Interview: ‘Bloodline’ star Ben Mendelsohn on black sheep and American accents

03.20.15 2 years ago


For many viewers, Ben Mendelsohn will probably be the surprise breakout star of Netflix's “Bloodline,” as the Australian actor regularly steals scenes the likes of Emmy winner Kyle Chander, multiple Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, and Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard.

But then there will be another subset of viewers who have followed Mendelsohn's career since “The Year My Voice Broke” or the recent career explosion prompted by “Animal Kingdom,” which has included roles in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Killing Them Softly” or “The Place Beyond the Pines.” For those fans, Mendelsohn is an award-winning character actor with a resumé that can stack up against anybody in the “Bloodline” cast.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Mendelsohn's credits are filled with ne'er-do-wells, black sheep and shady characters of ill-repute and Danny Rayburn, his character on “Bloodline,” is no exception. In Mendelsohn's hands, Danny is also charming, calculating and difficult to read, serving as the flashpoint for all manner of family discord in the Florida Keys. I've only seen three episodes of “Bloodline,” but I don't have a clue if Danny Rayburn is going to turn out to be the show's villain or, possibly, its hero. 

Although I've been a fan of many of Mendelsohn's roles, his “Bloodline” performance was enough of a stand-out that I wanted to sit down with him at TCA press tour back in January. The unfailingly polite and frequently profane actor discussed why he can't look at characters as “black sheep,” the challenges of charting out a character arc in a show as twist-filled as “Bloodline” and the importance of an American accent that wouldn't “f*** people up too much out of it.”

“Bloodline” premieres on Netflix on Friday (March 20). Check out the full Ben Mendelsohn Q&A below…

HitFix:    Now black sheep characters, you've done a couple of them. When you see the character what do you latch onto immediately about his black sheep-ness in this? What made you go “Okay I've done something like this but I haven't done anything like this part of him?”

Ben Mendelsohn: Well, I think the easiest way to sort of talk about that is to say that that things like “black sheep” and things that we might call people and characterize people as, are not necessarily something that I touch. I think what I'm most concerned about is trying to get a sense of what those guys are up to, the writers and whatnot. And they obviously had a talk and we talked about who this guy is and where he comes from and what the situation is. And then it's just about trying to do the relationships with the different people. And they sort of announce themselves as you go along. The problem with thinking of it the way that I think I heard you talk about it, is that you end up feeling like you've got to perform some kind of trick in order to make it distinct. And I think that the stories themselves are the distinction and this and that. And in that way I don't think that – I think that story wins out over acting and that the thing as a whole is more important than the performances therein. But having said that, what you want to do in my job is just try and make sure you're giving what you guys do, the writing, its way.

HitFix: And obviously “black sheep” as a term is totally, it's shorthand.

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. And as such it's very, very effective, but you can only, you know, the only approach is “What's the story we're telling and how do you want to tell it?” And in that regard I'm more like the guy, I try and be a quarterback for a coach in that way. Tell me what the plays are or whatever and I'll try to run them for you out there. And I see the job in those kind of terms.

HitFix: Well it's shorthanded but it's also very relative or relativistic. Like for somebody to be a black sheep that means they're a black sheep relative to the other members of the family. [“Absolutely,” he agrees.] So how were you sort of able to I guess tone or tinker with your performance against the actors you were playing with in your family?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. And that was sort of a voyage of discovery, if you like, because while we have an idea of the different relationships that are going on there, it's not until you get out there and you can actually feel the person opposite you that you sort of know, “Okay. This is yeah… Oh okay. Is this where we're dancing?” And in that regard it's more like a dance in that regard. You sort of try and see how you wanting to move and how they're wanting to move and you try and either do something discordant or something that's going to work together.

HitFix: Who surprised you as a partner for the dancing?

Ben Mendelsohn: Oh s***, they all surprise you in their way and that is the truth. Linda is someone of extraordinary depth and precision. Norbert has an incredible ability to go from zero-to-explode. Kyle, you feel so close to him, and he can flip the burgers this way that way, that way and keep flipping and dicing. Sissy is just the combination, she's like a goddess and in some ways when you get lucky enough to be asked to play her son you feel very protective of her and very close to her. And Sissy has just got an incredible warmth as a person. And the stuff that was going on with that character was so fragile. Jamie [McShane], the guy who plays Eric, my best friend is like f***ing amazing, like fearless, ready to go, like a best friend he just immediately did the best friend thing. And we worked together very, very early. Sam is stately and strong and hard to fathom. And in a way their characteristics to me are either genuinely that or they've just sort of melded into The Danny World enough that they feel that way, but they do feel that way. Which one have I not talked about? They're the main family. That's the main ones. That's the main ones.

HitFix: You talk about Sam being hard to fathom and there's a moment in one of the first episodes where I don't even remember which character it is briefly confuses Sam's character and Danny. Any you sort of realize in that moment, “Wait there's actually a lot of the father in this son, more than perhaps either one of them want to deal with.”

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. Yeah! I think that's… Yeah!

HitFix: So, how were you able to look at what Sam was doing and sort of make your character not a mirror image of him but a reflection, a rippled reflection to some degree?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. There's a temperament thing that really, it was an attempt to try and pick up on some of the things that appeared to be coming off him in a feeling sense and to try and anchor into that. Because I think part of the difficulty that this family has gotten into is that people have, as it were, outgrown their traditional roles. And this is most difficult and most confronting and most pressing for Danny, as the black sheep. But some of the cruxes of the matter as to why that is have a lot to do with who those other people are. So it's trying to feel what [Shepard's character] Robert is like. And Robert's formidable; Robert's formidable so it's about how do you have that bit, but if you show that bit more or if that bit's allowed to be in you you're f***ed. You're f***ed. They will kill you. There is no place for two Roberts in that way. So it's about having that stuff there and then I guess trying to hide it or trying to react against it, you know, trying to sort of neurotically react against their own feeling. It's just that sort of s***, I guess.

HitFix: Your character has an interesting balance that he goes back and forth between the moments where you can see that he is presentable, that he can actually be out in public with his family and be okay, and then the moments that he's obviously just off in his own thing. How do you chart those moments? How do you follow the beats as to how presentable he is at any moment?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. Look, a lot of that work gets done for me in terms of the way they have constructed this story. But Danny's life and what I guess we could refer to as his other life, it's like a cloud going to pass and it's like everything else is still there and going on, but the light's changed a bit. You can still see everything, but the quality of the light is a bit different. That's my best analogy I think for it, that it's all the same stuff but that changes.

HitFix: Do you need to sometimes ask a director or the writers about the lighting, I guess?

Ben Mendelsohn: Oh, I always ask them. I have two basic ways and that is ask a lot and the other way is to really just, “No let's not worry about any of that stuff let's just try and kick the football around and see what feels like effective and good.” But you hopefully get a lot of that stuff at the beginning and then usually you're just presenting stuff and getting feedback on it. And these guys are incredibly graceful and courageous when it comes to their actors and their storytelling. They are not prescriptive in that way. They really give people the freedom to run. They're not pulling the reins tight on you. They will give a little bit of a guide here or there if they feel like they haven't got anything that they were thinking about, but they like being surprised by what your approach is to things, too. And I think it does mean that in some very difficult stuff that's certainly coming down the pike from where you've been. Some of that was able to be very enjoyable at the same time is being quite difficult.

HitFix: I was just talking with the KZK guys and we were talking about sort of the secrets that they have to keep sometimes and the things that you guys don't necessarily know. And they referenced one time they had to sort of explain to you about the pill bottle. How do you feel when you don't necessarily know those things? Because your character, he would know that obviously, but you don't as an actor, how do you feel going in blind like that?

Ben Mendelsohn: I think I have a good deal of trust in that. My general feeling about approach to work is that anyone that's there, they're all there to do the best job they can. If that's the way those guys approach it, I don't have a problem with that. I think that's fine. I think because of the way that these things are made, as long as you get what you need by the time you finished shooting, it it's all good. It's however they want to do it and I see myself as a very fortunate participant in what they are doing.

HitFix: You've done American accents before but I assume you've never done an American accent for this sustained a period of time right?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. That would be true.

HitFix: How did it feel different sticking with this accent and how hard was it to find the accent and latch onto what it was in the first place?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. Look, this time was really flying solo. So sometimes it's scary and then sometimes you just find yourself, you know, you can just feel yourself whatever. You just got to try and keep it on-chart and ask when you think, “Hold on is this sucking?? You know what I mean? You just check in with that stuff I think. But I think it's one of those things that hopefully one gets access to that part of things a little easier. Accents are always difficult in their way, but as long as you're not throwing an audience off with it then that's all it should be. They're unimportant in that way and you've got to have them I think in such a degree that you can actually wear it like a very loose coat. Because if your accent is correct but you can't move emotionally in it, what's the point? So that's the real game. And to that degree I'd rather take imperfection over access and the ability to just be able to really give those scenes and the situations their full weight.

HitFix: How much specificity where you going for in terms of region and whatnot?

Ben Mendelsohn: I was trying to sound enough like my brothers and sisters. I mean I did a lot of listening and stuff of the people in that actual area, and there are some specific things. So I mean look, I chart a course for somewhere, but I don't expect myself to land right in the middle of that. But I figure if I aim for the middle of that and my desire is good then I shouldn't f*** people up too much out of it. You know what I mean? Because I really think that it should be invisible enough that you're not taken out of any scenes or the enjoyment of the thing as a whole.

HitFix: Definitely invisible enough.

Ben Mendelsohn: Oh that's good because that is something that I do. It's part of my job that I pay significant attention and work on to try and make sure it doesn't because then it's f***ing an audience up. Pardon my archly Australian end.

HitFix: I work on the Internet. Anything goes on the Internet.

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah. No. I feel you. And my apologies in advance to those people that might have found the proceeding offensive, however.

“Bloodline” is now up on Netflix.

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