Go west, young man

Ben Mendelsohn on playing the sinister stranger in Slow West.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Slow West star Ben Mendelsohn with Anne-Katrin Titze in New York
Slow West star Ben Mendelsohn with Anne-Katrin Titze in New York Photo: Omar Gonzales

John Ford's Stagecoach and The Searchers, Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo and Red River, and Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven come to mind for Ben Mendelsohn, who stars with Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in John Maclean's untamed Slow West. He has recently been seen in David Mackenzie's prison drama Starred Up with Jack O'Connell, Kevin Macdonald's treasure-hunting tale Black Sea with Jude Law, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly with Ray Liotta, Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy and James Gandolfini and Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes.

Michael Fassbender (Silas) and Ben Mendelsohn (Payne):
Michael Fassbender (Silas) and Ben Mendelsohn (Payne): "At that stage, he is starting to make a move towards taking the boy."

When I met up with Ben the day before the Tribeca Film Festival premiere the conversation led us into a forest, where Burt Lancaster meets Jacques Lacan, and where Lee Marvin and King Lear shake hands. Paul Scofield's coat directed by Peter Brook links past, present and future.

Once upon a time in 1870, a young man from Scotland goes on a quest to find his lady love in the American West. Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is his name and on his travels he encounters a number of men who seem to know a lot more about the world than he does. For one, that his beloved Rose [Caren Pistorius] and her father [Rory McCann] are wanted for murder, with a high bounty on their heads for the one who catches them dead or alive. Michael Fassbender's Silas first takes the boy under his wing and teaches him how it is safer to "travel with a killer," than with a teapot and a travel guide book. When Ben Mendelsohn's outlaw Payne enters the picture, dressed in an enormous furry coat, carrying glasses that clink and a bottle of Absinthe, the battle for the boy's soul has already begun. Is Payne Mephistopheles incarnate? Both poodle's core and man? The evil of folklore resides within the coat of seduction.

As I walk in to meet Ben, he says "we've spoken before." It is true, we had a previous conversation with his friend, Andrew Dominik, nearly three years ago about Killing Them Softly.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you know Michael Fassbender before?

Ben Mendelsohn: No, Michael and I had never met. And Kodi, I had actually acted with Kodi's dad [Andy McPhee], back in 1999. I knew of Kodi, but we never worked together. This was a very different feeling. This had a very alien feeling to it.

AKT: Your entrance with the coat, the hat, the cigar, the glasses and the Absinthe, make you seem a little like a magician or someone dropping by from another planet. In any case not their world, although it's not exactly clear what theirs is either.

Ben Mendelsohn as Payne:
Ben Mendelsohn as Payne: "I would like to see Lee Marvin in that coat."

BM: Yes, that was part of the setup. When Payne appears, they know, certainly Michael ['s character Silas] knows, that Payne's been somewhere in the vicinity, looking for them. At that stage, he is starting to make a move towards taking the boy. Really, what he is there to see is what the lay of the land is here. That's what it's about.

AKT: Taking the boy?

BM: Both of them together. That's the real prize. To get the boy [Jay] and the girl [Rose] together. But he's not sure whether Fassbender is going to take him out himself. What his plans are. He presumes, not incorrectly, I think, that Fassbender is after more or less the same thing. They've known each other, those two guys. There is an element of a jilted lover to Payne.

AKT: There is also, I felt, a paternal element to those two men's relationship to the boy. Erlking in the West. The child is delivered to his death.

BM: I thought of it more like a boy that is in prison and the older prisoner coming up, inveigling him in some kind of protection.

AKT: As in Starred Up?

BM: Not Starred Up, per se. Starred Up is much more about family and stuff like this. When I was a boy, I had met those guys who were older. Prisoners. And they had not been out that long and there was an incredible double message of protection and malevolence going on. That was in the idea of sidling up and telling him funny little stories. In Australia, you meet these people, if you grow up in a slightly dodgy part of Australia. At any time in your life you will meet these kind of people.

Silas and Payne:
Silas and Payne: "They've known each other those two guys. There is an element of a jilted lover to Payne."

AKT: The film brings us to a ghostly forest. How much did the landscape affect your performance?

BM: Enormously. I stayed in a cabin which was probably the size of this room cut in the middle. This was in the New Zealand tundra, in the middle of the South Island, with way away in the distance mountains. You could see nothing but grass and then these mountains. There is for me in a personal sense - there's a real desolation about that kind of open landscape. There's nothing. There's no trees. Just meadow. So you feel very inconsequential but you also feel like no one is watching you. You have this sort of…

AKT: Freedom?

BM: Yeah, you feel you can get yourself into that beast of prairie kind of shit. An idea of a wolf or some preying animal, you know. [In front of my eyes, Mendelsohn becomes the creature he describes. His voice changes to a soft whisper]. That knows how to stay down in the grass and just waits. And then make the move a little closer and then maybe get up close and look like you're not actually here to do what you're here to do. No, I'm not here to bite you. I'm just chilling out. You smell nice, that's all it is. And then you come closer. You smell really good. Oh, how nice and closer and closer and closer. And boom.

AKT: And I'm sure the coat helped with that.

BM: It helped enormously.

AKT: It is a bit ridiculous, though.

BM: I can understand how that feels as an audience. Here's the thing. There are pictures- and I've seen several, several, several, pictures of people in this period in those coats. And we don't see a lot of them in films, generally speaking. And there's no one else wearing that coat.

AKT: Can you imagine Gary Cooper in that coat? Or John Wayne? Who else would you like to see in it?

Jack O'Connell (Eric) with Ben Mendelsohn (Neville) in Starred Up
Jack O'Connell (Eric) with Ben Mendelsohn (Neville) in Starred Up

BM: I would like to see Lee Marvin in that coat.

AKT: Lee Marvin, he would actually wear that coat.

BM: You know what I mean? I'm thinking maybe Burt Lancaster in that coat. I'd like to think.

AKT: You are making the classic Burt Lancaster gesture right now! [closing his fist].

BM: I wish. If I could be anyone…

AKT: You would be Burt Lancaster? Really?

BM: I love Burt Lancaster.

AKT: Is that just for westerns?

BM: No, it's not a western thing and I don't even think the guy is the best actor in the world or anything. But there is something incredibly pleasant about watching him. Something really nice about watching him.

AKT: Are there any westerns you particularly like?

BM: The Outlaw Josey Wales was a big one for me. That's the Clint Eastwood one. I think it's one of the first ones he directed, too. That one meant a lot to me when I was growing up. I liked a lot of the John Wayne ones when I was younger. In my later life, the big classics - Rio Bravo, Red River, Stagecoach, The Searchers - all the big canons of them. I liked Unforgiven a lot in the modern realm of it.

Ben Mendelsohn as Russell in Killing them Softly:
Ben Mendelsohn as Russell in Killing them Softly: "He is not evil evil. He is pretty messy and grimy and he is still a bad guy."

AKT: Did you make a western before this one?

BM: I made a western called Quigley Down Under in like 1988, maybe. [It came out in 1990].

AKT: Is there a genre you haven't done? Did you do a musical? Do you sing?

BM: Yeah. I have sung. I sing in Ryan Gosling's film [Lost River] that's just come out. There's another film called Amy, where I play this protector to a young girl that's deaf. I sing to her a lot in that.

AKT: I am asking because the idea of musical is far from menacing.

BM: Absolutely. There's been a few phases, if you like - the jobs and the way I was perceived. They basically went like this: young, wide-eyed boy looking for love, a la Kodi, later it was a sort of "Hey!", you know "Hey!" sort of happy-go-lucky, a bit cheeky kind of guy. And then after Animal Kingdom, the evil. I guess there are other sub-bits in there. I mean, Killing Them Softly, he is not evil evil. He is pretty messy and grimy and he is still a bad guy.

AKT: You were interacting so well with all these dogs in that film.

BM: 14! Andrew said to you how much I loved dogs, which is absolutely true, but I never had to wrangle that many dogs before. That was a challenge but I did okay.

AKT: You seem to have a certain affinity to the wild. I am also thinking of the Canada Geese you wrangled.

Ben Mendelsohn as Robin Van Der Zee in The Place Beyond The Pines
Ben Mendelsohn as Robin Van Der Zee in The Place Beyond The Pines

BM: Oh, yeah, in The Place Beyond The Pines.

AKT: Here in Slow West you only have the coat.

BM: Yes, but I have a horse for a little while, as well. I have the coat, so that gives you an idea that I have an affinity for the wild or that I'm moving through the world a little more like a scythe to the wild than being a friend to the wild.

AKT: I don't know, with the geese, for example, you almost became one with them…

BM: That was very spontaneous, that thing with the geese. I just saw them and that was the most beautiful afternoon. There was a magic to it. We were a couple of days in the shooting and we were having the time of our lives. I never had a shooting experience like on that film.

AKT: Ryan Gosling told me that you just started running after the geese.

BM: We just did that. Our first day together was bad. Both of us, I think, were pretty bad. Certainly I was. And that was several days after that and we really clicked in together well, I think.

AKT: Phases in your career?

BM: Americans tend to divide things up - good guys and bad guys, it's quite polar. So in that way, now I'm the bad guy.

AKT: Right now. Next could be King Lear.

BM: Have I said that to you? King Lear?

AKT: No, never. I just thought about it.

Slow West US poster
Slow West US poster

BM: That is actually the one thing. There is no role that I think about that I want to play except for that role. And I give you a tie-in now with the coat and King Lear. There's a film made in 1971 of King Lear. Paul Scofield, the English actor, plays King Lear and it's directed by Peter Brook. Lear has a coat in this film and it's a huge fur coat. When he has it on, he is an incredibly imposing, majestic King Lear. Then when he takes it off, he feels very different. He feels very vulnerable at times. King Lear, in my mind, is the greatest play in the English language anyway. I'd love to do that when I get older.

AKT: Would you like to do it on stage or on film? Or both?

BM: I'd like to do it on stage. Or I'd love to do one on both. Shakespeare gets so many reinterpretations. All stories do basically. There are X amount of them and we re-tell them in different ways. I'd love to do Lear.

AKT: What is it about Lear?

BM: The hubris of him. The devastating loss and loneliness and abandonment that he goes through.

AKT: After he is doing this to his daughters…

BM: That's it. He sets it all up, more or less by his own hand. And then all the wilderness stuff.

AKT: There is the wilderness again, we've come full circle.

BM: We're not in the world in the way we used to be. Our relationship to it is different. When you act you get taken to these places that you've never been before and you have no connection to. But, one of the offshoots of that is that you feel the environment acutely. And you have an approach that is a bit different from people that live there.

AKT: More real?

BM: No, not more real. I would say it's new. It's new to you, you have an immersive thing with forces of connection working. I think that happens a lot.

AKT: I was thinking more in the Lacanian sense, where ghosts are from the realm of the Real.

BM: Yes, no, hey, listen! You know you are sitting with a formidable brain when Lacan is brought to the pictures. Yes, I think that is fair, that idea. It does have that. There is a potency to it, for sure.

Coming up conversations with Slow West director John Maclean and star Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Slow West opens in the US on May 15 and in the UK on June 26.

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