Ben Mendelsohn is having a bit of a moment. The acclaimed character actor has emerged as a bona fide television star with Emmy buzz surrounding his role as outcast Danny Rayburn in Netflix’s new original series, “Bloodline.” However, the actor paid a visit to the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend to promote his new movie – “Slow West”
“Slow West” – directed by John Maclean – sees Mendelsohn playing a villainous bounty hunter in the old west tracking an outlaw (Michael Fassbender) and a young Scottish boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across the country. Mendelsohn spoke to the International Business Times at Tribeca about his role in the unique western and the whereabouts of the trademark coat his character sports in the film.
International Business Times: How did you get involved in this project?
Ben Mendelsohn: I can’t remember if this is one they – being [director John Maclean] or Michael Fassbender – had me in mind for or if this was my cunning agent – who is the same agent for Michael Fassbender.
Basically, I read it and I had seen the short film they did together and the fact that Michael was going to do a proper, dyed-in-the-wool film with this guy was a pretty big signal that something was going on. Michael’s pedigree of work is significantly impressive and god d---it, I wanted to ride on that train. So, when this came on board it was great. It was a chance to do that.
IBT: So, it was not a hard sell?
Mendelsohn: Not really, it was one of those things that you roll the dice – maybe it works out or maybe it comes out horrible. Well, it won at Sundance. So, that’s pretty good.
IBT: Can you tell us about your character in “Slow West?”
Mendelsohn: So, Payne [Mendelsohn’s character] is a bounty hunter and [Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character Jay] is being ferried across the U.S. by [Michael Fassbender’s character Silas] who is a bounty hunter as well, but who looks like he’s just being a really good guy. [Jay’s] on his way to find his love [Caren Pistorius’ character Rose] who is inappropriate for him in a class sense. So, there ends up being bounties on these two attractive people’s lives – alive…dead…dead or dead. So, I turn up – basically the vulture has been circling them and the vulture lands. And that happens a fair way into the film. It is quite awhile before I actually make my arrival. Then, once Payne and his gang arrive you know the force that’s there bearing down on them.
IBT: Is there another dimension to the character?
Mendelsohn: There are always dimensions and the way they get expressed is through the writing and the actors and the director you get to work with on that day. But there are always dimensions, outside of really basic stuff for very young people where it needs to be very clear.
I do think there is a beautiful thing in that very clear good and evil thing, but for people with grown-up sensibilities you want flavors.
IBT: In westerns, though, you do sometimes see those black and white, good vs. evil characters.
Mendelsohn: Absolutely! Well, this is part of the strength of the film. [Director John Maclean] is a Scotsman doing a western and essentially none of the four [main cast members] are American and [the movie] is not shot in America. Westerns are so strong – in fact, most of the American film genres are so strong – and I think [people outside the U.S.] take them on much harder than [Americans].
I think it’s that thing of growing up all the time watching American movies and listening to American music. It hits you in a way that’s a lot purer because you are not in that culture that you’re watching. You don’t have the same reference points. So, [with “Slow West”] you’re essentially getting a love letter [to westerns], more or less like the British rock bands of the 1960’s coming back and playing blues or rock & roll.
IBT: What westerns have been an influence on you?
Mendelsohn: “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is one I watched again and again and again in the early days of VHS. Then, later I tried to school up on them after the [Martin Scorsese] documentary [“A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”] where he talks about the western and the gangster film and the musical. So, I wanted to really understand what it was because my entry point to a lot of stuff was the Scorsese, [Robert DeNiro] thing. So you hear that they are [obsessed] with “The Searchers,” so you go and watch “The Searchers.” If you are a bit nerdy about something, then you just follow the nose back.
IBT: Well, how is Slow West” different than most westerns?
Mendelsohn: I think it’s tonal and in its sensibility. I think it’s something that’s felt more than seen. I think it’s the story and what it has to say about masculinity. Essentially, I think that’s what all westerns are about. It’s got things to say about what it is to have good masculine values, but I think this is a good, mature version of that without ever falling into cheesy patois.
And [John Maclean] did very well to resist the vistas [“Slow West” was shot in a narrower 1:66:1 aspect ratio] and I wouldn’t have done it. When we were [in New Zealand] and we were shooting there would be beautiful mountains and I’d be like, “are you going to get that?” and [Maclean] would go “no, I don’t think so,” and I thought, “OK.” John’s restraint is a director’s restraint.
IBT: How was working with this cast?
Mendelsohn: Fassbender is fearless, he’s a fearless actor. With Kodi, there was something delicate about the way he was in this that felt very breakable. They had been together on this though, on the road, and I came in like a wrecking ball.
IBT: How about that giant fur coat your character wears? Is that central to the character?
Mendelsohn: Well, he certainly has got it on and, let’s face it, that coat has become one of those things that has a life of its own. I saw it and I wanted it. I wanted it for myself and I asked them straight out if I could have it and they went, “well, yeah.” Now, I’ve been sweet talked to on a movie before and asked if I could take something and they said, “yes,” and then it didn’t happen. So, months went by and I still didn’t have the jacket. And then Sundance was coming up and I thought, “let me wear that jacket to the premiere on the red carpet,” and they said, “yeah!” So, I went to Sundance and in this s**** big gym bag, there it is stuffed in there. I wore it to the premiere, packed it back in that same beautiful bag and went home with it. So, now I do have it.
IBT: Do you walk around your house with it on?
Mendelsohn: Sometimes, but only when…[Mendelsohn puts his head down laughing]
IBT: Go ahead.
Mendelsohn: No, no. The occasional wisdom pokes through.
Watch the trailer for “Slow West” below: