Interview with Ben Mendelsohn, star of Animal Kingdom


13th July 2011

With Animal Kingdom out on DVD this week, we were afforded the opportunity to speak with Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the borderline psychotic Pope in the film. That’s right, we do interviews now.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the nature of the film and his often disturbing role in it, Ben proved to be quite an intense interviewee and he obviously takes his work very seriously. While I was speaking to him, he would often switch between being very chatty and rambling to being quiet and cagey, especially when I asked him about working with Nicolas Cage. Yes, I asked him that – you do know which website this is, don’t you?

: Hi Ben, congratulations on the film, first of all. Can you talk me through how you got involved with it in the first place?

Ben Mendelsohn: Yeah, of course. I knew David [Michôd, the writer/director] before when he was the editor of a film magazine at home and he gave me the script. Fast forward many years later, he got the film up and running and he asked me to do it. I kinda dithered around about it for quite a while actually and then decided to do it.

He knew he wanted to use Jackie [Weaver] for the mother and he wanted me to do the part of Pope, and the other people he either had an idea about or cast a bit later.

: When you say you dithered, is that because you had reservations about the script?

BM: Um...yeah. The script changed actually from the time that I first got it. I mean, I mainly thought about whether or not I could do it and do it right because David and I knew each other well and I knew the angle that David came at characters from. And, y’know, I didn’t know whether it would work out as well as it did, and it clearly went way, way beyond what I expected.

: If you weren’t sure if you could do it, how did you end up approaching the character in the end?

BM: David and I talked a lot and we went through everything in the script. David had some ideas about where Pope had come from, what kind of things he had been affected by, etc. I had some people in mind that I had come across here and there throughout my life and we mashed those things together and tried to bring it in his relationships with the other characters.

That’s the most important thing to do, I think. You can have all the ideas about a character in the world but ultimately you’re pretty much going to have to say lines and stuff backwards and forwards between another character and that’s where the stuff happens.

: One thing I loved about Pope was that he was always saying things like “You know you can talk to me about this, right?”, which was really chilling in a way – the idea of this unhinged person trying to be your friend. Was that idea always in the script?

BM: Yeah, I really don’t think I ad-libbed a line in that script. I think I said pretty much everything as David had written it. I might have muddled a line here and there.

Part of the thing with Pope is that he is kind of in two worlds and there are these moments where he is trying to bring that kid [J, played by James Frecheville] into his fold, as it were. And his own fold is crumbling, and as it crumbles his paranoia and fucked-up fury just finds things to attach itself to.

: There are lots of uncomfortable moments in the film, particularly when we’re uncertain about Pope’s motives towards J’s young girlfriend. Were those scenes difficult to shoot?

BM: Laura Wheelwright is the name of the actress and she’s a young girl – so it was important that we talked about what we were going to do. I think if you have to kiss or kill someone on screen then it’s a good idea to talk about it beforehand, just because it makes it easier to go where you need to go. Certainly the stuff with her is...unpalatable, to say the least.

: The film has garnered a lot of awards attention – has its success surprised you?

BM: Ha – yeah! It’s funny, when we did the Sundance screening, it won [the Grand Jury Prize] and that was our first clue that things were going well and a guy from, I think the Hollywood Reporter came down to us and started raving and said “listen, I’ve been around a long time, I know these things. Trust me, you’ll get an Oscar” and he was right! It also won the most AFIs ever, which is our version of the Oscars.

But no, I’m not surprised by it actually. Keep in mind that I’ve never seen the film so all I know is the reaction. The first time we did Sundance, the audience went ballistic. They were so excited, and some of them were perturbed and some of them were really revolted and some of them were incredibly happy – and you could just feel it in that room. They went spastic and it was fantastic.

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