Interview: Ben Mendelsohn on Playing a Jailed Father Figure in Starred Up


Over the last few years, American cinephiles have been learning about the acting powerhouse that is Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn. Most of us first heard of him through his performance as a sadistic criminal in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom and then through other prestigious films like Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Oh, and he was also in a little-seen movie called The Dark Knight Rises in a smaller role.

Mendelsohn can now be seen in David Mackenzie’s prison movie Starred Up, playing the father to Jack O’Connell’s Eric Love, a dangerous and violent young prisoner who has been transferred into an adult prison where Mendelsohn’s Neville wants to teach his son the ropes but finds himself drifting apart as old tensions are brought to the forefront. Eric’s also being influenced by the prison’s counselor, played by Rupert Friend, whose job reflects the background of the film’s screenwriter, Jonathan Asser.

Anyone whose seen the other movies mentioned above already knows the intensity that Mendelsohn brings to all his performances and that’s fully on display in Starred Up as well. got on the phone with the Australian actor for the first time in a couple years to talk about the role as he was in the process of doing ADR for Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. We haven’t spoken since “Animal Kingdom” and I’ve really enjoyed almost everything you’ve done since then including this movie, so I’m happy to have a chance to talk to you again. Really enjoyed it when I first saw it at Tribeca and I’m generally a fan of prison movies.
Ben Mendelsohn:
Well, you obviously know about the guy who wrote it, yeah?

CS: Yeah, Dave told me a little about that and how his experiences in the prison system inspired him to write the screenplay. Was your character based on a particular person he met in prison or an amalgam of people?
I think it was more than that. It’s not any one… I’m sure Neville wasn’t a genuine person that he had met on his travels. He’s more a character that Jonno’s written, he’s not a particular guy. There were guys like him and situations of them being a father, etc. etc. but that’s all Jonno, the writer Jonathan (Asser).

CS: How do you prepare for the role other than the script? Did you spend a lot of time with Jonathan or meet ex-convicts?
I spent a lot of time with Jonno, but the first time I did when I got there is that I met about five or six guys and we sat around a table kind of chatting for a couple hours. They were guys that were in that actual group. Those guys were actually in the film, and those guys were around.

CS: Do you have a similar preparation process for the different roles you play? Do you get to put a lot of time into that beforehand or once you have a screenplay, can you figure things out pretty quickly?
It’s sort of more horses for courses really. In this case, there was the Cockney accent, but I feel like a lot of times with this genre, it’s really the writer, and David had a rehearsal process that went for a couple weeks. We had a chance to sort of kick things around a bit, plus we were shooting in a prison the whole time, so that lends its own atmosphere, but it varies job to job, what you might do beforehand or the way you go about it.

CS: This film in particular feels very authentic and naturalistic, shot almost documentary-style compared to other movies you’ve done, which were more cinematic. I think David mentioned that he wanted the actors and their interactions to dictate how to shoot each scene.
Yeah, look, that’s how it was. When their guys shoot in a jail and you’re shooting inside jail cells, there’s not a lot of room. Traditionally for cinematic purposes or whatever, you might build a set with a plug-in wall here or there. We didn’t really have that, so we just had to go with what there was. There was a lot of two-cameras on the guys’ shoulders and us doing the scenes in the cells and what-not. That was largely how it was. There were times when you’ve gotta figure out certain things, like the violent sort of sequences and stuff like that. Obviously that sort of stuff is very planned. Other than that, you’ve got four walls around you and there’s not a lot of distance, so you can’t go very far or wide.

CS: I was surprised that besides Jack and Rupert Friend, many of the guys in the group were actors as well. This could have been a case of mixing actors with non-actors, because it felt naturalistic in the way they communicated and interacted.
They were a great bunch of guys, all of those young actors. I feel like we got wonderful guys to do that stuff, they were fantastic. They gently and sweetly terrorized the town of Belfast for their time there.

CS: How literally did you stick with the script or how literally did David want you to stick to the script? It really didn’t feel heavily scripted. Did you have the freedom to go off script, especially your character?
It’s fairly faithful to the script I think. It’s pretty much faithful as written. There might be words here or there that change, but that’s nothing, but no, it’s pretty much it. I can’t remember freeforming a lot.

CS: One of the particular moments I was thinking of was when you were being thrown into solitary and you were yelling at the guards. It seems like you could have easily improvised a lot of the stuff you were cursing at them.
Ah, yeah. (chuckles) When it comes to cursing at the prison guards, I’m pretty sure he let me off the chain to do a lot of that, yeah. There was maybe one or two things written but David I think wanted a lot more, so off we went.

CS: I also wanted to talk about working with Jack. I’m really impressed with him as an actor. I’ve seen him in “’71” and parts of Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” How do you find his style of acting compares to your own? Is it similar or complimentary to yours? How did he approach the material?
I think Jack’s a hard working young fellow. He’s good and he wants to jump in there and do it. A lot of the time what I like to do is just go again and go again, because sometimes you benefit from just jumping straight back in and doing the same take again, because you start to get the surroundings and a bit more lost in it. And Jack sort of does that, too, to a degree. Some of our better stuff I think came from just doing it four, five, six times in a row, but I love working with Jack, he’s great. Jack’s been working for a long time there, too. I think for audiences over in the UK, they’ve seen Jack for years so they’re very familiar with Jack, but he’s one of those treats that’s been unearthed I think for the wider world audience.

CS: Between this and “Unbroken” and “’71,” I think he’s really going to explode over the next year. If I had met him in person, which I did, I would not have recognized him as the actor from any of those movies. He’s such a different person than the characters he plays when he’s working.
No, he’s lovely. I mean, Jack’s got a lot of different sides. He’s very shy or he can be very boisterous. He spent a lot of time with those guys in his group. Those guys really hung together and I think they had fun along the way. I would see Jack at work and we’d let ourselves do what we had to (in order) to feel it, but that prison, it’s a pretty gnarly place.

CS: As I mentioned, we haven’t spoken in a while….
What was that for?

CS: It was for “Animal Kingdom,” so I guess it was four years ago? I remember we were at the Regency and you were talking about how much you wanted to do “Curb Your Enthusiasm” not realizing that they were shooting that very day outside the hotel.
Yeah, I loved that. Okay, I’m going to tell you the relative highpoint of that kind of stuff. There’s a bookstore in L.A. and Jeff Garlin does a book group there, and I was in there looking for books one day and he was doing his book thing–it’s a shop called Book Soup in L.A.–and he stopped his reading thing and said “I still view ‘Animal Kingdom'” so I felt very good about that.

CS: I’ve enjoyed talking to some of the directors you’ve worked with like Andrew Dominik and Derek Cianfrance. They always have interesting things to say about you as an actor – very complimentary, and it’s nice to hear that considering how intrigued I am by your performances and how you got there.
Most of the people I’ve worked with I like or I find a way to like them. If you’ll just excuse me for a sec, I’m actually getting out to do ADR for “Exodus” right now.

CS: How has it been doing a big biblical epic with Ridley Scott because that’s obviously going to be different from what we’ve seen you do before?
Yeah, it is, but I say this a bit, but it’s very true from my point of view anyway. Look, what I do, the parts of the film that I’m involved in, it’s always pretty much the same thing in terms of you’ve got a stage. The camera’s here. Working with the actors. Certainly, “Exodus” has some very big sequences which some of them are very hairy, but I gotta tell you that shooting some of “Started Up” was very hairy, too. There were some days running along those tiers at the top, that stuff can get pretty freaky, but they are very different films, but that’s a beautiful thing. In fact, I have to try to remember enough about the “Exodus” one to go and do some of that stuff right now. Since we first spoke, I’ve had a really good couple of years, working and what-not. Worked with some great people and I touch wood that I might work with Derek again, quite soon, and I’m having a great time. I’m having a ball, in fact I’m having the time of my relatively old life.

Starred Up is now playing in New York City at the IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, and it opens in Los Angeles on September 5. You can find out where else it will play on the Tribeca Film website (It’s also available on iTunes and other VOD platforms.) Check out our interviews with Dave Mackenzie and actor Jack O’Connell right here.