Cotter Smith was born in Washington DC, the son of a federal judge. He is an actor with a stage and screen presence spanning over 40 years. Most recently he can be seen on our screens as Unit Chief Shepard in David Fincher’s Mindhunter and as the Deputy Attorney General in The Americans but his on-screen career stretches back to Hill Street Blues (1982) and Blood Feud (1983) when he played Robert F. Kennedy. I was recently very privileged to talk with Cotter about his life and career in both acting and teaching, working with David Fincher and Steven Spielberg and much, much more.
DB: When you actually got the call from David Fincher: how did that come about?
CS: It was a call from my agent, initially, saying, ‘There’s interest. Would you be willing to read for David Fincher, for this series?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m a big fan.’ They said, ‘Well, first of all, let me tell you, it’s a guaranteed ten episodes already ordered for Netflix, but it would be a required eight months, in Pittsburgh.’ So I called my wife and said, ‘So here’s the deal, there’s this possibility, it’s not an offer but they’re interested in me, to come in and audition and we would be eight months in Pittsburgh.’ And she said, ‘Cotter, go get it, and get me out of here!’ (Laughs)
DB: She was packing her bags!
CS: She was so keen to leave New York. (Both laugh) So I auditioned. Then the wonderful casting agent, Julie Schubert, who was so helpful to me – she is really lovely, a casting agent who really loves actors and believes in the whole process – we had prepared, I think it was, these three or four scenes (I never met David) it was all on tape, that third one went off to him. She said, ‘You know, he takes a very long time to cast, so just relax. Everything he does he takes a very, very long time: from casting to shooting.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and a week later my agent called and said, ‘You got the job.’ I said, ‘What?’, ‘Yeah, you got the job!’ That was the first time it was ‘real’. I didn’t honestly believe I was going to get the job: I knew many, many, many people would want this job and, as an actor, you do these auditions and you don’t actually put much on them because it’s too heartbreaking if you don’t get them. I was so thrilled, and stunned. It’s exactly the kind of work that I want to do, with a kind of director that I want to work with: I love serious drama; he’s a master, master filmmaker. Just knowing he had cast me made me realize: ‘He knows what he’s doing, so this is going to be good.’ And it was. He’s so fun to work with. He’s challenging. He’s tough. He’s fast. He’s improvisational and you’ve really got to come with your A-game – which I like. He does endless takes: 30, 40, 50. My record was 64 takes on one scene. Endless shooting: we took eight months to shoot ten episodes. That’s a long time! Usually a director will be given eight days for an episode so that’ll be three months – he had eight months. But he’s David Fincher.
DB: And aiming as near to perfection as you can get?
CS: He’s a perfectionist. When you look at his work the proof is in the pudding.
DB: What about marks for the camerawork, are they really rigid?
CS: They’re necessarily rigid, at times, but it changes. On the spot, he will change things, change intention, change everything. It was fun.
DB: You don’t have to smoke as a character, do you?
CS: Thank God no! They sent out notices and said: ‘It’s the ‘70s, so who among you would be willing to smoke?’ And I just wrote back and said: ‘Absolutely no.’ And poor Holt McCallany said ‘yes’ and I think he regrets it to this day. This season he’s going to taper off. He really smokes.
Read the other Absolute Music Chat conversations with the Cast of Mindhunter (more to come):
In Conversation with Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff
An Interview with Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany
Jack Erdie: Actor (Mindhunter, Banshee) & writer
In Conversation With Alex Morf: Actor (Mindhunter, Daredevil)
In Conversation With Tobias Segal: Actor (Mindhunter, Sneaky Pete)
Spotlight Interview. Chris Dettone: Actor (Mindhunter), Stuntman/Coordinator