Arts & Entertainment

The Charles Manson Actor Says There's a Different Side of the Cult Leader Cut From Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Damon Herriman discusses playing the infamous Manson Family leader in Quentin Tarantino's latest and in Mindhunter.
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Fifty years ago, members of Charles Manson’s cult murdered Nine people in Los Angeles, including actress Sharon Tate, over the course of a few weeks in late summer. Though he directly committed none of the crimes himself, Manson captured the public imagination and has kept a firm grasp on it in the half century since he became a household name.

So it’s not exactly surprising that Manson loomed large over two of the biggest releases of the summer, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Netflix’sMindhunter. What is surprising, though, is that the cult leader was played by the same actor in both projects, Justified's Damon Herriman. We talked with the actor about how he landed the same part twice, the footage that Tarantino left on the cutting room floor, and why he’s never going to play Charles Manson again.

How did you end up portraying Charles Manson twice in one summer?

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I think probably part of the fact that I was going in for both of those roles was I'm 5'7", and he was about 5’2." They were only seeing actors who were of a particular height, so that kind of narrows the pool down a little. Other than that, it was purely coincidental.

Mindhunter came about a few months earlier, and then, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They ended up shooting within a couple of weeks of each other, bizarrely. That was pretty weird, going from one and then almost immediately onto the other.

Which one shot first?

Mindhunter.

Was it at all weird playing the character going backwards in time, old Manson first and then young Manson?

Not really. It was good in the sense that I didn't have to redo the research—I read and watched so much. I guess the main thing I wanted to concentrate on was: Was he different 11 years earlier? I found that he was. He had more of lightness to him. He didn't have that bitter quality that he has in jail. His voice was a little different and he had a sort of lighter voice. It was nice to be able to make a little difference between the two. Obviously, it is the same guy, but it was nice to find some points of difference as well.

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And how much did you know about Manson going in to the roles? What was your preparation like?

I had read Helter Skelter in my twenties, I'd seen documentaries before, so I did know the basics of what had happened and who he was, but nowhere near as much as I found out when I got the first role.

I had about six months before I had to shoot that, so I did a very deep dive into everything I could find in terms of reading and listening and watching. Mostly, once I'd had the basics and the information in terms of what had happened and who he was, it was really just spending a lot of time just watching videos because, ultimately, I wanted to try and capture his voice and the way he moved and the essence of him, I guess.

In your Mindhunter scene, Jonathan Groff’s character kind of serves as a stand in for that collective interest that so many have in Manson. Why do you think he fascinates people so much, all these years later?

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It's a really good question because obviously there have been many, many other murders that have taken place and many other weird murders and horrific murders. But there's something about that story.

I think it's a combination of things. I think it's the way that he looked, the way he spoke—he looked like this scary, little, demonic thing. Then he spoke in a way that was unusual and kind of mesmerizing. He kind of looked scary.

It was also the fact that it shook LA and, really, the world in a way that something hadn't before. The fact that a whole bunch of people could end up brutally murdered in their homes, and not knowing what the possible reason for it could've been. Then, it became even more bizarre when you saw who actually did it, and you saw three young girls walking down a hallway, holding hands, singing pretty songs after they'd been arrested. The whole thing had such a bizarreness to it. Obviously, Sharon Tate being one of the victims made it more famous as well. It's 50 years ago now, and still everyone knows the name Charles Manson and most people would recognize his photograph.

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Police officers escorted Charles Manson from court after he was found guilty for the Tate-LaBianca killings in 1971. He died, still imprisoned, in 2017.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images.

In your interview with Entertainment Weekly you mentioned that you shot a little more Manson footage for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Is there anything you could tell us about what we didn't get to see in the end?

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Look, I think Quentin Tarantino would have me hung, drawn and quartered if I gave any of that away! I certainly wouldn't want to spoil that for anybody anyway, because he has said that he may release a longer version of the film.

There's not a lot more Manson, it was never a film about Manson. There's certainly some other stuff there that, let's just say, you see a different side to him from the one that you'd see in Mindhunter.

Looking at your roles in shows like Justified and Mr. Inbetween, you’ve played a lot of criminals. Do you find it fun to play the bad guy?

Yes, I do. But I've played so many bad guys recently that I'm made a very conscious decision not to do that for a while because it just crept up on me that, and peaked with Charles Manson.

I did a show recently for Epix called Perpetual Grace, LTD with Ben Kingsley and Jimmi Simpson and Jacki Weaver. That was a really lovely character to play. I just started shooting a miniseries for Amazon with Barry Jenkins called The Underground Railroad, I play a lovely character in that too. As fun as the bad guys are, quite happy to be playing some nice people for a change.

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So if anyone decides to make a full on Manson movie, that’s not for you at the moment?

I don't think I will be dipping my toe back into the Manson world ever again. I think twice is plenty. 

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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