“Mississippi Grind,” the new film from directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (review), may be a two-hander (as you can tell from this new trailer), but the focus and the driver of the action is undoubtedly Gerry, the character played by Ben Mendelsohn. Emerging from the film’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival gala screening, I found myself trying to work out what exactly it was about the Australian actor in that role that was so different from almost everything else we might know him from recently —his incendiary turn in “Starred Up,” his breakout “Animal Kingdom,” his memorable supporting appearances in “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Killing Them Softly,” his pivotal performance in Netflix‘s “Bloodline.” The closest I got was that as messed up and flawed as the character is (it’s no spoiler to say he’s an inveterate gambling addict), Gerry has no violence in him —in fact, he has a streak of soulful sweetness that makes you root for him to prevail, often against his own better nature. Mendelsohn has a simpler explanation: “Gerry? Oh Gerry’s lovely,” he told me during our Karlovy Vary interview, as though talking about a mutual friend. “Lovely” isn’t a descriptor one would readily apply to many of the characters for which Mendelsohn has carved out such a distinctive niche over the past few years.
It applies very well, however, to the actor himself, as I discovered instantly, being rather disarmed when after a few words of introduction, Mendelsohn correctly identified my accent and suggested that I hadn’t lived in my native country for a while and was possibly first-generation anyway. Right on all counts. “Ah, an actor’s trick” he said, and so we got to talking about accents, before moving on to topics of perhaps wider interest, like how he came to this film, his changing philosophy on acting, and some stuff about some mooted role in a little film called “Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One.” “Mississippi Grind” premieres August 13 on DIRECTV and opens theatrically September 25.
Your American accent obviously is flawless now. Your accents, I should say.
Yeah, we try to get specific and I’ve had the benefit of working with some of the best, like Thom Jones, a brilliant dialect coach. [On “Place Beyond the Pines”] we went out, we taped people talking, listened to those and tried to map out where we wanted to go. And then hopefully your range of error is not so bad.
But one of the things you learn is that an accent is something that actors really obsess on, and it’s a useful thing to a degree. But I think audiences don’t really give a shit as long as they’re not taken out of the production.
So was it Gerry’s accent or something else in “Mississippi Grind” that unlocked the character for you?
With Gerry, I don’t think there was a particular thing… but I don’t really think of acting the way that I used to, in terms of what a character is or isn’t, those concrete conclusions. What I now think is acting is just offering up a series of what-ifs, and what ends up being constructed ends up being the character.
Was there a particular film or moment when your philosophy towards acting changed?
I think the idea that you are essentially offering up a set of propositions is fairly recent. For me, it was around “The Place Beyond the Pines.” I think you try to get a couple of things technically as correct as you can, and then after that… you see on that film that we flipped the character 180 degrees from what was written and what we shot the first day. And at that point, I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I’m very into what has come before me, trying to understand strengths and weaknesses, ideas and practices, so it was around that time. And then as part of the same extended family of filmmakers, from Derek [Cianfrance] onward, we produced these films.
So you see them as an “extended family,” because I was struck by how you haven’t really gone back and established an ongoing working partnership with any one director.
There are many people I’d love to go back with, but I don’t get to propose these things. In this sense, I’m a very traditional actor: a guy that’s around, things come up, and people might say “what about him?” That’s essentially how it works. I audition, as it were, for stuff. I’m a very traditional actor that tries to get a job. But I would be up for working again with most of the people I’ve worked with in the last years at the drop of a hat. I’m very very proud of some of the stuff from the last several years,
From the outside, it certainly seems like “Animal Kingdom” was the demarcation. Is that true for you too?
Absolutely. I was something of a venerable presence in Australia but not outside, and David [Michod, director of “Animal Kingdom”]… let’s just say nothing that happens after “Animal Kingdom” happens without him. David gave a lot of people a really great career, and I’m really proud of the collaboration we had on that film —I think we did something pretty special. I was very comfortable, I was able to stretch out, feel the space, and that’s not always the way. I felt very sure of myself in that environment.
So do you now approach projects for the director or the script?
It’s horses for courses —it changes and depend on a few different things. I’m currently shooting a film called “Blackbird,” which is directed by a guy called Benedict Andrews. And I had worked with him in theater, so I knew Benedict, but this is his first film. I knew Rooney Mara was doing it, I read it and I immediately had to do it. And I rang him that night. So sometimes you just get captured —that’s the absolute ideal.
“Mississippi Grind” was pretty close to that. I read it, and I had to take a breath and try to keep my cool. Here’s the thing that people that don’t act may not understand about the process: once you read a script, it’s a love affair. You start to fall in love with that character and that project, and you develop very strong attachments to it. When it doesn’t work out, it’s really painful, and that’s one of things you’ve got to learn to deal with as an actor. And I really felt like that going in to “Mississippi Grind.” I was like, “it’s a lead and come on, they’re not gonna go for me…”
But I read it, and I fell in love and I went in there and I was like “look [adopts comedy seductive voice] I know I’m not the guy you want, but I would really be good to you… so good to you…”
So it’s a seduction!
Always! You’re always using the finer arts of seduction. You want to develop a relationship over that material, and how you do that can be pretty fraught. Now Ryan [Fleck] and Anna [Boden] tipped their hand pretty early on [you can read Fleck’s take on that meeting in our interview with him], and I went away very giddy. But it was a very long time waiting to see if and how it might come together. And then finally it did, and our film doesn’t get made unless Ryan Reynolds comes and says “I want to do this!” See, now, Ryan Reynolds is a person that can say “I want to…” —he can carry a cart. I can’t carry a cart.
But you can put a shoulder to the wheel.
Oh absolutely! And that is something I have diligently tried to do since I first got a whiff of this business in 1984.
That’s right, you’re just after your 30 year anniversary, since [Aussie TV show] “A Country Practice”?
That was actually probably about my fourth job. It was “The Henderson Kids,” wherein I can remember very distinctly being really upset that maybe I wouldn’t ever get to do this again. And that is the fear that hangs over your life as a young actor: can I get another job? So I have always put all my effort in —I will say that.
And all these types of roles, I notice there haven’t recently been many romantic leads.
I did a few of those in my late teens, so not for a long time now. And that whole thing changes with who I am now. I’m not what people might reach for in those instances.
Yet my favorite scene in “Mississippi Grind” was between Gerry and Vanessa, that little tender moment by the piano.
Oh, that’s my favorite part too! I’m game for most things, and if it was a matter of my wishes dictating stuff, yeah, I’d do that. And I’d do a comedy, I’d do an action thing. I’d go to Asia and do a domestic Asian action film.
I know you’re quite the cinephile too.
Oh, a bit. And that was one of my early dreams —fantasies more than dreams— to do a French film in French, and a German film in German. Pipe dreams, really. Maybe that will be stuff I get to do, but timing is so prohibitive in this exact pocket of time.
But yes, I believe cinema language is so universal that’s it’s sort of a bummer we haven’t all got our act together to do a bit more cross-pollinating. Without it being a solely commercial consideration.
And speaking of commercial considerations —might “Rogue One” change things for you there?
I don’t know whether that’s going to be a go in terms of me. It’s still something that I am in the dark about! I know I’m trotting out the line here, but really, no one’s gonna be happier about it than me should it come to pass. But I’m just not sure and it’s gotta be coming up pretty soon, they start shooting before too long…
It may just be that I’m still circling that planet… God only knows. How do I do this without hanging myself? This might be a move on the chessboard that I don’t have in me, but…[he is really struggling with what he is “allowed” to say] I’d love to do “Rogue One.” Let’s just put it that way. I. Would. LOVE. To. Do. It.
And how about working with Gareth Edwards?
I’d love to work with Gareth —he made one of the most beautiful images that I’ve ever seen in any film anywhere, which is the HALO jump in “Godzilla.” I want that as a big poster, it is so beautiful.
And of course, he’s was very instrumental in the career of your friend Scoot McNairy.
I know! “Monsters!” Beautiful little “Monsters.” I just saw Scooter in Variety, and thought how random that Scoot and myself would have all these crossovers.
You’re also both involved in prestige TV. Can you tell me if we’ll see you again in “Bloodline” Season 2?
I think it would be unfair of me to spoil, given that “Bloodline” is so brilliantly constructed. I understand they’re going again fairly soon, so there won’t be too much keeping a lid on it one way or the other for very much longer. [update: since we conducted this interview, Mendelsohn has been confirmed to return for season 2.]
And do you find that TV flexes different muscles as an actor from film work?
Ultimately, I’ve done probably as much TV as film. I started in TV, and I’ve done more TV than most of the cast, and so I’m very comfortable. And to go back to that earlier point, it’s about taking a scene, coming up with some different propositions for that scene and working through it like that, so it’s not different in that regard .
You’ve got to rise to the writing, and that’s the hardest bit —actually being able to interpret and give it its life, so the writing is occurring while the camera is rolling. That’s the art and that’s all I do. Or try to do.
“Mississippi Grind” opens September 25th theatrically, but will premiere exclusively first on DIRECTV, August 13.