Ben Mendelsohn on Bloodline, Playing the Black Sheep, and the Heat of the Florida Keys

Photo: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn's character in Bloodline, a new Netflix drama from the creators of Damages, is one of his most ambitious roles to date. He plays Danny Rayburn, the estranged black sheep of a seemingly picture-perfect, small-town American family. But life for Danny's siblings, John (Kyle Chandler), Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), and Meg (Linda Cardellini), is best when he's out of the picture. It's no surprise, then, that when he comes home to his parents' hotel — for the business's 45th anniversary — Danny sets off a nuclear maelstrom that slowly tears the family into tatters and exposes drama that's been festering for years. Here, Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, The Place Beyond the Pines, Jessa's dad on Girls) discusses his character's complexities, the show's volatile setting, and what we can expect in season one, all of which is available online Friday.

The first three episodes paint a really convoluted portrait of who this guy Danny is. The show does a great job of keeping the viewer guessing what these characters are really after. Can you shed some light on what Danny's true motivations are for wanting to come home? Do you think he genuinely wants to come home and help with the business, or is there some sort of ulterior thing going on, too?
Unfortunately, I can't. Danny needs to come home, he has to come home. As to exactly what that's about, that's something that's going to unfurl. It's been a very difficult show to talk about in terms of being able to say too much definitively about plot or character or stuff like that, because it does tip the hand. That's a very big and substantive reveal. Given how well they do it, I can't be the one to pull their pants down.

What did you do for this role, mentally and physically?
A lot of it's about just feeling the other people in the family, in his immediate circle. And that happened fairly effortlessly. There's that circle, and then there's Eric, and his sister — she was a past flame. They've known each other or they've hooked up or something like that. That all happened reasonably effortlessly. Danny's got the old injury that he's taking these painkillers for, but other than that, it was just, do the scenes and try to survive the heat.

From the Keys?
Yeah, because the earlier you see the show, more or less, the hotter it is. It's brutally hot, until about, I guess, episode six or seven. And then it sort of tapers off toward the end. But it was a very hot summer when we shot it.

It's funny — it's supposed to be paradise, but nobody looks like they're comfortable. Ever.
It's one of the great things that the creators did with that. They were very insistent that people didn't get sponged down or dry — [they] don't want people looking good. Let them be in the heat, and let us feel what this place feels like through that.

Were there any instances where the elements or the settings were troublesome for shooting?
Yeah, [the heat] can zap you pretty badly. It can take it out of you — we pulled some big days. On the water was actually usually the worst, because there's nowhere to go, and you're sitting out in it all day. They ended up being some of the toughest days — the water days.

What about the wildlife there? I kept waiting to see if a gator would rear its head.
We would see plenty of stuff. The most lovely of which were the manatees, the sea cows. They're beautiful, and they do come around in the series. They come up looking for freshwater from the hoses, which people aren't supposed to give them. But that does happen, and so they would pull up, sort of like a big, beautiful car at a gas station, and they would wait for someone to drop them down a hose, and they would sit there guzzling away for a good while. But they were really beautiful, and very, very unusual. Then there was some shark spotting and plenty of fish, dolphins aplenty — big dolphin pods. But I only saw one alligator, and I had to look hard to see him, which means I guess they were doing their jobs pretty well. There were a lot of them around.

From your character's perspective, how does the small-town setting bring out the best and worst in Danny?
Danny is, with the exception of his father (Sam Shepard) and, a long time ago, his mother (Sissy Spacek), the only member of that family who's traveled. Danny's really the only one who's got up and got out. He was stimulated to leave, but he's got real feelings about the Keys from a distance. The Keys have been more unpleasant in a lot of ways to Danny, but when we see him, he's coming back. He's sort of coming back to take what's his, and he's coming back because there's some stuff he has to do. And his family is pretty conflicted about that. His relationship with his mama is pretty good, but the kids, it's more difficult. Being in a small town doesn't really suit Danny, but it does mean that he can be in touch with most everything that's going on reasonably [easily]. So it can feel a bit like a constricting place, and a place where you're being looked at a lot. But it's also a place where you can keep a lookout fairly well. Its biggest problem is also one of its greater assets.

In the first couple episodes, it seems like he'd really like to be the center of attention for once, or at least just noticed and respected by his family members. Whose acceptance is most important to him?
I think in a real way it's Dad. Dad he'll never get. But in terms of his siblings, it's John. He's a really important ally of Danny's, but as we see fairly early on, John's kind of being a bit dodgy about that, too. He's not able to take responsibility for the call.

Yeah, he's kind of noncommittal.
He wants to shift it all on Dad, and this and that and the other. There are a lot of problems that get made by John's shortcomings, if you like. Which are not something that people tend to look at or pay much attention to. John is seen as the white knight, the good sheriff, the good cop, rather. Et cetera, et cetera. So Danny does fulfill a function in that family, but I suspect Danny could've come back a long time ago if he'd wanted to, but he really hasn't wanted to. It doesn't really suit him, staying in the Keys. It's not really what he wants to be doing with his life. I think there are forces at play, and things that come into being that make him have a serious rethink about that. He'd probably be happy working somewhere else, trying to run a business somewhere else.

Like that seafood restaurant.
Yeah, he'd rather be doing that kind of thing.

In the first few episodes, we really see how Danny relates to everybody around him, but kind of separately. The first couple episodes are about the brothers, and the third one, I think you could argue, is really about Danny and Meg. Do you or did you have a favorite Danny relationship to flesh out in the series, or one that you're particularly excited for people to watch develop?
The relationship with John is the most crucial because John carries the most weight, although I do look forward to people seeing Danny and his sister. Meg is [laughs] ... formidable in her own way. Kevin, not so much. Kevin's a genuine antagonist of Danny's. The relationship with John is the most crucial, though; they're the closest in age, the stuff that they went through together in their early lives, the others were very, very young or weren't around for where a lot of the story is going. So it's really about those two brothers.

At the end of episode two, he kind of reminded me of a less virtuous GOB (from Arrested Development). He truly can't win with his family. Do you think his misfortunes are all because of his own doing, or do people realize he's kind of easy to take advantage of?
Danny does have genuine shortcomings as a person. I do think there's been a lot of circumstantial stuff. How Robert Rayburn, Dad, would say some things, Meg will say them very differently. And a lot of what we'll get into will deal with that perspective. But Danny is, to me, very three-dimensional, and the way he reacts to things is I think very well-realized by those guys (creators Glenn and Todd Kessler, and Daniel Zelman). I think they did a very good job of being able to talk about Danny to me and, by extension, I hope, to an audience. Because the black sheep repeats himself again and again and again. These sort of family fuck-ups and difficult things that happen in a family repeat themselves again and again and again, too.

As messed up as he is, he's also very resourceful and kind of manipulative. He steals Meg's key card to ensure he's entrenched in this family's future. How will that manipulation play into later episodes?
I think they are a people that are very good at keeping the status quo, they've got it locked in place. Now, I don't think Danny is whiter than white or anything like that, but I do think the status quo as presented by the Rayburn family other than Danny is pretty much keeping things exactly the way they fucking are, and [they] keep him out there because having him back, the boat gets rocked too much, and he may [cause] great difficulties in their lives. So when he steals Meg's key card, that'll come back pretty quickly.

He's obviously a sketchy guy with a sketchy past, but if push came to shove, would he truly be capable of doing something as vile as your character Pope from Animal Kingdom?
No, he's not like Pope. Pope is a seasoned, cradle-to-the-grave criminal, in a very hard-core time, in a very hard-core place. Of course, Southern Florida can really hold its own with anywhere in the world in terms of being hard-core. But Danny's not broken, he's not damaged in the same way Pope is. Pope's gone. That guy's gone.

That's what I was wondering about Danny — is he gone, or is there any hope for him?
I think there's plenty. But the conversation we have at the end of the series might sound different. When you meet him, though, yeah, he's got plenty of things that he can affect, and there's room for hope.

I know you typically don't watch your own films because you want to keep the slate clean between projects, but is Bloodline the kind of thing you could or would watch with your own family?
Well, it's something that I will do. I think I'll try to keep my head clearer for the short-term. I'm not gonna watch it straight away.

If you were to watch it down the road, is that because you'd be prepping for a second season?
As far as I know, they have ideas for many a year to come.

Does that include Danny?
That I can't say without tipping my hand! [Laughs.]