Receiving critical acclaim out of Sundance and Tribeca, John McLean’s directorial feature debut, Slow West, reworks the classic western with stunning visuals and peculiar lyricism on a rough terrain. The film follows Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on his quest through the 1870s American West to rejoin his on-the-lamb lady love. Along the way, he’s taken under the wing of gruff cowboy Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) and pursued by bounty hunter Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). Underneath the visual cues of Payne’s villainy (face tattoo, scars, large fur trapper coat), Mendelsohn brings his own now-signature subtle, nearly unnerving, menace to the role. Prior to Slow West’s limited theatrical release, I spoke with Mendelsohn about peacocking and coming in “like a wrecking ball” on location, the literal and figurative weight of Payne’s massive fur coat, and those pesky Star Wars rumors, which as of yesterday turned out to be true.
How did you get involved in the project? I imagine that you wanted to work with Michael Fassbender and had seen John McLean’s previous short, Pitch Black Heist [also starring Fassbender]?
Snap, there it is. You have answered that one. And what became apparent when I was watching it was that they had something going on, and crucially that John had something going on. When people finally get a chance to make a film or something like that, they’ve spent time fantasizing and dreaming about it. They come to it with an energy. They know very much often what they don’t want to do, which is very important. They know the film they don’t want to do, and so it was with John. He was very clear on the feel of the film. You want that in a director.
Those two films are so visually stunning, but starkly different. Thinking along the lines of what the film set out to do, how was it shooting an American-set western in New Zealand?
New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on Earth to shoot. It’s just so beautiful. For me, it’s not a surprise, having spent most of my life in Australia, I’m used to shooting films that might be set elsewhere. It was incredibly remote. You go to the South Island of New Zealand and, in some parts of it, you may as well be in Colorado in the 1800s. It was really, really sparse. And that’s what it was like. Huge open spaces. And it’s really unusual to be in a place where there are just so few people around.
How much did you work with McLean to establish the character? Did you stick strictly to the script or workshop with him?
There wasn’t a lot of improvising per se, other than me being loose with my lines, me not knowing them well enough. But we talked a lot about the time and place. Look, at this time and at this place in history, this guy would just be trying to get through. He’s not someone who’s like “It’s time to be evil” bullshit. He’s a guy that’s on the periphery of western civilization. He isn’t skilled in anything particularly well. And he’s got to make a living somehow. There’s a thing which isn’t in the movie which continues on from that scene where you first meet Payne and they’re sitting down and they’ve drunk a bit. He’s showing Kodi’s character all of his tattoos and you see the one on his face [in the film], but what you don’t see is that underneath his shirt, up and down his arms, there are all of these other tattoos and they’re principally all scars, from various fights, cuts, bullets. And they talk about that. You get the sense of a guy who’s survived a lot, who might have a feeling about life and death that’s blasé in a way. The idea in there being that someone who encountered that many dead bodies along his life might start to feel very differently about spiritual or higher methods. Who might see that life is very fragile in its way and you might have the notion that when it’s over, it’s over.
You mentioned the word animalistic, and I’ve just got to mention Payne’s fur coat. I was there at Slow West’s opening night at Sundance, and the coat looked glorious in person.
I have it, because when I did the film, I said, “Look, can I have this coat?” and they were like, “Yes! Absolutely.” So we wrapped the picture and I was like, “The coat?” and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll get it to you.” And then months went by. And then the Sundance screening came along and I was like, “I still don’t have that coat. How am I going to get that coat? I know how I’ll get that coat… ’Hey, I really want to wear that coat to the premiere. No, I really want to wear it for the Sundance thing. Yeah, yeah, yeah.’” So they packed up this thing and sent it in this crappy old carry-on luggage bag across the ocean to Sundance. It arrived and I thought, “Aw, there it is.” So I was very happy to wear this coat to Sundance. And that coat is pretty special. When that was finished, I put it back in its little carry-on bag and I got on the plane and went back to L.A.
Do you get a chance to wear it at all, any other special occasions?
L.A. is a little warmer than New Zealand in its colder months and it’s fair to say that if it ever gets really cold here, I’m going to be wearing it.
How much did that coat weigh on your performance?
You don’t have to do that much when you’ve got a coat like that. When you’re wearing a coat like that, you know that a lot of the work’s done. I think the hardest thing in acting is to know when to put your foot on the gas, but much more important is knowing when to take your foot off the gas. And when you’ve got a coat like that, unless you’re trying to do a Will Ferrell and put your foot on that gas, don’t put your foot on that gas trying to act all evil. Don’t try to be too much of anything. You’ve got to let the stuff take care of itself. The audience can see.
Even so, you have such a physicality on screen in this performance. There’s that scene where you draw the line in the sand with Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s characters, the threatening detente of sorts. I was wondering if you could speak on that dynamic between you and Fassbender.
The thing about the entire setup is that I walked into a shoot well under way. Everyone knew everyone else, with those two had the chance to build up a working rapport. And I was literally choppered in, on the ground and had to go to work. When you’ve got that, it’s helpful to muster up your own inner peacock. Because you’re going to be strutting backward and forward in well-defined territory. You’re the new kid on the block. So you have to hit them hard to the degree that you know they’ve had their getting-to-know-you period and that you’re here now and you’re going to be here for a little while. There are two ways we can do this. There’s the nice way or we can do it the not-so-nice way. But that’s kind of the attitude I rolled with.
You mentioned in another interview that you were like a wrecking ball.
Yeah, I like to get a little Miley Cyrus about it. I think I did come in a little like a wrecking ball.
Working with Kodi Smit-McPhee, given that you’ve been acting professionally since you were 14, did you have any advice for him on set? You yourself received strong advice from Anthony Hopkins early in your career [on the set of Spotswood].
Yes, but here’s the crucial difference: I asked Anthony Hopkins for advice. I mean, when you get to be an old bastard, the old bugger part of you kicks in and you feel compelled to give tidbits of advice, whether it’s wanted or not, like an old pain in the ass. I do try and refrain if it’s not asked for. Hopefully one’s better qualities are picked up on just by transmission, but honestly, I’m still trying to figure out how to do this stuff. I mean, Hopkins is someone that has significant mastery and certainly the stuff that he told me came to me a lot over the years, in the decades that followed.
You’ve spoken in the past about how in performing on film, along with preparation and research, a lot of the performance comes on the day of shooting. Were there any trying scenes on this film, any scenes that surprised you in how they turned out?
The first scene was probably the most difficult. The way I work, I tend to have half an idea about the lines and then I tend to learn them in the first couple of go-throughs of the scenes. And in this stage, it wasn’t necessarily the best approach. Payne really doesn’t stop speaking for a good couple of pages, so I suspect that I tried, in concert with arriving like a wrecking ball, beating them into submission by having them do take after take so that I could get my words right.
Is there anything you can say about Star Wars: Rogue One?
There would be no one happier than me if these rumors, which do seem to be flying around, turned out to be substantial.