With films like “Animal Kingdom,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Starred Up” and “Black Sea,” Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has built an intimidating reputation with his terrifying and awe-inspiring onscreen intensity.
When he sat down with SPINOFF during the Tribeca Film Festival, that same intensity was channeled into every aspect of the conversation, from his exhilarating passion for film to his liberal use of f-bombs, and even to his effusive compliments as I entered the room. (He commended what he called my “proto rockabilly” look saying, “You’ve got a pretty fucking good thing going on.” Because when Ben Mendelsohn compliments you, f-bombs are in order.)
I was pumped too. After all, we were meeting to discuss director John Maclean’s “Slow West,” a film I’d declared a “modern masterpiece” for its inventive take on the Western genre. Mendelsohn plays an absinthe-chugging, fur coat-cloaked bounty hunter who stalks a naïve newcomer to the Wild West, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. This lost boy’s only defense is Payne’s old associate, the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender).
So, we dug into “Slow West,” the legacy of Westerns, what’s it’s like always being the bad guy, and of course those “Star Wars: Rogue One” rumors.
Spinoff: As soon as you come on screen in “Slow West,” Payne is quickly established as a bad guy, partially because it’s Ben Mendelsohn and people who know what’s up know what happens when you cast Ben Mendelsohn.
Ben Mendelsohn: That’s right. I come on the screen and you know the bad stuff is going to start happening.
So there’s only a little bit of backstory given in “Slow West” about Payne. Did you come up with more on your own?
No. Well, John’s got a bit in terms of the mechanics of this and that. Look, in terms of mechanics of the story, we knew that Payne and Fassy’s character had ridden together. We knew that Payne was a bounty hunter that he was sort of the head, if you like, of a rag-tag bunch of undesirable plainspeople. So you know a bit of stuff about it, and then it’s really just fucking context and the words you got to say. That’s the main thing. For me the most important thing to lean towards is some sense of engaging immediacy. That’s what I try to go for.
And Payne has a distinctive look, covered in tattoos and he also has that huge, mangy-looking fur coat.
Which I saw you wore when the film premiered at Sundance.
I did. When I saw the coat I said, [affecting a tone of soft awe] “Can I take this at the end? You’re not paying very well, so –”
So that was part of the deal? I get to keep this coat?
I sort of thought I’d try and leverage it.
Did that work out?
Yeah. I got it.
Nice! It’s a good look for you. Those pictures out of Sundance looked crazy cool.
It came out really well. So, I asked them — because they didn’t give me the fucking coat [when we wrapped], you know? So I go, “Why not wear it at the premiere? Why not wear that fucking thing.” Because red carpets, smed smarpet. And listen, if you’re a guy, unless you’re really fucking [“handsome” indicating by doing a pouting model face], you got to do something. You got to come up with a little something to shimmy shimmy, and make people go, “Oh!” Otherwise what’s the point?
I can’t think of anytime I’ve ever asked a guy about their red carpet photo. This is probably the first. Those photos are incredible.
There you go. But I felt like that would at least have the chance of grabbing attention [for the film] in some way. And that worked. And I’m happy about that. And then I took the jacket home with me after that. Once they got it to Sundance from New Zealand [where “Slow West” shot] — and it came in a huge fucking bag. Like a shitty carry-on bag, you know what I mean? Really shitty with the straps, like a bad gym bag. So it came in that, and I went, “OK, thank you very much.” And I took it back with me to my house, where it now sits on a mannequin. I came across a store that was folding and they had those ubiquitous top-half male mannequin things going on on a stick. So I bought one of them for — I don’t know — 20 bucks or 50 bucks or whatever it was. Boom! Put the coat on it and it now sits.
You’ve got your own little shrine to Payne.
Yeah, look I’m not a guy that goes for a lot of self-memorabilia. I don’t have — I was going to say I don’t have any. But my wife put one film poster up now. So I can’t completely say that.
What’s the one film poster?
“Spotswood,” which here I believe is called “The Efficiency Expert,” which has Anthony Hopkins and my good self.
So why is that one the exception?
She just decided she was going to put it up. So you know, there it is. But in any case — point being I’m not a self-memorabilia-toting man. S o–
Was it because you were making a Western? Because watching the movie, it feels so American — and I’m an American so I have an admitted bias — but then I was realizing it was a Scottish writer-director. The stars are German and Australian.
Well you got to understand, the resonance of the Western is enormous. We all grow up [with it]. And I don’t think people in America really realize just how important America culturally is to certainly the rest of the Anglo-sphere, and I find it hard not to believe by extension to most of the developed world. And I’ve seen a lot of evidence to back that up. But we live through so much American-ness. And it really is deeply in us in a way. Even if it feels like it’s far away, it’s still very much a part of our psychic landscape because of the amount of films and music and television that we have that’s American. And tangentially, yet appropriately, what I think the real strength of “Slow West” is is that it is genuinely an outsider’s view of a Western. John’s never made a movie before. And he’s a Scottish guy.
Which actually suits the movie very well since it’s presented through Jay’s (a newcomer to the environment’s) perspective. And it’s astonishing to me that it was shot in New Zealand, because I didn’t realize that when I was watching it.
Yeah, people don’t.
But how did growing up with Westerns impact you specifically?
They give you a very strong sense of masculinity. Like for me personally that was always about that, the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood school of Western, and I’m thinking up to “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which was a huge one for me. They give you a really strong idea of appropriate behavior. That’s what a lot of what it was for me as a young boy was like “Oh, this is honor. This is what honor looks like. This badness.” So they were clear moral films in a way, and they had a lot of that. They’re also adventurous and dangerous and exotic. So they were a big [influence]. It’s hard to think of an American genre of film or any genre of film more broadly that didn’t affect me in my growing years. I mean, I wasn’t a big horror fan or any shit like that but it wasn’t like I was never affected by it.
Was this at all a bucket list kind of thing? To make a Western?
It’s not like there’s a conscious bucket list, but it’s one of those things that when it’s there as a proposition you go, “Fuck yeah.”
Like of course I want to be a cowboy?
Yeah. And there’s a submarine movie I did —
“Black Sea” is amazing!
You know what I’m saying?! But it’s a submarine movie. Fuck yeah. And “Black Sea” is amazing because–and someone wrote this as a headline and I think it’s so beautiful — “Under Promise, Over Deliver.” And that’s what “Black Sea” does. It doesn’t go fancy token and turning, but boy it fucking makes it. Boy, is it a great fucking film.
And I’d say “Black Sea” and “Slow West” are similar because they’re both kind of smaller movies–
Small little gems. And not shouting themselves out, going, “Hey!”
And also they are both very much about what it means to be a man now — even though they’re set in completely different times.
Yup, it’s exactly what you’re saying. We always see these things within the lens of the time they are actually made. And the message about what it means to be a man now in a lot of ways, we’re getting towards high points I think once again. We don’t have that classic sort of moral certainty sort of period that you see in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. But boy, it’s richer. The interior landscape of man as depicted in modern morality movies or something like that is much richer and much more accurate in a lot of ways. It’s not as much of a fantasy object as it was.
Yeah, like in “Slow West,” Fassbender’s character is the prototypical Western male at the start. But then through the movie we see him and Kodi interact in a way that changes them both. I was really impressed with how modern this movie felt without feeling like it’s trying to reinvent the wheel.
I think that’s his skill. That’s John. And look you got to give credit to Michael (who executive produced the film as well). He and John developed this nascent working relationship; they built up this thing together. And then boom, they built this film that has extraordinarily good stuff.
Have you ever tried absinthe?
Yeah. Yeah, I have.
How did that go down?
It was just like yeah, “Oh yeah. Whatevs.” Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t demolish a significant amount of absinthe to really feel it’s proper [slams his hands together to imply “wallop”]. And I suspect too that modern absinthe is not as funky as the old-time absinthe. Because really wasn’t the point of absinthe that it’s got laudanum or something in it? So it’s essentially dope juice, dope alcohol. And I think the modern absinthe is a little bit less [intense].
Yeah, it’s the safer version where you get to act like you’re a badass without having to potentially kill yourself. Right?
[He giggles.] But I will forever love absinthe just because of the Dracula movie, the Gary Oldman one —
Oh, my God, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
Which I love. I love that film so fucking much.
It’s so pretty. It’s still so pretty.
It’s beautiful! And then they pour the absinthe over the little sugar cube.
They make it look so impossibly cool.
Oh, God. And he looks so beautiful in it those scenes with the blue thing and the little half-glasses. And she [Winona Ryder] is luminously beautiful in that film. Oh, fuck.
It make so much sense to me that you like that movie. Like that fits with my idea of you.
Right? I really love that film. I love love love that film.
So, on IMDb they have a section on your page called “Trademark,” and this is what someone wrote as your trademark: “Often plays arrogant, unlikeable and borderline sociopathic characters who are never as clever as they think they are.” I’m curious of your thoughts on this perceived trademark. It’s so carefully worded, someone put a lot of thought into it.
Oh, dear. Yeah. Can you read it to me one more time?
“Often plays arrogant, unlikeable and borderline sociopathic characters who are never as clever as they think they are.”
Shit! I think I actually think someone actually wrote that on my third form, like my third year of high school report card.
This is actually just a teacher with an ax to grind?
Yeah. I think they just fucking transposed it over onto IMDb.
It’s funny. Because like in “Starred Up,” you channel intensity and channel this kind of energy that makes us excited, but also a little afraid. And I have to say, in person, you are delightful. Now, I’m sure you’re getting asked about this left and right, but you’re rumored for “Star Wars: Rogue One.”
What’s it called?
“Star Wars: Rogue One.”
Rogue? R-O-G-U-E one?
Yeah, “one” as in the number.
But “rogue” as in a rogue element?
I’m just unsure as to all of that stuff, but yes. I’ve heard of these rumors. What delightful rumors they are. I’d be pretty happy if that rumor came to fruition but I can in truth say there is no definitiveness to that rumor. No definitiveness.
Was “Star Wars” something you grew up with?
Yup! Loved it. Loved that.
You know George Lucas is here, at this festival, right now?
Yeah, he’s doing a talk today. Actually, it’s going on right now.
Oh, my God. I’m having a big — that got me like a little nerd, like my film nerd, like — yeah, “Star Wars” is a big deal to me. It was a really big deal for me.
Have you seen the trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”? It just came out yesterday.
No, but I’ve heard that it’s [incredible] … But I’ve got to tell you the people who told me about it were having fanboy meltdowns, like wanted to cry. But I’m pretty excited about, I’m a fan.
And of course because of the casting niche you tend to dominate, people assume you’re going to be a bad guy in “Rogue One.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
As I’ve said, I can tell you in all honesty, I’ve not read any scripts. I’ve been offered nothing. So, they are thrilling rumors and few will be happier than me if they come to pass.
Has anyone come to you yet and been like, “We know you can do bad guys, but now,” and they just give you this sugariest script ever, and want you to play a sweet family guy?
No, that hasn’t happened for the last couple of years. I used to play a lot of sweet, sweet guys back in the day. But no, in the post-“Animal Kingdom” order, that is not really happening a lot. Yet. Although I would say in “Mississippi Grind,” [my character] is not a bad guy. He’s a sweet guy, actually. He’s fucked, though. But there’s always — look, you can look at anyone’s canon of work and you’ll see that the trends that follow through.
Well, that’s the fun of watching your work. I almost hate to say you’re known for playing bad guys because you bring such layers into your characters that they’re not just bad guys. Even Payne, we get his motives and where he’s coming from.
Look part of the delight in it for me is to try to make them feel touchable in some ways. To be fair, I haven’t done a lot of arch-league fantasy-fantasy stuff. And I think if I was doing that, I’d feel much happier about doing something really arch. But it’s just happens that I’ve been lucky because the writing has been good. And when the writing’s good it lets you dream into it more fully, rather than sort of just turning up. And I like to feel them, I like to feel in those scenes where they might actually live. If you were actually going to be that person what it might feel like. So those are the waves I try to surf. And hopefully there’s enough band width that it’s not — I never want to get to stage where I feel like I’m bothering people.
[Laughing] I admire that, but I laugh because I can’t imagine you boring audiences.
But that’s what I really don’t want to do. I want it to be a good thing when people watch my stuff. I don’t want them to feel like, “Oh fuck.” Because I have those people in my own life, who make you just go, “Oh, fuck that guy.” And that’s all I try to hold onto. That’s my anchor. Just be entertaining. Don’t try to be fucking profound. Just try to do it on the actual day. And then let it go, and try to do it on the next days you’ve got coming up. That’s my basic maxims.
I want you to write an advice book, because you’re talking about acting. But that’s just like good advice for life. Like, today we focus on today, and tomorrow is tomorrow.
There’s a lot of that. I also don’t think we get very long — it can appear like you’ve got a body of work and that’s good, that’s fine. That’s enough. But you don’t. You got to get back up and do the next fucking thing that’s coming up. So for me, it’s a good idea to forget about [what’s come before] the best that I can.
“Slow West” arrives today in select theaters and On Demand.