- 06 Apr 18
Having made a career out of playing memorable bad guys, Ben Mendelsohn turns in another superb performance as the villain in one of the year’s most hotly anticipated films, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
Ben Mendelsohn has long been bringing an intimidating energy to our screens, playing all kinds of villains in films like Animal Kingdom, Una, Star Wars and now Steven Spielberg’s dystopian thriller Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s novel. Known for his intense stare, volcanic energy and ability to make your blood run cold even when speaking calmly, Mendelsohn is Hollywood’s new favourite Bad Guy. In reality, the only evil-adjacent trait of the 48-year-old actor is his brilliant cackle, but he deploys it with an air of mischief and self-deprecation, with nary an malevolent plan in sight – thank goodness.
But evil plans are indeed on the mind of his character Nolan Sorrento, a power-craving CEO who wants to take control of OASIS, the virtual reality world where most of the Earth’s citizens spend their time, since our own world has been ruined by climate change and corruption. OASIS was dreamed up by the late designer James Halliday, and when it’s discovered that Halliday created a game within OASIS that unlocks ownership to the entire system, Sorrento goes head-to head with some plucky teenagers, whose fight for freedom may just beat his passion for power and profit.
I pitch that given its criticism of greed and capitalism, Ready Player One is like a technology-driven Willy Wonka.
Mendelsohn releases that fantastic cackle.
“I’ll roll with that! Yeah, it’s a lovely little dystopian piece with some strong overtures of can-do attitude. But it’s not a dead-end dystopia; hope springs eternal.”
Mendelsohn hadn’t read the Ernest Cline book, and actually heard about the upcoming adaptation from young crew members on Netflix thriller series Bloodline. But for the actor, Spielberg was the draw.
“Look, my entire career I would have given my eye teeth to do a Steven Spielberg film, so once he was onboard, I was interested,” he enthuses. “The breadth of his work is just staggering. And he’s perfect for a film like this, because he understands kids and adventures as much as he understands adult drama. Poltergeist was actually the most important one for me, growing up, and then as an adult he broke me with Saving Private Ryan and Munich. I’ve only been able to watch Schindler’s List once; it’s one of those films that ruins you. But films like Jaws show his talent so perfectly, because it never fails to work on both the action level and the human drama level.”
And luckily for the actor, Spielberg turned out to be one of those heroes you absolutely should meet.
“I did say to him at our first meeting that whether he gave me the job or not, meeting him was good enough!” the actor laughs. “But Steven has a beautifully disarming personality. He doesn’t play king of the castle, because he doesn’t need to. But one thing he has as a director: he’s one of the best audiences for an actor. When he likes something, it feels...” Mendehlson pauses, searching for the right adjective, before settling for an obvious understatement – “it feels really good.”
Mendelsohn describes his character as an “über-nerd, who now rules the world – or at least, part of the corporate world. He was a young, wannabe acolyte of Halliday, and manoeuvred his way to the top of the food chain.”
I proffer that Sorrento is a character very much in sync with our times, when our lives are in danger of being completely controlled, mined and exploited by young computer nerds wielding far too much power. Mendelsohn cackles again.
“You need to speak to the time you’re in, which is the most delicate way I can put it without finding myself cyberbombed or something!”
Ready Player One explores not just corruption and control, but also fandom, and the skill and passion of young people who genuinely love media. Though Mendelsohn describes himself as “an ’80s creation”, he says he still plays video games and will never forget his first gaming and pop culture loves.
“My first love was pinball, but in terms of video games, I’m there when Space Invaders and Pac Man start. But I played a lot of video games; I did a lot of arcade time. And I obsessed over certain rock bands like Kiss. I still geek out over stuff; I think there’s an innocence and a fun to it we all need sometimes.”
Of course, Mendelsohn got to live out a dream of many fans when he became a major player in the new Star Wars franchise, playing director Orsen Krennic in Rogue One.
“It’s like being in some Star Trek vortex where you are transported to another world, and you don’t know where you are for a sec,” he says of the experience. “That happened me a lot on set – you’d turn around and see Storm Troopers and you can’t help thinking it’s pretty cool! And being around the bosses, Spielberg and Lucas, knowing they’ve literally created these worlds that have inspired so many people, that never stops being a bit awe-inducing.”
He also experienced being the subject of a fandom, meeting Star Wars devotees and experiencing the power the franchise has on so many people.
“The fans are great!” he enthuses. “It’s such a singular thing, Star Wars. I was at an event the other night, and Mark Hamill was talking about the great gift that was playing Luke Skywalker and seeing the joy it brings people. He said he visited a hospital where a little boy was getting his arm amputated and said, ‘I’m not worried because Luke lost his hand and he was okay’ – it’s a pretty great force in the world.” Mendelsohn pauses mischievously before joking, “And I’m very proud to have interrupted that by building the Death Star!”
Krennic and Sorrento are two more villains on Mendelsohn’s CV, though he’s not at all unhappy with the typecasting.
“I don’t mind it!” he laughs. “I don’t mind it at all. I’ve always thought it’s kind of a compliment in this world, it’s a good job to get. Why? Some of it is follow-on from Animal Kingdom I think, but I’m pretty happy. And I’m playing some more varied – ” he stops. “Wait – you’re South of Ireland, right, not the North?” I confirm I am from the Republic. “Right, well I won’t do the foot-in-mouth thing of saying I’ve just played ‘your’ King, but I’ve just played King George VI in Darkest Hour” – yup, still counts as a villain in my book – “and I don’t trip out on why I’m playing these villains, I’m just happy to be playing anything!”
But he has played some truly nasty characters. From a child molester in Una to the sociopathic leader of a family crime gang in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn always imbues his roles with a fierce intensity. How does he get into the mindset of such despicable characters?
“It varies,” he muses. “A happy set is one you can move around in a lot, while an unhappy set can have a lot of intensity to it, which can help the performance in the moment. Personally, I think what you put on screen is the only object of the game, and so you should feel free to do whatever you need to do – with the usual parameters of not doing anyone any harm. I like to work with whatever vibe is around me, kind of magnify it, twist it around and then go and give it a shot. So I’m not stuck to one technique. They all have their challenges. The King took a long time to get into a place where it felt comfortable. But they’re also just long days, so playing intense characters on top of that is rough.”
And there’s a lot of work to be done. Since Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn’s career has gone from being one of quietly respected performances in Australia to becoming an internationally acclaimed star, recognisable to audiences of all demographics.
“There’s no comparison,” he says bluntly of the career shift. “There just isn’t. Domestic recognition and international fame are so different. And fame is never what people think it is. I walk around the streets here in LA and every now and then, I might get a flicker of recognition, but that’s it. I still move around and it’s perfectly fine. During press junkets and stuff, that’s where the shiny stuff happens, but for the most part it’s okay. It’s about how you treat fame, that defines how fame treats you.”
I posit that Australians and Irish people share a certain level of no-nonsense bluntness that can cut through any of the Hollywood fawning that might go to your head. Mendelsohn’s response couldn’t prove the point more perfectly. “Right? Fuck yeah!”
As for his upcoming projects, Mendelsohn will be appearing in Captain Marvel as well as playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Otto Bathurt’s Robin Hood, starring Jamie Dornan. As we all know, the Sherriff of Nottingham was already perfected and made iconic in Alan Rickman’s incredible, camp, gloriously intense performance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Is Mendelsohn intimidated?
“I won’t be outdoing Alan Rickman, that I can assure you!” he says. “That’s a cinematic achievement you don’t mess with, so that fine benchmark will remain intact!”
The pressure to remake magic aside, Mendelsohn’s life seems to be going pretty damn well.
“It’s fantastic. I’m still very much in ‘pinch me’ mode. It’s a great slate of stuff, and there are a few sneaky ones coming out amongst that. Look, I’m loving it, I’m not going to complain about anything.”
Ready Player One is in cinemas now.