Ben Mendelsohn’s happy to be in a “Star Wars” movie, and so are we. He may be happier: He got to be on set, wear the clothes, get the paycheck. For fans of the Australian character actor’s work, Mendelsohn’s turn in the spin-off/prequel “Rogue One” — playing Imperial baddie Orson Krennic, tasked with making the first Death Star fully operational — means more people will know who he is.
Though Mendelsohn was a name back home in his teens, thanks to movies like 1987’s coming-of-age tale “The Year My Voice Broke,” it wasn’t until the crime epic “Animal Kingdom” in 2010 that he became what he is today: a thrilling and frequently employed go-to character actor. Since then he’s been a scene-stealer in “Killing Them Softly,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Mississippi Grind,” in which he played a gambler/loser opposite Ryan Reynolds. If you dig his spirited turn in “Rogue One,” please find a way to watch them.
Mendelsohn, 47, talks to us about looking back at his younger self, finding success (again, in his case) in middle age and weirdo “Star Wars” merch.
I have to say, talking about a new “Star Wars” reminds me of how old I am. “Return of the Jedi” was the first movie I remember seeing in theaters.
I feel you. But you know, not much you can do about that one, is there?
Do you get the same way when you think about the passage of time?
Oh, absolutely. But in a funny way, what I think is really weird is when you get older, it’s almost as though you actually get to the core of who you were a lot more than you did all those many years in between. And I like that. I like the way I feel about who I am now, even with my many misgivings and many shortcomings. I feel that I am much friendlier, and more accepting, as it were, of that human that I was. Maybe that’s because now I’m in a “Star Wars” movie. [Laughs] I have kind of wished, through this process, to travel back in time and tell this young fella, “Relax. One day you’ll be in ‘Star Wars.’ Don’t sweat it, baby.” But alas.
When you were younger were you the angry, brooding type? I was.
Oh yeah. There was a real heaviness. There’s a real heaviness that comes upon you in your adolescent years. There’s a real search for deep, visceral authenticity and a very narrow, austere reading of what’s right and wrong and good and bad an all that s—, which I think one is released from through the passage of the years.
I’m sure it helped that over the last seven or so years, you’ve been getting lots of meaty roles: “Mississippi Grind,” “Killing Them Softly”…
Look, honestly, I just feel incredibly lucky to be playing characters that people notice. I spent a lot of time in a fairly contained and occasionally completely irrelevant space of work. I was doing things no one would see, or just not doing anything. I have to pinch myself often and go, “Wow.” It doesn’t make you feel massively different. But it’s a very nice feeling to feel like you’re doing things which are in the world properly, you know?
I’ve been doing this since I was 14. I was really quite successful when I was around 17 to, say, 21, 22. I had come to terms that that was when I had a great career. I still had a career after that. But it wasn’t a great career, like it was then. I thought that was it. Sooner or later, I’d have to get some proper job, etc., etc., or sit around dreaming forever. So I’ve been greatly relieved and delighted by what’s happened.
And now you have an action figure.
Oh, I absolutely have an action figure. I have multiple action figures. I have socks.
Have you actually seen the film? [Ed. The studi wasn’t widely showing it to journalists when we spoke.]
Yeah. It’s a really tough “Star Wars” film. It’s very muscular. It’s a tough, tough film. It’s the grittiest and, in a lot of ways, the most confronting of all the “Star Wars” films, by a far margin.
It seems you really have a chance to cut loose. You’re playing the type of character who was historically played by prim English thespians, but you get to keep both your Australian accent and have some freedom to play with the lines. It’s very much in keeping with your other recent work.
We wanted to get the sense of someone that actually has to struggle to operate very much within that Imperial world. He’s a person with a lot of pressure on him, though he’s able to put that pressure onto other people as well. His villainy, as it were, is a lot more transferring than it is “I am a pure pool of evil.”