Movies

Ben Mendelsohn On ‘Darkest Hour’ And Working With Grand Moff Tarkin


It’s been a crazy couple of years for Ben Mendelsohn. The Australian-born actor, long held in high esteem as a character actor, is now far more easily recognized thanks to playing Director Orson Krennic in last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Maybe even recognizable enough to get him a guest role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which seems to be one of Mendelsohn’s life goals.) Next year Mendelsohn puts his proverbial black hat back on to play Nolan Sorrento in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

But this week you can watch Mendelsohn opposite Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, as King George VI and Winston Churchill, respectively. Set during the Battle of Dunkirk, it covers a time in which Churchill but come to power but has few friends or allies. Unexpectedly, he forms a friendship with King George VI, who helps him ward off foes who would like to see Churchill out of power and a treaty signed with Germany. Both actors are extraordinary.

I met Mendelsohn at his hotel in Midtown Manhattan. A year ago I interviewed him for Rogue One. At the time, the film had only screened some select footage and as these things go, Mendelsohn really wasn’t allowed to say much about it. But now he can talk about what it was like to act alongside a computer-generated Peter Cushing, which got him all pretty whimsical about the history of film.

When we spoke last year your Star Wars Battlefront character had just been released.

Yes.

Did you get to play it?

No. I do play video games, but I try and avoid things that I’ve done. You know what I mean?

So it would be weird to play as yourself?

I mean, it’s a kind of job and it’s a kind of thing where you’re asked about yourself a lot, so I try and let it go, outside.

That makes sense.

I’m glad I’m there. I’m thrilled I’m there. I mean, it’s a crazy childhood dream.

People loved you as Krennic.

No, look. It’s awesome.

You had to be happy with the response to your character…

It’s awesome. No, look, the whole thing, I couldn’t be happier about. Star Wars, the whole thing. America’s been great to me.

But he’s no more, I guess like every other character in that movie…

Well, which I actually thought was, to me, that was so heroic. I’m really proud to be a part of something where they made that call and they followed it through to the very end.

There will be no sequel to that one.

They kept the lid on it. No one knew. Well, actually, there were some whispers beforehand. There were, actually. I remember that. But it was so ballsy, you know?

Literally every character is just gone.

Gone. You’re gone. You’re all wiped out, you know? It’s big.

Darkest Hour is a movie where I forget I’m watching actors. Does that make sense?

Yeah. You want an audience to be able to just go along like that. So, look, there’s a lot of things that go into that achievement. And Gary is beyond. Gary is beyond. I think the achievement that he manages to pull off is phenomenal, and to be a part of that, it’s awesome.

Your portrayal of King George VI is very different than what Colin Firth did in The King’s Speech. Was that in the back of your mind? That this needed to be different?

It wasn’t so much that. It was more just the fact of being an Australian going to England to play their king. That was actually a bigger deal. And certainly in the company that I was going to be attempting this.

Wait, did anyone not like that?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I was conscious of that possibility.

Are there royal family Reddit boards? “How dare this happen. Not my king.”

Well, look, I don’t know. I don’t know. But, no, my concern was the more immediate thing. It was concern for the audience. It was concern for like everyone involved.

Did you see Dunkirk?

Yes.

I think these movies complement each other in a way.

But as though it was a coin, and there was one side was that and the other side was this. I do think that they play off each other in all sorts of ways. I mean, they’re exactly the same period, so there’s something really beautiful about it. I adore Dunkirk. I saw it in the South of France in an open-air theater and it was magical. Yeah, it was beautiful. Yeah, they do play off of each other in their way.

What’s going on with you? You said America has been very good to you, but these last couple years have been really something, career-wise. And you’ve got Ready Player One coming up.

Yeah, it’s awesome.

What happened? How did you go from a character actor people respected to what’s happening now?

Let me tell you what I think it is. I think whenever the next level happens – and I think back to where I was two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago – I realize how easily the journey could have stopped. But I think what’s happened is there have been something of a one-two, one-two in there. I like to think of it as a one-two punch, right? So you had Killing Them Softly and Place Beyond the Pines. Then you have Bloodline and Star Wars.

And Slow West

Yeah, and that one. And also, Starred Up is really one, that not a lot of people have over here know, that they know more in England. And I think that’s directly responsible for the possibility that I could do this one. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to go and attempt it if I hadn’t done Starred Up beforehand.

If I were in your position I would hate questions like that, but I don’t know if you ever just stop and go, man, this has been quite a couple of years…

You’ve got to remember that I’ve been coming here for a good 20 years before anything happened. You know, I literally couldn’t get arrested here. There was nothing. There were no jobs. I came here for a very, very, very long time, many, many times, with nothing to show for it.

What kept you going?

People said don’t stop. Nicole Kidman said don’t stop, way, way back.

Things turned out.

Yeah, things turned out prettttty, pretttttty, prettttttty good.

You’ve been watching some Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Oh, I love Curb. I’ve tried to get on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I bet they’d have you now.

Well, no, I don’t necessarily think they would. But, yeah, I’ve been mad for it for a long time.

Last year when we spoke you couldn’t admit Tarkin was in Rogue One

Yeah. You know, you don’t show them in the hat before you take the rabbit out!

You’ve now shared scenes with Tarkin…

Well, look, I was lucky. Guy Henry was the actor that came and did it and he did a fantastic job. So the work was all in what they achieved. What I had to do was act across a fantastic actor who was doing a fantastic Peter Cushing anyway, so it was awesome. But the effect afterwards, I’m pretty honored to be in a scene with him.

What did you think when you first saw that? You’re somehow in a scene with Peter Cushing.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. You know, because you go back to all those old Hammer horror things. And the lucky thing about being in the film and television business is you can still touch the hem of the garment of the start of this thing. It’s still there. You can still reach back and have a contact with people that worked with people that worked with people that worked with people that were there at the dawn of it. And I love that about it. Peter Cushing takes me back to the ’40s, and from the ’40s to the ’20s. That’s nothing. That’s a blink of an eye. So I love, love, love that about being involved in the business generally. That you actually have a contact with the very beginnings of it. Its birth is not so long ago.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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