- Ben Mendelsohn plays King George VI in “Darkest Hour,” one of the rare times he hasn’t played a bad guy in a movie.
- Don’t worry though, he’s got some major bad guy roles coming, like Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood” and the villain in “Ready Player One.”
- But he’s quiet about a possible return of his “Rogue One” character Director Krennic in any future “Star Wars” movies.
After years of being a struggling actor in Australia, Ben Mendelsohn got his breakout in 2010 as the patriarch of a crime family on the run in “Animal Kingdom,” and hasn’t looked back since.
Finding his mark playing complex dark characters in indies like “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Slow West,” Mendelsohn hit it big when he scored the role of Director Orson Krennic in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” last year. But in his latest role Mendelsohn proves he can do more than just play the bad guy. As King George VI opposite Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (in theaters nationwide), Mendelsohn shows off his softer side as he plays a man tasked with keeping the United Kingdom strong during World War II while trying to match wits with Churchill, though suffering a stammer when he speaks. (He plays the same character who earned Colin Firth a best actor Oscar for “The King’s Speech.”)
Mendelsohn talked to Business Insider about preparing for the challenging task as well as his upcoming anticipated roles, which range from the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood” to a gaming nerd in “Ready Player One” — yes, he’s a bad guy in both.
Jason Guerrasio: When you had to wrap your head around that you’re going to play King George VI, was it exciting or scary?
Ben Mendelsohn: It was both. It was very unexpected. I got why [director] Joe [Wright] thought of me in one respect. If you look at me in profile and look at him it’s not a bad match. There are certain, well, I guess, shyness to me and the portrayal of him. But other than that it’s a pretty big risk.
Guerrasio: And when you say risk, you mean the weight of the role?
Mendelsohn: Yeah. It’s a risk from Joe’s perspective. I think there’s plenty of people he could have cast that were more, um —
Mendelsohn: Yeah. Exactly. Wouldn’t have to worry about the accent stuff. But I’m very thankful that he did ask me to do it. And then it’s the company you’re in. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill, that is a film I would go see.
Focus FeaturesGuerrasio: What was the research like? Did you want to go really deep in knowing everything about King George?
Mendelsohn: No. I was mostly interested in what I could see and hear. I was less interested in the various interpretations of the man. I knew the rough outlines of his situation. It was really to get a sense of where the stutter was and what feeling you get from him.
Guerrasio: So basically watching “The King’s Speech” would have screwed you up.
Mendelsohn: By the time the Jello had nearly set I went back and watched “The King’s Speech.” I hadn’t planned on it and then I just thought, you know what — um, I’m trying to find a way to say this that you won’t have to edit me —
Guerrasio: Screw it!
Mendelsohn: Yeah. Thank you. [Laughs.] And I’m glad I did because it is a beautiful portrayal.
Guerrasio: Was it less looking at how Colin did the voice and more how he moved as the King? His swagger?
Mendelsohn: It was less of that. No. I wasn’t looking at Colin’s performance as to how he interpreted the guy. I wasn’t interested to try to take up or ignore, it was more getting the whole sense of the story. The stuff that affected me more was the business with his dad and brother. That’s what I took on board a bit more.
Guerrasio: It sounded like you got in early with Gary, all the actors were given a good chunk of rehearsal time before shooting started.
Mendelsohn: They had a long rehearsal period which I was there for a few days of. And thank God we did. Look, it was a task and it helps a lot to get comfortable with the people you’re going to be doing it with. Gary and I had met before, we worked on “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Guerrasio: That’s right!
Mendelsohn: We don’t do anything together, but we are in one scene where Commissioner Gordon gets up and makes a little speech in the back of Wayne Manor. So we were together over a couple of night shoots together.
Guerrasio: While shooting “Darkest Hour,” between shooting are you and Gary talking in your character voices? Are you scared you’ll lose the stutter?
Mendelsohn: Well, once you know where it is you can pick it up and put it down. You don’t need to do all that stuff.
Guerrasio: The connection between you and Gary is you both play bad guys so well. For you, is it hard to find a role like this? Something that just on paper doesn’t scream, “evil!”
Mendelsohn: I consider it a real compliment to be offered the bad guy. No complaints on that. But it was a delight to be offered this role in part because he’s a good guy.
A24Guerrasio: Is it more fun to play the dark roles?
Mendelsohn: No. Well, it depends. I think it’s more fun to work than not to work.
Mendelsohn: There’s a certain malevolent delight that baddies get to express. But that’s pretty short lived.
Guerrasio: Coming up you play the Sheriff of Nottingham in the latest “Robin Hood” movie. Will you give him a more playful feel? Like Alan Rickman did in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?”
Mendelsohn: Ah, no one is ever going to top Alan Rickman.
Guerrasio: He was damn good in that role.
Mendelsohn: No one is ever going to top that, and I’m not trying. But this is an origin story of Hood, it’s a very explosive kind of piece. But no, the sheriff is not a good guy at all. But Nolan Sorrento in “Ready Player One” is a fantastic bad guy. He’s a nerd that’s got too much power. I guess most bad guys you look at what they do with their flaws. How they’ve compensated for them in some way and how they try to make everyone else pay for it. That seems to be one of the thematic things about most bad guys.
Guerrasio: I think that’s why people gravitate to those kind of roles, they plug their darkness and insecurities into what they see that character doing.
Mendelsohn: Yeah. And that kind of misbehaving, as it were, comes vicariously.
Guerrasio: With “Ready Player One,” was that just another “pinch me” moment in your career?
Mendelsohn: Oh yeah. I remember meeting Spielberg for the first time and I said, “I don’t know what your intention is but this is good enough for me, I got to sit in a room with you.” He had seen “Bloodline,” he was a big “Bloodline” fan.
Guerrasio: Are you bummed there’s no more “Bloodline?” Did you feel there was more story to be told?
Mendelsohn: I think from my point of view [my character] Danny Rayburn was always in the early part of that telling. I think that those guys had a lot more in them. But that’s the way it is. Few things have been as good to me as “Bloodline.”
Disney/LucasfilmGuerrasio: With the news that Rian Johnson is going to expand “Star Wars” and is tasked with making more movies — not to mention all the one-off movies — is it possible Director Krennic comes back?
Mendelsohn: I don’t know. I really don’t know what’s happening with any of that.
Guerrasio: Was it a one-and-done contract for you, or did you have an option for multiple films?
Mendelsohn: It would be remiss for me to discuss contractual details.
Guerrasio: Well, I had to try.
Guerrasio: And I guess this is another one you can’t really say, but are the rumors true that you’ll be in Captain Marvel?
Mendelsohn: That’s another I wish we could talk about, but I can neither confirm or deny the existence of such a project, if there were such a project. [Laughs.]
Guerrasio: Honestly, these kind of questions, are these fun for you? Because you’ve had to navigate through them a lot for a year-plus now.
Mendelsohn: Look, honestly, I’m a guy who sat around being out of work for a very long time so this is not a problem. [Laughs.] This is a very, very lucky position to be in.