After his breakout role in Netflix’s Mindhunter as the diabolical-albeit-charming Ed Kemper, Cameron Britton has continued to take on roles that allow him to explore different shades of morality (and the lack thereof). As Hazel, the time-traveling assassin of The Umbrella Academy, Britton played a character who grew increasingly disillusioned with his marching orders, and sought a way out of the old murder-for-hire life. But his latest role as the co-lead of Manhunt: Deadly Games sees him trying desperately to do the right thing—he plays Richard Jewell, who was “tried in the court of public opinion” before law enforcement caught Eric Rudolph, the real perpetrator of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, among others.
Though the meek Jewell is miles away from Kemper’s stealthy viciousness and Hazel’s initial confidence, Britton mines these roles for their commonalities in order to inhabit them fully. During the Television Critics Association winter press tour, The A.V. Club spoke with Britton about what he takes with him from one project to the next, what we should expect from the media and law enforcement agencies, and why acting in Deadly Games felt like being in middle school again.
The A.V. Club: You had your breakout role in Mindhunter as Ed Kemper. How did it feel moving from that to effectively being the lead of Deadly Games?
Cameron Britton: Well, the way I prepared for Kemper was the way you mostly prepare for a role, which is to focus on what the character’s strengths and beliefs are. For Richard Jewell, I did the inverse of that. I focused on what his doubts and his faults were because I found him to be sort of a walking apology. It reminds me of a lot of the way I was as a teenager, where I was just sort of apologetic for being in the room. You don’t see a lot of real-life heroes like that. It’s a really nice reminder that heroes aren’t folks with chiseled jaws or witty banter, but they’re just people who head towards adversity. That definitely drew me to the role.
AVC: As part of that preparation, how did you go about establishing a family dynamic with Judith Light? She’s obviously done a bit of everything, but she’s also this classic TV mom. What was it like to have her play your mom—well, Richard’s mom—on the show?
CB: We actually met at the table read. She greeted me and she just gave me a huge hug, and then she put on this $8 wig she bought at a department store, and did the table read in front of all the executives and everything—in tears, no less. I mean, she treated it like it was her first project she’s ever done. I learned a lot; watching Judith, I felt several times, this is the kind of career I want to emulate, this perspective on set. And you’re right, she kind of feels like a mom. I mean, she was so caring and loving.
AVC: This show is depicting real events from more than 20 years ago, which means you had a lot of material to dig into. When you were researching, did you look at archival footage of Richard Jewell? And when you first learned of the role, did you have any memory of Jewell from watching the news?
CB: No, I had never heard of Richard Jewell, which is kind of horrifying that we’ve forgotten already. When I talked to people about it, there’s many who still think he did it. That was, once again, another reason we want to get the show out and do it honestly. As far as watching his interviews, even his interviews when he still thought he was the hero, he was shy and self-deprecating. Then he goes through an experience where the whole world hates him and thinks he’s evil, and even six months later you see him talking on 60 Minutes and he’s just a different person. He knows who he is now. He has a backbone. To be in a situation like that, and for him to become stronger, for your character to become more grounded, I was so impressed with him. I loved getting a chance to do his story in long form so we could see him grow into someone who believes in himself.
AVC: A “walking apology,” as you said earlier, is a really apt way of describing it, because he’s physically very imposing when you see him in a wide frame. But when he’s sitting down, there’s just a completely different energy.
CB: Even when he’s big, he’s trying to shrink, and he’s ... I think we honestly don’t talk about it enough. I think many of us struggle every day with trying not to apologize for being in the room. If you grew up in that era in the South, being a sensitive person was frowned upon as a man. Being sensitive as a man in general was frowned upon. While Jewell was sensitive, he’s strong. It would’ve been so easy to become jaded, and he never did. He never wanted anything but the truth to come out and to be left alone to live his life. I mean, I can’t imagine. I know folks who have gotten into the limelight because they wanted to and not liked it. Imagine if you weren’t looking for it at all, and suddenly all eyes are on you. I’m really impressed with his character. Of course, he’s a hero for what he did, saving everyone from that bomb. It’s just equally impressive to me that he came out of that a stronger person.
AVC: A couple of years ago, you did an interview about Mindhunter where you said that you found yourself really getting into Ed Kemper’s frame of mind. Did you feel similarly about Richard Jewell?
CB: Yeah, funny enough, as dark as Kemper was, I enjoyed that frame of mind. He was powerful and he felt in power. He was like a tiger and you were in his cage. Jewell feels like he’s standing in the middle of a gun range. I mean, it’s so vulnerable. It’s just sort of an open nerve. There were a lot of days, I got up in the morning and had to do some stretches and deep breath to get ready to do him again because it felt like middle school again. There was just so much anxiety and doubt and confusion. Not to insult the man, I know he’s deceased, but I do see that 13-year-old inside of him. Until all this goes down and he grows up quickly, he knows what the world is. Before he had this ideology that police are perfect and amazing, and that they’re successful and unsuccessful. It’s all about whether or not you’re worthy. By the end of that, he realizes people are just people, and he becomes much more adult and more mature.
AVC: It does feel like the infamy is what outlives the actual truth in these stories. As you mentioned, a lot of people aren’t even aware that the real bomber was caught. Manhunt: Deadly Games takes a close look at the roles law enforcement and the press played in creating this trial by public opinion. With the distance afforded by time, what do you think the show is saying about how individuals interact with institutions or with the establishment?
CB: I think that both with the media and law enforcement, we’re asking them to be more than civilians and to put a lot of their ego aside. I think in this case the law enforcement and media worked to their own interests. They didn’t want to be embarrassed, so they picked Jewell to be the killer. I would like to see a society where media and law enforcement make mistakes and own those mistakes, but in this case, they wouldn’t. They spent a lot of time ruining his life, and when they realized it wasn’t his fault, they just moved on. I think we have a lot to learn there.
AVC: The show does explore what happens when we act on our instincts, whether it’s Richard thinking something is off about a bag or the FBI agent thinking there’s something off about Richard. Then you have Arliss Howard, who plays someone whose gut always tells him he need more information. What instincts is Richard acting on throughout the remainder of the series?
CB: Richard is just someone who is trying to do what he thinks is best. He’s not a perfect person. He doesn’t always make the right choices, but he’s trying… at first, he’s trying to help law enforcement so they can realize it’s not him, and then go find the real guy. The more helpful he is, the quicker they can get there. Once he realizes they’re not looking for someone else, they’re going to make it him no matter what, he realizes he needs to start fighting back. So yeah, in a really simple way, Richard understands that you need to do whatever you think is best for a situation. He stays with that. Every character in the show does and I do think audiences will like that. They’re all mostly good people, but they’re not perfect people. They all think they’re doing what’s best and you see that end pretty horrible sometimes. It seems like the folks who have humility, things end up working out for them. But if you’re in the show, if you’re basing your decisions off ego, it has some pretty nasty ends, which was true to life.
AVC: When you find yourself going so far into the heads of these characters, do you take some of them with you from project to project?
CB: I do, yeah. What I’ve been finding is no matter how far away from myself I go, eventually, once I look back on the project, I see a lot of commonalities in myself, which I think is pretty normal. If I were to spend a lot of time with you, eventually I’d find that although we’re different people, we have a lot of similarities. And Jewell was a similar experience to Hazel and Ed. Jewell was far and above the hardest because he was so self-deprecating and it was hard to bring that back up from overcoming it over years in my life. Maybe I thought I was completely done with those kinds of feelings, but they came right back when I started working on him. It was an important role to do, but a sobering one.
AVC: The artwork for the show shows Richard Jewell and Eric Rudolph as these kind of mirror images of each other, but you don’t actually share screentime with Jack Huston, who plays Eric Rudolph. You played so well off scene partners like Mary J. Blige in Umbrella Academy and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter—what was it like being on these separate but parallel tracks with Jack?
CB: In real life, what fascinates me about Jewell and Rudolph is this wasn’t Hollywood magic. When they cast Jack Huston, that’s what Eric Rudolph looks like. He is a Hollywood handsome person and hates law enforcement and is a wicked person. On the other side you have this not very Hollywood, not very glamorous person, who respects and idealizes law enforcement, but is considered the villain in this world. For a large portion of this show, Rudolph is admired and respected by many people; they write songs about him, for crying out loud. To see that dichotomy and the irony of that, was amazing. The short time I’ve had with Jack has been fun and great and it is really cool to be in a show that, I felt this with Umbrella Academy, but there’s so many other stories going on that I don’t even read those parts of the script so I can just kind of get lost in them. Then suddenly you’re on the screen and you remember, “Oh, that’s right, I’m in the show.”