Avoiding her eyes

Ben Mendelsohn on working with Rooney Mara in Una

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ben Mendelsohn with his co-star Rooney Mara and Una director Benedict Andrews
Ben Mendelsohn with his co-star Rooney Mara and Una director Benedict Andrews Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) was sentenced to jail as a sex offender. That was a decade and a half ago. He has since changed his name to Pete and created a new life for himself. Una (Ruby Stokes as a child, Rooney Mara as an adult), his young victim was not so lucky. She lives in the same house with her mother, under the same name, and she cannot move on. Benedict Andrews' film focuses on the day Una decides to confront her tormentor.

Ben Mendelsohn‬ on making eye contact as Ray:
Ben Mendelsohn‬ on making eye contact as Ray: "What we found in the playing of it was - he can't look at her." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mendelsohn, who plays both the past Ray in flashbacks and the Pete of the present gives a superb physical performance of a man whose incapacity as a responsible human being is staggering. His unbearable weakness unfolds before our eyes: In the flashback scenes during a neighborhood barbecue where he flirts with the child, in park bushes and in a shabby, blood-orange hotel room by the sea, where the nightmare culminates.

The present-day man cannot look at the young woman who surprises him at his work in a factory - and yet he knows that their bitter bond is not going to dissolve on its own. He says, "I was obsessed with you." And he continues, "We both knew the risks." It's a new game with the same players. Mendelsohn's tormented body language for Ray and the averted glances between him and Mara's Una speak louder than words.

Mendelsohn, at the Ludlow Hotel in New York, with and without sunglasses, told me about his behavioral research for this role, "what eyes do", time and place, and keeping or not keeping a "wardrobe masterstroke".

Anne-Katrin Titze: You put on sunglasses?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. [He takes the sunglasses off]

Ben Mendelsohn as Ray:
Ben Mendelsohn as Ray: "He just cannot meet the intensity of the question being asked of him."

AKT: I was going to ask you about the choreography of the eye contact that you are doing in this [Una].

BM: There you go.

AKT: Because you cannot look at her [Rooney Mara as Una] at first. You look everywhere in the room and you do not look at her. Did you make a chart of eye contact?

BM: No, no, I haven't. But it's interesting that you should ask that, though. Because I have a very definite idea from reading certain materials, behavioral materials about what eyes do and what different positions of looking and stuff like that do [Rooney Mara is now looking at him astounded and impressed]. Inside someone and also what they mean if you're looking at someone else. So I do have a notion of that beforehand.

What we found in the playing of it was - he can't look at her. He just cannot meet the intensity of the question being asked of him. And the reality of this person in this place. This person from this time and place is now this person right here, right now. So I think there is something which he cannot meet. He cannot meet that person.

Una poster at the Ludlow Hotel
Una poster at the Ludlow Hotel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And interestingly enough, I think there is an avenue where the notion of two people in a relationship being able to meet each other and respond to each other - there is a central question about that. To what degree has she ever been able to meet what's going on, you know, in this guy? And vice versa.

AKT: Did you re-read Lolita?

BM: No and I think Nabokov has … Again, like this is someone who sees himself very much as a victim of her. He goes on to talk about, you know, how cruel she is all the time, etc., etc. But you couldn't get away with that depiction of that type of relationship now.

AKT: You have the ugliest shirt that I have seen all year in one of the scenes.

BM: Which shirt?

AKT: In the flashback, early on. [Benedict Andrews understands that I mean the shirt at the barbecue where "he's an Australian just arrived."]

BM: Oh, oh, yeah, oh, that's quite [a beauty? The word is drowned in the laughter]. Nineties stuff, oh yeah. Oh dear, oh dear, I think I've kept it. I don't know, but that was yet another wardrobe masterstroke.

Read what Rooney Mara had to say on Una and her costumes.

Coming up - Director Benedict Andrews on Una and the theatre.

Una opens in the US on October 6.

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