Faking Bad: Ben Mendelsohn on Black Sea

A sweetheart in real life, a psychopath on the screen, live-wire Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn talks about how he became Hollywood's go-to nutcase and his new role in Kevin Macdonald's U-boat thriller, Black Sea

Feature by Ben Nicholson | 01 Dec 2014

Over the past few years, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has become a familiar face to British cinemagoers, often playing variations on a particularly unhinged theme. From his brief role as an unwitting pawn for the big bad Bane in the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, to the conflicted and violently protective father of Jack O’Connell’s young offender in British prison drama Starred Up from earlier this year, there’s always an edge to his performance. It’s a rich vein he mines again as the explosive Fraser in Kevin Macdonald’s new nautical thriller, Black Sea. When we meet in a London hotel ahead of this latest film’s UK premiere, we ask the 45-year-old Melbournian if he likes playing these types of characters? “I think they’re very watchable. Generally, if the audience feels that someone is a dangerous person, they're going to watch them, hopefully closely. So yeah, they’re good to play.”

It seems only natural to get his take on why he’s always cast as a psycho. He sits back in his chair with a chuckle and scratches his head through tousled hair. “It's that type of thing, isn't it?” he muses. “You do a job like Animal Kingdom [David Michôd’s 2010 crime drama set in the Melbourne suburbs] and that’s going to be what comes to people's minds whenever they’re looking at doing a film with you. You’re going to get a kind of association. Now, is that because of the person, or because of the role? That's probably best answered outside [of this setting], but I will say that I think there has been variation in there. Animal Kingdom cast a shadow. Something makes an impression, and then one gets offered this job and that job.”

It is certainly his electrifying turn as the terrifying Pope in Michôd’s film that put Mendelsohn on Hollywood’s radar. His position as its go-to nutcase wasn't immediate, though. After Animal Kingdom, he says, “there was a bit of fuss and bother, then nothing happened for a while.” But, after appearing alongside Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly and Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines, the last couple of years have been, by his own admission, “a busy time.” It wasn’t always like that, however. “I'd gone back and forwards [from Australia to the US] a lot, y'know, just going there to try and jag a job. There was a lot of that, for a very long time. Look, of the 30-odd years that I’ve been doing this, 25 are principally – almost purely – Australian.”

That three-decade career has produced an actor of fantastic skill and no little magnetism, yet his beginnings were inauspicious. “I took [drama] initially as an easy subject,” he reveals. “I thought you wouldn’t have to do a lot of homework.” The slacker soon became the star pupil, though. “We did a little play in class, and my memory is very good on certain things, and I could remember all of the lines. So I’d muck around with the others doing the lines of the play at ten times the normal speed and I’d do the whole thing. They got me to do that in front of the school and everyone applauded – they liked me and, y’know, it felt good.”

An Australian TV show, The Henderson Kids, had an open casting and Mendelsohn and his friends decided to audition. “I got an interview time, and I asked ‘What’s yours?’ and none of them had actually done it, so I was like ‘Fuck… Oh, fuck it, I’ll go.’” That first meeting landed him a job and the rest is history.

Cutting his teeth in Australian television seems to have given him a fine grounding for the kind of actor he has become; intuitive and intense. “It’s sink or swim,” he says of working on TV. “It teaches you to come up with something, and to come up with something quickly. Once I started acting, I wanted to keep going and I was very concerned that I wouldn’t get another job. That upset me a great deal, so I tried very hard to get better at it. I’ve seen some of the stuff that I did early on – there’s a certain something there, but it’s pretty shonky. So I tried to learn, and I’d ask actors that I liked how they did it.”

“Characters are puzzles, in a way, and the job of the actor is to take the writing and solve how it’s going to work” – Ben Mendelsohn

In 1990, he found himself on set with Anthony Hopkins in The Efficiency Expert, in which the Welshman plays a character attempting to teach an Australian factory (as well as Mendelsohn, workers are played by future Aussie stars Toni Collette and Russell Crowe) how to improve their productivity. It allowed the young Mendelsohn an opportunity to pick the brains of the man who had just finished shooting his iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. “I’d been doing it for seven or eight years by that time. He just said, ‘Well you don’t want to push things too much. You want to try and keep it simple, and just try and be there when it’s going on.’ That meant more and more to me as time went on.

“He also said that he didn’t prepare anything before he got there, he didn’t do any of that stuff. He just got there, and felt what it was like, and tried to make it work. That’s been something that I increasingly tried to concentrate on: just being there. I think the hardest thing to do in acting is to have, roughly, the feelings that you’re supposed to be having on screen. A lot of people will do a rehearsal and it’s fucking amazing and then you’ll do a take and you’ll feel something slipping away. It’s very easy to have your best performance not on screen.”

For a man so often portraying anxious and fiery, Mendelsohn is a wonderfully warm and relaxed interviewee, unhurried and almost reluctant when the time finally comes to sell his new film. Black Sea revolves around a submarine crew who take on a mission to purloin some gold bullion from a sunken Nazi U-boat. Mendelsohn’s Fraser is an expert diver, but referred to as a psychopath before he’s even on screen. As with all of the actor’s dangerous alter-egos, there is a lot happening beneath the surface. Fraser's default is hot-headed killer, but he also finds himself wracked with guilt and fear.

“Those shifts are hard,” says Mendelsohn of portraying Fraser’s conflicting qualities. “I think in gear changes like that, you just sort of have to weave in that idea that [Fraser] is someone who gets overwhelmed, does stupid stuff and immediately regrets it. [Characters] are puzzles, in a way, and the job of the actor is to take the writing and solve how it’s going to work. In terms of someone like Fraser, the idea is that these are people that are essentially fucked on land; they’re not good at normal life. I think there are many specialists who have that relationship with their work, who feel ‘there’s one thing I can do, and when I do this everything else seems to fall into place.’” It’s a sentiment to which Mendelsohn can certainly relate. “It does feel like me being on a set somewhere. I think it’s transposing that ease in one’s work environment over on to Fraser” – he unleashes a devilish grin that may hold the key to his recent spate of unsavoury roles – “but, y’know, with the occasional stabbing.”

Black Sea is released 8 Dec by Universal