In projects like Bloodline, Slow West, and Starred Up, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has played his fair share of delicious reprobates. It’s not surprising, then, to find him cast as the antagonist Orson Krennic in Rogue One, the new Star Wars spinoff, but the canny Mendelsohn can always find playful new expressions of villainy: While he’s handed plenty of mustache-twirling lines to read as he orders the Death Star to exterminate our heroes, the actor often gets just as much mileage from a huffy roll of his shoulders underneath Krennic’s pristine white cape. Needless to say, when Mendelsohn met up with this cloak-obsessed Vulture writer, Krennic’s flamboyant costume was topic one. Mendelsohn, as always, was game.
I’ve talked to actresses who make period dramas and they say that once they put on that corset, it helps them get into character. So I have to ask: When you put on Krennic’s cape, does it help you feel a little more villainous?
Absolutely it does! As soon as you put it on, it gives you a dignity and an uprightness that you might not have had otherwise. It’s the sign of a great costume.
I think if I had to choose between your cape in Rogue One and the big furry coat you wore in Slow West, I would be hard-pressed to pick a winner.
Aw, come on. I think you know which one you’d go with, don’t you?
I don’t! Maybe one for daywear, and the other for nightwear?
But which one for which, that’s the question? Would you wear the big furry coat during the day, or would you keep that for night?
I think I’d keep it for night. It’s colder then, after all.
Bless you. I think I would go for the coat during the day and the cape at night — it’s more dashing. But there is a sort of bear appeal that the coat has, and that kind of works, too.
I can see it your way. There’s a certain kind of Studio 54 vibe to Krennic’s cape that might do well in a nightclub context.
I think you’re right — as long as you keep everything underneath it kind of sheer, you know? Then the cape really, really works.
I’m glad we’ve already gotten so much interview mileage from just the cape!
Listen, I have no doubt that cape is, and you’ll pardon my language, a motherfucking movie star. It’s a movie star all on its own!
For months before shooting, it was rumored that Rogue One director Gareth Edwards had cast you in this movie, and I remember that when you were doing press for Bloodline, you had to be evasive when people asked you, “Are you in Star Wars or not?” So what was going on? Does Lucasfilm just take a long time to negotiate?
I think that’s kind of what it is. Gareth knew early on what he wanted and was sort of locking me away way ahead of time, but it did seem to take forever, and I remember wondering for a while, “Maybe it’s all just gone away.” But it works that way sometimes, where you know you’ve got something and then there’s almost a phony war, if you like. War is declared but no shots are fired. It was that sort of case.
I read that you don’t tend to watch your own work. But given that this is Star Wars, do you plan to make an exception?
Oh, I already have! I thought about that for about three minutes, and entertained whether I would watch this or not. And of course, I did.
You’re not the first Aussie to appear in a Star Wars film: Your Animal Kingdom co-star Joel Edgerton appeared in the prequels as Owen Lars. Did you talk to him when you joined Rogue One?
No, but I talked to him about it before. I wanted to be in [the prequels] madly, and when they came to Australia to shoot I sort of batted my eyelashes to no avail. Joel did do it and I asked him all about it — a lot of my friends worked in the crew, too.
How did you settle on Krennic’s voice? There is a long history of British villains in this franchise.
Krennic doesn’t come from officer material, so I thought maybe I could use a version of my own accent. But I also didn’t want to take people out of the Star Wars experience by having a thick Australian accent, so this is sort of me leaning towards the classic British imperial sound.
You were a successful actor in Australia before you started appearing in Hollywood features … but did you have to make conscious decision at some point: Okay, I want to try my hand in the U.S. now?
They came to me after Animal Kingdom — well, they sort of did. There was a bit of a lull until I got in a one-two punch with The Place Beyond the Pines and Killing Them Softly, and then they really came along. But I also had been coming here for about 20 years, trying to get something going on, and I could not get arrested, as they say.
How does it feel to have so rarely used your native Australian accent onscreen in recent years?
Ultimately, I’m really glad that I haven’t been able to. I believe that having to work on it more has made me better at what I do. Having to spend a lot of time making sure I’m not taking people out of Bloodline or film stuff, you need to put the work in. That has real benefits.
Speaking of voices, when your character shares a scene with Darth Vader, did they get James Earl Jones to pretape it, or was there just some squeaky-voiced stand-in?
As Gareth says, there are sort of levels to Vader: There’s the costumed Vader, there’s the costumed Vader with breathing, and then there is the full Vader when you have the great man himself doing the voice. James Earl Jones has perhaps the most elegantly commanding voice in the English language, so the full effect of Vader is really what you see on the screen. Still, I have to tell you that even without the full Vader voice, he’s incredibly effective in person. When we first saw Vader in all of his resplendent glory walking out onto the set, there really was a collective hush that came over a very distracted and busy bunch of people. He knows how to command a room.
Yeah, but could you wear Vader’s outfit to the club?
You could, if you did it right. Drinking is one thing, and you could probably find a way to do that. You could probably dance a little bit, too. But God forbid you should meet a special person — then it gets difficult. Imagine getting romantic in that suit! You can’t.
This interview has been edited and condensed.