Ben Mendelsohn on Playing a Shapeshifting Skrull and Bringing the 'Ruckus' to 'Captain Marvel' (Set Visit)
By John Boone
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
"All my refugees, come on in! This is just a rehearsal, so you don't need your teeth in!" one of the production coordinators announces. "No teeth!" another echoes. A group of a dozen extras, milling about craft services in tattered garments and green face paint, set down their coffee cups and snacks and make their way to set.
Captain Marvel, the interstellar origin story of Brie Larson's Carol Danvers, is filming aboard an alien spaceship on this particular day in May, built in a soundstage at Sony Studios. Scene 109 features gladiator-like blue Kree guarding the craft's prison, where the Skrull refugees are being held, with actor Ben Mendelsohn, made over via hours of prosthetics that have given him a grooved chin, long, pointed ears and short, pointed teeth, at the head of the imprisoned huddle. The camera closes in on Mendelsohn, he looks toward the Kree, smiles a twisted grin and then emits a guttural, gurgling noise. And cut.
"It's a universal noise for malevolent evil," Mendelsohn chuckles when he sits down with a group of reporters and is promptly asked to explain the gurgling noise. "It's taken me years to get it down." ("The gurgling is related to the Skrull's shape shifting," producer Jonathan Schwartz later clarifies. "But what is he going to shape shift into?") During a sitdown on set, Mendelsohn explains why, after playing the villain in Ready Player One and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, he happily signed up to play Marvel's newest bad guy.
There has been a lot of secrecy surrounding your role. Tell us about who you are playing.
Well, Skrulls, we're the tough guys of this universe and surrounded by a lot of punks. I play a Skrull by the name of Talos. I don't know what to tell you. I mean, he's bad. He's a Skrull. He's badass.
We see some humanity in him when he's with his people -- when he's with what looks to be his wife and child. Can you talk about how you have been able to empathize with this character?
Ultimately, they behave very differently towards their own then they do towards what you might call 'the good guys 'in this. They've got a sense of family and community and stuff like that, but you know, they're out to do what they gotta do.
What is the 'what they gotta do?'
[Laughs] Yeah, pay your fifteen dollars! That's what it is. It's to get you to pay your money to go in the cinema! That's what we got to do.
With Stars Wars, Ready Player One and now this, you are Hollywood's go-to villain. What's so appealing about playing the bad guy?
It pays so much better. [Laughs] That's the thing. There's a sort of an evil loading that comes with it, because of the danger, of course. So, basically, that's it. And you don't want to confuse the people that are going for the dark side of The Force, etcetera, etcetera... You want to be able to keep them on a nice thematic consistency.
How has your experience been joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
It's been a long time in makeup. [Laughs] But look, it's a powerhouse. It's a pleasure to serve.
Do you speak with your Australian accent in this? Or do you have a different accent?
No. I would take on any shape or form that they [Skrulls] can see. And so, that's my answer.
In the comics, Talos is a character who can't shapeshift. [Instead, he's granted superhuman strength and cybernetics.] Did you do a lot of research? And is your version of Talos similar to that rendition of the character?
That I couldn't tell you without breaking the very delicate bond between reveal and not.
How about the research you did for this?
Oh, well, the FF [Fantastic Four] have basically spawned two great things: One of them are the Skrulls, the second one is Doctor Doom. And from the first issue in '62, yes, I have [read the comics]. I like that stuff anyways, so it's not unfortunate labor.
Have you done any stunt training for any of your own stunts so far?
Maybe! Maybe I have. I mean, look, if you're the badass of the Marvel neighborhood, it behooves you to be able to kick a bit of ass.
Can you talk about some of the physical challenges you've experienced? And how you prepared for them?
Let me just show you! [He gestures to his costume and prosthetics.] Witness! Witness the physical challenges. It's very hard to pick up apples with Skrull claws. It's a whole different technique. No, it's a thing, but you adjust accordingly.
What you get really good at when you're doing [interviews] is saying something and then not saying anything at the same time. So, I think that the biggest preparation you've got to do is actually just to get into this [costume] and spend a bit of time in it before you come here. That's probably the most crucial part. Now, there are other things that we're going to do in this film that I had to prepare for, but I can't tell you that!
What can you tell us about your onscreen dynamic with Captain Marvel? What's that going to look like?
From my point of view, she's a kind of unfortunate human-type creature. They have to be dealt with, these humans, these Kree. They have to deal with. And so what can you do? You've got to interact with them, you've got to infiltrate them and you gotta be able to find out what's inside them. That's the essential brilliance of the Skrulls. The first time you ever see them, they're these sucky little tadpole sort of Communist-era creatures.
We've advanced since then, but it's the same gig. It's: See it, copy it, memorize it, get in there, get what needs to be done, done and get out of there. Unfortunately, things don't always go so easily, and so, then, you know, we've got to bring the ruckus. And that's more fun.
One of Marvel's strengths is creating big screen villains you can relate to, because they don't see themselves as the villain.
That's the modern reading of 'the bad guys,' that they don't see themselves as the villain. And, yeah, you've got to find a way in, but what's more important is that you make all the component bits work, more than overarching kind of stuff like that. That's basically your A-B-C. If you can't do that s**t and you're an actor, you know, go back and learn your alphabet.
The more involved stuff, the more important stuff is actually how you make each little component, each shot... That's where the money's at. That's where my energy goes. That stuff's just the basics, and it's hard to talk about it without taking a viewer somewhere else than where you want them to be, which is just watching that movie and absorbing it in whatever way they do.
What has playing the villain all the time taught you about human nature or, I guess, Skrull nature?
I don't know that it teaches you anything about human or Skrull nature, per se, but I do think that in order do it justice, you want to have a dimensional sense of people. But again, I think that stuff's pretty basic. I don't think that's more advanced or where you want to spend your energies as an actor. That's just, like, the ingredient list, then you have to put things together correctly and cook it.
We know you'll be shapeshifting a bit. Will we see your character look like Ben Mendelsohn at any point?
I can tell you that at some point, I will look beautiful. That's all I can tell you with any certainty.
You look beautiful now.
Oh, no, no, no. But more human beautiful, more traditional, sort of like, 'Oh, wow! That's a very appealing-looking human!' And I don't mean that necessarily as what resides underneath this prosthetic here.