A look at any of the projects Ben Mendelsohn has hitting the screen these days would give you the impression that the man carries himself with menace. But upon meeting him, he lets you how happy he is to be meeting you.
Energized over the release of his new comic Western “Slow West,” Mendelsohn transformed into a bona fide master of ceremonies at the onset of our meeting—the polar opposite of his character in the movie. A type of fairy-tale Western, “Slow West” follows a 16-year-old boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) on a journey across 19th Century frontier America in search of the woman he loves. Along his travels, he crosses paths with a mysterious gunman (Michael Fassbender) whose motivations are unclear. And trailing the two men, is an even more enigmatic bounty hunter figure named Payne (played by Mendelsohn wearing a fabulous fur coat), who may have deeper and darker connections to everyone involved.
As happy to chat about his new Western “Slow West,” as he is to delve into other contemporary projects like Netflix’s TV drama “Bloodline”and Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” Mendelsohn is no novice when it comes to interviews —he practically intercepted our “Star Wars” question before we could even ask it …but was a charmer about it all the while.
Did you come to “Slow West” as a Western fan in general?
I am. I grew up loving the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” was a really big one for me. I think we had it on VHS and watched that fucking thing again and again. I still keep trying to get deeper and deeper into the genre, so I’ve gone back and watched “Stagecoach.” It’s a very deep and wide genre, and I’ve learned a lot from that Martin Scorsese documentary [“A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”]. It’s pretty good.
Is a love for the genre what drew you to the movie in the first place?
Yeah. I’ve been offered the chance to do Westerns, and I got a chance to do a submarine movie [“Black Sea”]. I did a Western a long time ago called “Quigley Down Under,” which [stars] Tom Selleck, Alan Rickman and Laura San Giacomo. So I’m not a virgin to the genre, but this is a different school of Western. [His character} Payne is drawn from more of the “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” stock.
One thing that separates “Slow West” from a lot of other Westerns is how visually vibrant and colorful it is.
The DOP Robbie Ryan did a great fucking job, and Jon Maclean brings the foreigner’s eye to the Western. I think some of my favorite Australian films were shot by people that are not Australian. And I think when Dean Semler did “Dances with Wolves,” for instance, that’s a very different looking Western than what you’ve seen much of before. It’s very rich, color-wise. But we’ve got our own very proud thing going on.
The coat your character wears is another standout element in this film. What was the discussion behind using that coat?
If you watch “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” you’ll see that they have these very big fucking coats on. I realize we haven’t seen these coats really much before in a Western, but that’s the sort of shit that they were toting around in. I’ve seen about five or six photos of guys in that period in these huge fucking coats. So, when I got up there and I discovered that, yes, they were going to use the coat idea, I was so happy. So happy! I mean, a good coat can do a lot.
My favorite ever version of “King Lear” is the 1971 film by Peter Brooks. He has this enormous fur thing, and it adds enormous gravitas. I tried to infuse some of that. You know, you chuck this in, you chuck that into the part, then you go and you do what you do. But I own that coat now. That shit is mine.
Did you have to finagle that?
I just stated my intention at the beginning. And I didn’t have it until we went to Sundance! I said, “What about the coat? I want to wear the coat. Can I have the coat?” And so they flew the coat over with someone who was coming from New Zealand. It arrived in this huge carryon bag. So now it’s back at my place. It’s the only thing I have on a mannequin. [I’ll wear it] when it gets very cold, or when I feel very, very carefree or brave. Or really masochistic.
Beyond just Payne, you’ve been playing a lot of villains lately. Do you you ever get worried about being typecast as a villain?
No, I don’t think so. It seems to be that you get a feeling about certain characters. Prior to my last three or four years of being very visible here, I had a good career working in Australia. In my early phase, I was thought of more like Koti Smit-McPhee is in this film: wide-eyed and in love. And then they thought of me for a long time as sort of this Australian regular guy. And then l after “Animal Kingdom,” it’s all nasty, bad, or grimy characters. I think the main thing I worry about is just being in something that I think will work. I think about the people I’m going to be working with, the quality of the words, and the likelihood of some sort of chance of it working in a bigger sense.
You’re playing all different types of villains lately. You see it in “Bloodline” and “Lost River.”
You’ve got no argument from me on that point at all. I think that’s been going on pretty consistently since “Animal Kingdom.”
Yet they all come across as entirely different types of bad guys. Can you talk about how you make these characters feel different enough from one another?
It tends to be more about the setting and the writing, I think. There are certain things that you get a sense or you feel something or other when you’re reading them. And you try and bring that in as much. Any actor’s got a particular thing that’s very much part of them and part of what you see again and again in performances.
But outside of that, immediacy is my biggest concern. I like things to feel like they’re actually occurring. And then script, costume and whatnot inform a lot more about that. But as to how they read to someone, I can’t know that completely.
With Payne and your “Lost River” character, you’re never rooting for these guys for a minute. But it’s more complicated in something like “Bloodline.” How do you go about balancing that villainy with the empathy you achieve with Danny Rayburn?
It’s the writing that changes from one to the other. With Danny, you’ve got a lot more opportunity to understand where he’s coming from and how the world looks to him. With Payne, we’re interested that there’s another bounty hunter here. He knows Michael Fassbender. What the fuck’s going on? Is he going to get him to do this? It’s more about just being, in this case, a solid nemesis, if you like.
That happens in the writing. Danny’s got a lot more range of stuff and you get a lot more chance to see the world and how it feels to him. But you are right to point out the essential slant of villainy, because that is clearly there.
Another thing that struck me while watching “Lost River” is that I did not know you could sing! Did Ryan Gosling know about this when he brought you to the part?
Yeah. Ryan knew, because we’d done [“The Place Beyond the Pines”]. I sing a lot at work, and I sing when I’m happy, generally, so I sing a lot. And sometimes I’ll bring music to work, and sit the rock-box down and play stuff.
My editor pointed out that you’ve got a little Nick Cave thing going.
That’s a great compliment. He’s an old hometown boy.
Before we wrap up, I’ve got to ask about those “Star Wars” rumors.
Here’s what I can tell you. I can say that I’ve heard the rumors too, that they are very exciting rumors, but that I can in true honesty say that there is nothing definitive to those rumors. Nothing definitive to those rumors. I know you’ve got to ask. It would be remiss of you not to.
“Slow West” opens in limited release on May 15th.