Ben Mendelsohn will soon be terrifying multiplexes the world over as Orson Krennic, the central villain of Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One. But before that he reteams with theater director Benedict Andrews, for Andrews’ feature film debut, Una, which did the Telluride and Toronto double before its latest festival bow at the London Film Festival last week.
The film, scripted by David Harrower and based on his play Blackbird, is about the unexpected visit of a young woman to the man she once had a relationship with, when she was a teenager and he a much older neighbor. Rooney Mara plays Una, and Mendelsohn is the object of her one-time affection, Ray. Given the discovery of their relationship resulted in scandal, shame, and jail time for Ray, their reunion years later is a fraught one, with Una struggling to decipher the feelings she had for Ray, and Ray wrestling with the criminality of his actions.
For Andrews, who had directed the play on stage in Germany, the opportunity of bringing it to film was to open it up and explore the past these two characters share. Sitting down with Mendelsohn, for Mendelsohn’s first press interview on Una – and his first since winning the Emmy for his supporting performance in Bloodline last month – the two Australian collaborators explain the draw of the material and the opportunities and challenges of a piece that refuses to moralize, and that holds its cards close to the chest.
This is essentially a two-hander; it’s you, Ben, and Rooney Mara getting to explore this mysterious past together and, as an audience, we only get the full story as the film progresses. As an actors’ piece, did you see the potential right away?
Ben Mendelsohn: Look, I read it and immediately threw my hat in, and put my hands together to say, “Please, please, please.” I haven’t had a reaction like that to a script in a long time. I think it’s very unusual to find the degree of completeness in the psyches that are revealed in the piece, but also for it to be such a difficult and thrilling ride. That’s what really got me. It’s very unusual to find a piece like that, and that was what really blew me away about it.
You’re also dealing with moral ambiguity that is uncomfortable, and yet the film makes no moral judgements of its own. How much of that was on getting these performances right, Benedict?
Benedict Andrews: The whole thing in the writing and in all aspects of the filmmaking – and this is particularly true of both their performances, but especially Ben’s – it has to sit on a knife edge and keep the audience on that knife edge, where you never know one way or the other. Your moral compass is set spinning, but you keep coming back to having to walk that knife edge. To be able to find that in the script, find that in the performances, find where it kind of comes together, was the challenge as a filmmaker.
Certainly her position is, was this love or was this abuse? We know it’s not an easy question for her and we know the cost of that question, and when she comes to try and answer that from him, we see actually that both of them have this torn space that they exist in. He’s not able to reveal as much as her, so he has to keep us guessing as to when it’s truthful and when it’s not.
As an audience, we’re in the same position of wanting to find out an answer but not being able to get it, because if we could get it, it would be too trivial. The wound in both of them would not be as significant. And the whole point of their encounter again, is to go into that scar tissue and examine something that happened to both of them, that blew both their lives apart. It shouldn’t have happened, and everyone around them either wants to deny it or he needs to hide it, but it happened and it’s on again, when they see each other 15 years later.
This comes from David Harrower’s play, Blackbird, which you had directed on stage. What was the opportunity in opening it up in a feature film?
Andrews: On stage, it’s a two-hander, with a very special coup de théâtre at the 11th hour, where there’s a knock on the door and his step-daughter is there. I directed the play in Berlin in the Schaubühne there, and with the play, you’re locked in the room with these two people as they trade blows, and all they have is words. It’s a kind of boxing match of words. Very rhetorical. Almost at times, when I directed it, it reminded me of a courtroom drama, with her accusing him, him defending and so on.
It’s fantastic play. One of the tightest pieces of writing for two actors that exists. But it was very clear to both David and I – and then, all my collaborators – having done the play that I didn’t want to just film the play. It was really important that it became something else, that would retain everything that’s so special in his writing: the psyche of those two characters and what happened between them, the stakes of the confrontation between them. How would it be able to breathe and become cinema?
One way for me, that was quite different from what theater can do and was very interesting, moving from theater into my first film, was the concept of time. That of course, is how memories is shown but it’s also how time exists, even between them in the room at that moment of two people who are carrying 15 years on them. How would that happen between them in glances, in the way they inhabited a room and in their passage through the building?
Of course, it’s also starting to open it up into that final act, where they go to his place. You have this interesting tension in the film that the play doesn’t allow, between strict time and the present. You see her on that day, and you see the end of that day, as she walks away and they’re stuck in the awkward time of this very claustrophobic experience. That’s extremely linear and then underneath, you have this nonlinear time breaking through. That became a real pleasure in the filmmaking, to explore that intersection of those two times.
Ben, from the moment you first clock Rooney in the warehouse, we get a sense without anything being said that something deep has happened here. What are the joys and challenges of holding those cards so close to your chest?
Mendelsohn: Most people would have experienced that moment in their life, of walking down a street and there’s that person over there. And you don’t want to talk to that f—ing person, and you don’t want that person to have seen you. Clearly, that type of an experience is very amplified here, except you’re not walking down the street, they have turned up to your f—ing work and they are here to see you.
Those moments and the success of capturing those moments, are very much on the relationship between those two characrers. That relationship, whichever way you want to look at it, whichever way you imagined it, is charged and significant and packed with a lot of secrets. And I think that that notion of secrets, particularly when it comes to sexuality or desire or any of those things, carries such an enormous amount of force for us.
It’s very rewarding. It’s very desirable to play people with such strong things going on within them. Look, Rooney is an incredibly brave – fearless, you would say – actor, and it’s one of the great delights about her, is the real combination of strength and woundedness or hurt that comes across in some of the finest work. It’s very, very rare to have someone, as well, that’s such a still and statuesque figure. I mean, there’s something really dignified about her, as a person. There’s a real dignity to her and the way she carries herself. Playing a character that has that degree of turmoil and something that she has to know, is like handing her a grenade, and she’s incredibly powerful with that stuff. Incredibly powerful.
When you’ve got someone good like that, it’s like a tennis match. You’ve got someone across from you that’s playing well and is in that match, you’re in there with them. She lobs the ball and you lob it right back.
Andrews: With this type of storytelling and filmmaking, the reason why an audience will go there, is because two characters are exposing their rawest nerves and taking us into places that we shouldn’t see, and the actors have to do that as well. What I found such a great joy and privilege to watch, was the meeting of these two actors who, to my mind, are two of the bravest film actors alive. Both always, in very different ways, in a relentless kind of pursuit of truth.
What was very, very touching, was that they had an incredible trust in each other and it was like there was an unspoken deal to support each other, to go very, very far. It was very – I won’t say it’s ugly material, but it’s very powerful material, and to watch them support each other to go further and in this look that you describe when they see each other, to be able to carry that unspoken history, without us needing to talk about that, and to let each other have the trust to say, “I’m sending you all these signals and I’m carrying all of this and that,” the meeting of the two of them is the strength of the film.
You guys go back a long time, is that right?
Mendelsohn: Indeed. I was fortunate enough to be his Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. We did it at the STC a number of years ago, and Benno is not like anyone else, when it comes to directing. He has a very singular and particular approach to staging, to the visual component, to a great many number of things in theater production, and I was delighted to be asked to be his Mark Antony. I really think that in terms of my own progression as an actor, I believe that I left that play a much better actor than I entered it.
In particular, I point to the experience of putting together the funeral speech, which I think is actually one of the best things I’ve ever done. The first thing I ever did at high school was Shakespeare, but I came to it as a guy that had done almost entirely contemporary stuff professionally, and when I came in to do Julius Caesar, it took a good while for anything to start to click back. One of the other actors had said to me at one point, “Stop trying to act the lines, say them and let them guide you.”
I would go to Benno’s house on the weekends and whatnot, and just work through these long speeches and talk about what they were, and we did a lot of work. I needed the work. I needed it for me and I needed it for the play, but something really, really happened for me during the course of that. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of. And I don’t expect that to change for as long as I’m doing this. I think that I was really very satisfied with what we ended up coming up with.
We had tried to work together a couple of other times but the way that theater wants to do it, is generally much longer lead times with them and I tend to be involved in much shorter lead time things. That is our history.
So was Ben always your first choice, Benedict?
Mendelsohn: Nope. [laughs]
Andrews: Initially, because he’s 55 in the play, I thought of older guys at first. But as soon as I knew how much we were going to open up the past and what that offered, I couldn’t imagine anyone else apart from Ben doing it. That was very clear, very fast. I think I might have contacted him one or two days after that became so clear, and before that, I hadn’t really settled on anyone but I thought of guys who were older.
In a way, you could say that once the project was clear what it was going to be, he was absolutely my first choice. And Rooney was also my first choice. I was just very fortunate that they both loved the material and were excited about working together. She was just so thrilled when it was going to be him.
Mendelsohn: Rooney was already in when it came to me, and it was the quickest no-brainer decision ever.
Andrews: You just wouldn’t have the film if you didn’t have that chemistry for that sexual relationship, but also that trust to go really far. It’s very brave what they were prepared to show.