to wring out every last detail of their motivations to kill.
The final scene of the first season is the scariest things to play on televisions all season, and Groff’s journey throughout season one comes through in another scene with Kemper. Kemper asks him if he wants to be an expert on his field, and Ford takes a moment before answering yes. The look on Groff’s face doesn’t really move but his tone has an edge of meekness to it. He winces when Kemper shows him a fresh scar on his arm, and he jumps at the reaction of Kemper’s heavy feet on the hospital floor. It’s one thing to interview someone who has murdered people, but the closeness of that terror registers through Groff’s entire body. You can almost hear his blood pumping through his ears. Even the toughest of people would tremble before such a vast man, but Groff trembles and shakes–he makes you feel it.For over a decade, we know how charismatic Groff can be on stage, especially when he’s given a song to sing, but he has never had an opportunity to dig into the psyche of another character like Holden Ford. His casting confused me when I started Mindhunter for the first time probably because I never thought that he had the chops to pull of such a performance. I was wrong. The way Groff withholds from the viewer is fascinating, and easily the best male performance of the year.Whose mind are we really trying to untangle anyway?Season 1 of Mindhunter is available now on Netflix.