Mendelsohn calls his recent run of American projects as “the afterglow of Animal Kingdom... With the exception of Batman, funnily enough,” he says. “In that case, that was my agent badgering me to put down a screen test – Christopher Nolan hadn’t seen Animal Kingdom.”
There's no polite way of putting this: Ben Mendelsohn can be a very convincing scumbag when the situation calls for it.
If you need proof, check out his performance in the new crime drama Killing Them Softly, opening this Thursday, in which he plays Russell, a small-time crook and big-time heroin addict who gets roped into robbing a high-stake card game frequented by some heavy-hitter gangsters. Needless to say, things quickly go all kinds of wrong for Russell and his partner in crime Frankie (Scoot McNairy), especially when the mob calls in hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to balance the books...that is, kill everyone involved.
While Chopper director Andrew Dominik presents the ruthless world of these characters in ways with some brutal but stunning depictions of violence and mayhem, Killing Them Softly is primarily a character piece about criminals hit just as hard by the global financial crisis as anyone else. There are dialogue-driven scenes between great actors like Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta that are as compelling as any action sequence. And Mendelsohn's vibrantly scuzzy portrayal of Russell is an integral part of the movie's impact. He's equal parts dangerous, infuriating and pathetic.
Australian audiences have long been aware of Mendelsohn's abilities and range but his acclaimed performance as the quietly psychopathic 'Pope' Cody in Animal Kingdom caught Hollywood's eye, and he's been showing up in American projects both big-budget (The Dark Knight Rises) and independent (The Place Beyond The Pines, the upcoming film from Blue Valentine writer-director Derek Cianfrance).
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And, of course, Killing Them Softly, which sees him working with long-time friend Dominik for the first time. “I've known Andrew for 25 years, I'm godfather to his son, so we have a long history,” says Mendelsohn. “We hadn't worked together, though - there'd been talk of it a few times. Andrew is someone who's very, very into character, and he's certainly capable of bringing career-best performances out of people, so it was a pleasure.”
It nearly didn't happen, however, with Mendelsohn close to taking another project. “Andrew had spoken about Killing Them Softly, and then it went away, and I was like 'Oh, yeah, this routine...' and that was it,” he recalls. “I'd been offered another job and was on my way to do it when I got this very frantic phone call from him. He'd asked me to put something down on tape and I had done that but didn't hear anything from quite a while. Then I got this frantic call, asking me if I'd come do this film. I told him I'd taken the other job and he said 'Well, which one would you rather do?' And I said 'Don't be ridiculous, you know which one', and we were able to work it out. There were a couple of months away from shooting but I think it would have been difficult for them if I'd gone off to do the other film. I probably should have gone off and done the other film as well, but there you go.”
Mendelsohn uses his Australian accent in the film, a decision made after discussions with Dominik. “Russell wasn't written as Australian,” he says. “It was actually indeterminate in the script but one would assume he would be an American. It's very, very unusual to see an Australian character so prominent in an American film, and people take Russell's presence to mean any number of things. Some have said it's an allusion to post-WWII arrangements between America and Australia; I've heard speculation about the fact that we've been involved in every major conflict alongside America. Blah blah blah blah.”
Mendelsohn calls his recent run of American projects as “the afterglow of Animal Kingdom”. He says there was “a kind of critical mass, an excitement in getting someone to be involved” that saw him pursued for a variety of roles. “With the exception of Batman, funnily enough,” he says. “In that case, that was my agent badgering me to put down a screen test – Christopher Nolan hadn't seen Animal Kingdom.” However, while he's not the kind of actor who heads over to Hollywood every year to screen-test for TV pilots, Mendelsohn points out that he's not exactly a stranger overseas. “Mate, I've been going backwards and forwards at various times for 20 years,” he smiles.
Right now, however, he's back in Australia. He's completing filming on Two Mothers opposite Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, and “having a bit of chit-chat about what might be next”, but he's also keen to talk about Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines, in which he co-stars with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne.
“The title is the literal translation of the name Schenectady, which is the place in upstate New York where the story takes place,” he says. “Ryan plays a stunt motorcyclist with this travelling sideshow, and he meets this guy" – Mendelsohn's character, Robin - “who talks him into robbing banks, using his skills for his own good. It takes place over a couple of generations. Don't read anything about it if you can help it. It's best raw, and it's beautiful. It's beautiful, The Place Beyond The Pines.”
Killing Them Softly opens in cinemas Thursday 11 October.