After three decades as a scene-stealing character actor, Ben Mendelsohn seems to be hitting his stride in 2015. From his dramatic turn in Slow West to his supporting role on the hit Netflix series Bloodline, the Australian-born performer no longer resides in the background. And with Mississippi Grind, Mendelsohn can be seen in almost every frame, visibly broken as Gerry, a degenerate gambler looking for one last score to undo what can’t be undone. Mendelsohn manages to seamlessly slip into the troubled psyche of an addict.
Full disclosure: This interview is unlike any other this writer has conducted. It was designed to be a traditional Random Roles, but when I met Ben at a coffee shop in L.A., the conversation went elsewhere. Soon we found ourselves ambling around a park in the middle of spring, discussing everything from marriage to fame to depression.
The A.V. Club: Let’s talk about The Place Beyond The Pines.
Ben Mendelsohn: On paper that guy was written as a post-jailbird neo-Nazi of the Aryan race who encounters Ryan [Gosling]’s character and then offers him a bit of sanctuary and work. Then later he talks him into robbing banks. He’s a mechanic, he bumps into this guy and this and that and the other. What I think made it particularly sing is that we got there and started shooting and rehearsing, and Derek [Cianfrance, the director] said, “I’m not sure I like what I’ve written.” And there was a guy in that town who had robbed a lot of banks who we had access to.
AVC: Rewriting on set is not common, right?
BM: No, it’s very rare. It had never happened to me. There are things that might change, but not something as substantial. It’s very admirable, it’s very brave. And it’s very alive, I think, to what’s actually going on.
AVC: So he said it wasn’t working.
BM: Yeah, “This doesn’t feel right, I don’t like what I’ve written. What about if he just really liked the guy, what about that? What if it’s just a guy who met another a guy, and maybe he likes him, or maybe he’s in love with him. What about that, would you be okay with playing that sort of character?” I was like, “Fuck yeah.” So we sort of approached it like that, and the first day we shot was pretty shit.
AVC: And did you realize that immediately?
BM: No, we sort of got there. There are days that you shoot and it’s like you disappear into a wormhole, to a degree. But then it just sort of clicked. I think we all got over ourselves and we could get comfortable. And then we shot that and it really was the most magical little thing, because I was only on that film for a very short period. That was a really fucking good shoot, and it was just a great fucking experience. And I think that came through a lot. I think that character was very vivid for that level of enjoyment was going on.
AVC: Have you ever been asked to play something and thought, “I can’t play it or I don’t want to play or I’m not comfortable?”
BM: Yeah, there’s been a couple things particularly, and it turned out that it was a fucking—yeah, it turned out that it was not… There’s a saying, “You don’t regret the ones you do, you regret the ones you don’t do.” And it’s the ones that don’t do that hurt you.
AVC: And the movie you didn’t do turned out well?
BM: You know, it’s fair to say it did very, very good things. That’s happened. Even looking back, I’m comfortable why I felt that way, but I don’t know that I needed to worry about that.
AVC: You’re being vague here.
BM: Yeah, well, that’s the way I am. I’m not going to give too much shape to that other than to say, yes there have been times and most of those times it has turned out to be something that really you don’t have to worry about that much.
AVC: What’s the role that really pushed you out of your comfort zone?
BM: As soon as you start acting in an accent, you’re sort of out of your comfort zone. Maybe people start getting used to accents after a long period of time. But as soon as you do that, it’s not so much as capturing the sound of the way other people speak, it’s being able to actually be and move around in the sound. To access that immediacy, that’s outside of your comfort zone for sure. And so Starred Up was very challenging in that way, because I was in Ireland doing an English accent, very conscious that it’s not a thing that happens a lot. They don’t often hire people on their films to go into their country and do their accent. That was a big oomph.
AVC: How much work did that take?
BM: You just keep going at it. You don’t really stop. From the time that isn’t just you fucking around in your bedroom, you start working on it. And you work with it hopefully all the time.
AVC: How was making Starred Up, by the way?
BM: A very unpleasant shoot, by and large.
AVC: Unpleasant because?
BM: Because it was winter in Belfast in a jail cell. The shoot itself felt sort of chaotic and rushed, like the way they do. And look, I’m overjoyed with the results. It far, far, far exceeded my expectation. I loved the writing on that. There’s a guy who’s a therapist in the film and that’s basically the guy who wrote it, and I thought what he had to say was justified, inside, and wasn’t something that had been said in the clarity of the way he was saying it. It caught me by surprise how well it ended coming together.
AVC: Are you often surprised by the end result?
BM: I tend to be very curmudgeonly when it comes to these things, and I’m a vowed pessimist about that sort of stuff.
AVC: What about The Dark Knight Rises?
BM: Yeah, that’s a big film. While I was doing Killing Them Softly, my agent had been saying, “Will you please put something down on tape for The Dark Knight,” and I just thought, “What’s the point?” I’ve never gotten anything off tape, never. But she kept bugging me about it, and I did it. I put something down, and then I got a call back X amount of time later saying you’ve been offered the film. Now Nolan hadn’t seen Animal Kingdom, which was the event that had happened before which led to everything after. So I got that job. I was very aware at the time of shooting that it was the biggest film going on on the planet. The surprising thing about Dark Knight is that, from a work point of view, you think it’s going to have huge moving parts, it’s going to feel like an enormous amount of people. But it’s so quiet, that set. That set was so quiet, small feeling, contained, chilled out, that it was completely counter to anything I thought it was going to be. And it was a great set to work on. It was smooth, it wasn’t a lot of stuffing around, it was relatively quick, it moved along at a good pace. There weren’t days sitting in your little box waiting for your time to come out and have your moment. I really liked that shoot.
AVC: What’s a surprising role in your career? Something you felt like you couldn’t do, but did.
BM: There was The Big Steal. Now this was the first time I’d been the lead in a film. The couple that made it had made a very iconic film called Malcolm before, which was a comedy sort of thing. And I was fairly sure I couldn’t do that. I said to her that I don’t think I can do this, and it’s comedy and I don’t think I can do comedy, I don’t think I’ll be good at it. I hadn’t done any at that stage. And she basically said, “Bullshit, don’t worry about that, just come on and do it.” That film ended up really, really well. People loved that film. That was very surprising to me. That was a good, good time.
AVC: What was the role?
BM: This lovelorn kid that was working class that wanted to buy a Jaguar to impress this girl at school, and goes along and buys a secondhand Jaguar. And the girl of course doesn’t need him to buy a Jaguar in order to see what’s what. The guy who sells him the Jaguar is shifty, and switches the engine, and the boy brings it to his friends and they switch the engine back. He gets the girl.
AVC: I’ve heard that’s how life always works out.
BM: But that ended up beautifully, that thing. There were some actors that I learned a lot from. That was always the thing, in my early years, I learned a lot from actors.
AVC: Do you still learn?
BM: I still do. Yeah, I probably learn more from writers and directors nowadays, but you still always get bits and pieces. Who I ask about stuff is different than it was back then, but for the first 10 years or so that I was working, yeah, I learned a lot from other actors.
AVC: And you have mentors?
BM: I have plenty of them. Crewing and being on film sets is kind of like being in the carnival, with carnie folks. You go on, you do this one, and you finish it, and you see a whole new bunch.
AVC: Do you enjoy that experience?
BM: It molds you to that way. There are things that are difficult about it, and there are things that aren’t great about it. I mean, you do learn to get along with people, and you learn about a lot of different types of people, too. But when you’re in the early shoots and you’re a kid doing it, it’s hard, it’s fucking hard. If you’ve been on a job for a while and it stops, and you don’t see those people for a while, that’s hard.
AVC: Traveling from place to place, saying goodbye too quickly, it can be difficult.
BM: Well, look, I’m happy being married because it feels like something solid. We said to each other, “I’ma be there.” I’ve lived a long, long, long, long time, being in one place and another, one job to another. And you also don’t know if you’re gonna keep working or not. I think there are people that do end up knowing some way or another. There’s been a lot of the time I haven’t known that. There are times where things are going to be all right for a while.
AVC: It’s good to have that rock.
BM: Fuck yeah. I think you really miss out on that. I generally don’t advise young people to do it.
AVC: Acting or marriage?
BM: To start acting! Sorry, I do that a lot, I’ll just skim along and I’ll jump back to something else. People that have known me for a very long time still have to say, “Hold on, what are we fucking talking about now?” But no, I meant acting. That’s why you caught me on a query.
AVC: All the same, I think there’s something inside everyone—even at my age—that wants a stable relationship.
BM: I don’t know that I had at your age—oh, you know, I did, I had a girlfriend for years, it ended up being incredibly painful. You know the first one you break up with, or that breaks up with you, more specifically.
AVC: She broke up with you?
BM: Yeah, this was when I was 15, 16, 17, or somewhere around that fucking age group. I felt like I was going out with her for three years, I’m sure it’s not that long. But that was huge, I can remember being devastated for a long time.
AVC: It’s different to reconcile with those two conflicting feelings when you’re young: that desire to experience as many people as possible, or remain with one person.
BM: Are your parents together?
AVC: They’re with other people, but they split when I was young.
BM: And those relationships, are they still together? The people that they remarried?
AVC: No they’re not. They found new people.
BM: I don’t mean to pry, I don’t mean to go there. But I think it’s a lot easier if you do come from that. I mean, I don’t come from that either.
BM: Yeah, stability, I don’t come from it. But I’m 45, and I got married at 40-fucking-two. So you know what I’m saying? I spent a long fucking time not being married. It happens when it happens. I personally think we have a tendency to throw away our best child-rearing years. It’s the way the culture is right now. And I think there’s a reaction from the post-war, post-’60s shit. But anyway, you find it in the way you find it, and it’s about the person and the way you wanna do it. Choices and freedom is a beautiful thing, but it’s not without its, “Fuck, what now? What do I do?” And I think there are plenty of times you wish you had solid guide posts as to what one is supposed to do and not do. That’s experience, that’s wisdom, and what you get is that you lose all of the good shit about being young, and you end up being a fucking lot older. The feeling state you have when you get older is better. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a level of sadness and loneliness that you experience when you’re younger that’s a lot more severe, from what I’ve seen.
AVC: You had that?
BM: I was very lonely, there was a lot of loneliness. There was a lot of moving around, a lot of family stuff, whatnot. There’s a great song… “When you’re young, you get sad.” It’s a very good song and it’s very true.
AVC: We’re just rolling with it.
BM: Well, that is it. Look, from where I look, dude, it looks pretty good to be Sam, mate.
AVC: And from here, it looks pretty good to be Ben.
BM: At the moment, it is, at the moment, it’s real good. Life is a lot sweeter, I think, than you can be aware of it at times. But you go through shit, everyone goes through shit, that’s the only thing that makes it rich in the way it does. Surviving it gives you a gratitude. And I mean, I don’t know how real someone’s gratitude is if they don’t understand what they’ve got to be grateful for. And you tend to experience that gratitude in a genuine sense by having times that are pretty fucking shitty.
AVC: Are you religious?
BM: No, I wasn’t brought up religious. I mean, Australia’s not a traditionally religious place; neither is England. But, no, I didn’t grow up with it. I’m very interested in the history of Christianity, because I don’t have any religious knowledge, per se. But I’m very interested in the history of Christianity, and what I can say for sure is that the Catholics and the Jesuits and stuff were very big on teaching and on learning. So that’s why Catholic schools are so… they’ve certainly softened up from what they were.
AVC: No one was hit with a ruler during my time at Catholic school.
BM: Augustine, mate. He had a pretty severe view of what it was fair to do to the body in order to save the soul. So a lot of that shit dribbles down from that sort of premise, that idea.
AVC: So you’re an atheist?
BM: I don’t know what I fucking am. Look, there is something, but I don’t know what it is. But I do know there’s something, there is something.
I mean, even if you think that, even the most bleak sort of cut and dry, physics kind of view of the world, you still have to acknowledge, there’s something in there. I mean, the very fact that there’s life is proof that there’s something, whatever that fucking thing is. Life is just such a weird fucking thing in the universe, right? Living is such a weird thing. Rocks, this, that, gasses, the basic things. We’re all made up of that shit, but inside that, there’s actually living, and duplicating, and there’s procreation, and eating, and oxygen, and water, and everything around shared basic stuff in life. And as far as we know, we haven’t encountered a place with signs where we can go. Maybe amoebic sort of shit, but even that, what’s that about?
AVC: Do you map out a lot of the events in your life?
BM: What tends to happen is that I try to do the functional shit in life, and then get a job, and then that job will dictate what’s going to happen. I’ll know, I’ve gotta do this, I’ve gotta do that, I’ve gotta do this. I’m given that imperative by the work and the play and whatever it is, so I always have that thing—that for whatever time that I’m going to be doing that, I’ve got to get that as good as I can, because everything else kind of hangs off that. And anything that gets left after I go is in work or in family. There are two things: 1) what things one does in the world, and 2) what family one has. You know, there’s the two really tangible things that can stay.
AVC: Although it can be especially frustrating when one of those things is doing better than the other. The work is going great, but the relationships are going to shit.
BM: Yeah, I think that’s the experience for a lot of people. But you think about it and the fact that we’re able to join up and couple up and do all that sort of stuff, and generally speaking have a richer life for it, that’s pretty awesome. There’s a lot of stuff to be taken care of. It’s pretty overwhelming when you’re young. I was out of when I was very young. I was out of home at 14.
AVC: That’s crazy.
BM: But I was out making my own way in the world, making my own money, and that’s the way shit was. And that’s why I was very, very keen, and sought out to get better at acting. At that stage, it was by far the most good thing going on. I’d just come back from here, I went to boarding school here, I went back to live with my grandmother, and I took acting as an easy subject, sort of like bludge subject. Bludging means goofing off. And then boom boom. A friend told me about this company that was looking for teenage children, and me and my buddies were going to do it. We were all going to write in, none of them fucking did write in. I didn’t know, I thought we all had. And then the day came up, and it was like, “Well, I can blow this thing off? Fuck it, I’ll go.” I mean, why not? So I went, and got the first thing I sort of went for. It wasn’t something I had my heart set on or anything.
AVC: Do you ever think about what your life would have been like if you didn’t go to audition that day?
BM: Oh yeah, the old Sliding Doors thing. Yeah, there’s a lot of turns in life that you wonder what your life might have been had you not have done this or had you have done that.
AVC: And so this takes us to Mississippi Grind. This could be the movie that does it for you.
BM: Things have happened in a one-two punch kind of way. Animal Kingdom came along, and it’s one of two things. It’s either Killing Them Softly or Place Beyond The Pines. But my hope would be, I hope that Grind and Bloodline connect, because I think they’re both just good, good pieces. And I’m still trying to get better at this thing.
AVC: Do you want play a superhero?
BM: I think Doctor Doom is a great, great character. A superhero, I don’t think I would necessarily. I think the Hulk would be a good one to take on, that’s a good character, the Hulk. Bruce Banner and all that and the thing of rage, that’s a clever idea. They did a good job with Batman, didn’t they? And I don’t think people expected them to do as well with Batman as they ended up doing. It’s all about how it ends up imagined. And I know you were being slightly facetious when you said it.
AVC: No! Well, a little. It’s just… you’re approaching the point where soon we couldn’t be out here sitting on a park bench without people approaching you.
BM: People don’t know who I am, and that’s not a bad thing at all from my end. From my point of view, things don’t have to change to get better. Things are fantastic. Honestly, this is still the best time of my life. So I don’t need for things to get crazily this or that, I’m really, really happy with where things are. These last couple of years have been extraordinary.