When we last spoke with the great Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, it was for his role as the King of England in last year’s World War II historical drama Darkest Hour. His acclaimed performance in that picture opposite Gary Oldman came in the middle of a streak of films that included 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newly released Ready Player One, the upcoming Robin Hood (where he plays the Sheriff of Nottingham) and 2019’s Captain Marvel, in which he’s rumored to play the leader of the shapeshifting alien race, the Skrulls.
For now, however, we’re talking about Ready Player One, in which Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who wants to take over the virtual reality invented by Jim Halliday (Mark Rylance), the Oasis, and monetize the shit out of it. Like all great villains, Sorrento doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing; he doesn’t even care that much what the Oasis is, or what it means to its millions of users. He just sees it as an opportunity to make money. That’s the real game for Sorrento, and Mendelsohn plays it with a kind of greedy glee.
We spoke with the actor recently in Los Angeles about where he drew inspiration for Sorrento, working with director Steven Spielberg and how far the visual effects have come in Ready Player One. We also discussed making his performance in Robin Hood different from the classic Alan Rickman one in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But try as we might, we couldn’t get him to say much about Captain Marvel, since this interview took place just before he was officially confirmed as a member of the cast.
Den of Geek: We last spoke with you about Darkest Hour.
Ben Mendelsohn: Very different film.
Really different films. You’re in the middle of an interesting run of projects.
It’s a purple patch, it’s a definite purple patch.
How does that feel? Do people come up to you on the street more, that kind of thing?
No, not usually. I mean people in the established places in LA do a little, you know, but they’ve been okay to me for a couple of years. Look, it’s pretty nice, it’s pretty nice. I sort of smile to myself when I’m arriving at various places. It’s a really good feeling.
What did you base Nolan on, aside from the script? Did you look through the book? Did you look at any kind of real-life corporate guys?
Yeah, I had a couple of people picked out. You know for a notion, for an idea, as a jumping off point. But it’s wrong to ascribe Nolan to any particular barons of the current time, tech or not, cause he’s sort of a different beast, you know. He’s sort of the same beast but different. So no, it’s not about who is he in terms of a real life person. But you know the ideas of Nolanesque CEOs and corporations, they’re pretty kind of clear in the story telling.
He’s kind of got a twinkle in his eye throughout the film.
I think yeah. I mean, you know, this film has got this amazing technology but this really solid old front — it’s like movies from another time in a way. It’s both the most incredibly newly built high tech kind of engine, but it really does harken to a solid blockbuster awesomeness about it. And I like to think that the idea of that is to fit that villain into that space.
He’s best summed up by his line when he’s in the Oasis and says he doesn’t even care if he ever goes back in there again.
The game is out here in the real world, and in order to win that game you’ve got to then capture this other territory. So there’s an element of corporate colonization going on there, by necessity from his point of view, I think. But yeah, he couldn’t care less about it. He does not understand why the Oasis matters in anything. It’s like that old analogy about if you show a conservationist a tree, they’ll see one thing, if you show a guy who makes money out of forestry a tree, he’ll see chopping it up into this and this. So he sees if from a very different vantage.
How did the experience of being able to look through Oculus viewers on the set and actually see what the sets will look like change your approach or performance?
Well, I mean it doesn’t, I mean it just lets you know what’s where really. To use this room we’re in as a jumping off point, you know you’re in this room but then if you put on those glasses, it says okay, there’s a big kind of scary thing standing there. Then you do the scene, you know where it is. So it’s just a map. You’re just using it like a map.
It’s different from the old tennis ball on the stick that they used to use to stand in for something.
Well we’ve come a long way, yeah, we have. And that type of CGI, I think, what we think of as the classical period of CGI, the green screen, the tennis ball on the stick, etc. etc. that’s evolved a lot. There were people that handled that sort of period of CGI pretty bloody well in comparison. And there were some that seemed to be struggling to kind of engage with a lot. Not an easy ask.
For actors I always thought of it being like experimental theater in a way. You’re working on an empty stage.
Yeah, exactly. This has been my analogy about it actually, that it really is like a roots rock kind of thing, or a roots reggae thing. This is kind of like a roots acting thing. This is the basic blocks of how you do what you do. And any people that have done it out there in high school or less sort of know it. You’re talking about a blank stage, you’re talking about that period in rehearsal where you’ve got a block here and a ramp there, and over there is France. It’s that. And in that regard it’s kind of pretty cool. It’s actually pretty cool. You’ve just got to go with it you know.
When you watched the finished film, is there anything that jumped out that and made you say, “Holy shit I didn’t know that was going to look that cool?”
The whole thing. I’ve seen it twice. I saw it once in 3D, and then I’ve seen it in 2D. It’s awesome in 3D. There’s a lot that jumped out. But that South by Southwest audience (the film premiered at the Austin festival to an ecstatic reception), I’ve got to figure that’s one of those moments in life that just, I’ve never had that experience in an audience to that intensity ever in my life. I’ve never been in an audience that I enjoyed myself more than that. That jumped out at me hugely. That was an amazing screening.
Do you know when you’re starting on Captain Marvel?
I think it would be wonderful if I was starting on Captain Marvel, that would be a joy.
You are not officially able to say that you are in Captain Marvel.
I’m thrilled that there’s the level of speculation as to whether or not that I’m in Captain Marvel that there is.
You did finish Robin Hood.
Yes, that I can confirm for you.
Just curious about your take on it, since that’s a character that’s been done so many times.
Sure, well let me tell you this. I’m not going to do it as good as Alan Rickman. No one’s going to do as good as him. But I think Otto (Bathurst, director) is going to, from what I hear and what I was there seeing, Otto is going to deliver something that is pretty fun. They’re releasing it on Thanksgiving, that kind of tells you everything. So I’m pretty excited for it.
Having now worked with Steven Spielberg, what do you take away from that experience?
A lot. I mean I think he teaches you things. But it’s hard to put it into words. The relationship I have with what I do is … it matters a lot to me. What do you take away? You take away a lot of gratitude, and you do take lessons. But they’re harder to talk about, without being pithy.
Ready Player One is in theaters now.