As we reach the end of a tumultuous decade, there are some things we can say with a degree of certainty: the Cubs won the World Series, Greta Thurnberg sailed the Atlantic, political chaos reigned, and Ben Mendelsohn was in just about everything. After breaking onto the international scene playing Pope–the eldest son of an Australian crime family–in David Michöd’s Animal Kingdom in 2010, the actor’s star has continued to rise. And in the time since he has been simply unavoidable; appearing in both the Star Wars and Marvel universes while working alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers, more often than not playing larger than life antagonists.
The first project in some time to buck that trend was Shannon Murphy’s debut Babyteeth, an Australian production in which Mendelsohn plays Henry, the benevolent but flailing father of a precocious and terminally stricken teen girl. Playing first in competition in Venice and more recently the Marrakech Film Festival, Babyteeth is the first movie Mendelsohn’s made in his home country in eight years. The role is also that rarest of things on the actor’s CV: a plain old, flawed human being.
The Film Stage: What brought you to Babyteeth in the first place?
Ben Mendelsohn: Well, Shannon Murphy, this was her first film. She’d done some television before. It was my agent in Australia, Leanne Higgins, who had seen the play and was aware of the screenplay for some time. She was very instrumental in a lot of things in that movie. She brought it to my attention. I read it and I thought it was beautiful. I thought it had a lot of Australian virtues in it and so it was more the film than it was the part. I just felt that I wanted to be in that film and Henry was a chance to be sort of benign and beta, if you like. There’s a delicateness in the film as a whole, where you have this guy attempting to modulate or control the anxiety of his wife, and ends up one of these guys. He’s a classic mansplaining kind of guy in that way. He knows it but he can’t do it. And I just thought it was a nice balance to hold up there between keeping things light, keeping things balanced, but also making sure that we could feel it.
You returned to Australia with this film after nine years in the United States. What “Australian virtues” did you see in the script?
I don’t think they’re uniquely Australian, but I’ve been living in America; so this idea that you would tolerate a junky boy living in your terminally ill daughter’s house just struck me as a particular kind of moral dilemma and grey area that felt like it could take place at home a lot more easily than it could in America. I only have a sense, a feeling about a place and a certain experience. I’m by no means authoritative on this but to me that’s just what it was. I hadn’t gone back in a very long time and I had no reason to but I read that script and I just thought it was really beautiful. It is one of my very, very most favorite films I’ve ever made. I absolutely fucking love the film. I think it’s incredibly feminine; it’s got a sensibility to it. If it was directed by a man… there’s just something beautiful. It’s far exceeded my expectations and it’s done it in a very soft quiet storm kind of way.
Along with the coming home aspect, it was also a jump from these huge villainous roles to something subtler. How did you navigate that?
Well, this was sort of part of the attraction to me too, was the thing of getting away from that. I think I touched on it earlier, to go back and sort of just play a more benign kind of character. And it’s softer, it’s got a sensibility which I get. It’s sort of baked in from Australia. It’s that rare thing, where it’s a script you put down and you feel very beautiful about.
How was working with Shannon Murphy after working with these people with so much experience, and on these massive stages? That shift in scale, was it unusual?
Yeah, well it was like going home. There’s a lot of things you lose touch with. The sort of earthiness, the close to the ground way we make film [in Australia]. You know, some of that is really delightful, some of it’s a pain in the arse, and some of it’s very unnecessary. [Laughs] There are ways that both approaches have bits to it which are really good and effective and bits which are like, okay. But you get aboard the ship, and that’s essentially a pretty good metaphor because you do go on this journey together and you set sail and you’re in the ship you’re in, man. They all have their charms and their difficulties. It wasn’t a fun shoot. It was a pain in the arse; it was really difficult. It was really really hot; they were very time-constrained, I was very time-constrained. You don’t know how they’re gonna work out. The way they feel when you’re doing them is no guide whatsoever. They can feel wonderful and then you can get the surprise of, yeah, you had a great time and it succcckkks. Much better is to have a really shit time and they end up well. It’s sort of a loose rule of thumb but it does pan out a lot. If you have a really crap time doing it, you’ve got a chance.
You also reteamed with David Michöd recently on The King. How was it working with him after all that time?
It was very beautiful to go and be with David and Adam. I mean, I did that film because David gave me my career. I mean, Sean gave me my career, in The Year My Voice Broke, but David gave me this period of my career. It doesn’t exist without David. So I would carry a spear for Dave and when he asked me to come and do that, absolutely. But you know, Timothée is a proper fucking movie star, and he’s awesome and he’s really lovely to be around and he’s got a great vibe. I’m not immune to the fancy pants stuff of this business and I get caught up in that kind of excitement about that kind of stuff as well.
That’s something I wanted to ask. In the time you’ve been in the States you’ve worked on the biggest stuff imaginable: Star Wars, Marvel, Spielberg, Nolan. Does anything surprise you anymore?
Oh, fuck yeah. I get surprised and delighted all the time. I think Spielberg was probably the most instructive because there he is! THERE. HE. IS. You know [snarls] the mighty, the fuckin MIGHTY, but there’s a childlike enthusiasm and a connection to the work, and it’s kinetic and it’s felt, so you feel like you’re doing it, and you see him make up his shots as you’re doing it and you don’t expect that. You don’t expect people to be alive with the bare material to the degree that they are. So I am [knocks the table]. I mean, filmmaking is, by and large, tedious and boring. And finding a way to get life in there, even just to react with a kind of something like an aliveness, that to me is the art of it.
There are plenty of exceptions but in the main, if people have a sense of aliveness when they’re going through the scenes it’s very strong for an audience. People feel it a lot more. They may not know why, but if you’re just letting yourself be there and go along these emotional bits and pieces, people will feel it. And they won’t even necessarily know why but it’s to do with the sophistication of our mirroring abilities and whatnot. When we see someone, we see their face. We can know what feeling they’re going through and if we feel a little bit connected to them we will feel the same feeling in this sympathetic kind of way and film has been wonderful at engaging us when the stuff is good.
How do you behave with directors?
I behave very loosely. I’m kinetic, I keep moving. There’s a restlessness in me that sometimes you can see translated into film. If you see The Year My Voice Broke, that kind of rolling restless energy is as close to what I’m like when I’m relatively happy around a big bunch of people. I kind of have a restless kind of discomfort. I’m kind of like a dog [barks enthusiastically] and I have that kind of vibe and that can work out really well on a set. It can work out well occasionally and it can also be an enormous pain in the arse for people. Depends on the situation.
Were you beginning to get kind of sick of these villain roles?
I wouldn’t say I was sick of the villains. I took them as a great compliment and I hope they’re not gone forever cause I’ve actually played quite a few good guys now, in a row, and the next one I play will also be. So I’ll be getting keen to get back to the dark side before terribly long. I don’t want to disappoint the people watching, that’s my main thing. I’d like to be as fancy pants as I can be. I like to be as versatile and muscular within that versatility. Effective, that’s probably it: I’d like to be effective in as broad a range as I’m able to but I’m not out there searching for my “boundaries.” It’s much more interesting and satisfying to be in something that works as a whole. To be on a good ship, you know, and I take the villain as a great compliment anyway. I think it’s when I knew things were going very well was then and I felt, okay, this has got a real chance of continuing. It was fairly recently when I did The Outsider for HBO, which is very much a good-guy central-role series thing. That was when I felt, okay there’s a chance here.
Can you talk a bit about The Outsider? What made you get involved?
It was really part of the sales pitch. Jason felt very, very strongly about making it and felt that we had a pretty good chance and I’d watched Ozark and really loved what he did with that and I thought we had a reasonable shot at it so off we set sail. These are very Australian virtues, you want to make sure it comes from outside to in. Now, we could do with a little bit more James Brown in our life but we’re not there yet.
It’s been 32 years since The Year My Voice Broke. Australian cinema has changed a lot, different stories are being told. Is there still an Australian identity in cinema you can point to?
It’s harder to speak about. It’s probably easier to point to it and go, there it is. I think Muriel’s, for instance, in a lot of ways is of the period. Muriel’s to me is the one that stands out as the singular most kind of Australian. And you can point to it but it’s not unique–the combination and the blend of them is unique. Like the koala is unique but we’re not the koala. Kangaroo, same. But yeah, I think so. There is and will be for some time. But I also think that a funny thing starts to happen when you culturally export and project enough and it starts to leak into other cultures, particularly in the anglo-sphere. There’s many Australianisms you can feel. You go to England, you go America, you feel that they picked up little bits of them. Like “no worries mate,” that’s now traveled. And I get all [slouches back] that’s fucking one of ours. And we made the first feature film on Earth anyway! So everyone can suck our… you know. We made the first fucking one on earth! Wikipedia that shit. That’s ours. All you other motherfuckers just ran after us and we just dropped the ball for 50, 60 years and picked it up again.
You spoke about returning to the dark side. Will we ever see Director Krennic again?
Not that I know of, unless we want to do an Irishman sort of thing and pixelate me into a younger me. I mean, Krennic looked like he was in a lot of trouble the last time I saw him but who knows? It’s a wonderful universe but not that I know of.
But you know, when you are growing up and you go and watch movies or you watch television and you have a relationship with what you see on the screen, that is quite special to you and it means something to you and you feel like you’ve got friends and people and things that you know about because of your experience of watching it. And it protects you a little bit from the world. Being in Star Wars is that kind of [feeling]. Star Wars was an incredibly important movie to me when I was a little fella. I like to think the best love letter I COULD EVER send to life is to be in that film. Cause I saw it in Melbourne when I was 7 or 8, it had just come out, and there’s been a lot of Sturm and Drang between then and now, but particularly in that time as a child when you can’t do anything but go along with the tides as they are. Sorry, I digress. No plans but, God, I’m up for it.
David brought The King to Netflix and we’ve seen Scorsese going that way too. Are we seeing the end of a kind of cinema as we know it?
Here’s one thing I know about our species: we’re crap at predictions. We can do it a bit and we can do it in certain circumstances but we’re really not great at it. I think we have a lot of anxieties and stuff. Mad Max is on in this festival. Mad Max is built around the idea–and I can remember this from when I was a kid–that the world was gonna run out of oil in 30 years. I don’t know, I’m glad someone’s doing them. It’s not the ‘90s any more where we had a vibrant and muscular and really cool independent film scene. And for me it was really the ‘80s anyway, the really great ones that I was in touch with. They were very much the ‘80s but they carried on well into the ‘90s–the Tarantinos, etc. That’s gone and were people to, you know, vote with their feet and go out and see interesting heartfelt films they’d make a lot more of them. But the dynamics that drive all this stuff have long been pretty hard-nosed. It’s a weird blend in that way. I still think we’re in a golden age, not in cinema per se, but in terms of screen and long-form storytelling that we’ve had with the rise of the HBOs and all that. So, I don’t know, it has changed but I think we’ve got a few moves left.
Babyteeth screened at Marrakech Film Festival and will be released by IFC Films in the U.S. next year.
On November 11th, there was a NYC screening for Robin Hood and Ben attended, along with director Otto Bathurst, Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, and Jamie Dornan. The boys also did a fair amount of press, so be sure to check out all the links below!
NYC screening photos:
Candids of Ben leaving his NYC hotel:
The newest stills from Robin Hood:
Robin Hood: Talks at Google
Flickering Myth: Ben Mendelsohn on the Robin Hood set interview
Robin Hood “Law and Order” movie clip
B-roll footage of Ben filming Robin Hood
Ben on Jamie Foxx’s IG during press day
Robin Hood hilarious cast interviews
BigMovieMouthOff: Ben Mendelsohn interview
Robin Hood premiere interviews
Ben Mendelsohn at the Robin Hood premiere
Robin Hood premiere interview with Ben Mendelsohn
Exclusive: Cast Talks ‘Robin Hood’ At Premiere
The cast of Robin Hood spill on “contemporary” reimagining of the classic English tale
The Aussie actor has never run scared of playing evil. In real life, he’s an unexpected sweetheart, says Jonathan Dean
The Sunday Times, November 11 2018, 12:01am
When the Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn was 13, he was expelled from school. Later, he became addicted to substances and went through various break-ups and a big divorce from the British novelist (and former Sunday Times contributor) Emma Forrest. His face is “lived in”, after 49 years of rough experience. Fans love him for the messed-up men he plays, often evil, invariably morose. He has an intensity that makes him the best screen villain of his generation. It’s in those eyes and the way he glares, as if he’s one scene away from murdering somebody, possibly you.
So, I ask tentatively, does an actor need a past like his in order to play the roles he does? “Oh, you always need life experiences,” he says, “but it’s misguided to think you must go through great difficulties to render them. Most people experience just about every emotion by the time they’re a late teen. Rage, sadness and love. All of it. So I don’t know that you need significant difficulties…” He pauses and smiles, and it’s warm. “That said, you may have significant difficulties if you think being an actor is a good idea.” He laughs loudly. Shivers escape my spine. The man’s an unexpected sweetheart, eagerly bobbing up and down over coffee in a London hotel bar.
Watch enough of Mendelsohn, however, and you too would get the chills if you met him. His small part in Neighbours aside, I first saw him in the outstanding Australian thriller Animal Kingdom, in which he is callous. Next was a powerful, underrated lament for America, Killing Them Softly, alongside Brad Pitt. He was a junkie crook in that; a paedophile in Una; a violent prisoner in Starred Up. Indie films aside, he has become the go-to actor for mainstream baddies, too, channelling Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story before channelling himself for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Now he is taking on the pantomime-villain part of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the umpteenth reboot of that story.
They have, simply, called it Robin Hood and, well, I have seen none of it. “It’s not your fault,” says Mendelsohn, who hasn’t seen the film either. Anyway, he says, it doesn’t matter. We’re au fait with the legend, so can talk around the details. The 1973 Disney cartoon is the first film he remembers at the cinema — “I got my mum to make a papier-mâché fox’s Robin head” — and the Anglophile actor talks about listening to an In Our Time episode on the subject, too. The new movie is about Robin returning from a war in which the Sheriff is a profiteer. “And he has a thing with Marian, obviously.” That’s the gist, which reinvents precisely no wheels, but the film is “ferociously action-packed”, apparently, way more than previous ones. “I mean, those guys can really shoot a bow and arrow,” its star says with a smirk.
I tell him there are currently seven Robin Hood reboots in the works. “You’re f****** kidding me!” he spits, Aussie twang on full pelt. One, Robin Hood 2058, is about a “rogue MI5 agent” in a future London. “I’m going to take a punt and say the sheriff in that one is the head of MI5,” Mendelsohn says. While on the topic of stretching the original meaning, I ask if the Nottingham of Mendelsohn’s new film looks like actual Nottingham, given that they shot in Dubrovnik. “Er, I don’t…” Has he been to the city? “No.” Also, the Sheriff, who lived circa 1250, looks like a 1940s Nazi. “Yep,” he says, nodding. “But I try on clothes and, if they fit, I do my bit. I don’t mean to be pithy, but I don’t have a design call, and it’s pretty good that I don’t.” True. Looking back over our photoshoot, it seems possible Mendelsohn is the first person I’ve interviewed to turn up in pyjamas.
There were two future Sheriffs of Nottingham in the 1990 Australian western Quigley Down Under. One was Mendelsohn, while higher up the bill came Alan Rickman — a year before he camped it up with Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as the most quotable villain of the 1990s. “That casts a shadow,” Mendelsohn says quietly. “He was a brilliant Sheriff, not like one we’d seen before. He was the sound of a lawnmower starting up with a chainsaw attached to it.”
I like how Rickman played him as a sexual deviant, and that type of daring role feels as if it’s from an era entirely lost to safety-first bean-counters. Mendelsohn agrees. He loved Rickman because the younger audience didn’t understand how risqué he was. “I knew him for a good long time,” he continues. “He had a great stateliness. He was a lovely, lovely guy, and I’m not going to be better than Alan. I’m just not. And I’m so comfortable with that.”
One of the reasons Rickman’s Sheriff has lasted so well is that, like Darth Vader, the character was portrayed as purely evil. He leapt into nightmares and never left. There was no softening backstory. But Mendelsohn admits there is an attempt to understand his take on the Sheriff. How 2018, when everyone needs a motive. This year, Incredibles 2, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War have all had villains inviting sympathy, not screams. I ask Mendelsohn, who has played more takes on a scoundrel than Boris Johnson, why this change has happened.
“Well,” he begins, sounding as if he’s studied the topic, “there was a time, around Hannibal Lecter, when there was real fascination with the deranged mind and psychopathy, and that being a really malevolent thing. But in culture the change is down to HBO shows like The Sopranos adding strong antiheroes. You spent a lot of time with them and were able to see context, so the idea of what evil is has developed more levels than it used to have.”
That said, Mendelsohn has played some undeniable beasts. Who has been the hardest to provide understanding for? He thinks for a long time, mentioning his TV show Bloodline, because that is the role he spent the most time on, trying to provide layers… Then he stops muttering and says “I know the one”, and I know what’s coming. “Una,” he confirms, referring to his child molester. He’s right, of course, but the most impressive thing about that role is that the actor makes it difficult not to feel at least something for his criminal, when you want to feel nothing at all.
Barely anybody knew who Mendelsohn was until he was in his forties. It’s been a steep climb over a decade, out of some tough years. The turning point was Animal Kingdom and the “one-two punch” of Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, alongside Ryan Gosling. His life arc, I suggest, has been structured like a rousing three-act movie. “I get you, yeah. Bit of a difficult middle period and then victory!” What’s more, his nuanced turn as George VI in Darkest Hour nods to a career away from the nasties he should be wary of being typecast as. (He is, for instance, a baddie in next year’s big Marvel movie, Captain Marvel, and it’s hard to do much more with your fourth blockbuster villain in three years.)
For now, though, he’s in a mid-career stride, something that’s easier for a man, given that roles for women over 40 are largely just as mum or frump. “Yes, though I’d counter by saying women are almost always better actors.” Why? “They have an easier time playing the scales of emotion, and I have just thought women are better actors for a long time.” Because they can play a bigger variety of parts? “They’re able to play them with greater ease than their male counterparts.”
Are men too reticent to show emotion? “It’s not reticence. I just feel there’s an ease about it. I see a lot more when I watch women. There is an emotional guardedness that is different and, traditionally, women are just better at it.”
The man is such a reasoned presence, interested in his surroundings and other people’s lives. He browses nearby cabinets, admiring old metal cars built to last, rails against the plastic junk toys we get now and, in a desperate search for a metaphor, that respect for a life well lived sums him up. Indeed, he is a such an immediately sage-like presence that, after two minutes, I found myself telling him personal details about myself, which he nodded at and didn’t think weird at all, asking more questions, telling me he has two daughters, but that “I’d go a boy… I’d go again”. As if he knows that his past was hard, but he has figured it out now. So just imagine what the future holds.
Robin Hood opens on November 21
Ben has been at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week, promoting and attending the world premiere of The Land of Steady Habits, with costar Thomas Mann and director Nicole Holofcener. All of the photos and interviews from TIFF below:
ET Canada Lounge
Land of Steady Habits Press Conference
Land of Steady Habits Premiere
TIFF Portraits and Photoshoots
EW: Migo’s Bad and Boujee Helped Ben Mendelsohn prepare for Land of Steady Habits
Variety: Ben Mendelsohn talks accents, losing roles to Catherine Keener
Deadline: The Land of Steady Habits stars talk Holofcener fandom
ET Canada: Ben Mendelsohn on being linked to Star Wars
ET Canada: Ben Mendelsohn and Nicole Holofcener talk female directors and Captain Marvel
Tribute.ca: The Land of Steady Habits interview
The Land of Steady Habits is available to watch on Netflix now.
Empire Magazine takes a deep dive into Spielberg’s iconic career, starting with a several page spread about the upcoming READY PLAYER ONE. Scans below, linking to the full size:
The most feared of these opponents is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a corporation looking to take over the OASIS in order to monetise it. For Mendelsohn, Sorrento’s intimidatory tactics are helped by his name — “It’s like Snake Plissken, what a fucking name” — but the moniker masks a nexus of complexities.
“He’s a nerd who’s managed to finagle and manipulate his way into a position of power. He wants the internet to be a commodity and he owns the hardware. He leads a crack force — they’re the shit — against these charming amateurs.”
To what extent would Mendelsohn, an alum of The Dark Knight Rises and Star Wars: Rogue One, self-identify as a nerd like Sorrento?
“Fuck off!” he bellows, jokingly. “And I say that with love. I don’t eschew the nerd side at all, but you want me to talk about it in this fucking magazine? Eat a bowl of dicks!
— EMPIRE UK, APRIL 2018