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Ben Mendelsohn knows a thing or two about masked antagonists. Now, it’s his turn to put on the mask.
Mendelsohn returns to the big screen as the shape-shifting alien and Skrull leader, Talos, in Captain Marvel, a role which required the veteran Australian actor to wear a prosthetic mask for the first time in his career. Since Talos shape-shifts during the film, as part of the ongoing war to defeat the Kree (including Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers), Mendelsohn is tasked with playing a second role in the film: Nick Fury’s (human) boss at SHIELD. Besides their markedly different looks, each baddie differentiates themselves via their accents. Talos, in Skrull form, speaks in Mendelsohn’s native Australian tongue while his SHIELD agent character speaks with an American accent.
Mileage typically varies when it comes to actors and their experiences with prosthetics, but Mendelsohn seemed unencumbered as far as his performance and comfort level are concerned.
“That big, green scary pig’s head is doing a lot just by being there. It’s sorta like the effect of seeing a snake; the snake doesn’t necessarily have to do a lot to be something that you’re going to watch out for.” Mendelsohn tells The Hollywood Reporter.
After casting directors became enamored with Mendelsohn via 2010 indie sensation Animal Kingdom, the Emmy winner was put on the radar of American audiences thanks to 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises — his first foray into the world of superheroes and blockbuster filmmaking. As he recalls, his former agent had to convince him to send in an audition tape.
“I’ve done a lot of [self-tapes] in my life, and I’ve never gotten a result,” Mendelsohn says. “There was no reason to think any differently, but she pestered me and thank God I did it.”
His most memorable scene from the film, as corrupt businessman John Daggett, came when he realized he’d underestimated the villainous Bane (Tom Hardy), who takes Daggett’s life. Now that Mendelsohn has added a prosthetic masked menace to his resume, he can’t help but express his gratitude to his The Dark Knight Rises co-star, and mask actor extraordinaire, Hardy.
“Tom had to do a lift-and-twist-the-head-off thing, and I don’t relish that stuff; very few people do. It’s very easy to get hurt when you’re doing small battle or confrontation stuff. I was thanking God that it was Tom and not some cowboy because you’ve got to be able to trust the people that you’re doing that stuff with,” recalls the actor. He adds this of Hardy: “Tom is a formidable guy, but he’s also capable of real gentleness and gentlemanliness. I respected him greatly for that because he could’ve been a real dick that day.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Mendelsohn also touches on his remaining dream roles, rolling with the punches when it comes to reshoots, his kinship with actor Scoot McNairy and the characters he’d like to revisit someday.
Batman, Star Wars, Marvel, Spielberg –– are there any franchise sandboxes left that you want to play in? A Bond villain perhaps?
The Bond villain is quite the first love. That’d be pretty good. That’s also the most enduring franchise. There’s not a lot of boxes left to tick if you frame it in that way.
Actors often say that they have to love their characters, even if they’re villainous. However, which role were you happiest to rinse off of you?
Probably, Una. That was a happy one to be gone from. I think probably [Ray Brooks].
I talked to Michelle Williams recently, and she did the Broadway version of Una, which is called Blackbird. She, too, was glad to move on from it.
Yeah, it’s a rough one. It’s a brilliant modern sort of psychological thriller, but it’s not necessarily easy going, that one.
When you play darker characters, are you the kind of actor who channels a dark time in their life in order to capture the feeling of these characters, or do you trust the text and your performance to elicit such feelings?
I think all of that stuff –– channeling the darker times –– is something you learn to do relatively early in your working life. You already should’ve accounted for a lot of that by the time you’ve had the opportunity to work on these types of roles. It’s semi-reflexive, in a way. It’s not a conscious or considered effort in a lot of ways. I think that the other things going around tend to support it more than anything else. I do think that kinda carries.
You worked with Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck on the indie film Mississippi Grind. You’ve also worked on plenty of studio blockbusters. From your vantage point, did they adjust to their first tentpole film with relative ease?
They seemed to. One of the things about Anna and Ryan is that, because they are a duo, they deal with whatever they’ve got to do between themselves. So, one might get more of an insight because they’re two people that are talking to each other and communicating. And, in another way, they are so self-sufficient that you get less of an idea. But, they did seem to adjust without a lot of exertion.
Talos is a shape-shifting Skrull. Thus, this was your first role with prosthetics. Did the prosthetics restrict your performance at all?
No, they don’t restrict it, but certain things don’t communicate as easily. At the same time, that big, green scary pig’s head is doing a lot just by being there. It’s sorta like the effect of seeing a snake; the snake doesn’t necessarily have to do a lot to be something that you’re going to watch out for. Just seeing that big reptilian head has an effect.
Regarding the things that didn’t communicate as easily, you didn’t find yourself compensating elsewhere?
I don’t think so, no. The superhero costumes are quite a marvelous creation –– no pun intended. I think most actors who’ve worked in the Marvel-verse, who’ve had the costuming, know they do a lot for an actor, but they also require an effort. They’re substantial costuming, so I suspect it’s really the costuming more than it is the actual prosthetic masks. There’s a sort of thing that you become aware of and then you forget about it. You get moments where it’s a thing, but then you forget about it because you spend a good deal of time inside the mask.
Did you reference any films with shape-shifters, such as Terminator 2, or characters with a duality of some sort, such as Matt Damon’s character in The Departed?
I thought about Robert Patrick quite a bit! That’s just such a great benchmark for the piece. But, the mechanics of what go on between the Terminator stuff and the Skrulls are markedly different. I did dive back to the earliest Skrull appearances. You think about how they started their lives and what their job was in the Marvel world back at that time. It wasn’t yet a Marvel universe, per se. So, I thought about Terminator 2 probably more than other movies, but they just become distant background music that is less relevant once you get into the playing of what it is you’re actually doing. So, yeah, I did spend a bit of time in there, but I’m not sure it was completely necessary or not. You just kinda do that. You fall on your nose a bit and vibe out on this or that.
Do your past characters ever creep back into your psyche when you least expect it?
You think about them, yes. You spend a certain amount of your working life –– and your actual life –– thinking about these characters in some kind of a way. I don’t dream about them or as them, but I do think about them from time to time.
Is there a particular character of yours that you wish you could revisit at some point?
We often wish we could go back and redo lots of them. And lots of bits and pieces of them, too. Trevor from The Year My Voice Broke was fun. He was good fun. There are a few of them from little movies that no one here knows. There’s [John] in a movie called Sample People that was a lot fun. I think the ones where you get to behave in a more extreme manner tend to be fun.
Reshoots, large and small, come with the territory on blockbuster films. Rogue One seems to be your most notable experience in that regard. When you commit to a film, months, sometimes years, go by with the expectation that x, y and z are going to happen to your character. When you fulfill that work and are suddenly told that a major portion of it is going by the wayside, how does that affect you and your castmates initially –– before professionalism gives way?
As far as I know, I haven’t faced a situation yet where a great deal of what we shot is, all of a sudden, gone. I’ve had bits and pieces of this or that. You just have to have a sense of goodwill toward the notion that what you’re going in to redo is going to make it a better picture. I have shot one or two things where we shot a bunch of stuff, and there was really not much left by the end of it. You have hopes and aspirations, but it’s the sort of thing where you just hope it doesn’t happen. But, it happens.
Let’s flash back to your first superhero film, The Dark Knight Rises, specifically when Tom Hardy’s Bane puts his pinky finger on Daggett’s shoulder. What memories come to mind about shooting that particular scene?
Tom was just really, really good. I remember how considerate he was. Tom had to do a lift-and-twist-the-head-off thing, and I don’t relish that stuff; very few people do. It’s very easy to get hurt when you’re doing small battle or confrontation stuff. I was thanking God that it was Tom and not some cowboy because you’ve got to be able to trust the people that you’re doing that stuff with. The most difficult stuff to do, really, is small, twisty fights and scenes of great intimacy or great conflict. They’re the spot where you’re only going to be as good as your dance partner. Tom is a formidable guy, but he’s also capable of real gentleness and gentlemanliness. I respected him greatly for that because he could’ve been a real dick that day.
You could hear Tom’s Bane voice through the mask without issue, right?
Oh, yeah! Absolutely. That was there from go to whoa.
While they’re very different characters, Daggett’s death scene and Krennic’s Vader scene are quite similar, in that their ambition ultimately led to their demise via masked men with memorable voice performances.
Yes! They both did. That’s a very interesting tie-in and one that I have not heard yet.
The big roles are certainly great, but some of us are still wondering when you and Killing Them Softly co-star Scoot McNairy are going to cause trouble in dishwashing gloves again.
They are great, but, if I had the chance to don some dishwashing gloves and some stockings with Scoot, I’d like to think that I’d be there in a flash. I’ve been very fortunate to be a traveler on all sorts of these voyages, and, damn, Killing Them Softly wasn’t an easy shoot, either. Scoot and I were there the longest because we were the least financially important part of the cadre of actors involved. So, we were there for an enormously long time, and we lived together, which I’m really glad we did. (Laughs.) We ended up getting to the point where we’d genuinely piss each other off. That’s only there for a flash in the movie. It’s only there for a tiny, tiny bit when we were fighting on the way to do that stickup. But, I see it and I’m really happy we got to that kind of level of comfort with each other.
Both of your careers took off at the same time, in 2010, too.
They absolutely did. Scoot had Monsters; I had Animal Kingdom. But, Killing Them Softly was enormously good for the both of us, and it was on that movie that I got The Dark Knight Rises. That was the only job I ever got from a tape. Chris Nolan had not seen Animal Kingdom, and my agent at the time, God bless her, kept pestering a very reluctant me to do a self-tape and send it in. I’ve done a lot of them in my life, and I’ve never gotten a result. There was no reason to think any differently, but she pestered me and thank God I did it. The Dark Knight Rises was the first huge blockbuster number that I got to do.
Your performance as Danny Rayburn on Bloodline was praised by the masses. Knowing what you know now, would you insist on Danny’s survival if you could go back and do it all over again?
I don’t think Bloodline season one would’ve been Bloodline season one without you knowing from the very start that [Kyle Chandler’s] character [John Rayburn] kills him. What happens to a lot of viewers is they suspend disbelief and think that’s not what’s going to end up happening. But, sure enough, it was exactly as it was said. Bloodline is on a very shortlist of crucial things that I’ve done that worked out really well for me. Yeah, it’s been good to me. Thank God for Danny Rayburn.
Captain Marvel is in theaters March 7.
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