Interview: Actor Ben Mendelsohn (2014)

Interview by Lesley Coffin

The interview was previously published in 2014, during the US theatrical release of Starred Up

Last December, the gritty prison film Starred Up led nominations at the British Independent Awards but only claimed one honor. That trophy was taken by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn for his performance as Neville, a prisoner and absentee father of main character, Eric Luv (played by Jack O’Connell). While Mendelsohn first came to many audiences’ attention due to his tour-de-force performance in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, it came after more than 25 years in the business, getting his start as a teen. Since Animal Kingdom broke through internationally, the magnetic Mendelsohn had worked increasingly in American films with roles in The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly, and The Place Beyond the Pines; a performance more than a few critics thought deserving of a best supporting actor nomination. American audiences will get a chance to see him again in Starred Up (on limited release this week), although those in the UK can already see the film on DVD/Blu- ray/VOD. The polar opposite of his intimidating character, Mendelsohn graciously provided a lengthy (and at one point rainy) phone interview while filming his new series for Netflix, Bloodline, in the Florida Keys.
The movie had a great critical response in the UK when it was released, and every screening seems to have had a good reaction. Have you had a chance to see the movie yet?
No, I stopped watching my movies about 10 years ago. I don’t really watch them unless I happen to go to a festival where it’s a big statement to attend. And even then I might sneak out the back. I stopped watching them because I would focus on how I could have done better. And when I was doing plays I came to the opinion that it wasn’t the natural order of things for an actor to watch himself perform. There is a certain freedom in not reviewing yourself. So I stopped and it seems to be going reasonably well. I was able to just concentrate on the performance at hand and it helped a lot.
How did you get started in acting at such a young age?
I took drama as an easy subject in school and did a play that went fairly well. A friend of mine read an ad in the paper for general auditions. They were looking for kids, 4 to 15, and my buddies and I were going to ride in together. I rode in, none of my buddies did; I thought we were all going to do this together and have a bit of a laugh. So I went in anyway and got the first thing I auditioned for. If I hadn’t landed the first part I tried for, I don’t think I would have gone after acting. I wasn’t passionate about it until I started working, and then I became very, very concerned about how I would keep going. It was sort of the best thing going for me at that time in my life. I was 14 and not living with either of my parents, so I clung to it and was very eager to learn. I started out just doing series television in Australia and did a telly movie that ended up becoming a feature film halfway through production called The Year My Voice Broke. And that was something of an upgrade in terms of my prospects and led to a series of highs and lows thereafter. But I have worked fairly consistently; a couple of years here and there where nothing was really happening, but that’s how the business works.
Were you always able to make a living exclusively as an actor?
No, I had a series of other jobs. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a little while, I washed dishes, I worked in a bakery. I worked in a nightclub bar.

Always food-centric jobs? 
Yeah, and they were jobs you could drop out of easily. They were traditional turn up, put in some hours, pick up some money and on you go. Always was that kind of job. But yeah, they were always those sort of food, alcohol, nightlife jobs. I hadn’t thought of that theme before, although there was some construction work in there too. But let’s skip over that one; the drinking and nightlife stuff sounds better.

The Australian film industry seems pretty small and insular, and not having parents around at that time, did you form close bonds in the industry?
It’s true that my parents weren’t around, so in the earliest years, we all had very, very strong bonds to one another. And there are people I still know from that time, most of whom have very good working lives here (in the U.S.), so we’ve all known each other for a quarter of a century. Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Simon Baker, Toni Collette; we all know each other because we come from a relatively small industry. There is no six degrees of separation in Australian film; three at the very most.

How has it been making the move from working exclusively in Australian films to making American and UK movies? 
It took a long time. I’d gone backwards and forwards, particularly in the U.S., over the past few decades before anything happened. As for how it has been, at the nucleus, it’s all the same thing. There are cameras, and crews, and actors. But there are significant differences which separate England and Australia from the U.S., but for the most part it’s just the same but different. And they’re always a scramble to get made and you’re always amazed when they end up getting made and actually being coherent.

The performance in Starred Up is really impressive, but the thing that first struck me was the amount you learn about the character just from his physicality? Is that something you think about when creating a character? 
Not really. Most of my performance seems to come from the script investigation, drawing influences or similarities to the character. And the second, and more important part, is just what happens on the day. Many, many years ago, I did a film with Anthony Hopkins when I was at a very, very impressionable age, about 20 or 21. And it was this little Australian film which he shot immediately after filming Silence of the Lambs, but before it had come out. We were going along and I just thought, I’m going to kick myself if I don’t ask him “how do you do this?” He said some stuff to me that day that stayed with me and grew over time. He said “I don’t plan what I do. I do think about it. I don’t worry about it. I go to work, get on set and see what happens. I try not to push things, I try not to force things out.” And that was a very counterintuitive point of view from the party line at that time, which was very method-intensive, which stressed that an actor [should do] a lot of homework. And I asked him about that, and he said “because I know what I’m doing.” That made a huge impression on me. There came a point when I started to feel like I knew what I was doing and started to feel that I knew what was called for. I didn’t know everything, but I basically knew what had to happen, more or less. I had an idea of what might be interesting to me and hopefully what might be interesting to the people watching. And I know from my own frustrations as an audience, when I watch things and yell at the screen because I’m not carried away. There are times when I can see the stitching in the garment. When I can see the acting. Because I love movies. I love drama and comedy and romance. I love crying in the movies. I ferociously love them and as a kid, I depended on films and television to provide some sense of framework and escape. So I try to approach from that point of view; what will be the most enjoyable and immersive thing to do.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jack about the movie and he mentioned that it was vital to have established that father/son relationship and that by the time you filmed the last scenes, where you both cry, that that was completely unscripted and it just happened spontaneously on the day of the shoot.
That’s right, it did just happen. We had an argument just before filming that scene, and it was the perfect time to have one. It wasn’t a big blow-up, or anything profound, but it was that we were both fired up and upset so when I looked at him, and he was crying, that was it and I just wept. It killed me. We did that work together, but that’s most of the work for an actor. Being around the people you are supposed to have a relationship with so you get comfortable enough to have some kind of relationship. I mean, for most drama, it’s the quality of the relationships between the people that will take the audience across that line. Not all sorts, there are some where having some distance can actually be very helpful. But the type of stuff I like, I like being able to feel the two people on the screen together and not have to fight or urge themselves into some kind of relationship, but for there to be something that is actually exists. And to Jack’s credit, he is an enormously talented young man with all the skills and all the appeal of a leading man. He’s right in the prime of leading man territory, but he’s a guy who wants to do the work. And that’s notable, because not everyone is willing to put the work in. So I have a lot of time for that guy and we really did want to try to make something special. And we were also very lucky in that we had Jonathan (screenwriter Jonathan Asser) around who had lived that situation. He is the Rupert Friend character and I met those guys that were in his group. There were some good guys who have become something whereas the point of Neville was, he will never overcome. The essential point about Neville is he is a guy who is desperately trying to do the right thing by his son, but he has absolutely no clue, so his best efforts end up being fucking terrible. They are of no good to this kid whatsoever. But the important, cathartic thing is, he can see what is working for his son.

And what is working is the group, which we get the sense Neville might have some jealousy about or feel threatened by?
Very much. Neville’s entire raison d’être is his potency, and the real anxiety he has about the group is more or less the fear that his son’s potency would somehow be a chink in his armor. He is threatened by the group in a jail politics sort of way, and I don’t think that that’s an unreasonable threat. Jonathan pulled off something which is pretty difficult to do, which is to take an actual lived message but weave enough of a good story around it that you aren’t going to see the message, it just happens to be there. I think prison films, or prison dramas in general, are a fantastic genre. One of my favorite dramas in my younger days in Australia was a show called Prisoner, which was renamed Prisoner Cell Block H in the UK, but it was an enormously important series in the late 70s and early 80s in Australia. I took a lot of my formative life lessons from this character named Queen Bee, who ran the prison. I didn’t watch it for any kind of moral message, but I absorbed a lot through it.

I know that you stayed in the prison cells during filming and they functioned as your dressing rooms. The prison had been a working prison, although it’s now empty. What was it like being there?
It was fucking horrible. They were freezing and it was winter in Belfast. I hadn’t been to Belfast before, or Northern Ireland for that matter. But one thing which was very clear was that any prison there, and we shot in two, had an enormous resonance because of the political dimensions of people being incarcerated for political reasons. So it was an incredibly heavy place to be, and people felt incredibly strongly about the prisons. And, they were jealously guarded by the people who worked there. There was just a lot of vibe, a heavy vibe that came from them, because you knew hunger strikes had taken place there and that people had died. Now in the heat of battle, while filming a scene, do you remember that? No. But it does something to the general atmosphere and made for an awful shoot. And I say that with pride. It sucked. It was cold, it was dreary, it was brittle, it was really not pleasant, but thank God for that. It made me angry. It made it very easy to be angry. And as background noise, that’s helpful.

Had you ever experienced a shoot as difficult as Starred Up?
Once or twice. They are by their nature, more of an ordeal than people probably realize. You’re out there for a long time, and your head sort of starts to go to a strange place. And then they’re done, and you never live that again. I think in a lot of ways, the film community is very much like carnies, and the only real question is, are they upmarket or down-market carnie folk? And I still don’t know the answer. But Starred Up was a very difficult shoot. I’ll give you the other end of the spectrum. The Place Beyond the Pines was a very lovely, almost magical shoot. There were days that were sort of difficult and frustrating, but by and large, it was a magical, beautiful, great time. But most of them are difficult.

I’m glad you mention The Place Beyond the Pines, because it’s been noted that in the past few years you’ve gotten to work closely with actors of the next generation. People like Ryan Gosling, Jack O’Connell, and James Frecheville in Animal Kingdom. What’s it’s like to find yourself in that place Anthony Hopkins had been for you years ago? 
I love it. I love it. I do. When I was young, all I wanted was to keep doing what I was doing. Just keep acting. And I was terrified that somehow or another, there wouldn’t happen. I’m now at the point that I know, some way or another, in the U.S., Australia, and England, I can keep acting for as long as I like. There will be something I can do. That is nice, that change in feeling, which just gives you a certain relaxedness. But I wouldn’t want to compare myself to Tony Hopkins. I don’t think I’m anywhere near that. He acts with an incredible amount of grace and economy. And he has had a huge impact on the world of acting. I’m older but that might be where the comparisons end.

It’s unusual, because with the exception of playing the rebel character in The Year My Voice Broke, you became known initially for playing likable, impressionable young romantics. But for audiences worldwide, you are probably better known now for playing criminals in movies (Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, Starred Up). Do you get concerned about typecasting?
I think there is enough variety in those roles. We tend to have fairly compartmentalized brains, so people might not think of me for those things now. But I don’t feel restricted. There was a time in my younger life, where that was all they thought I was; some sweet, bright-eyed kid in love with the girl, and I used to find that pretty distressing back then. I don’t find anything particularly distressing about the situation now. I feel like I’m in a very good place now. People do different things at different times in their lives, but that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a bit like going to different restaurants. There are Chinese ones and Mexican ones, but I’m most concerned with how well the food is cooked and how good it tastes.

Do you have a check list when choosing whether you’ll do a role?
Not really. I think you have a basic idea. I’m more concerned with the writing and the pedigree of the people working on it and likelihood of success. And then there is just the good old, keeping the wheels of one’s life turning over. Because this is all I do for a living.

Did you talk with Jonathan in order to establish Neville’s background or did you try to create the character entirely on your own with just the script as a guide? 
I did a lot of research. I got to Ireland a little early because I was concerned about the action and I wanted to try to get a jump on it, so I could act as best I could within the accent, rather than have it be a straitjacket. It’s all well and good to be able to do an accent, but you then have to be able to move around within the accent, and that can be fucking tricky. And they didn’t know what to do with me, because I got there before they were ready for me to be there. I needed to be there early to hear the fucking sound, but they didn’t need me around. But the first thing they did was tell me, “we’re meeting with Jonathan and some of the guys will be there.” So I went along to that meeting, in the basement of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. It’s a very swanky, important acting school. So I figured it would be some of the other actors. I go in there, and there is Jonathan with 5 or 6 of the guys who were in his prison therapy groups. So that was my first exposure; sitting around a table with these ex-cons who had all been in Jonathan’s program. Some knew each other, some of them didn’t. And a lot of that time was just watching those guys checking each other out and find out what they thought of each other. It’s a very codified world, so conduct and the way you carry yourself is very, very important to them. So that was extremely instructive. And there was one guy that was closer in age to me than the others, but who wasn’t really like Nev. And Nev was written to be more shut down; like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. But characters are blends. I played Rupert Murdoch once, and I tried as best I could to do as close to a Rupert Murdoch impression as I could. But other than that, characters tend to be blends for me, and I’m performing them, so they all go through my filter. As was the case with Nev.

Were there things that you personally felt you brought to Nev that weren’t necessarily on the page, or weren’t on the page exactly as you ended up playing them?
Maybe. There were certainly things I fought for. When I got there, they had taken out all the stuff with Nev’s boyfriend, his cellmate. They had done that because they assumed I would balk at that part. And I said it was “quite the opposite that is the one time we actually get to see Nev in some kind of gentle, domestic light.” And it’s one of the more interesting aspects about what the film has to say. And it was also real. I’ve known enough guys who have done time to know that relationships do form, and that the rules are different inside and outside of prison, and they vary from person to person. But there is no doubt that a substantial number of the prison population are going to seek contact. So that was something I thought was very important to keep in.

It is also somewhat unusual to see that kind of sexual relationship as intimate or loving in a prison film.
That was the interesting part about it. It wasn’t fucky fucky, or a rape scenario. It wasn’t just some trope of the prison genre. It showed something gentler about Nev and that was worth fighting for. I’m very glad it remains and was part of the texture of the film, because I think it would be all the poorer without it.

The film has a surprising amount of humor and one of the best reactions you get is the scene in the gym when you tell the boys to remove the weights for you, because you aren’t strong enough to lift them. Your character has the swagger of the alpha dog, but you immediately make it clear that you aren’t the most physically imposing. How did you feel about the apparent dichotomy in the character? 
I loved it. The scariest guys I’ve known are not necessarily the most physically imposing. I have a game I used to play at traffic lights in Australia, back when you could play this game. You’d be at the traffic light, and there was a guy in a car next to you, and you’d take off down the road. And it’s between the guys to see who would get the farthest. Now, I wouldn’t always get away the fastest, but I would say to myself “listen, it’s not about how fast you take off, it’s where you’re willing to stop.” It’s how fast you’re willing to go before you slow down. And that’s kind of the approach I had with Nev. His thoughts were “you may be physically stronger than me, you may be faster than me. But I will fucking kill you. And if I don’t kill you, I will maim you so terribly, it’s going to be one of the most regrettable things you ever did.” Brute force can do a lot, but it’s the determination of the engine and the application of the break that makes the difference. And I like to think that Nev will just keep going. Because in a lot of ways, Nev doesn’t have much of anything in his life; and all he’s got is inside this prison. I don’t think Nev feels anything will happen for him outside of that prison. He knows he’s in, he’s locked up and if he ever does get out, so fucking what. He’s an old guy at this point and all the young, sexy crime is gone. You get into the 30s or 40s, the game all changes and the real question is, do you have a family, will you be around to look after them? Or are you just going to keep getting older and getting laid but getting uglier as you do it. Nev doesn’t have those options, all he has is prison.

We only see the prison from the time Eric arrives to the point that Nev leaves, so we don’t know what life was like for Neville before Eric was around. Do you think having Eric in the prison with him makes Neville reevaluate his life? 
I think Eric had an aggregate effect on Nev, but I don’t think it was immediate. When Eric first shows up, he is something of an embarrassment who has to be managed before he ends up polluting Nev. I think Nev has some paternal instincts, but initially, Eric is seen as a problem that needs to just be managed. The real problem is with the jail being quite upset that this offspring of mine is running around, stirring up trouble and interfering with the good operations of the prison; making money. If too much shit goes down, everything will get locked down. It’s the same kind of idea of the old mafia movies; don’t stir up too much shit because if you do no one will be able to make money and the police action comes down. There is a certain amount they’ll tolerate, but crime operates successfully when there is order and control; and so it is in jail. I think Eric really does have a very profound effect on Nev by the end. Nev really admires Eric’s spark and pluck and independence. Somehow, Nev knows he had it all wrong, and in the end, there is enough of a cathartic through line, that for him to be able to say to his son “I’m proud of you and I love you” that’s about as good as it gets. And I think he is ferociously proud of that boy, because he recognizes Eric as a better man than himself.

The broad appeal of the film for many people seems to be the father/son relationship. Was that what drew you to the story and the character initially?
The appeal for me was I thought Jonathan had written something very, very interesting about shame and anger in men. And I thought he was onto something and had found a way of expressing that idea that was clearer than anything I had read. I thought Jonathan was putting something very good out there, almost in a Trojan horse. The real beauty of it is, for the ears that are willing to listen, this is an issue a lot of men confront; the link between their feelings of shame and rage. And there is something pretty good in that.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

Images screen shots from Starred Up, Tribeca Films

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