Were playing men in crisis a sport, Ben Mendelsohn would be an Olympic medalist. It’s not that all of the characters he’s played are men on the verge (or in the throes) of a breakdown—rather, it’s the balance of volatility and vulnerability in his work. Since his breakout performance in 1987’s The Year My Voice Broke, he’s run the gamut in terms of parts—he’s been the romantic lead, the supporting player, and lately, the megalomaniacal villain. His latest is perhaps his most normal, as suburban divorcé Anders Hill in Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits, which was released on Netflix over the weekend.
Of course, the idyllic Connecticut neighborhood Anders lives in doesn’t stay so anodyne for long—hence, Mendelsohn.
When I arrive for our interview a few days before the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mendelsohn has just gotten a cup of coffee. Lacking anything to use to stir in creamer, he plucks a pen from the conference table that dominates the room and uses that, and when a little coffee splatters onto his phone, he wipes it off—on the carpeted floor. It’s hardly wild behavior—he’s making the best of what’s at hand (and there’s an according matter-of-factness to his manner)—but it’s a little startling, nevertheless. (Or at least, it is to someone like me, who’d probably just suffer through unstirred coffee and a wet phone instead.)
It’s a fine line to walk (volatility and vulnerability), but Mendelsohn’s ability to pull it off is what’s made him such a hot commodity in Hollywood—he’s in the upcoming Robin Hood, as well as Captain Marvel. And it’s what makes it unsurprising that our conversation winds from the film, to life lessons, to video games.
VICE: I’m going to start with the obvious question: how did you get involved with this film?
Ben Mendelsohn: I knew Nicole a little bit as a human. I knew her work from being a happy audience. I’d actually tested for her years ago, before things sort of turned fortunate. I came close on one of her things, which was something I was really encouraged by, because at the time I was getting no one. I couldn’t get arrested. We knew each other a little bit, and she told me about it, saying, “I want you to come do a movie.” I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m gonna do it, yeah.” Also, she mainly works with women leads. So yeah, a no-brainer.
Was there a particular film that was your introduction to her work?
Yeah, Friends with Money, the one that I didn’t get. And I saw exactly why, because I wasn’t right for the part that she had been testing me for, but in any case, yeah, that was my introduction.
Are you somebody who finds it easy to leave a character on set when you go home? This film seems like a kind of harrowing thing to carry around with you.
Yeah, I do. Yes and no. I mean, it’s easy to move in and out of mode on the day that you’re working. That, I have found more and more. I think that when you’re younger and you’re learning, it can be more intense, that sort of working and separating, or just going off into normal life. But they just sort of hang around like—they’re like reflections in windows passing by, and stuff like that. You have senses of different experiences or different kind of characters or whatnot in your life, and some of them hang around for a long time, but I think it’s when you’re coming up and you’re sort of getting into it. I also think it depends a lot on the way other people end up feeling about them, but you do feel, in terms of leaving them behind and being tortured when you go home, you do get tortured when you go home, but it’s more because it’s hard to eat when you’re on set. It’s like the actual process of making a film is long and tiring. Sorry, I’m raving on.
Was there a particular point that you felt you’d wrapped your head around that?
Yeah and no. I think the biggest departure point is you try not to sort of aggrandize it or make it more of a [ jerk-off motion] than, you know— you try not to do too much of that kind of stuff, like wanking on about it or making it more of a kind of hallowed thing. You try and remember you’re making something for an audience, that you want an audience to be entertained and enjoy their time or be absorbed by their time with your project, whatever it is. I think that’s actually the most helpful thing, is to just become a bit more audience-aware and focused.
Specific to this project, what was your impression of that character when you first read the script?
I remember the scenes. I remember the sense of someone having this stated of goal of getting away from this land of steady habits, and at the same time cementing himself in a different, more unfortunate way. There’s something of a comedy of errors about the way he goes about it. The way Nicole writes—and ultimately the way she directs—it’s very clear what’s going on, on one level, but she’s got this way of unleashing an emotional unease in the viewer that lingers along as a side traveler. That, I trust, is going to be a part of this, too. Anders is—I mean, you love them when you play them, but you also get what fools they are, in their way, as well. And we’re not dealing with black and whites, here, we’re not dealing with a cop going after someone that’s murdering and terrorizing people, these aren’t black and white moral codes. I just dig her writing, and I have a trust and experience that she’s going to know what she’s doing, and also that very much is up to her, because she makes very much her own style of film, and that’s part of what’s so excellent about it.
The thing that catalyzes the events of the film is your character’s retirement; God forbid, but is that something that you’d ever thought about?
Retiring? Yeah. Well, I think about it sometimes, but not a whole lot. I mean, acting is one of those jobs that you can ostensibly work until you leave here, or until you’re very infirm and can’t. It’s not really something that I think about a lot in that way. I have thought about getting some time away or trying to do something different at various times in my life, but I’m kind of married to the game, as it were.
With regards to your work, you’ve recently been cast as a villain in several blockbusters, but you’ve also played the protagonist and antihero figures in a lot of smaller, independent films; is that a balance that you’ve consciously been looking for?
It’s not something that I’ve been consciously looking for; I’d love to keep doing them both. I think the more important thing is making something that has its own integrity, that is good, that is well made, that people enjoy, that takes them away from whatever they were doing before they watched it, and while they’re watching it. I think the old-fashioned idea of entertainment or being entertained is actually a really good grounding in what you want to be doing, if you’re doing this stuff. That doesn’t mean that it has to be unsubstantive or not have a lot to it, but if you keep in mind that you just want to do things that entertain people in their busy lives, or their whatever lives, that’s pretty good, that’s a bit of an honor, to be active and working doing that.
I also wanted to ask, with regards to what you were saying about your career, there was an interview where you were speaking about your life post- The Year My Voice Broke, and you were saying that at that time, you didn’t think that you deserved that success.
Do you think you do now? Has your idea of a merit-based system changed?
Yeah, it has changed. I also think that there’s big differences—subtle differences, but quite profound differences—in Australian and American culture, and I probably, if I could, would put my arm around that guy and say, “Hey, good on you. It’s really good. It’s a nod of encouragement in the right direction. It doesn’t actually mean what you think it means right now. Off you go.” But yeah, I feel like—I’m very happy to be working and generally thought of well.
Is there anything in particular that you’ve wanted to do that you haven’t been able to yet?
Not hugely—I tend to get delighted by each new turn in this, and I’m an actor that came up through television in Australia in the 80s, and the idea that you would somehow plan out what you were going to do is something that I’ve not experienced many people that operate from that basis. Most of it tends to be: there’s a film happening or whatnot, and who’s around, and who can we get, and who will work in it? I don’t experience myself as flying the plane, I experience myself as valued technician, or air host.
Slightly more philosophically speaking, one of the big themes is balancing being true to what you want and taking note of or caring about the perception of others; is that a balance you’ve found easy or difficult?
The paradigm, as you put it up, is not exactly the way I see it. I think knowing what it is that people are saying or how it is that you’re coming off in the world as you make your way around is something that I’ve often been surprised by the way certain people will view or interpret or feel about you. I still am. More nowadays, I’m surprised and delighted by the positivity that people feel, but certainly there’ve been many times growing up where I was surprised that people were viewing things negatively or whatnot, but it didn’t have so much to do with me consciously trying to exercise autonomism and break free of something. It was just, I don’t think, for a long time, I’ve felt that way. I’ve felt, more fundamentally, like, “What do you do?” more than, “I’m gonna strike forth in this direction,” and all that. I think, maybe, for people that have a more grounded and solid sense of themselves, they might feel that way, but that’s not been where I’ve come from. But yeah, I’ve been surprised at times by what people thought.
Oh, yeah! I’ve been surprised, but it’s a quality that probably works for performance in one way or another. The tension between what they feel or see themselves as versus how they come off to other people.
Is there anything in particular that has surprised you?
[ Laughs] There’ve been many of them. A lot of the times were very early on. I was born in Australia, but I went to Germany and England, and when I came back to Australia, I was very surprised by being viewed as this little German outsider kid and stuff like that, so a lot of my formative experiences have to do with that feeling of being an outsider. And then there’s been many kind of hostile or bemused receptions that I’ve received over my life. In many of those, I had an active part, but what I thought I was doing versus what other people interpreted it as have often been wildly different. I think it’s very easy for us to misunderstand or half-understand or not give a damn about where people are coming from, and get it wrong.
I have one last question—I’ve read previously that you’re a videogamer, I was wondering what you’ve been playing or enjoying lately.
Lately I’ve been all about the tablet, and pretty dated things. There’s not a lot I’ve checked out new for a while. I’ve been doing Hearthstone, I’ve been doing Clash of Clans, and the other one is Plants vs. Zombies. They’re the three games— and I will play them every day. The one I’m looking forward to is the new Fallout. I think the new red, what is it, cowboy, the cowboy thing—
Red Dead Redemption?
Yeah, thank you—that new one, I’ll have downloaded, because I pre-bought it. But I want to add, for the record, that I do think that the best video game, in terms of modern games, is The Last of Us. I just wanna go on record.
Oh, I just bought that.
You just bought it?
I know, I’m way behind.
No, no, fuck that. Have you cracked it open at all?
No, I haven’t, it’s still in the packaging.
OK, that, for my money, that’s the best video game. Classically, I’m a Civ guy, Civilization, because it’s the most strategy and it’s war and all that bullshit, and you can just go back and start again and have one more move, all that shit, but I do think that The Last of Us is an extraordinary achievement. But really, for what it does here. [ gestures at heart]
There’s been talk of doing a movie adaptation, is that something you would swing for?
I’d be really surprised, and I think you would too, once you crack it open, if they went my way for the movie adaptation of that. I think you probably need a guy who is younger. You probably need someone in his late 30s. There’s two major, major roles in that, and then there’s quite a few other bits and pieces that come along. There’s a couple of parts in there, if you’re just going from the video game, that are pretty good. There’s really only the two of them, and I think that’s beautiful. I hope they get it right. I mean, that’s such a great video game. I haven’t played everything, but most of the ones that have had a big noise about them or big hoopla. We used to have this fantastic games review show out of Australia called Good Game, which got fucking axed by the ABC, which is our equivalent of the BBC, a few years ago, apropos, it seems, of nothing, so I don’t know a good games review show since then, certainly not one that’s a podcast or that I know how to get access to. I’m not as informed as I was when I was doing their stuff. Look, The Last of Us, yeah. What are you playing?
I just started playing the last Final Fantasy that came out.
Oh, yeah. I’ve played a few Final Fantasy games way back in the day, but I haven’t played many of the modern ones. I mean, that’s a huge, huge franchise. I can remember playing it on—I wanna say the 2, I think? I think I got one of them when the PS2 was around. I’ve played a couple of Final Fantasy games and stuff like that, and kind of dug it and was immersed. But The Last of Us. It’s extraordinary.
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