Analy grad Cameron Britton gives chilling performance on Netflix’s 'Mindhunter'

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Actor Cameron Britton believes in doing his homework. After getting cast in “Threepenny Opera” as a teenage drama student at Sebastopol’s Analy High School, Britton sought out a homeless man in San Francisco and asked him to tell his story, which he did.

That kind of preparation to learn first-hand about street beggars for his role in the Bertolt Brecht Victorian-era London tale paid off then, and it has paid off ever since for Britton in his pursuit of depth for other roles.

Britton is savoring the acclaim he’s received in the past eight months for his breakout performance as prolific serial killer Edmund Kemper in the hit Netflix series “Mindhunter.”

Scripted as a guest role, Britton’s Kemper becomes an intense focal point for the 10-episode first season about the beginnings of the FBI’s behavioral science unit in the late 1970s, when law enforcement first began studying serial killers.

Vanity Fair called his performance “terrifically unnerving” and The AV Club described Britton’s take on the Santa Cruz killer as “one of the most chilling” and delivered with “effortless menace.”

“I had no idea that performance would go over so well,” the Sebastopol native said in a phone interview from Toronto, where he’s filming a new Netflix series, “Umbrella Academy.”

His creepy, yet almost likable, portrayal has “flung open” doors for the 31-year-old actor, a professional since age 18, when his mother dropped him off at Hollywood and Vine so he could try to make it in the notoriously dream-crushing entertainment business.

Britton, who graduated high school in 2004, credits former Analy drama teacher Starr Hergenrather for helping him hone his skills as a young performer and his parents for letting him run free as a child on their Martinelli family orchards and vineyards.

“When I was 11, I said I wanted to be an actor,” he said. “I moved out there for comedy. I thought I was going to be on Saturday Night Live. As life happens, I end up playing a murderer.”

After several lean years, Britton took a break from acting and joined his mother, Julianna Martinelli of the Martinelli wine family, who had temporarily moved to Tennessee.

She remembers his decision not to give up. “After a while, he said, ‘I’m going back to try it again,’” she recalled. “And then, it went from zero to 100.”

“Mindhunter” director David Fincher needed an actor who bore some resemblance to Kemper, at 6-foot-9 and more than 250 pounds, and could believably depict the killer’s intelligence and eerie calmness.

Britton, though 6-5 and about 275, still had to wear lifts to appear as tall as Kemper.

But transforming into a man who murdered his grandparents, his mother, her best friend, five female college students and a 15-year-old high school girl was more demanding.

As he learned in high school, Britton conducted extensive research on his character, whom he’d never heard of before. The real Kemper, now 69, remains locked up at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He has been rejected for parole several times, as recently as 2017.

“I picked up the script I was sent to read and it felt like it was a real person — something about the dialog,” he said. “When I did look him up, I sure went down a rabbit hole for a while.

“But I have no qualms. I just wanted to make him a whole, rounded person. I cringe at performances that just make them (serial killers) evil.”

Britton went to extremes to build layers into his portrayal, even going out in public as “Ed,” as Britton calls him. He went to dog parks, took Uber rides and even negotiated the purchase of his car as the killer, practicing the art of appearing aloof and making an “unnerving amount of eye contact.”

“It made me feel like a predator. I’d often drive around in the suburbs and just watch people,” he said. “These are regular people, that’s what is so terrifying. They seem like you and me. Kemper was known to be liked.”

With an IQ of 146, Kemper enjoyed talking to police before his crimes were discovered and later he described his horrifying sex crimes to FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler, on whom the series is based. It is Britton’s scenes inside prison as Kemper manipulates and seemingly tries to make friends with FBI agent characters Holden Ford and Bill Tench, played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, that are so unsettling.

Kemper offered the FBI rare insights into a violent criminal’s mind and behavior. Britton’s task was to convey Kemper’s depravity and humanity simultaneously.

The agents “meet this stately, almost grandiose, well-spoken, monster,” Britton said. “In the same breath he can be discussing the weather, and just switch with the same tone describe what he did to his victims.”

It soon became apparent Britton’s performance was spot-on.

“By the end of day one, the cast and crew were making it clear they thought my performance was effective,” he said “It was a pleasant surprise for me.”

Acting coach Hergenrather agreed.

“I thought he was tremendous, just absolutely tremendous,” she said. “Chilling. He was incredible. The last episode, I jumped a mile off my couch. I was totally involved, totally absorbed. When I watched him, I didn’t even think of him as Cameron in that role. He just transformed.”

The recently retired Hergenrather taught her students “acting is believing.”

“I’d always say if you don’t believe the character you are, how you can expect the audience to believe?”

Britton took that to heart.

“There were times I could really, truly forget what I was doing,” he said. “Having prepared and prepared and prepared for my character, then letting it go on the day of shooting and getting lost in the scene – it’s a thrill as an actor. When you can surprise yourself, you’re truly acting.”

Being a good listener and observer serves Britton well, Hergenrather said.

“That goes hand in hand with his ability to do what he does as well as he does. You have to watch people and understand human nature in order to play these roles,” she said. “He’s not afraid of that. Like interviewing the homeless people – he more than any other student just sat there, listening to this guy, giving this guy so much of his attention and love. The guy was pouring his whole story out to Cameron without any qualms at all.”

Qualities like that may lead to writing as well as acting someday, Martinelli said of her son.

Wherever his career leads, Britton said he knows he will be grateful for the “Mindhunter” role, which has already led to a role in the film “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” based on the fourth book in the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series.

Netflix was so impressed with his Kemper portrayal that he was cast in another series created by the streaming video service, “Umbrella Academy,” in which he plays an assassin with Mary J. Blige. The story is based on what Britton calls an “off-center” superhero comic book.

“When you have a job you know you’d do for free, it takes a lot of the pressure away to be successful at it. So if it’s doing theater in New York or teaching acting, I’m down for all of it,” he said. “In a way I felt like I arrived before I was making money at it, because I’d established that I just wanted to act.

“When I feel like this stuff is getting too big for me or is happening too fast – I never thought a guest role would lead to this much work and notoriety – I think of my roots, how humble my family is. They have every right as Martinellis to act like stuck-up wine snobs, but they’re not, they keep it about the work. I try to do that with my work.”

Cameron Britton’s portrayal of a notorious serial killer can be viewed in these popular promos for Netflix’s “Mindhunter” which can be viewed here:

Egg salad sandwhich, a reference to key scene in the show

Cameron Britton does his warm-up to get into character to play serial killer Ed Kemper

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