Ben Mendelsohn of 'Bloodline' talks playing the bad boy
Ever since Animal Kingdom in 2010, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has been the guy who can show up in pretty much any movie or TV show—like Girls, The Dark Knight Rises, and Starred Up—and make the whole thing better. But now he’s doing that in a much bigger way.
This year, Mendelsohn has made even more progress on a full-blown crossover, playing central roles in Netflix’s Bloodline and the excellent Western Slow West—and possibly landing a role in the first Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One. EW got on the phone with him to make sure he’s handling the success all right.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s not a bad time to be Ben Mendelsohn right now.
Ben Mendelsohn: It’s a good time. It’s definitely a good time.
How did you get your initial start acting?
Took it in school for an easy subject. A friend saw an ad. I was going to go in with my buddies. I did. They didn’t. I got the first job and kept going. Once I got a job, I very much wanted to keep getting jobs, basically. I did try to learn what I could in those first couple of decades.
Was there a learning process, or did it come naturally to you?
I think there were parts that came naturally, but there is a need to learn. You step back and look at some of that stuff, and it’s pretty rough and ratty.
When you look back at the last five years or so, do you see Animal Kingdom as the big turning point?
In the modern time, yes. There’s been a couple. The first time that anything started to change for me was a film called The Year My Voice Broke, so we’re going back to 1987 here. In terms of this iteration, definitely Animal Kingdom is absolutely the one.
Was there a huge difference between those two?
It’s a huge, huge difference. Over 30 years, there’s peaks and troughs, if you like. It would be wrong of me to say the first time I noticed it was Animal Kingdom.
What was it like having Animal Kingdom happen to you late in your career?
I think Jackie [Weaver] and I were definitely caught off guard. I would say Sullivan [Stapleton] may well have been too, because we were all people who had done many, many years of work. We were all caught off guard by how well it went down. We were all there for the initial screening at Sundance, and it was [at the] Egyptian [theater] on their main strip—not a huge cinema, but it really had an electric feel. People were charged in that audience. They were really charged. That was the first time anyone saw it at all. It did take a while for the bomb to really go off, but once that fuse was lit, things started getting better and better and better and better.
Looking at that cast, you realize just how many careers it launched.
Absolutely. For most of us, it’s night and day. The great story about Animal Kingdom is Jackie, because Jackie is in one way almost like a Doris Day of ours. To have Jackie get the love and recognition she deserves is fantastic. I think for the Australians, Jackie is incredibly heartwarming about a film that doesn’t have a lot of heartwarming in it. Animal Kingdom is a lot of things, but it’s not heartwarming.
True, but I was pretty happy to see your head blown off.
Well, there you go. A job well done.
What was the biggest difference for you, before and after Animal Kingdom?
You can’t see any of the films that have come along after, possibly with one or two small exceptions, without Animal Kingdom. Nothing happens. None of this stuff happens. Look, trust me. I’ve been coming to this place for a very, very long time. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find someone from my country who’s been coming longer without any love, you might say. It’s evolving. The last several years have been a result of Animal Kingdom. David Michôd [Animal Kingdom‘s writer/director] could rightly argue for a commission.
What kept you going all of those years before then?
I didn’t really have a plan B. That’s the power of not having a viable plan B. Don’t get me wrong. I worked in Australia, etc., etc. There were a couple crappy years there, but whatever. I had a pretty good career at home. What keeps you going is not having a plan B. It’s a very good thing. I think if I had a viable plan B, I might not have kept going.
There have been some similarities between your Animal Kingdom character and roles that came after it. Do you like that kind of role, or are you just good at it?
Look, both of those are “yes.” But really, it’s just the post-Animal Kingdom landscape. It’s the association game. I’ve played a lot of different roles over the course. This is very much the last several years. Who knows? Maybe I am well suited to them.
How do you feel about that?
I feel fine. In all seriousness, I take it as a great compliment. For mine, the villains of the piece were always important. In a traditional sense, that’s always an important role. It’s important execution-wise, so I take it as a great compliment.
There’s an element of that in Danny, your Bloodline character. What brought you to that project?
Todd, Daniel, and Glenn came and spoke to me about what they were trying to do. It was very clear from what they were talking about that they were getting into hues and nuance in this family, in the Rayburns. It’s partly directive, and it’s partly the material they give you. Also, if you’re spending time with people, you’re afforded the chance to flesh out a lot of this type of stuff, but that’s to do with the strength of the way they work and their perceptions as people. [In] a lot of ways, I’m just the guy who plays football for the coach. Tell me where you want me to go. Blah, blah, blah. I try to do that. In that sense, what you’re seeing in Bloodline, you’re see the creatives depth of involvement in this family.
Plus, the cast isn’t too shabby.
We got a good bunch together. I feel very lucky to be a part of that team. Certainly, when I knew that Sissy and Sam and, later on, Chloe were involved, I was very, very excited. These are all people I’ve had talent crushes on.
Was that a fairly standard TV shoot, production-wise?
No, I don’t think so. I think the location was very dominant. No one has really shot that much in the Keys. It’s a beautiful and a difficult mistress because she can turn or she can wear you down. She can be quite demanding. Also, I think their approach of the creative was essentially to offer you a bowl—a deep, deep vase, if you like—that was empty of water, and say, “Here you go. We’d love to see what you want to put in this.” And off you’d go. So it was different. They’ve got enormous strength as collaborators. Crucially, you often feel like you’re collaborating. There was room for a lot of stuff. Certainly, Kyle and I would get on the floor, do it left and right and this way and that. We would try to not leave too much unchecked out in the way we were trying to do the scenes. It had some difficult periods, but it had some really fantastic periods.
Generally, what do you look for in a character?
I’m not that proactive, but basically, I’m an old-timer. I’m from an older mold of people who are delighted to work. The things you look for are the obvious things. You look for the quality of the piece, the conditions, and the company. That’s what you look at. The script, who it’s for, who’s in it. Netflix and those guys felt like a slamdunk. Could you imagine if I said “no” to it?
I saw a photo of you wearing your Slow West character’s coat at Sundance, and I laughed.
I love that too, and God bless them. They brought that out with them from New Zealand. I thought that it might be interesting. I thought it might grab a little bit of attention. Slow West is a small film. Anything we can do to jump up and down and say, “Hey, hey. Over here. Over here” is good to do. All power to Michael Fassbender for that one. He and John Maclean had a relationship with John’s work that almost starts from close to zero. They got that into being. That’s really credit to a guy to using his ability to bring something to life. More power to them because it’s a little gem. By the way, it’s an extraordinary coat.