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Ben Mendelsohn is scrolling through his phone, holding it like a gambler holds his poker cards.
After a few moments, the Australian actor finally finds the appropriate photograph and motions for me to come closer. He’s selected an image of himself on the set of Captain Marvel. There he is in his full Skrull costume, taking a smoke break. The actor, who returns to the big screen this week in Robin Hood, is unrecognizable as an alien with a cigarette dangling between his lips.
“That’s why we do this, isn’t it? To get a little peek?” he asks, seated at a secluded table at Culina at the Four Seasons.
In September’s Captain Marvel trailer, fans got a look at the alien Skrulls, which are defined by their green, scaly skin and pointy ears. This visual feat is painstakingly achieved via heavy facial prosthetics, which Mendelsohn lovingly refers to as the “pig’s head.”
Mendelsohn’s role as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood sees him star opposite Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx. A longtime music lover, (Mendelsohn references the Wu-Tang Clan and Paul McCartney’s Band on The Run during our chat), Mendelsohn considers this adaptation of Robin Hood to have a contemporary feel with a rock ‘n’ roll pulse. Directed by Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders), Mendelsohn is a formidable presence as the film’s antagonist. To prepare for the role of the Sheriff, Mendelsohn consciously avoided the other film interpretations of his Robin Hood character.
“That can really fuck with your process, it’s the same with writing I imagine,” he says.
This thread eventually leads us to the script for Captain Marvel, which comes from Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch and co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
“I think we have something really special here, and that all comes from a finely crafted script, it’s absolutely beautiful,” says the actor.
Marvel Studios saw a female superhero co-headline a movie with July’s Ant-Man and The Wasp, but this is the studio’s first to be toplined by a solo female hero. It also comes from Marvel Studios’ first female director (Boden) and composer (Pinar Toprak). Having two daughters himself, it’s particularly poignant to Mendelsohn.
“Obviously this is a big moment for Marvel, and hopefully a sweeping change for inclusion and diversity in the industry,” Mendelsohn says.
He credits his Captain Marvel involvement to directors Boden and Fleck, whom he worked with on the 2015 gambling drama Mississippi Grind.
“The thing I like most about the film, other than reuniting with Anna and Ryan, is that I get to work with just about everyone,” Mendelsohn shares. “That’s the beauty of being the antagonist, minus the pig’s head.”
The film allows him to work with Samuel L. Jackson, who will play a digitally de-aged Nick Fury for the ’90s set film. When asked how Jackson’s visual rejuvenation is accomplished, Mendelsohn prefers to let Marvel handle the doling out of secrets.
“After doing Star Wars, one has a masters in the art of secrecy,” says the actor, referencing his work in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Many filmmakers and critics have warned of superhero fatigue. Mendelsohn is not in that camp, having been a longtime fan of the genre, pointing to 2000’s X-Men and more recent entries like Thor: Ragnarok as favorites.
Mendelsohn sees more growth potential for superhero films, especially as more genre elements are explored.
“If you look at the business of movie-making, as both a business and art, comic book films have the best chance of making a big cultural and artistic impact,” he says. “We might be able to get a masterpiece or three out of this superhero genre.”
Mendelsohn isn’t afraid to go against the grain, whether it’s his opinion that Batman Begins is the best film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, despite playing John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, or playing a man trying to rebuild his life after being imprisoned for an affair with a minor in 2016’s Una.
Unlike some actors who also produce or write, Mendelsohn does not develop his own material, which means he’s at the mercy of the parts that he’s offered. Recently, the things that have been offered have been big-scale properties. Over the past two years, he’s starred in Rogue One and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
“Like a pharmacist, I wait for someone to turn up and tell me what they need and then I’ll fill it,” he says. “In terms of my rise, if you want to call it that, it’s mainly due to the fact that the things I’m being offered are more visible and complex than what I was offered years ago.”
Of his bigger-budget roles, Mendelsohn is most proud of Rogue One.
“Playing Orson Krennic in Rogue One and being able to say that I built the Death Star, who else can say that? You can’t top it,” he says.
Rogue One also saw behind-the-scenes drama, with veteran screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy coming on board for extensive reshoots on the Gareth Edwards-directed film. Gilroy himself has said the production was in “terrible trouble” when he boarded.
I ask Mendelsohn if he felt nervous or relieved when with the addition of another creative late in the process.
“I wasn’t either of those, it was just a case, from my point of view, that they were going to be working multiple units. Gareth was writing and then he would come and film some things and Tony was shooting his material,” says Mendelsohn. “To me it’s a collaborative business, and this was just business as usual, and I’m so proud of that one.”
As his profile has grown, Mendelsohn has continued to work in smaller projects as well. Though perhaps working in major studio projects on the scale of Star Wars pays better than little indies, he says his lifestyle has not grown much since his compensation increase.
“I bought a fancy-pants truck which I love, but only because the last one got ran into,” Mendelsohn says. “Making sure my daughters are taken care of, that’s really my goal. I don’t need a great deal.”
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The Woman King