From writer/director John Maclean, Slow West is a compelling story set at the end of the 19th century, in which 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) journeys across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, also coming across a mysterious traveler (Michael Fassbender) with questionable motives and an eccentric outlaw (Ben Mendelsohn), along the way. Trough it all, the young man quickly learns that double-crossing and violence may be the only way to survive his quest.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Ben Mendelsohn talked about playing the heavily tattooed outlaw Payne, what drew him to this project, putting on his character’s wild coat, finding his performance, why he enjoys playing the bad guy, and what he loves about Westerns. He also talked about those Star Wars: Rogue One rumors, his Netflix series Bloodline, and that he’s just so grateful for the career that he has now.
BEN MENDELSOHN: I thought (writer/director) John [Maclean] had done a real Trojan horse, in a way. You think that it’s a straightforward Western where boy loves girl, but no, no, no. He’s got the guide who maybe is also after him for the double bounty, and along comes this other bounty hunter. Having seen the work that John Maclean and Michael Fassbender had done together, just the two of them making these short films, it was very apparent that they would have other ideas in mind. What they were going to be, I didn’t really know, but it just felt like there was a good chance. John Maclean felt like a guy that had something. You could just feel it from the short films. There was a sensibility at work. Often, when people get their chance to make their first film, they bring a great deal of energy to it because it’s their first one and they don’t know if they’re ever going to get to do another one.
Did you get an immediate feel for who this character was? Did you see the visual, right away?
MENDELSOHN: God, no! In fact, he got more of a regal scuzziness to him, by the time he got on screen. The coat was described in the script, but it’s hard to get that picture in your mind until you’re actually in it. The tattoos were also written about, but again, you don’t really get a feel for it until you’re there.
Did you go try different coats until you found the right coat?
MENDELSOHN: I wish, but no. They knew my size and they made the coat. When I got to set, they said, “Have a look at this beauty.” There was never any doubt. Once you see that coat, once you put it on, and once you contemplate the amount of love and work that went into it, there was no other.
One of the really interesting things about this character is that he’s a lot more understated than you might expect from the villain. Was it an intentional decision, on your part, not to go over-the-top with your performance?
MENDELSOHN: I tend to not like doing that, unless it’s really gonna benefit things. With someone like Payne, or with anyone that you might know or hear about while the character is off screen, you learn who and what he is. All of that work was done for me. People that are genuinely capable of danger don’t need to pretend or display that they are capable of danger. The tendency is to try to pretend they’re not capable of danger. And then, the main effort is just to make sure that what’s written has an enjoyment to it. We know these characters. We’re familiar with them and what they’re about, but you can play within the genre. That’s where the fun is at.
You have a great ability to play characters that we can’t really fully figure out, but they’re still somewhat sympathetic and compelling to watch. Do you find yourself drawn to characters that are a bit undefinable, or do you intentionally try to make them more undefinable than they are on the page?
MENDELSOHN: You know what? I can’t answer that with a definitive. I don’t know. I find that there’s a barometer in which things feel plausible. Outside of that, it just doesn’t feel like that’s the way people really behave. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suit the dramatic purposes. It’s just not the way I tend to go about it. So, I don’t know. I’m not sure. It’s a very flattering question to have to answer. It’s a very flattering premise to a question, but I don’t know if I could answer it without making an asshole of myself, in some way or another.
It just seems like playing the bad guy is so much more fun than playing the good guy.
MENDELSOHN: I think you’ve gotta enjoy the bad guys, to a certain degree. Unless what they do is so terrible, I think you’re supposed to enjoy the bad guys. Vincent Price was probably one of the most enjoyable and successful bad guy actors of all time. He was doing terrible stuff, but we enjoy watching it. To me, that sort of character is what you want to aim for. You want to be enjoyable for an audience. What happens when a bad guy is enjoyable is that the audience gets to be bad for a little moment, too, and that’s nice. It’s nice, within the confines of watching a film, to get to be the bad guy.
What was it like to work with both Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee on this, and what did you enjoy about sharing scenes with each of them?
MENDELSOHN: I’d made a movie with Kodi’s dad, in 1988 or 1989. There’s a real joy in having worked with someone’s dad, and then still be around long enough to work with their near adult son. He’s an Australian guy, and I’ve been very proud of Kodi, from afar, with the strata of work that he’s been involved in. It’s been fantastic for me, just to be on the sidelines. And I have a lot of respect for Michael Fassbender. As an actor, I think he’s got a really significant charisma. They’re very different. To quote Miley Cyrus, I arrive like a wrecking ball. The thing about it is that it’s all too short. You only get to do it for X amount of days, and you wish you could do it for eight months. It’s almost like you enter a reverie, on those days. You shoot long and hard, for a day or two or three, and then it’s over, even though you feel like you’re just getting started.
A lot of actors say that they’d love to do a Western. What makes Westerns so enticing, and have you always been a fan of them?
MENDELSOHN: Yeah, for as long as I’ve known about them, which is forever. I’ve loved them. They have very strong archetypes. They are incredibly evocative because of the sense of space and the physical dimension of what you’ve gotta overcome. That feels particularly heroic, in the Western genre.
Whether there’s any truth to it or whether it’s all rumor, you’ve been a part of the conversation lately, in regard to Star Wars: Rogue One.
MENDELSOHN: I have. I’ve been lead to belief this, quite strongly. No one is going to be more thrilled, if that turns out to be the case, than me.
What’s it been like to even be mentioned in connection to one of the biggest franchises of all time?
MENDELSOHN: I was the perfect age when that exploded onto the consciousness. I was right in the sweet spot when the film came out, and that film meant and still means an incredible amount to me. For the 7-year-old me, it’s mind-blowing. I saw it in the cinema in 1978, or whatever it was. It’s awesome, is what it is. Now, I don’t know what happens with any of that, but even to have that said, I couldn’t have believed or dreamed that things would end up going the way they’ve gone. I would have saved myself a lot of worry. There would have been a lot less unpleasant school experiences. I could have gone, “Well, people are going to be seriously talking about me for Star Wars, in 30 or 40 years. Don’t worry about it. It will all turn out all right.” It’s pretty good.
Obviously, the people who know your work, know what a great actor you are, but you’ve flown a bit under the radar in America until now. Are you at a point in your career, where you’re ready to be a big part of one of these huge movies, whether it be Star Wars, or a comic book or superhero movie, or just a general summer blockbuster?
MENDELSOHN: I don’t know how seriously to take all the chatter that’s been going on. I’m not sure how seriously to take all of that. However, being cautiously optimistic that it’s based on something somewhere, I guess I am. To some degree, I probably always would have been. I think I’ve been ready to go to work, for a very long time. The brackets in which I’m held or considered have obviously taken what you might call an upturn, in recent years. But, I’d like to think that I’m ready.
Well, any Star Wars film would be lucky to have you.
MENDELSOHN: Well, it’s sweet of you to say that.
You were also so great in Bloodline, but with the way things played out, the only way you could really return for Season 2 would be through flashbacks or hallucinations, or something along those lines. Does that mean that you’re officially done with the show?
MENDELSOHN: Never underestimate their ability to raise a character from the dead. You could have John (Kyle Chandler) waking up and going, “Oh, what a terrible dream!” To say anything more would, I feel, be a great disservice to the watching public and to my financial bottom line.
Slow West is available in theaters and on VOD on May 15th.