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'Outsider' Actor Ben Mendelsohn On Australian Machismo And Mastering Accents


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


BEN MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph Anderson) Look - I've been a law enforcement professional for over 20 years. So is it even imaginable that to you that I'm fine?

STEVE WITTING: (As Herbert Zucker) You feel fine?

MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph) [Expletive] No, I don't feel fine.

GROSS: That's my guest, Ben Mendelsohn, who stars as a police detective in the HBO limited series "The Outsider," which is adapted from a Stephen King novel. Mendelsohn won an Emmy for his role in the Netflix series "Bloodline." He's been in independent films and in franchise films, like the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" and the Star Wars spinoff "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" in which he played the director of weapons research for the Empire. Mendelsohn is from Australia, where he started acting in TV and movies when he was 14.

On "The Outsider," he plays a police detective trying to solve the murder of a young boy whose body was found mutilated in the woods. Everything about the killer, including his fingerprints, fits the description of a popular high school teacher and Little League coach. The detective arrests and questions him, but the coach says he was more than 60 miles away at the time of the murder, and he has evidence to prove it. How can one person be in two places at the same time? Nothing about this case is making logical sense. So an eccentric private eye who seems to have some psychic perception is brought in to help. After considerable investigation, she comes up with an explanation involving the supernatural. Mendelsohn's character thinks bringing the supernatural into the case is an absurd waste of time.

Here's Mendelsohn as Detective Ralph Anderson with a fellow detective who's more willing to keep an open mind about the psychic's theory. The other detective, played by Yul Vazquez, speaks first.


YUL VAZQUEZ: (As Yunis Sablo) Well, if she's right about who's next, it's got to be Claude Bolton.

MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph Anderson) If she's right?

VAZQUEZ: (As Yunis) Yeah. No, I'm not saying - I mean, that...

MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph) That it's - what? - logical? That it's rational?

VAZQUEZ: (As Yunis) You're not letting me finish.

MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph) You know what I think we should do in this investigation next? We should go find a really reputable psychic. If that doesn't work, we should go to a toy store and spring for a Ouija board because those things are surefire crime-solvers.

VAZQUEZ: (As Yunis) All she's asking for is that we keep an open mind.

MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph) You know what? You keep your mind open. I'm just going to look for facts, evidence - you know, dumb cop [expletive] like that.

GROSS: Ben Mendelsohn, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your starring role in this series. I really like you in this role as, like, a dependable, rational guy who's kind of hard-boiled, but beneath the surface, like, you're still grieving for your dead son. You're in a constant state of, like, grief and guilt. It's a change for you. I think most people are used to seeing you as, like, the tough guy, the bad guy, the person who's kind of unreliable and a little bit frightening.


GROSS: So how did you get this part? I would imagine you wouldn't be the first person a casting director would think of for this role.

MENDELSOHN: Ralph Anderson is an absolute gift. The show has just blitzed all my expectations and hopes, and it is a delight. But culturally, for me, I knew that being a classical, you know, Gary Cooper-type - solid, American, good guy - was a really good thing, that it meant that I had a chance to continue to work in a variety of roles because I had some concern that with, you know, baddie after baddie after baddie, that's going to run its course. So this has been a great gift.

GROSS: So I want to talk about your eyes for a minute because in your role in "The Outsider," your eyes are filled with sadness...


GROSS: ...And some skepticism.


GROSS: You keep people at a distance.


GROSS: And when you compare that to your eyes in things like "Bloodline," in which you're, like, the black sheep of the family and no one trusts you and you've been doing some nefarious things on the side, or "Animal Kingdom," where you're part of a family of criminals, your eyes are threatening in those. I mean, your eyes make you look really dangerous in those. And do you think about your eyes?

MENDELSOHN: I don't, but I do think they're a certain window to the soul. Now, "Animal Kingdom," I've seen - I remember seeing a little bit of that. And I found that - what I found kind of that worked in a terrifying sense was that guy didn't look like he was in the same room as any of the other people there. And of course, when it gets to direct confrontational stuff, you know, then - I don't know that you think about it in terms of such a mechanical way. But Australian males communicate a lot to each other nonverbally. We're a far less verbal bunch and...

GROSS: Compared to American men?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. And there's a big difference. There's - the big difference in Australia and America is the guns, right? So you can convey a lot of aggression and a lot of status or a lot of avoidance of that, and this stuff becomes very vital in the outer suburbs and stuff when you're growing up, when you're a young man, when you're a teenager and whatnot. And that's really where I learned to pretend to be - to have the potential for danger.

GROSS: So you had to communicate being threatening through your looks and not through a weapon?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, and just the way you walk and just an avoidance. You just - there's a certain thing that happens when guys of a certain age in Australia or in a certain sort of class or strata or whatever pass each other on the street, that...

GROSS: You grew up in, I'd say - I'm guessing, like, upper-middle class because your father ran a brain research institute.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. And no, so here's the interesting thing - you would think that, right? But...

GROSS: Yeah, I would think that (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: But what essentially happened is that - OK, so there was some early breakup, divorce kind of ugly stuff, et cetera, et cetera. Now, my father then moved us to what he thought was a more idyllic location, which was the deep outer suburbs bordering the country - you know, the bush, as it were. But I think what dad misread in his thing is that it's actually quite a tough, rough and tough place. And because we had this sort of wander-around, do-what-you-will kind of thing, the people that we were mixing with - this is me and my younger brother, David - were, you know, kind of petty crimes, kind of, you know, thuggishy (ph) kind of just - and also, regular just kind of layabout, you know, lower-middle-class or working-class people.

See - my family's interesting in that - well, it's not interesting. But half of it is my father, who's kind of - you know, he's a bit of a genius, and he's a bit remote. And he's a bit - left the kids, you know, to do what they want, and they'll be fine. And then my mother comes from a very, very working-class family. And they have much stronger sense of, you know, right and wrong and, you know, a much stronger moral compass. So there's a weird mix going on there. And so being amongst, you know, like, outer suburban working-class kids and stuff like that didn't feel foreign, but you had to - you know, you had to show some front. I mean, it's a bit of a jail mentality that leaks through certain parts of Australia because...

GROSS: Well, you know, part of Australia's roots is as a penal colony for England that would ship...


GROSS: ...Some of its prisoners to Australia. And do you feel like that left a permanent mark on Australian culture?

MENDELSOHN: I feel - I am absolutely sure it left a permanent mark. I am absolutely sure that in the same way that the early colonists here were coming here for religious freedom, freedom from, you know, tyranny of monarchy and stuff like that and with the ideas of the Enlightenment and freedom, et cetera, et cetera - that has permeated this country in a way that I deeply feel, being a foreigner. It took me a long time to understand what it was that made us distinct from each other. But what I - when I think about America and Americans, I think that the notion of freedom runs very deeply within your culture in a way that's very different.

GROSS: So I want to get back to "The Outsider" for a moment.


GROSS: Like, you're the voice of rationality.


GROSS: You know, you're about the facts. You're about using logic to try to solve this murder, and you're unwilling to accept any supernatural explanation. Do you relate to that as a person? And ever - have you ever had an experience that couldn't be explained by rational thinking?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I do relate to it as a person. I'm a son of a scientist. And I think in a lot of ways, I've had many things that are hard to explain in a mathematical or - in a way that I'm aware of, that are mystical to me. In fact, I think that we - you know, what happened in the scientific revolution, if you like, is that we actually locked off a lot of our mystical faculties and that we, as a being, probably do a lot better with some more of our mystical faculty doors open. So yes, I've had many things - you know, like that thing where you're just thinking about someone and they call you. You know, that one? I mean, I'm sure you've had that, right?

GROSS: Yeah, I've kind of had that.

MENDELSOHN: I've had that so many times, and I get it with certain people. I've had situations in my life where, inexplicably, you know, someone's just there when you just need them. And I don't know whether we do that as a way of reverse engineering, you know, like, miracle or whether there's something else operating out there. We can't explain it all yet by science. That's my - that would be my point.

GROSS: We have to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Ben Mendelsohn. He stars in the HBO series "The Outsider." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Ben Mendelsohn, and he stars in the HBO series "The Outsider." There are two episodes left. And if you haven't seen it but want to, it is on HBO On Demand.

For people who only know you from "The Outsider" and who haven't heard you in Australian movies and TV shows or who only know you from your other American movies, it's going to be jarring for them to hear you speaking in this Australian accent. You are Australian. But...


GROSS: ...I'm sure some of your American fans think of you as being American. Have you worked with voice coaches to get American-speak down?

MENDELSOHN: Tom Jones (ph). I have the very good pleasure to have - Tom Jones is his name. And like the great singer, he is a master at it. And I sort of borrowed Tom Jones from Nicole Kidman.

GROSS: Oh. And did you already know Nicole Kidman from Australia?

MENDELSOHN: Oh, forever. We - pretty much all of us and particularly of that generation, yeah, we all know each other.

GROSS: OK, so what are some of the key things you learned about, like, American pronunciations that you've drawn on?

MENDELSOHN: You guys aren't as lazy as we are. It might take me a moment or two to kind of warm up here. But one of the first things you need to learn is that most of your voice is right up front of the mouth, and there's a lot more muscularity there, et cetera, et cetera. Australians, if you can start to hear it, if I can exaggerate, speak at the back, a lot more through the nose, and we're lazy.


MENDELSOHN: You guys use your tongue a lot more. You speak - you have a lot of resonance at the back of your mouth, right in the back of your throat.

GROSS: And more enunciation?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, better enunciation. Your enunciation is clearer. You - the placement is further back in the mouth, whereas you want to think of Australians as essentially speaking around their nose area and being much lazier. We want to - we shorten names. We don't want to - we want to use the most economical possible route to describe something.

GROSS: So what kind of exercises did you have to do in order to speak less nasal and more from, as you discovered, the back of the throat?

MENDELSOHN: I think, mainly, it's just practice. You would - what we would do is start to practice. You grow up hearing American accents from the time you're born because of television and whatnot. But you just practice with how - with whatever you've got. And then you might drill certain sounds. Like, there are certain sounds - there are certain R sounds and stuff that are very tough for Australians. And so you might work on a certain sentence that's very tough. But Tom Jones and I would go and find a particular person from the region where we were shooting. Like from "Place Beyond The Pines," we found a guy, we recorded him, and then we made him - we made our guy him. So you just want to steal, basically.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to help me with a pronunciation question (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: Certainly.

GROSS: OK? And it's the name of our show, which is Fresh A-I-R.


GROSS: And I always fear that I'm saying fresh ear, as in, like, fresh E-A-R.

MENDELSOHN: No, it doesn't sound that way to me at all - FRESH AIR.

GROSS: OK (laughter).


GROSS: I was going to ask you for your help in helping me pronounce the name of my own show (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: OK. So give it to me - just say it to me normally, as you would.


MENDELSOHN: No, you...

GROSS: That sounded OK, right?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, see - no, I think it's just a thing that you have personally because it sounds perfectly clear. Because if it was fresh ear - right? - if you had a sort of more of a twang or something going on, then you should worry. But fresh ear - you know, that - like, I don't know, if you were some kind of - I don't know where from in the country, far north somewhere, it might be a problem. Fargo, I don't know.


MENDELSOHN: But, you know - no, it has absolutely - it's absolutely clear.

GROSS: You grew up in different parts of Europe, right? In addition to growing up in Australia, you lived a few years in Germany with your family.


GROSS: So do you think growing up with different languages helped you with your ear when...


GROSS: ...Learning different regions and different styles of speaking for your roles?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. It helped with that, and the other bit that it helped - because I was so young - is it helped with that thing of being a natural outsider and having to notice how to behave in order to be acceptable. Do you know what I mean?


MENDELSOHN: So it helped me to look at people and learn how to fit in.

GROSS: So as you mentioned, you grew up with - in Australia with a lot of American movies and TV shows. Did you imitate favorite actors when you were growing up?

MENDELSOHN: Oh, yeah - De Niro I mean, without a doubt. Like, the first couple of years that I would act, there was a friend of mine who was also an actor - later became a comedian - and we were "Taxi Driver" fanatics. And so we would try and get any oblique reference of "Taxi Driver" that we could into anything we ever did, be it a look...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MENDELSOHN: You know, at one point, he says, you ssf (ph), ssf, ssf, ssf - you know, when he's abusing Harvey Keitel, and he curses at him. And so we would do stuff like that, and we would try and put parts of "Taxi Driver" into, you know, some fairly average Australian soaps. But yeah, we would do that all the time (laughter).

GROSS: So I love "Taxi Driver," too. What do you love about the film?

MENDELSOHN: There's so many combinations that come together. I think, ultimately, there was that Chinese guy that said to Scorsese, it's such a great film about loneliness. And I think, ultimately, what appeals to me about it is that Schrader really understood something quite deep from his time being...

GROSS: This is Paul Schrader, who wrote the film.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. He spent two weeks alone in New York, and he noticed a lot of things about what happened to him. He - and he was able to put that into a format. And the - it's a combination of them all. It's the way Martin Scorsese, the director, is bringing all of these influences of his childhood, watching all these Italian horror films, and it's the inventiveness. It's Michael Chapman's beautiful camerawork, and it's Bernard Herrmann's incredible last score. And it's - I mean, I love it. Now, I - it's also, the performances are astounding. I mean, it's an incredibly confronting and brutal film, and you could never make it now. But Jodie Foster as Iris is incredibly brave. Harvey Keitel as his pimp - as her pimp and the relationship between the two of them is nuanced, deep, repulsive, understandable. It's an incredible achievement of a film. It's a tough watch.

GROSS: May...

MENDELSOHN: It's also got bits about it which are ridiculous.

GROSS: May I just say, some day a real rain will come along.

MENDELSOHN: And wash away all this trash from the sidewalk.

GROSS: Very good (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: But I mean, look - also, I'm sorry. No one ever is going to take Betsy on a date to a porn and then go, oh, I don't know much about movies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MENDELSOHN: There are other movies. I can take you to them, you know. I mean, come off it, you know. Like, so, you know, it does have its silly bits. And the other thing is, for people who are really into it, Martin Scorsese, the director, is in one very famous scene, however he's also in another part of the film. Now, that's the interesting bit. Which other bit of the film is Martin Scorsese in? And I bet you there'll be a bunch of your listeners that will know the answer. But in any case...

GROSS: I just know the part that where he's in the car and...

MENDELSOHN: Yes, and there is another part where - yes.

GROSS: ...Looking at the apartment on the second floor.

MENDELSOHN: Yes, and being particularly repulsive.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: And it's a disgusting, despicable thing in a lot of ways. But it contributes significantly to Travis, Robert De Niro's characters, why - the feeling of that film. But he's also in another bit of the film. That's my point.

GROSS: Do you want to say what it is?


GROSS: OK (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: I want the boffins out there to go back and have a watch and find it.

GROSS: All right.

My guest is Ben Mendelsohn. He stars in the HBO series "The Outsider." After a break, we'll talk about growing up in Australia, where he started his career at age 14. And Justin Chang will review the new movie "Wendy." That's Wendy from the Peter Pan story. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with actor Ben Mendelsohn. He's starring in the HBO series "The Outsider," which is adapted from the Stephen King novel. Mendelsohn's known for his work in the Netflix series "Bloodline," as well as his many roles in independent films and big franchise movies like the "Batman" film "The Dark Knight Rises" and the "Star Wars" spinoff "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." He often plays villains, but he's also played kings - Henry IV in the Netflix film "The King" and in the film "Dark Waters," (ph) which starred Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Mendelsohn played King George VI, who ruled during World War II and spoke with a stutter.

I have another accent question for you. What did you do to get a kingly kind of accent?

MENDELSOHN: That was really tough. That was - that was really tough. I had done a film called "Starred Up," which was an English prison film, which is the greatest risk I ever felt that I took because it was going to England and doing a film in their accent, which was a big deal to me. I would not have got to be in the Churchill film if Gary Oldman had not seen "Starred Up" and given me a tick because he comes from the same area as I was playing. The royal accents, though, they were tough. They were a lot of work, and I think they really only came together right towards the end. Also on "The King," we were unsure as to which way - which accents we were going to do pretty much up until, like, a day or three before we were shooting.

GROSS: Can you show us an example of what you did to get a kingly kind of accent?

MENDELSOHN: So the first thing you have to understand when you are hearing me do this right now is it's going to - it's going to suck to a degree...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MENDELSOHN: But - because it takes a while for things to actually drop in. But one of the things you have to realize when you're speaking as a royal is they are - it's called received pronunciation, and the reason it means received pronunciation is that it's the pronunciation that is understood by most of the world. It is the most clearly understood English accent in the world. (Imitating kingly accent) So - but you are very sure to make sure that everything you say is quite correct and that it has a certain gravitas to it and that doesn't necessarily mean that it needs to be enforced, but it's simply there in the language. So I know that I'm talking to you and that what I have to say is very important and that you will listen. But I am at the same time - I may be quite kind to you because, after all, you are my subject.

So it's an attitude thing, and it's about paying very particular attention to that. Now, with his stutter, what I didn't want to try and do was outdo Colin, Colin Firth who played it in "The King's Speech," won an Academy Award for it. The tapes that I heard of King George were slighter and he was in more control by the time we were in the film we were in. But I wanted him to still have little periods where, you know, it was just a little difficult to find a word. So it didn't become that kind of (imitating stutter) that kind of thing.

GROSS: So you've played a lot of dark characters. My understanding is you went through some dark times yourself, including, like, drinking. You were expelled from school at the age of 13, is that right?

MENDELSOHN: I've very fortunately got kicked out of a school here in the states. It was - it's near where you are. It's in Mercersburg, which is near Harrisburg. And it's, like, a coed boarding school.

GROSS: Why was that a good thing that you were thrown out?

MENDELSOHN: Because it meant that I went back and I lived with my grandmother after refusing to attend another boarding school here. And after, I asked Mama if I could go live with her. She said, yes. The next day, she rang back. She said, no. That was one of the worst days of my life at that point. But my grandmama (ph) who's, like, one of my saints, said, yes, you can come and live with me. And that's when I started acting shortly thereafter. And within a year or two of going to live with her, I was, you know, a working person. And I mean that in the old-fashioned sense, like, was a working class, out on my own, making a living. And one of the things I loved about working as an actor was that you kind of felt like you had a family there. And, you know, you worked for six months with this bunch people, and you get close and that really was what I want. That was what I was chasing. It wasn't - you know - and I wanted to get better at acting in order to be able to keep working on set. That was the drive.

GROSS: Did you not feel like you had much of a family with your family?

MENDELSOHN: Oh, no - well, no, no, and that was that. Yeah. No, no, no, I didn't. And that, in fact, was pretty much how it was. I was living with my grandmother by that stage. I mean, look, there was - there were family difficulties, you know? Yeah. And, you know, they're - my mother is departed, but everyone else is, you know, alive and kicking. And I - you know, I love them. You know, I love them.

GROSS: It must've felt so good to be making a living yourself because it sounds like you felt a little bit expelled from your family, but here you were, like, supporting yourself when you were in your mid teens.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, and there were a lot - I did a lot of other jobs, too, because, you know, work isn't constant for an actor almost for most of their working life. So I would, you know, quite happily do whatever jobs, you know, laboring, I worked at a slaughterhouse for a little while, this, that, the other, a bunch of stuff.

GROSS: Helpful later for acting to have been in those positions?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. So it's helpful to experience humans. I mean, I think one of the advantages that just ends up happening through British and Australian actors is that we do generally - you know, you do get a lot more of them that come from having had working-class experience, whether or not you class them as that or not. Whereas I feel like - and it may be a fantasy of mine - but that actors typically will, you know, study here and a little there (ph) and they don't necessarily have those same experiences.

GROSS: So another question about your father - since he ran a brain research center, where he's now a professor emeritus, were you interested in science?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I was. The sweetest thing that's ever happened to my dad is he's now one of those guys that just won't shut up about his son, and that never looked like that was a likely occurrence. But I - look, the first thing I wanted to be was a spy after watching "James Bond."


MENDELSOHN: Then I wanted to be a cop after watching "Dirty Harry" and then I thought maybe I'd go into some computer science thing. And then I took drama as an easy subject, but I have a terrible memory except when it comes to lyrics and, you know, ridiculous facts and music stuff. So I memorized all the lines of all the people, and I would say them at 10 times the speed. The drama teacher was very impressed, made me do it in front of the whole school, and people that didn't previously think much of me, they got a kick out of it. So I started to get - you know, people enjoyed me more, and that was important. You know, that felt really good.

GROSS: You mentioned lyrics. Do you sing?

MENDELSOHN: I'm a shower singer. Yeah. I'm a shower singer. But my favorite type of singers are generally - I mean, I'm a great lover of hip-hop and many rock and soul and funk and whatnot and whatnot. But in terms of singers, that Tom Jones era, Frankie Laine, the just pre-'62, basically. Those singers, those big voices, I love those voices.

GROSS: Roy Orbison.

MENDELSOHN: Roy - yeah, but Roy had a kind of a falsetto. I tended to like a deeper sort of - you know, a deeper sound. But they all had enormous voices, and they're beautiful, you know? They're beautiful voices, you know, Matt Munro and people like that. But make no mistake, Frankie Laine doing cowboy songs...

GROSS: Oh, God. When I was growing up, like, one of my favorite songs on the world was the theme from "Rawhide" (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: Oh, yeah. And he does - I mean, "Rawhide" is his most notable, but he also covered a great deal of, you know...

GROSS: The "High Noon" theme.

MENDELSOHN: That's right. And - yeah, "Do Not Forsake Me," exactly. And yeah, he covered a bunch of stuff and, yeah, Frankie Laine is easily, easily my favorite in that period. And that comes from one cassette I bought when I thought I was researching, you know, doing a cowboy movie a thousand years ago in Alice Springs called "Quigley Down Under" - still plays, that movie. But, yeah, that's - I thought I was doing research, but what I ended up with is one of my favorite albums ever.

GROSS: Oh, and don't you love him singing the theme from the Mel Brooks movie "Blazing Saddles" (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: Oh, does he?

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Oh, it's hilarious.

MENDELSOHN: You know what? This is...

GROSS: It's a total sendup of all of the big Western themes.

MENDELSOHN: Oh, no, now I'm going to go and check it out, for sure. For sure. Because I loved all that, and I loved the choruses, how they'd always have that supporting (vocalizing) you know? Or some cheesy phrase, you know, repeated backed by three great female singers and whatnot, all that stuff.

GROSS: Yeah, absolutely (laughter). OK. We should pause here and take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, and he stars in the HBO series "The Outsider," and there's two episodes left. It's on Sunday nights, and, of course, it's also on demand. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Mendelsohn, who is now starring in the HBO series "The Outsider" - two episodes left, Sunday nights.

One of the things you're known for in the states is the Netflix series "Bloodline," which ran from 2015 to 2017. And this was about a family that has a hotel in the Florida Keys, and you're the black sheep brother. You drink. You do drugs. You sold drugs. You have shady friends. You've basically been living in Miami, and you come back for a big anniversary of the family hotel. And your siblings - your three siblings really don't want you there. They don't trust you. They don't really like you. They think you bring trouble with you. And I want to play a short scene here. And this is a scene in which one of your brothers, played by Kyle Chandler, is really hoping you're going to leave. And you're really angry that your family doesn't want you. The two of you are on the edge of the ocean. It's the Florida Keys. And your character, Danny, speaks first.


MENDELSOHN: (As Danny Rayburn) I want you to know how it feels, just to know what it feels like to have to beg, to have to go through your whole life apologizing for everything. I want you to know you. You want me to leave? Beg me. Get down on your knees and you beg me to go. Beg me.

KYLE CHANDLER: (As John Rayburn) When is this going to end?

MENDELSOHN: (As Danny Rayburn) It doesn't end for me, John. Why should it end for you?

CHANDLER: (As John Rayburn) What the [expletive] does that mean?

MENDELSOHN: (As Danny Rayburn) Told you. Your life's not always going to be so perfect. So you're not going to beg me? Because if you're not going to beg, we don't have anything to talk about.

CHANDLER: (As John Rayburn) When's it going to end, Danny?


CHANDLER: (As John) When's it going to [expletive] end?

MENDELSOHN: (As Danny, laughter).

GROSS: You're laughing. But after your brother, played by Kyle Chandler, continues to beat you with a big plank, then he starts to drown you, and you are struggling. And of course, he actually really drowns your character in it.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, it's a brutal thing.

GROSS: Yeah. What was that scene like for you? Do you remember what it was like to be - have your head held under the water like that?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah. Yeah, I do. Yeah. But more importantly, I think when I watch that scene back, it is - it's awesome. I mean, it goes on for so long, and it's so terribly sad. Yeah, I think had "Bloodline" run a long time you would have found out a bunch of things that were misconceptions. I'm completely on Danny's side. I'm utterly on Danny's side. I think - I mean, I think Danny is incredibly damaged and, you know, ended up interpreting things in a very damaged person's way. But he really copped it bad from them. You know, He really did.

GROSS: And we find that out in backstories because lucky for you, after a character is killed off, he comes back in flashbacks (laughter).

MENDELSOHN: Yes. Yes. Lucky for me in lots of ways. Look - "Bloodline" was extraordinary for me. "Bloodline" really, really put me properly on the map here.

GROSS: So you won a Primetime Emmy for your performance in "Bloodline." You weren't at the ceremony because you were shooting a Steven Spielberg film, "Ready Player One."


GROSS: You have said that had you been at the ceremony to receive the award, you would have thanked your father for reminding you that sometimes when you're scared and overwhelmed, that you have the choice to be brave. What was the context? Do you remember the context that your father said that to you? And...

MENDELSOHN: No, he didn't say it to me like that. But he taught me that.


MENDELSOHN: He taught me that in a very oblique way. It wasn't even intended - one of the things - one of the great things my father gave me was incredible freedom of thought. And so that ends up being his gift to me, that he gave me no dogma except a bit of his scientific, you know, loose ends. There were no beliefs that he made me subscribe to. There was no - there was nothing that he said. He gave me the gift of a free mind.

GROSS: And when you say he taught you that you have the choice to be brave, do you think being brave is a choice?

MENDELSOHN: Well, again, he didn't put it in those words. I'm extrapolating.

GROSS: Right.

MENDELSOHN: But I think when you do have a bunch of choices in front of you and something seems daunting, it might be a good idea to do it. Then yeah, that's being brave, and that's - you do have a choice with that.

GROSS: Ben Mendelsohn, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much, and congratulations on "The Outsider."

MENDELSOHN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Ben Mendelsohn stars in the HBO series "The Outsider," which is shown Sunday nights. There are two episodes left. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Wendy" about the character from the Peter Pan story. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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