“Killing Them Softly's” Ben Mendelsohn: Playing Drug-Fueled, Criminal Was “Fun”

Playing a petty criminal, the actor stands out amid an A-list cast

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn’s name might not be as familiar as those of his co-stars Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta, but in “Killing Them Softly” he shows audiences that he certainly deserves a seat at the same table.

A veteran film and television presence in his home country, Mendelsohn tripped the radar of filmgoers everywhere with his standout performance in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom,” and his stock in Hollywood has continued to rise ever since, most recently with a juicy turn in “The Dark Knight Rises,” playing John Daggett, Bruce Wayne’s financial rival and Bane’s presumed frontman.

In “Killing Me Softly” he has a bravura turn as Russell, a grimy petty criminal and aspiring heroin dealer who becomes entangled in a twisted knot of robbery and retribution.

What was it about this very unapologetic low life that intrigued you?

Well, it's nice to play people that stick in your mind in some way or another, and in that degree, I think as an actor it is fun to play people that are sort of further on the end of some spectrum or other. And a very rollicking, sort of drug-fueled, petty criminal was fun. But it was really the dialogue and stuff like that, too, and the company that one keeps while doing it. It's a pretty good bunch of people.

How easy or difficult was it to get that sort of sweat-soaked, grimy look?

It wasn't pretty! There's one outfit that the guy wears the whole time. And from memory, it was very, very hot and muggy, and we shot in New Orleans. And the top that they had me in, it seemed to be impervious to any oxygen moving through the fibers, so we would sort of start it off a bit, and it just happened. So there certainly wasn't any need for that. But the rest of it in terms of playing it and stuff like that, I think generally you let yourself go, and you don't worry yourself too much.

There's a great group of actors involved, but you don't get to spend screen time with a lot of them. Behind the scenes, did you get a chance to get to know some of your co‑stars?

A little. Brad [Pitt], I sort of met quite briefly – Brad's obviously one of the producers on the film as well. There are people that I would have loved to have met and spent time with, but the film stuff being the way it is, you don't really want to go and hang out at the office, as it were when you’re not required. But Scoot [McNairy] and I had a fantastic relationship. I feel like all the things that you always do to the best of your ability as an actor, we did do. We arrived early. We spent a lot of time together. We shifted in together. We lived with each other. So that gave us good shorthand basically, and that guy's a friend of mine now.

That's the good stuff about doing this. I would have loved to hang out with Richard Jenkins. But in a lot of ways too, the thing about great actors is they give their gift when you watch them. There's many actors that I absolutely adore, but I don't actually want to get to know them too much because it's a bit like going and talking to Bob Dylan about songwriting. I don't think Bob wants to talk to me about songwriting, but if I wanted, I'm going to listen to him and get everything he's giving. And that's sort of the way I feel with great actors too: It's weird sometimes when you meet them. It's sort of more pleasurable to watch them work in context.

We've seen you in an increasing amount of Hollywood films after such a distinguished career in your home country. What was the experience like working on “The Dark Knight Rises,” a movie that people are going to be watching for years to come?

It was really honorable. ‘Honorable’ is an incorrect usage of the word, but I was really honored. And I was expecting it to be quite hectic, and it was very much the opposite. It was a real lesson in, as it were, what the atmosphere feels like in the dizzying heights, if you like. It was splendidly peaceful.

The center of that set was one of the most easy-going, quiet, smooth operations that I've ever seen. In a quarter of a century that was easily one of the most smoothest operations that I've ever seen. And I saw people that are just legendary to me, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman – forget about it! I mean, from where I come from, you really don't get any better – it's true top-shelf stuff. So it was beautiful, very quiet, very chilled out. That was a surprise.

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