Sundance 2015 Interview: Ben Mendelsohn on Slow West
Ben Mendelsohn has two movies at Sundance this year, so with a schedule like that he was only able to talk before both films premiered. That makes a slightly different interview, but we’re happy to accommodate his schedule. Slow West is a western directed by first-time feature director John Maclean, and stars Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Mississippi Grind stars Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as Gamblers. In March, Mendelsohn also stars on the Netflix original drama “Bloodline.” The morning of Mendelsohn’s two premieres, I was his first stop in Park City and we had a great talk over breakfast bagels and coffee in the Acura lounge space on Main Street.
CraveOnline: It’s a little unusual to talk before I’ve seen the film, but if this is when you have time I’m glad to do it. Let’s start by asking about Slow West and your character in it?
Ben Mendelsohn: Slow West is a western and it’s sort of a twist on the genre stylistically I think from what I understand going in. Fassbender’s a bounty hunter. I’m a bounty hunter too and the character who Kodi plays has a bounty on him. He’s got two. He’s got one to be delivered safe and he’s got another to be axed. So Fassbender’s got him. We don’t know, is he going to deliver the kid or is he going to kill the kid? I come along, my intentions are a little clearer. I’ve tracked him down. I know Fassbender from back in the day. He used to, as it were, run with my gang. I catch up to him and that’s a concern. For him, not for me.
Was this a character you understood right away when you saw the script?
Yeah, I watched my source material. I watched what I thought was going to be good source material, which is McCabe.
The Robert Altman movie?
Yeah, and there’s a particular guy in that. I watched that. I wasn’t trying to outdo that guy because I think that guy’s fantastic. But, it did give me an idea for an approach if you like. That’s it, and then we went and we shot it.
Was McCabe and Mrs. Miller John Maclean’s reference too?
It was one of them. It was one of John’s references. I mean, Fassbender and John had shot a couple of short films together. I guess mucking around, feeling each other out, that sort of thing. Then out of that, Slow West was born. They have a number of references I think.
There was a time in Hollywood where westerns were so prominent that every actor had to know certain skills like riding a horse and holding a gun, if not shooting it. Is that part of Australian cinema and acting too?
Again, there was a time. There really was a time and for our time, it was a later time than your time. Essentially, we made the first ever feature film. I don’t know whether you know that or not, but Australia made the first feature film.
Let’s see if I remember my film school. Was it before Man with a Movie Camera and Nanook of the North?
Absolutely. Well before those. It’s Ned Kelly, the first feature length film. Point being that while we got out of the gates well, we all but disappeared for several decades in the prime decades you might say of the American western, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, even ‘60s. We really only start up again in the ‘70s properly. But at that time, there were a lot of horse movies. You might remember some of them. Man from Snowy River, Breaker Morant, all of these films were very horsey. One of my earlier films is Quigley Down Under. That was early on in my career and that was horsey.
I love Quigley Down Under. I saw it when it came to the states and I thought Tom Selleck was a great hero, and it was sort of like Indiana Jones and movie serials, a series of cliffhangers.
And Laura San Giacomo was at the top of her game, and Simon Wincer the director had done a number of things. So there was a lot of horsey knowledge and a team of guys who were really crack at doing it. They were great horsemen, so you did used to have to know how to do that stuff. Then as the ‘90s came along, not so much. I’m by no means a great equine master or anything like that, but you have to know or get looking pretty quick like you know.
Is Slow West a very physical role for you?
There’s components of it. There’s a bit of horsey stuff here and there. It’s not like a massive swashbuckling guns blazing horse riding, but there’s a bit of stuff. Look, I’m fairly peripheral to the proceedings in a way. I’m sort of like that guy that they know about that looms around and you see him a couple times. It’s really the two of them. It’s really Fassy and Kodi.
But, often what makes these westerns are the memorable characters they meet along the way.
Absolutely. Think of Josey Wales. You think of Outlaw Josey Wales you immediately think of the old Indian guy, Sondra Locke, the old lady with the glasses, beautiful old actress. So yeah, that’s very important in a western.
Have you been back to Sundance since Animal Kingdom?
No. This is it. This is my return and you are first cab off the rank, so I feel really good about being back here.
So you haven’t been around to answer how it’s changed since then?
Not really. The basics of Main Street look similar. I’ll tell you what does look different and that’s downtown Salt Lake City. That’s grown a lot. I could see that just by the drive, but in terms of Park City, I couldn’t tell you. Do you? Do you notice a big difference?
I started coming in 2011.
So we’re veterans of the same era.
It’s gotten a tad more congested. I wonder if there are fewer shuttles this year, but what’s the same is the people. The people who come to Sundance are wonderful. They’re people who really care about film and we’re hungry for the next thing.
It does have a shambolic-ness to it. There is a shambolic “what’s happening next.” I’m amazed that people can get it done the way they get it done here, but it does seem to happen. It does seem to have a certain operating chaos which is part of its charm.
You’re one of the two leads in Mississippi Grind. Is that more your and Ryan Reynolds’ movie?
Oh, very much. That’s very much and that’s a buddy gambling road movie kind of number with us as two different levels of degenerate gamblers. I’m very happy about that one. That’s also today. Both of them are opening today.
Do you go right from Mississippi to Slow West?
Yes, pretty much, yeah.
Are you going to be able to sit in both movies and hear the reactions?
I will probably do neither. I don’t watch them generally. Almost never do I watch them. I haven’t seen Animal Kingdom so no.
So you haven’t seen Starred Up or Killing Them Softly either?
No, Killing Them Softly I saw because that was at Cannes and when we went to Cannes, they said, “Listen, no one, no one walks through the door to their movie in Cannes and gets up and walks out. It just doesn’t happen.” So I sat and I watched it, and that happened again in Toronto for The Place Beyond the Pines. So there are times when it’s too much of a big deal to make one’s drifter’s escape.