There Will Be Blood

Published March 20, 2015

BEN MENDELSOHN AND SISSY SPACEK AS DANNY AND SALLY RAYBURN IN BLOODLINE. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX.

The Rayburn siblings—or at least the younger contingent of John (Kyle Chandler), Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), and Meg (Linda Cardellini)—are not immoral people. John, the local sheriff and the most outwardly upstanding sibling, is adamant about this. Unlike their older brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the black sheep of the family, Meg, John, and Kevin all reside on the same South Florida island they grew up on, and are close with their well-to-do parents and each other. They are in long-term relationships with suitable partners, financially self-sufficient, and contributing members of their local community. From the very beginning of Netflix’s new family drama Bloodline, however, it is clear that John, Meg, and Kevin have done a few immoral things.

Bloodline, all 13 episodes of which premiere today, is not about the trio’s guilt—they’re definitely guilty of something—but their responsibility, and their reliability in relating their story to the audience and themselves. “The story that the Rayburn’s tell themselves is suspect,” explains Ben Mendelsohn.  

Now 45, Australian actor Mendelsohn has been acting since he was a teenager. He made his American film debut in 1990 with Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under. It is only in the last five years, however, with performances in critically acclaimed indies like Animal Kingdom, Starred Up, and The Place Beyond the Pines, that Mendelsohn has cemented his international reputation as an unflinching character actor. In May, Mendelsohn will appear in Slow West with Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smith-McPhee. Mississippi Grind, a project Mendelsohn is particularly proud of and in which he has his first leading American role opposite Ryan Reynolds, is also slated for release later this year.  “A person like me, you become famous in cycles,” says Mendelsohn. “That tends to be right around the time that something comes on, and then off it goes again.”

EMMA BROWN: How much did you know about Danny’s arc before you signed up for Bloodline?

BEN MENDELSOHN: I knew the basics. I think that was the experience for most of us. We knew what the outline was, we understood the basic shape of the family dynamic, and we knew a bit of what happened in the past, but not that much.

BROWN: Was it comforting to know that, because you were working on a Netflix show, all the episodes would be finished before they aired and the writers would never have to adjust certain storylines based on how the public reacted?

MENDELSOHN: I think that’s one of their strongpoints. They have a degree of bespoke about the way they go about knitting this thing together. They would often say, “Oh, we just want to see what you guys do with this.” There was always a feeling that there was nothing you had to get right. There was never that imperative to get to some sort of destination. I think that changed the dynamic a lot. And that’s very unusual in my experience—it’s never been that naked between creators-slash-writers and their cast.

BROWN: The show’s tagline is: “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.” When does doing bad things makes you a bad person?

MENDELSOHN: I’m not sure where that line is. There is such a thing as not-a-nice-person, but good and bad—it’s a harder call to make. I’m not even so sure that I believe in it quite that way, but it does describe the way John sees things.

BROWN: Do you have to like a character in order to play them?

MENDELSOHN: I think I know the answer to the last question: the point is when they cause significant injury to the other people or other people knowingly beforehand. I think that’s the point when the action of someone can be said to go from a bad thing to a person being bad. What’s the next question?

BROWN: Do you have to like a character?

MENDELSOHN: No, you don’t have to like a character to play him. Sometimes it’s good to have feelings; sometimes it’s good to not like them.

BROWN: Do you find that after you’re done, you have a certain fondness for them, just because you inhabited them?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, most of them. It’s more about the writing and the people you’re working with. Some of them hang around like ghosts, and then years later you can think of things with some of them. It tends to be the ones that hit with other people the most that you become most aware of—I’m sure that must be the case for people that have done very iconic performances. They feel closer to that character because that character keeps getting reinforced to them.

BROWN: Who is a character that has hung around for you?

MENDELSOHN: There’s a few of them. The ones that really hang around are the ones that I did in the period before [I was] 21. There’s a guy called Trevor in a film called The Year My Voice Broke (1987). Then there was another one in a film called Nirvana Street Murder (1990) that I think about from time to time. Then there are ones that I think about where I was trying something and maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t, and that’s shit from children’s television shows from the ’80s.

BROWN: Do you remember your first audition?

MENDELSOHN: Oh, vividly. Absolutely. For me, it was an interview. I was a kid. I was doing drama in high school, and we were all going to go answer this ad in the paper. None of [the others] actually did, but I did. I went, “Oh fuck it, I’ll still go along, I guess.” But I remember that vividly. Had I not got that job, I don’t think I would have pursued acting. But, I did.

BROWN: Have you ever considered giving up acting and trying something else?

MENDELSOHN: There’s been a lot of times where I was pretty concerned that my life choices were going to get narrow and bleak. There were plenty of times where things seemed like they were not going to pan out.

BROWN: I heard that you didn’t really talk to James Frecheville during Animal Kingdom. Is that true?

MENDELSOHN: That’s pretty correct. Because of the way that film was going to be, I thought that I just didn’t want him buddying up. I just didn’t think that was going to help anything.

BROWN: Do you generally do that?

MENDELSOHN: No, not at all. But James hadn’t done much before then, and it’s just one of those things you try. There are still things that I try that I’m not sure if it’s going to turn out, or whether it’s a waste of time, but you try. That’s all you’ve got, and when it’s all you do, you want to try and make it special, if you can.

 BROWN: I know it’s still true in England—maybe less true than it used to be—that you’ve never really made it until you’ve made it in America. Is that true in Australia as well?

MENDELSOHN: Absolutely. It’s absolutely true. I think one of the dilemmas for any English speaking place that isn’t America is that that sort of hovers around the vibe of things. And it’s bullshit, but it carries a lot of currency in the wider community and therefore in the work communities themselves. It is deeply untrue in one way, but absolutely true in another.

BROWN: Do you think it’s getting better as the world gets smaller?

MENDELSOHN: That access has been there for a long time. The rise of international film, I feel like that was something which happened a long time ago. Yes, it’s easier and it’s at more people’s fingertips, but I don’t know what it means. If I was going to suggest anything to anyone, it is that they check out the old stuff. Because there’s a lot to be found from the bedrocks of the acting and film world—the heritage of it in the last hundred years. There’s a real treasure trove of stuff for people that are approaching it today. A lot of different styles, a lot of incredibly good work, and powerful work. Particularly the period from about the silent years to the ’40s has incredibly rich stuff that we often don’t know about unless you go hunting.

BROWN: What made you go hunting?

MENDELSOHN: I was very interested in it. I look for things to steal and performances to try and rip something off from that feel good—I want to be more like that person. It’s the same sort of basic desire that you have with an actor—it’s some way to be an other. It’s easier for me to get lost in a film that is not of this era and not necessarily in this language. I find it easier to lose myself in them, so they act more like a film should in that way. There’s a thing where you’re very aware of how things work and you’ve got to try and find a way to get that good film experience, because I love watching. I loved film. I loved television shows. I loved all that shit when I was growing up, and I don’t want to not love them because I’m more aware of them, and more aware of how these things are made.

BROWN: What’s a performance you really loved from that time period?

MENDELSOHN: There is Faust, the old [F.W.] Murnau Faust (1926) and I don’t even know the actor’s name but he plays Mephistopheles. Murnau has some beautiful stuff—the female heroine, or the anti-heroine, in Sunrise (1927) is fantastic. There are a couple.

BROWN: Were you really once in a PSA about tax returns?

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, there was a subset of work that you used to be able to get that was known as a corporate video. I think the film body in Australia—our version of the Smithsonian, if you like—put that up on their website within the last year or so. But I can remember doing one about how to get fuel correctly from a tanker into the fuel dump. I did a bunch of that stuff. I am fortunate enough to have been uptown and downtown in terms of the type of work I’ve done.

ALL 13 EPISODES OF BLOODLINE ARE NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON NETFLIX.