Interview: Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly)

Interview: Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly). By Simon Miraudo.

Ben Mendelsohn has long been one of Australia’s favourite actors, alternately playing adorable romantic leads, comic imbeciles, and chilling villains. Though he can’t boast an Oscar nomination like his Animal Kingdom co-star Jacki Weaver, the success of that 2010 crime drama has seen his shares skyrocket, and after 25 years in the business, he is now highly sought after abroad too. He popped up as Bruce Wayne’s business nemesis Daggett in billion-dolllar grossing blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, and took Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage hostage in Joel Schumacher‘s Trespass. Mendelsohn might finally get the international awards recognition he deserves thanks to a supporting turn in Andrew Dominik‘s Killing Them Softly, in which he and Scott McNairy play amateur thieves who wind up on the hit-list of Brad Pitt‘s calculating assassin Jackie Cogan.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Killing Them Softly here.

We asked Mendelsohn whether he considered his “deliciously demented” character Russell to be one of the film’s more admirable characters, how Animal Kingdom opened doors in Hollywood, what it’s like to be a Batman baddie, and discussed whether or not someone could ever be promoted to be “Head of South-Eastern Asian Acting.”

SM: Can you tell me a little bit about getting involved with Andrew Dominik for Killing Them Softly?

BM: Absolutely. Andrew Dominik and I have actually known each other for a very, very long time, and we are very good mates. But I knew about Killing Them Softly when he had pitched it to Brad Pitt as an idea, because we talk about stuff. He had raised the idea of me playing this particular role and I said, “That sounds great.” Anyway, it went this way and that way through the mix as they sometimes do. I got a call from him asking if I’d put a test down for it. I went ahead and did that, and there it was. It went through all the various ticks and crosses – channels that it goes through – and off it went.

SM The character of Russell isn’t Australian in the original book Cogan’s Trade. Obviously with your relationship with Dominik, I’m interested to know if he was Australian in the script, and if not, what kind of touches did you bring to the character that felt Australian specific?

BM: No, it wasn’t necessarily. Andrew was toying around with the idea; that, with the type of character he was, the idea tickled him to have this grimy Australian criminal in the mix. There was an attitude we talked about with the character, and stuff like that, but he could have been a number of nationalities plausibly. He could have been English or Irish or a Scot; any number of American places that guy could have come from. He went with me, and said, “No, no accent. Let’s do it as an Australian,” and off we go.

SM: Well, Russell is definitely a grimy character, and you get some pretty deliciously demented lines to deliver in the film. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the character. Without giving away too much, Russell takes the money from the heist he helps orchestrate to become this low-level drug-dealer. Considering the film’s comments on capitalism, and America being more of a business than a community, do you think, in a sense, he’s one of the more admirable characters because of his enterprising spirit?

BM: Oh, geez Simon, I’ll tell you something right now before I answer that question. You are a refreshing light in a sea of (ahem) different types of questions. A very, very nice one to respond to.

SM: Oh, I live for it.

BM: I don’t know about that. I think that in a lot of ways, within the framework of the script, Russell is, as it were, the one that sort of ends up succeeding a lot more than the rest of them do. So, it’s actually fascinating the responses as to the commentary – what Andrew’s trying to get at – by having this Australian character in the midst of these proceedings. There’s been a lot of talk about if it’s a nod to Australian’s long-standing relationship with the U.S, et cetera, et cetera. Look, I think the character of Russell represents a part of a personality, really. Andrew’s got an idea about the interplay between characters. One might represent what’s called the id, the ego, and the superego, in which case, Russell is very much just a pleasure seeking, happy go lucky, untroubled presence. I do know about that slant of Andrew’s.

SM: And I think there is so much meat on the bone here. For a film that’s only 90 minutes long, or just over an hour and a half, there is a lot to chew in Killing Them Softly. It’s a great film to be a part of. You’d certainly been a presence in international films prior to Animal Kingdom. Did you notice, after 2010 and the success of that film, doors being opened wider?

BM: Oh yeah. Animal Kingdom without a doubt changed things for myself, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville. Both Joel (Edgerton) and Guy (Pearce) had very, you know… well it certainly didn’t do them any harm. It didn’t do anyone involved wrong. A lot of good things came from that film.

SM: And one of those things is you have the distinction of playing a Batman baddie now. You were Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises.

BM: I certainly was.

SM: What was it like to be part of this massive cultural phenomenon? More than a film, in a sense.

BM: You know what? Surprisingly relaxing and low key. As contra an idea as that might seem, doing the shoot and et cetera was incredibly unfussed. I’ve certainly been on many another thing that’s got a lot more stress involved. Look, I very much concern myself with the actual job of the acting, and the circumstances on set, and try and leave the rest of the stuff clear. I don’t have a lot to do with the enormous publicity roll-out and what not. It was a fantastic working environment, I do know.

SM: That’s great to hear. Well, I certainly don’t want to blindside you with quotes from other interviews, and certainly not ones from more than 10 years ago, but I will, right now.

BM: [Laughs]

SM: [Laughs] Back in 2001, in an interview with Hutak, you said working isn’t “really a career; it’s a series of jobs.” I’m curious, more than 10 years later, if you feel the same?

BM: Yes and no. I mean, the reality is that it still is exactly that. It’s a series of pieces. There’s a way of explaining it as a career, and it works quite clearly. You never get to become ‘Head of South-Eastern Asian Acting’. That’s what I’m referring to. It’s not in that sense of the word a type of a career. I think as far as an actor goes, that’s not a bad way of looking at things. I don’t know. Yeah. I still feel pretty much the same.

SM: You’ve still got some exciting films coming up, including The Place Beyond the Pines, the new one from Derek Cianfrance. I’m curious, with all these new opportunities opened up to you, do you get to spend much time at home now?

BM: Oh, yeah. Most of that stuff, I’ve done it all a year ago and more. Yeah, I do. I do get to spend time at home. When it’s full pedal-to-the-metal and you’re doing a number of jobs at a time, sometimes I’ll do two films at the same time; I’ve done periods where I’ve done three different jobs concurrently. But then you don’t. Otherwise, absolutely. I get considered for more heavyweight stuff, if you like.

Killing Them Softly arrives in Australian cinemas October 11, 2012.

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