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