Exclusive: Animal Kingdom ‘s Ben Mendelsohn

Very often the movie villains that leave the most lasting impression are the ones so complex the actors playing them can make us relate to or even sympathize with them. That’s partially why the late Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Javier Bardem’s ruthless assassin in the Coen’s No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz’s Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds are still the most memorable aspects of those three movies.

This year’s most enigmatic bad guy has to be Ben Mendelsohn’s Andrew “Pope” Cody in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, the eldest brother of a family of bank robbers and criminals who stages a war on the Melbourne Anti-Crime Unit after his younger brother is shot down by the police. Into that environment comes Pope’s teenaged nephew “J” (played by James Frecheville) who, like the viewer, has no clue what his uncle is capable of doing next. There’s something not quite right about Pope, something you’ll spend most of the movie trying to discern without ever really cracking the surface, because he’s clearly one of those characters who does things for his own reasons rather than trying to cater to polite society.

It’s such an amazing role and performance from an actor who we don’t often remember in the movies we’ve seen him in, so we wanted to know more. A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Mr. Mendelsohn at the Library Restaurant at the Loews Regency Hotel, a very common New York location for interviews, to try and find out what went into creating the fascinating character. The big surprise came at the end when we asked him what he wanted to do next, but you’ll have to read what happened for yourself below.

ComingSoon.net: Obviously, Pope’s a great role for any actor. When I talked to David a few weeks back, he said he wrote it with you in mind. How did he approach you with the information that he had written the role for you?

Ben Mendelsohn: You know, David and I had known each other socially a little while before he broached the subject, and he basically said, “I’ve got this thing. I’ve kind of written it with you in mind. Would you please?” He brought it over and I kind of looked at it, nodding my head backwards and forwards like, “Okay, so now I’m going to have to respond to this… la la la.” I read it and it was different back then, but it definitely had strong stuff. The great litmus test with anything is can you stand to see someone else do it? That was what my wife said, and there was no way.

CS: The fact he thought of you to play a character who is damaged and possibly psychotic, was that any kind of concern at all?

Mendelsohn: Oh, no. That was a great compliment, it’s a great compliment. I have a fairly broad… One of the good things about staying in Australia is that I get to do a lot of different types of things, so I have a very broad range of characters I’ve done. No, no, no, it’s thrilling, because he’s picking up on certain things and then we’re just going “boom boom boom boom boom” and it’s such a trip as an actor to go in there and let it rip like that in a way that’s right for the piece.

CS: I assume you’re from Melbourne as well. He mentioned the movie came about of him moving there when he was a teen and reading all these true crime stories, so I assume you already knew all about that aspect of the city.

Mendelsohn: Yeah, yeah, I knew about all that sort of stuff. I kind of grew up having contacts here and there with people from a lot of different walks of life, including those kind of people. Yeah, it’s a very familiar part of the lore of our area for us.

CS: Between this movie and “The Square,” there seems to be this thing where all these films are coming out of Melbourne, out of this group of filmmakers. Having known these guys for a long time, why did you think it took so long for all these movies to explode out of the area like they have been?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, I really don’t know except that I do know that every now and then you’ll get these movements of these group of artists that will pop off and start doing their thing, and I think this is an example of that. Those guys are very very tight, know each other very well. They just a sense of shared roads, which is like that, and it’s a great time at home for all that.

CS: It’s not just a bunch of movies coming out, but it’s a bunch of really, really good movies, better than many of the other movies out there, so was it just a matter of them taking the time to develop them?

Mendelsohn: Well, yeah, that’s part of the advantage or disadvantage as well, is that it is hard to get films made in terms of the volume of getting films made, we don’t make a lot of them. Okay, so that’s difficult, but the upside of it is that you can often develop your ideas really well, etc. etc. You don’t have the studio hanging over your heads, corralling you this way and the other. There’s a lot of advantages to it, and for people like David and for Nash, who have a strong cinematic sense, and a very good sense of story and character, it’s a goldmine.

CS: Let’s get into Pope a little because he’s one of the most interesting characters in this movie. David told me you two spent a lot of time just by yourselves working on the character. I know as an actor, you probably don’t want to say how you get into a character like this… but how DO you get into such a layered character like this?

Mendelsohn: Well, the thing about it is that it’s a pleasure, do you know what I mean? There’s a pleasure and there’s an obsessional quality to it. I don’t know how it is for other actors but for me, if there is something that is stimulating in the material, you’ll keep going at it. And if you feel that it’s a little ways outside your range, you’ll keep going. When we went into do the rehearsals, David wanted to do the prison scene and we started doing it, and I was said, “F*ck this. F*ck doing the prison scene. We don’t even know what the f*ck we’re doing here yet.” And that was a jolt, and I’d done five films before this and a couple of television shows. I had this enormous amount of time at work which meant that I was really exhausted. It also meant that I was really match fit, very acting fit, because of having done all that. So David and I went through the entire thing. We went through everything that had anything to do with Pope word by word. We’d go and see each other and we’d do that sh*t you’re supposed to do, that you can do. And then, just keep adding things, and then I started to twist it and when I started to twist it, then it really started to work. When we took all of the raw material and then went, “Okay, now let’s f*ck it up now.” Once we knew all the notes, where they all were, then it was a matter of going, “Okay, this might work like this.” You don’t know, you never know.

CS: You did all this on your own but you also had James, who was a brand new actor, never been in a movie before. How much of this did you want to keep from him in terms of what you were going to do with Pope?

Mendelsohn: I gave him nothing. I gave him nothing. I treated him like the piece of sh*t he was. I mean, I wouldn’t let him come near me during rehearsals, none of that. He wasn’t to meet me, I wasn’t to be in the same room with him. He had to be kept away, and then for the first period of time we were shooting and stuff, I would call him by a different name, this and that and the other. James was very able to come back from that kind of stuff, but yeah, I was trying to help us all out, ’cause I didn’t want him to feel comfortable and I didn’t want to feel comfortable around him either, so you know, just use whatever.

CS: But what about some of the other actors who…

Mendelsohn: Okay, I’ll tell you. I’ll go through them all with you. Joel and I… I played Joel’s big brother in the first thing he ever did, so Joel and I had known each other a long time as well. Didn’t have to do anything. Jacki and I, we knew each other for years, too. Didn’t have to do anything; we knew where we were going, just by looks and stuff. Sullivan and I also knew each other for a while and basically, I had to let him do whatever he wanted and he had to let me do whatever I want because that fits in with what we’re doing anyway, and that’s the way it is in any case. But Luke and I, the guy who plays my little brother, horrendous. I looked at him and said, “Look, we approach things from a similar way, we’ll know what we’re doing,” and then we just do it. I was fairly merciless to him, fairly merciless, and he was incredibly annoying and frustrating, and we just kind of found it through that. It’s kind of like making the set your living room.

CS: It’s really impressive how David created this believable family who you feel has such a rich history, which must have been tough even with actors who already know each other. There was no other rehearsals besides what you and Dave did on your own?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, I didn’t do any rehearsals with any of them, but I did set-up the relationship very clearly with the two people that I didn’t know. Also Laura, who plays the girlfriend, with her, I didn’t know her either, but I did check in with her. I did say “Okay, this is human form. We’re going to be doing this and this… and how old are you? Okay, alright, this, this and this. Cool.” When you have to do that kind of stuff with someone… (he stops abruptly and gives a big smile rather than giving anything more away) The joy of doing the job is that the line between play and real should be as indistinguishable as possible, and in order to do that, you gotta every now and again go… know what I mean?

CS: I was curious about that because when you’re doing all that stuff with James…

Mendelsohn: No, not with him. He doesn’t matter.

CS: But when it’s all done, do you go “Great job” and let him off the hook?

Mendelsohn: Ah, yeah, absolutely. When it’s done it’s done. It’s not a psychotic thing, but when it’s done it’s done, but that’s the joy of the job, it’s the play of it.

CS: Since Sundance, everyone’s been raving about this movie and your performance. Have people come to you to play similar roles and as an actor, have you tried to stay away from doing something similar to this?

Mendelsohn: No, no, man, I’m unemployed, you know? Just unemployed.

CS: What’s going on in Melbourne? Are they just not making more movies down there?

Mendelsohn: Ah, no, I’ll be fine. I’ll get another job if I want one, but at the moment, no nothing at the moment. Look, yeah, people will come up with similar roles, they’ll do all that sort of stuff, but they’re not going to get this again, it’s done.

CS: Obviously, you’ve been acting for a long time, and in a good way, you’re an actor who blends so well into your characters…

Mendelsohn: Yeah, you don’t want to bend in there.

CS: People will see you in this movie and go “Oh my God, who is this actor?” and then realize that you’re in all these other movies they’ve seen already. How is that for you as an actor?

Mendelsohn: Very satisfying. Yeah, well alright, let me just make this kind of explicit. See, I grew up on your actors, particularly the New York ones. They were the ones that made you go, “Ohhhh, can I can just do all like that?” That’s all I ever wanted to be, was good at it, that was all. All of the ancillary trappings of the business, really necessary, I realize that much more as I’m older, but I hated it when I was younger. I was very threatened… well, I wasn’t even threatened, I was like, “F*ck off,” you know? In my best times, I tried to do the work as best I could. Which is what you’re supposed to do.

CS: I talk to a lot of actors over the years who play quote-unquote “villains” in movies. One thing that’s common between them is that they can’t think of their character as being a villain, that everything they do has a logical reason. In the case of “Pope,” how hard is it to justify to yourself some of the things he does?

Mendelsohn: Super-easy? Look, I think Sam Jackson said that a couple years ago and he made a very good point about it. Yeah, and look, it’s very easy. This is all part of the good puzzle stuff. Once you’ve gotten a good puzzle for someone, once you’ve got a good script and director, a good explainer and collaborator, it’s easy, it’s so easy. It’s beautiful. That’s when it’s great. It’s not complicated, it’s simple and it’s beautiful. It’s like that.

CS: David has said that Pope is lonely and damaged, and did you think feel that was the reason he does some of the stuff he does or do you think he realizes people are scared of him, and he plays on that.

Mendelsohn: That’s an open question.

CS: When you watch a movie like this, you almost take on the role of a psychologist, because you want to try to figure out what makes a character like Pope tick and you wonder, “Why did he just do that?”

Mendelsohn: No, and I think that’s a really rewarding thing about it, but I think to a degree, that’s how you get in your 20 dollars worth of film for 10 bucks. Is that this stuff will linger on. I don’t wanna color it too much. I have a very strong… I know a lot of stuff about it, and there’s a couple things I don’t know, but just kind of things. But I’ll tell you what I love, the way people react to it. I love that. The way they generally react to it and there are very specific things within there that different people pick up on and run with, which for me, says that the maestro over there (points to David doing an interview at another table)… because that’s all you want. All you want is the stuff that you try and you believe you’re doing and hope you’re doing gets delivered. It’s up… it’s their medium.

CS: I was wondering about that. You do a movie like this where you have so many different takes, and often it’s up to the director to find that performance in the editing. Did you generally do a lot of different versions of things?

Mendelsohn: He gave me more takes than anyone else, but that’s because I said, “Try it again, let’s do something different. Let’s go again.” That was just… but I don’t know if I sucked in all of them. I think we were just playing around, we’re just finding bunches of stuff.

CS: You talk about the reactions to the character but I actually knew someone who was a lot like Pope, and he actually almost looked a bit like you. He was a cook at a restaurant where I used to work, and everyone was scared of him because they never knew what he would do next. Have you ever encountered people like that yourself?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, yeah, I’ve encountered with “Don’t come to close” tattooed on their forehead, you know, one way or another, or people that you just go, “There’s something going on here, I’m not quite sure what it is, but I don’t want to get closer to it.”

CS: You have done a couple other movies and I was curious about some of them. “The Killer Elite” is something you already shot?

Mendelsohn: Yeah.

CS: I know it’s based on a book about some murders, and I was curious which side you were on in that.

Mendelsohn: I’m an SAF guy, he’s like Special Air Forces, kind of the precursor to your Navy Seals, Special Forces, that kind of thing?

CS: The cast for that looks pretty amazing, so how was that?

Mendelsohn: It was pretty good, it was a lot of fun. It’s a very different beast than this one, but we wrapped that up not terribly long ago.

CS: Have you heard anything about when it might come out or if it might be at Toronto?

Mendelsohn: Ah, I really… I couldn’t tell you.

CS: They’ll call you when it’s done and let you know?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, hopefully.

CS: You mentioned being unemployed, so what kind of thing would you like to do next? Are you sticking to Melbourne pretty closely or are you taking meetings in L.A. for anything?

Mendelsohn: Ah, no. Look, I don’t care where it is. I’d prefer it was something that was good, that’s all.

CS: Any particular genre you’ve wanted to dabble in or try to do?

Mendelsohn: I’d like to have a go at horror. I think this is a close link on horror, I think that kind of thing. I think the way horror’s done now is pretty good. I like historical stuff, just because I like it. I like standard dramas, I like lots of different sh*t really.

CS: Have you ever done a straight comedy?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve done comedies.

CS: Is that something you enjoy doing?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, I’m not bad at it.

CS: Even though Pope is pretty scary, he does get some good laughs just due to his behavior, and it could be interesting to go more towards that end of things.

Mendelsohn: I’ve done a bit of it. I’ll tell you what I’d love to do. “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” that’s what I’d really want to do.

CS: It’s shooting just outside. Did you see the signs?

Mendelsohn: Bullsh*t.

CS: I swear to God.

Mendelsohn: Bullsh*t. For real?

CS: All those signs on Park Avenue that say “CYE” on them? That’s for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Mendelsohn: Noooo… you’re lying. Where are they shooting?

CS: I’m not bullsh*tting. All those signs are for them to come shoot here later tonight or tomorrow so maybe you can hang around and do a walk-on. Did you see the episode where he was in “The Producers” and he didn’t want to tip the doorman?

Mendelsohn: Yeah, sure, sure.

CS: That was right here at this hotel.

Mendelsohn: Noooooooooo!

CS: Maybe he’s going to do a return to that joke by returning to the Regency.

Mendelsohn: I’m a mad, mad fan. No way!

CS: Maybe you can miss your flight to L.A. to watch them shoot, but don’t tell anyone I suggested that.

Mendelsohn: No way! That to me is really impressive, that’s really impressive.

So Larry David, if you happen to ever read ComingSoon.net, make note that this amazing Australian actor wants to do something on your show!

In the meantime, Animal Kingdom opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 13. Check out our earlier interview with director David Michôd right here.


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