Although Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn has been acting since 1986, he didn’t really break out to international audiences until 2010 when he appeared as the vicious criminal Andrew “Pope” Cody in David Michod’s brilliant Animal Kingdom. Since then he’s turned up in a steady, high-profile series of movies and TV shows, including The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines, Netflix’s Bloodlines, Black Sea and as Director Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
In Darkest Hour, the new film in which Gary Oldman plays newly elected prime minister Winston Churchill, Mendelsohn plays King George VI, known as the “reluctant king” because he was forced onto the throne after his older brother (known as Edward VIII) abdicated over his romance with Wallis Simpson. George, who was leery of public speaking due to a stutter (chronicled in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth played the monarch), was opposed at first to Churchill, but the two soon became close and had lunch together every Tuesday for more than four years during the darkest days of World War II to discuss the war and England’s standing in it.
Mendelsohn and Oldman’s scenes together are among the best in a film peppered with outstanding moments and incredible acting, adding another superb performance to Mendelsohn’s already sparkling resume. We spoke with him about playing the role, acting with Oldman and more, including his work with Steven Spielberg in the upcoming Ready Player One and the rumors that he’ll play the leader of the Skrulls in 2019’s Captain Marvel.
Den of Geek: There’s that old saying, “It’s good to be the king,” but in King George’s case it wasn’t really that good to be the king, was it?
Ben Mendelsohn: I think it was a real challenge to be the king and I think it was unexpected to be the king. I think for his people it was really good that he was king. I think he was kind, I think he really believed in the role of the monarchy but yeah, I don’t think it was necessarily for him always that way. However, it’s difficult to know. You know what I mean? You got to really draw a limit around what you can say about any of these people because I don’t know.
What were you able to tap into as far as researching him?
These people and this era are well documented, so then it’s just the notions you have. The notion about how his father might have felt about him, these are all strands of ideas and stuff that are floating around. But there is stuff that you can actually watch and see of him giving his speeches and hearing him and hearing the way that speech impediment works when the rubber meets the road. Then you extrapolate. Then really you’re guided by your script. You can have all sorts of ideas and notions about someone but you’re doing what the script calls for first and foremost.
Especially here in America, a lot of people may not actually realize that this is the same king that Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech. Were there enough different aspects to his personality that you didn’t have to think, “Oh I have to worry about being too close to that performance,” or anything like that?
It makes a job that already has challenges a job with a lodestone around it, you know what I mean? I don’t think you want to dwell on that stuff, it all passes through your mind but you’ve got to then leave it and get on with it because you know at some point or another they’re going to be calling action. You know at that point if you haven’t done enough of this work, it’s a disaster, and you just can’t do that.
Let’s talk about playing opposite Gary. You really both disappear into your roles. What was the interaction like on the set?
We’d met on The Dark Knight Rises, although we didn’t work together. We had a chance to be familiar. We did a rehearsal period and thank goodness that Joe (Wright, Darkest Hour director) did an old fashioned sitting-around-the-table rehearsal period, because we had a chance to get comfortable with each other and just talk about other things and whatnot. On the day, I think we’d gone away, certainly Gary had gone away and done so much work that there was an effortlessness to it actually on the day, and it didn’t feel like a strain or an effort at all. It just felt like, “Oh here we are, we’re listening to each other and let’s do it.” That’s because of the work beforehand.
Do you remember when you saw him on set in the full makeup and costume?
Yeah, you don’t forget that moment. It’s remarkable and he was kind of “Winstoning” and then he turned to me and he just showed me him again for a quick moment, it was really weird, it was as though the prosthetics went away for a sec. It was a really surreal moment. Then he turned back and he went back into it, and that was like seeing some kind of wild creature. That was just something else.
Do actors talk about the craft with each other?
Not a lot. It’s a young thing to do, you do when you’re young or you’re new in it. It’s about what you ask. I think professional to professional you can ask that sort of stuff but we sort of don’t. It’s like, you all know roughly what there is to be done. You know that if you want to do Winston Churchill you better bloody watch Winston Churchill. You better try and get a stronger sense if you can. If you’re playing King George you better bloody watch King George and get as strong a sense as you can. You don’t really ask.
Do you feel like you learned things about either George or Churchill as a result of doing this that you hadn’t known before?
Really it’s Clementine Churchill (Churchill’s wife, played by Kristin Scott Thomas) that I really came to appreciate. I’m glad he had her, I’m glad we had her, because I feel as though without Clementine Churchill we don’t get across the line. I think Clementine is the real revelation to me, and her role in the proceedings.
There’s been talk that this film comes at a time when we don’t have truly great leaders in the world. Is it timely that we see a film about a leader who was as strong-willed and focused as Churchill seemed to be?
Well, I think that it’s something that we fit back onto the meaning of the film. That’s the way we organize these kind of things. The movie was thought of five years ago, well before the current era, and we’re always searching for leaders. We always are. Obviously this is a different period but that never changes, back in my country now they’re going batshit about what’s going on there.
Look, there are great lessons to be learned from great achievements and great people in history. The point I think of Darkest Hour is they’re not necessarily the lessons that you think that you know about them. There’s not actually an inevitability about Churchill, he’s not set in stone. This stuff is very alive. I think we all take, if anything, some heart that some of these things are unknown and just knock on wood. Just knock on wood because I’m not sure that there’s anything else that can really be done before an electoral cycle or whatnot.
I thought you were terrific in the very good Mississippi Grind, and we hear you might be re-teaming with that movie’s directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel.
Yeah, well that’d be nice.
Anything you can say about that?
No, I’ve certainly heard a lot about it today which is a good sign. I’m sure that if that does in fact bear out to be true that’ll be a good thing.
Have you started doing any reading up on the Skrulls?
Nope. My only comics at home are the ones with (Doctor) Doom and The Sandman. I love Doom.
We can confirm that you’re in Ready Player One.
What was it like working with Spielberg on that and getting into that world?
What a joy. He is the most exciting audience you get. As an actor your director really is your first audience. Steven Spielberg is just such a great audience, he’s so specific, he’s so excited when things go well. He’s so ready to try it again, he’s so fast, he’s evolving as it goes. You don’t expect Spielberg to be as nimble, and the way that he actually brings his stuff all together…he’ll be out there on the battleground — I call it the battleground, the idea being that you have the map, which is the script, and your own ideas of what goes on. When you actually get to the ground, that’s where you need to be nimble, and I was thrilled to see Steven Spielberg just completely re-create things because of what was happening right there in the room.
That’s a discipline and that’s a response in filmmaking that I’ve only ever seen a few times. Most of the time we’re trying to get ourselves to go along one specific path. Steven Spielberg is the Napoleon of filmmaking and I mean that in the best possible way — that he is a master of the battlefield.
How does it challenge you as an actor to go from something as gritty and naturalistic as Animal Kingdom to something like Ready Player One or even Rogue One where there is so much virtual world-building involved?
Well it delights me. All of the films have their challenges and you need the stamina and the concentration and the spirit to be up for it. In those bigger films, if you have to fill in the blanks of something that might be happening over there that you can’t actually see and feel, that’s something that I like to think maybe I’m evolving with in my skills or I’m still up for. It’s a delight to me that the big studios will go, “Yeah, we’ll use that guy.” This stuff’s all still pretty new to me, I’m an old bugger, but I’m up for learning it.
Darkest Hour is out in limited release in New York and Los Angeles today (November 22) with an expanded theatrical run to follow.