To research his role as a gambling addict in the new film Mississippi Grind, Ben Mendelsohn would often visit Harrah’s, New Orleans’ biggest casino. He and his co-star Ryan Reynolds wanted to experience the highs and lows of poker by betting big with their own cash. One night, the pair found themselves dragged to the big boy’s table by five of the city’s best players.
“Oh, I lost a lot of money making that film,” recalls the 46-year-old Australian months later, sitting on a park bench in Hammersmith, West London. “I did all right until I didn’t – and then when I didn’t? I took a bath. I deserved to.”
Just like his character, Gerry, then; a divorced father who doesn’t know when enough is enough. Upon befriending the free-spirited Curtis (Reynolds), Gerry takes him on a road trip to a high-stakes poker game in Louisiana, convinced he’s his good-luck charm. The film is as much a heart-warming road movie as it is a searing addiction drama and one that would slot seamlessly into a Seventies movie triple bill.
Mendelsohn himself is in no need of good luck charms – even he can’t believe his rise from bit-parter to Reynolds’ co-lead.
“You do feel like Gerry when you’re around Ryan,” he says, looking up in mock awe. “Being around him you’re like, ‘You’re really my buddy, right mate? You promise?’”
It was David Michôd’s 2010 Australian film Animal Kingdom that was the turning point for Mendelsohn. In the Oscar-nominated drama, he led a cast comprised of fellow natives Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce playing the volatile bank robber Pope. Recalling a more intense character from that year is nigh-on impossible. More scene-stealing roles followed: a reformed bank robber in The Place Beyond the Pines, a junkie in Killing Them Softly and a violent prisoner in Starred Up. He’s even bagged an Emmy nomination for Netflix’s Bloodline, playing the black sheep of an influential family headed up by Sissy Spacek’s matriarch. Mendelsohn, it’s safe to say, plays characters whose presence unnerves you, but laces them with an emotion rarely conveyed in roles of that kind.
His career is set to go stratospheric in 2016 when he journeys to a galaxy far, far away in Rogue One, the first of three planned Star Wars spin-offs. The film will act as a prequel to original movie Episode IV, explaining the backstory of how a team of rebels stole the plans for the Death Star. He’s not giving much away – “I’m not doing a huge bit on it. That’s all I can tell you” – but he must be aware that it signals his arrival as a go-to Hollywood actor?
“Mississippi Grind’s a good analogy for acting. When you pick a film, you want to be on a horse that’s going to run well; it doesn’t have to win, but you want a place.”
But Gerry, I remind him, wins just as big as he loses. “Look, I’ve been doing this a lot of years and I’m aware I’m in a good time. I feel lucky. I like to think that, in my own way, I’m just having my good Gerry period.”
Mississippi Grind is released on 23 October