Sticking it Out, Winning Big: Ben Mendelsohn Comes Up Aces Again in Mississippi Grind

If you’ve seen Ben Mendelsohn onscreen, chances are you’ve been afraid of him.

The Australian actor has played some of the most magnetically menacing characters in recent memory: the vicious oldest son of a Melbourne crime family in Animal Kingdom, the hard-as-nails convict in Starred Up, the glowering prodigal-come-scapegoat in Netflix’s Bloodline. They’re characters who arrive with danger hanging over them like a cloud, and when they make threats—as they inevitably do—you know they’re good for every word.

Yet Mendelsohn’s first unequivocal leading role in an American feature—the Sundance-premiering Mississippi Grind by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck of Half Nelson fame—sees him taking an opposite tack. Gerry is the guy that some of Mendelsohn’s previous characters eat for breakfast: a real-estate agent from Iowa whose gambling habit has left him friendless, scrambling for cash. For Gerry, losing isn’t a possible outcome but the only one—it’s written in the anxious, hangdog angle of his head—and he’s so suffused with empty hope that he has no idea when and how he fell off the track. Enter Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis, a charismatic vagabond whose instant affection and affinity for Gerry compels him to take the older man on a tour of the South—at least, of its poker rooms and racetracks—in a last-ditch attempt to win big.

Shot on an evocative 35mm, with supporting turns by Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard and James Toback, Mississippi Grind owes a large part of its soul to Mendelsohn, who riffs off the classic addict archetype with just enough sweetness to offset the self-sabotage. He might protest that if you tried to tell him, though. The modest 46-year-old has been playing the odds as a working actor long enough to take his recent success as a single round of good fortune. Or is it the hand of fate rewarding two decades of uncommon talent and diligence? We’ll let the cards speak for themselves.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (center) watch as Mendelsohn flexes his poker skills

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck watch as Mendelsohn flexes his poker skills

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you get involved in Mississippi Grind?

Ben Mendelsohn (BM): As I understand it, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden had seen a cut of The Place Beyond the Pines, and thought I was a local guy that [director] Derek Cianfrance had found. When they were talking about it afterwards he told them who I was and they came and had a talk to me. I read the script, and they pretty much asked me then and there if I would like to do it. So that’s how it happened.

MM: What about the script drew you to the role? What was that light bulb moment?

BM: The script has a tone to it that is gentle, but rich. It’s true, it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s better writing than my talking. I could feel it coming off the page, and I wanted in. I wanted to do my version of Gerry.

I thought the end was fantastic. There are a couple of challenging things in storytelling, and the ending is one of them. I loved Gerry’s determination to lose. I liked the buddy element of it, too; the fact that they just hooked up and off they went. I can’t do their script justice.

MM: Gerry is a different character than the ones you usually play—he’s softer, a lot more pitiable and pathetic.

BM: There is a benign quality to what Gerry does. He’s fighting a guerilla war against himself, but I don’t think it appears to people around him. I think Curtis knows. I think Curtis can spot it. Curtis has got the eye.

MM: Did you think a lot about Gerry’s physicality?

BM: I never think about that stuff. It’s a case of trying to feel around for something hopefully interesting. I’m not a chess player in that way. I’m a lot more of a stream-of-consciousness writer, if you like. I just sort of whip things up. My current take on acting is that it’s never a definitive take on anything—character, or whatever. Instead, it’s pulling up a bunch of propositions and hoping to be constructed by a mind that will put it into its best form. I watch people like Glenn Close who always seem to have a very strong sense of being in a scene. You can feel that they were there, no matter what was going on around them. That’s the kind of quality you really want to emulate as a young actor.

Ben Mendelsohn inhabits the perpetually down-on-his-luck Gerry, befriended and enabled by Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in Mississippi Grind

Ben Mendelsohn inhabits the perpetually down-on-his-luck Gerry, befriended and enabled by Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in Mississippi Grind

MM: So you are more intuitive.

BM: It’s something that is felt. And that tends to happen very late in the piece for me. I try and leave the room for it to happen. Sometimes you’re playing catch-up, desperately trying to make a scene work right there in the middle of shooting. I think of it as trying to catch the waves—the waves being the feelings. I’m just trying to catch my wave or catch Ryan’s and Analeigh’s. Sometimes when you do that, you get a really good connection with the person you’re working with, and it’s not hard then. It can be difficult to maintain and find again like that, but when you get it right, it’s not hard. That’s my rough game plan.

MM: That seems almost like a risk. What if it never clicks at the end?

BM: Yeah, sometimes you can feel that occur, though it’s very rare. You will get bits of a day where it won’t quite come together. Then you spur yourself on to find where it is and where it’s going to be.

I’ve tried a few different ways of acting. I did a class with a Georgian stage actor one time, who said, “When I go to a restaurant, I don’t care what the cook does or who the chef is who prepared a meal. I don’t give a damn. I just want a good meal.” That was his essential take on acting: “I don’t care if you’re a method actor or if you find the character by standing in front of a mirror the whole time. I just want to see you perform and engage.” I liked that. There are so many paths, so many avenues of access to acting. It’s about finding a way to make yourself feel comfortable doing it. I don’t think it matters how long you’ve been doing it; it’s never an easy thing to do. I don’t think you lose that sense of, “Oh, here we go. I better make it work.” The healthy fear of sucking. Not a phobia, but a good healthy, realistic fear of, “Oh my God, this better not suck.” Performance nerves.

MM: You were acting before digital was a possibility, of course, but with most independent projects shot digitally these days, is there added pressure on you, shooting on film?

BM: No. In Australia, the printing of film was always a much more expensive proposition anyway than it was in the States. You typically would not do a whole bunch of takes in Australia, because of the cost of printing. So I’m used to having to come up with something, or moving on. It does feel like a compliment to be shooting it on film. It just feels nice. There’s a bit less kit; the video feed thing is not quite as huge, so it’s a lovely, easy feel, like we are all traveling on the same voyage.

MM: Did you feel like the locations in Mississippi Grind helped draw you into the role? I assumed from the title that the film would feel humid and sweaty, so it surprised me that it was set in winter.

BM: It definitely helped. We were never “home” home at all during Mississippi Grind. We shot for two-and-a-tad months, starting in New Orleans. We got to spend a lot of time gambling. We had a great poker guy, and the tables down there in the casinos are active, proper poker rooms. It’s a trip, because I had never been to these places. St. Louis is no joke when it comes to winter. It was cold, yes it was. I remember Baton Rouge being nippy, but I don’t remember it being cold like that was. You forget about that with Mississippi, that it winds through all the big seasons. There’s a lot of her. It was part of what was so beautiful about the whole idea.

There was a bit of a “grind” element to it, too. We had quite a bit to get through in a day and we were in places we had never been to before—some really weird little motels along the way.

MM: You seemed to have great chemistry with Ryan Reynolds.

BM: I was an immediate fan of Ryan after seeing him long ago. Until one month before I met him, I just assumed he was Burt Reynolds’ son—a good-looking guy and so on. He must be one of the easiest people to get along with that I’ve ever encountered. If you can’t get along with Ryan, then you can’t be doing this job. Without Ryan, we wouldn’t have gotten the film made, first of all. Second of all, he didn’t have to do this film, but he wanted to be there. This is a guy who wants to work. He will keep going take after take all day if you let him, because he’s still trying to find the edge in it. I love that. It’s like he has a beautiful papaya and he’s scraping at the edge of it to see if he can get anymore of the papaya meat. It’s excellent.

MM: That’s a great metaphor.

BM: See? I knew that eventually you would get something that you could put in print.

Mendelsohn and Reynolds hug it out off-camera

Mendelsohn and Reynolds hug it out off-camera

MM: With Bloodline you are really hitting the mainstream, so I’m curious: How much do you fight for roles these days?

BM: Oh god. I’ve fought really hard for a lot of roles and lost. Most of my experience has been fighting and losing. I mean, absolutely. I was coming to the States for 20 years—more than 20, but modesty prevents me from saying—and I couldn’t get a lick. I’m not someone who’s got a good track record of success. So I suspect I’m really not that good at it. It was really after Animal Kingdom I started to get some dirt under my wheels and things seemed to take off. Other than that, most of the time I’ve had to fight for a role, and I haven’t gotten it. Someone else gets it. And good luck to them, because generally they’re good jobs.

MM: Maybe it has something to do with life experience.

BM: Absolutely. I certainly did not see this coming—having five years of increasingly great work and doing my first lead in an American film at 45. It’s pretty sweet. That papaya turned out to be pretty tasty after all.

MM: Is that why you work so much?

BM: When I did Animal Kingdom, it was on the back of six jobs straight. I believe that I am actually better with my motor turning over. I am in a lucky patch where I am able to do that at the moment. Not everyone’s able to.

 MM: You’ve worked with all kinds of directors. Is there a style you particularly respond to?

BM: I don’t like hands-off directors. I tend to want to play football for the coach. I’m that guy. Good directors know when to step on the gas pedal and when to leave it going—that’s the thing you notice. Sometimes you run into directors whose strengths lie in other places, but that’s the thing about films: It isn’t all about the acting. Most of the time the story will carry the day. That seems invisible when it’s done well. We often get credit for things that were really in the hands of editors, directors and writers.

Derek Cianfrance has an incredible ability to be elastic about what he is going to do. It was like we had magic dust sprinkled on us on Place Beyond the Pines, which was very much Derek taking things that weren’t working and making a pretzel: tying it, knotting it, flipping it over, and unleashing a great deal of energy. That’s always a joy. You’d do anything for Ridley Scott, because he’s one of the most lovable people you’ll ever meet. You’ll just do stuff for good directors, because you want to deliver their vision as close to what they’re feeling as possible. You have to remember I started out as a kid in Australian television, and I didn’t think I would necessarily be working at all. I was very concerned about whether I would get another job. I tried hard.

Bloodline, Starred Up, Slow West

Shades of ne’er-do-well: Mendelsohn’s recent performances in Bloodline, Starred Up and Slow West 

MM: One of my favorite moments in Mississippi Grind is when Gerry meets his ex-wife [played by Robin Weigert]. Was that a difficult scene?

BM: Oh man, that was tough. That was part of what really attracted me to the script, too. It reminds me of the great scene in Midnight Run where Robert De Niro gets to go home and see his wife and his daughter—without any of the release of being able to see the daughter. In fact, it’s the opposite: It’s going in there and making things worse; being a much worse guy than you are walking in. She was inexhaustible and came at me with everything she had, and really made those scenes come alive. She made them feel difficult in exactly the right way. It was a tough day for us—thank the film gods it worked.

MM: Are scenes like that hard for you, compared to scenes with physical violence?

BM: They are always affecting. In scenes where you have to have sex with someone or you have to fight with someone, you want to make sure you are connected in some way with the people you’re working with. I’ll give you the greatest example ever: the scene in Deliverance, with that actor [Bill McKinney] who said, “Squeal like a pig.” He said the reason that scene is so great is because Ned Beatty never said stop. He said, “Give me everything you’ve got.” And he did. That’s how that scene ended up becoming such a horrible and difficult masterpiece. If you will be complicit in the game, you can really go places.

MM: What actors and films influenced you?

BM: Growing up it was always Scorsese and De Niro. I saw Taxi Driver 60, 80 times—very, very obsessively—between the age of 15 and 22. All of the people working in that era were very important, like Harvey Keitel. The other big influence on me is Paul Scofield. He was primarily a stage actor, but I watched King Lear when I was around that age, and that made a huge impression on me. He has an incredible amount of power in stillness, and so does De Niro. You can just feel them radiate. It’s that way with Glenn Close, too. Then there are people like Cary Grant, with performances like His Girl Friday that I wish I could do. I mean, if you could deliver lines like Rosalind Russell, forget about it.

It’s about being really drilled as an actor. Look at Grant in His Girl Friday: That’s someone who knows exactly where he wants to go, the exact tempo that that script needs to be done at, and has a great sense of what the audience can pick up on. He picks you up by the collar and frogmarches you through that film, and what a great ride. That is why it still holds up so well. He’s got such an incredible sense of audience and a barometer of information people can take in to get it. That screwball rhythm is not something we attempt in the same way anymore. You can feel every second of that, every move. It’s hard. Billy Wilder was like that, too—a real tightness. I guess for those people, that emotional barometer is based upon themselves, or it’s about having theatrical experience.

MM: And comic timing.

BM: That’s it, too. Cary Grant—boy. Archibald Leach: wow. There’s a guy that had it. If I could be anybody, I’d probably be him, or Sean Connery. I’d be Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. They are who they are. They are all very solid. But anyway I ain’t like any of them, so I’ve got to find something else.

MM: Well, give yourself a few more years.

BM: Look, I’ve stuck it out for this long. I’m up for it! MM

Mississippi Grind opened in theaters September 25, 2015, courtesy of A24. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2015 issue.

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