From The Nightingale to Charles Manson (twice): why Damon Herriman is the scariest man in film

He’s made an art form of playing creepy characters and he’s everywhere at the moment. But the Australian actor didn’t plan it that way

Damon Herriman
Damon Herriman played Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and the David Fincher-produced Netflix series Mindhunter. Photograph: Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Damon Herriman played Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and the David Fincher-produced Netflix series Mindhunter. Photograph: Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Luke Buckmaster

Last modified on Wed 23 Oct 2019 12.40 EDT

When discussing the recent work of Australian actor Damon Herriman, one is tempted to deploy that hackneyed turn of phrase “he’s everywhere at the moment”. And indeed, the 49-year-old is popping up all over the place, a concentrated blast of intensely dramatic performances having arrived on our film and TV screens in a short space of time.

The Adelaide-born star’s trademark roles, at least for the time being, aren’t exactly characters noted for their courage and virtue. He has instead made an art form of playing the sort of people you don’t, as they say, take home to mother: gangsters, killers, psychopaths, scoundrels and fiends.

Herriman was thoroughly creepy as a scheming priest orchestrating cover-ups for the church in Lambs of God. He was slimy as all get out as the boss of a hitman in the first and (soon to be released) second season of Mr Inbetween. And he was utterly bone-chilling as a misogynistic sergeant in the director Jennifer Kent’s harrowing period drama The Nightingale, which recently opened in Australian cinemas after a lengthy run on the festival circuit.

Herriman also plays Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s hugely successful Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. If that wasn’t enough, he plays the notorious cult leader again in the new season of the acclaimed serial killer procedural Mindhunter, which arrived on Netflix mid-August.

Thank heavens he’s an excellent, compulsively watchable actor – because, indeed, Herriman is everywhere.

“I should apologise to Australia for that. It was never my intention!” he says over the phone from LA. “You do these jobs and they’re very spread out when you’re doing them. Little do you know that they’ll all come out within a three month period. If I’m this sick of myself, I can only imagine what it’s like for everyone else.”

On the subject of playing Manson not once but twice, in two pedigree productions, Herriman says that “people automatically assume this is too weird to be a coincidence, someone must have called someone. But they genuinely didn’t.

“And if you think about it, it probably wouldn’t have happened had somebody called somebody else. Most producers and directors don’t want to use the same actor in the same role as someone else. It kind of had to be a coincidence.”

Considerable fanfare – particularly in the local press – greeted the announcement last August that Tarantino had cast Herriman as the notorious criminal. But the superstar auteur turned out to be stingy in dishing out footage of the Australian actor, who appears in Once Upon a Time only very briefly.

Damon Herriman as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Damon Herriman as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. Photograph: Sony

According to Herriman: “The Manson character was never a huge part of the film” but “there was a little more that we shot,” which he hopes “will see the light of day at some point.”

A Tarantino-scripted monologue is, after all, a kind of Holy Grail for actors: “You read it and it crackles on the page. Then you get to say it and it just comes out of your mouth like butter.

“I remember saying to him [Tarantino] this is so cool, because you write good acting in the dialogue. It feels like all the actor has to do is just say it.”

Herriman’s second crack at Manson, in Mindhunter, is a meatier role. His character appears in episode five, interviewed in prison by the two principal characters: FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany).

An intensely pugnacious Herriman bursts onto the scene, delivering an explosive monologue questioning his conviction and ranting about how prison is a state of mind. To describe his physical appearance, one is tempted to deploy another overused turn of phrase: “virtually unrecognisable”.

But, hidden behind a thick beard and buried in facial prosthetics, the actor really is unrecognisable.

Herriman’s makeup artist was the Oscar-winning Kazu Hiro, who, he says, “totally transforms your face”. This, he says, “plays a big part in convincing the audience that you’re playing someone real, whose face they know. But it was also a huge help to me, because I was able to look in the mirror and see Charles Manson staring back at me.”

The Nightingale, a Tasmania-set drama following a young female convict on the run through treacherous wilderness in 1825, is another water-cooler production that got everybody talking. It is expertly made but deeply painful to watch.

The film’s graphic depictions of violence and misogyny make descriptions such as “confronting” and “shocking” feel meek. Cast as a sergeant in the British army responsible for various atrocities, Herriman is a key part of its gut-busting impact.

“Even taking into account having played Charles Manson, I think that role in The Nightingale is the most brutal character I’ve ever played,” he says. “It was only the feeling of love and camaraderie on set – and the genius of Jennifer Kent – that got everyone through it.”

So, will Herriman exploit his niche as a bad guy and continue his habit of playing villains?

“At some point, actually, you probably have to make a conscious decision to pursue other types of roles. Which I’ve kind of done in the last few months,” he says.

“I think I’ve hit maximum villain. It’s probably time to go back to playing people with goodness in their heart.”

The Nightingale is released in the UK on 29 November.