Actor Cameron Britton’s chilling performance as the stone-faced serial killer Ed Kemper in Netflix’s original series Mindhunter put the actor on critics’ radar. The measured tone and the willingness to discuss acts of horror with seeming indifference make the character into memorably nightmare fuel. But, until this last weekend, no one exactly knew how Britton had figured out a way to be so creepy. As it turns out, he was inspired by his previous gig teaching preschool.
Mindhunter follows a couple of FBI agents who are pioneering the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit where they interview imprisoned serial killers in hopes of understanding their psychology enough to solve ongoing murder investigations. The show depicts them interviewing Ed Kemper, a real person who killed his paternal grandparents, his mother, as well as a handful of female hitchhikers who’s bodies he then took to his house, dismembered, and violated. Britton’s horrifying performance shows him describing the murders in great detail, but with zero emotion, a skill he apparently picked up while managing classrooms full of young kids — something he did for the better part of a decade.
“[The children’s] impulses can get really intense and everyone is looking at you as the teacher and you can’t break, you know?” Britton told Vulture during a live interview. “Or you lose, you lose the room. So I started slowly learning how to train myself to just cut all emotions out and just get rid of them entirely so I could be this serene presence.”
Britton added that, when he shut his emotions off, they would often emerge violently later. When he set about crafting the Kemper character, he decided to use that silence and the accompanying threat to build tension. During one of the actor’s more unnerving scenes, he describes ripping out his mother’s vocal chords and shoving them down the garbage disposal because he “couldn’t shut her up.” He’s calm throughout.
“She wanted to destroy me with words, literally. So I shut her up for good,” Britton as Kemper explains. “Now everyone knows it’s because of what she did to me, the way she treated her son.”
While that sounds scary as hell, it’s only fair to point out that Britton seems like a genuinely sweet guy who actually likes working with kids a great deal. Even while he was working on Mindhunter, he still took time out to babysit.
“I do like to think that one day these kids will grow up and their parents will be like, ‘You see that guy?’ He was your babysitter.” Britton laughed.