On Netflix’s engrossing and intense new series Bloodline, which is part psychological thriller and part family drama, the eldest brother and black sheep of the Rayburn family, Danny (in a compelling performance by Ben Mendelsohn), returns home and begins to expose emotional demons that will threaten to tear the family apart. From creators Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler (known as KZK), the strong cast of actors also includes Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek.
During a roundtable interview to discuss the new show, actor Ben Mendelsohn talked about what interested him in Bloodline, that he doesn’t mind not knowing what’s coming next in the story, what made working on this quite thrilling, that he knew the basic broad strokes of his character ahead of time, that his character is just doing what he has to do to survive, working with such a great ensemble, and what he sees as the idea viewing for this series. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Question: In terms of the story, what was it about a family drama that interested you?
BEN MENDELSOHN: I think it was the way that the KZK guys would talk about it. I had an initial meeting with them, and they just spoke about it, in a way that announced itself as something that was certainly going to have some pretty decent integrity to it and sounded quite interesting. Before anything else had happened, that was the entry point. They sounded good. The meeting I had with those guys was a really good meeting. What they assembled, exceeded what my expectations were, from the initial meeting.
As an actor, do you prefer to know what’s coming, or do you like to live in the moment?
MENDELSOHN: I don’t mind [not knowing]. I never felt like it was a situation where we finished doing something and we got ripped off, or we ripped off the story by not knowing. From my point of view, I never felt like I came out behind, from the way they approached it. Never.
These characters are constantly proving that they’re not who you think they are. How often did the story turn into something you didn’t expect? Did you ever feel like this became a different show than you thought you signed on for?
MENDELSOHN: No, it never did. There were the usual types of things that happen, in a production, like logistical bullshit, and this and that and the other. That’s the sort of stuff that happened. But I never felt, in a creative sense, that we were ever veering into a place that I hadn’t signed on for. I never felt that way about it. I felt like we were going somewhere that was dark and that was mysterious and that was, at times, quite thrilling. I couldn’t wait to read [the scripts]. When the new episodes would drop, we’d go back and read them. That doesn’t happen a lot, where you really want to read the next ep to find out what happens, and that is what happened. So, I think their approach has a great deal of merit.
Can you talk about the process of landing the role? Was there an audition?
MENDELSOHN: The nuts and bolts of that was that those guys was they arranged to have a meeting and they pretty much told me that they would like me to play the part. There wasn’t an audition, or anything like that. They had seen some stuff that had obviously made them feel that way, which was very nice.
How much did you know about your character ahead of time, and what was coming for him?
MENDELSOHN: I knew about a lot. There was a way in which things unfold, that I discovered along the way. But with the broad strokes and, if you like, the internal map of this guy, I had a pretty good grounding of, in the major highways. There were little suburbs of this guy and of his internal map, which I didn’t really know that well and learned more about going through it. But in terms of the major stuff, I knew a lot from that initial discussion, and then when we got together. And they would be around and we would talk.
Even though we’re led to believe that your character is the villain of this story, to the viewer, his family seems more like the villains, and he doesn’t seem as terrible as they’re making him out to be. Is that supposed to be part of the mystery? Would you agree with that?
MENDELSOHN: I would agree very, very wholeheartedly with that statement. They have approached the family drama in the mode of a thriller. To the best of my knowledge, that’s certainly not something that I’ve seen before. It’s very hard for me to know how to talk about it without feeling like it’s going to detract or tip the hand as to what’s going to come, but I think that’s where these guys have really done something that is powerful and original. Given the fact that we have that 13-hours, and you can go in as deep and as hard as you want, I think this feels special, in that way.
Usually in shows where you have an unreliable narrator, we know that beforehand, but here, it really is up to the audience to make that decision.
MENDELSOHN: I think there is a significant latitude there. But as things unfold, I hope people will be riveted by what is coming. That’s my hope, and I’m reasonably confident that that’s going to occur, from the interaction I’ve had with people that have seen quite a few [episodes].
Do you see this guy as someone who’s just doing what he has to do to survive because of the corners he’s been backed into?
MENDELSOHN: In a lot of ways, yeah. It’s a family. It’s a group of people that are together, whether they like it or not. They have all of their misgivings and all of their closeness and all of their hostility about that and all of their love. There are a very significant couple of things that have happened, and there is an over-arching narrative for some of those family members. It is an unsatisfactory narrative. Danny has got to do what he’s got to do, in that way. However, they also have to do what they have to do. I don’t know if that makes it clearer or less clear, but [that’s how I see it].
You’ve worked with some great actors, but what was it like to work with this ensemble, in particular?
MENDELSOHN: I’ve never, ever had a day where I’ve taken a photograph of Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard’s chairs, next to each other. If I have to meet the maker, that’s it. I feel very special about that. I feel very, very, very fortunate. I’m really happy for the little fella that started doing this, a long time ago. I feel really, really, really happy about this cast. I’m thrilled. I feel like a very, very lucky guy.
What was the dynamic like, on set?
MENDELSOHN: It would change. There were some scenes that are coming, which were really, really hard days. Sometimes we would dive into that, and then come back out for air. Sometimes we would have a really bad day with each other. We did have some days that were very, very difficult, indeed. But we were close, in that. We were all away from where we live, normally, and we were working long months and long days within that. But, they were a good bunch of people to work with. There was no one being silly, or anything like that. I think everyone signed up and got on board, and they brought their A-games.
At the end of the first season, will the audience understand how the show could continue on, or will that question remain?
MENDELSOHN: I have not seen that deep in. There have been surprises, even from what we’ve done to what now is there, the way that these guys have structured that. So, I’m just going to have to be a broken record, and I apologize for that. You have to answer a question properly, but I can’t rob Peter to play Paul, for that one.
As you filmed this, you had to wait to find out what was going to happen until you got the next script, but the Netflix viewers have the opportunity to watch this all in one day, if they choose to do so. Would you recommend that, or do you think it’s better to watch a couple or a few, at a time? Do you have a viewing strategy?
MENDELSOHN: I think this would be a show that people could very solidly watch in two, three or four goes. That is what I would think. I would imagine that they could easily do two episodes, at a time. But the joy of Netflix is that people can watch the last episode first up, if they so choose. In that way, it’s glorious. But, that would be my guess. I’m sure there are going to be people that have to know [what happens next]. I hope there are a couple of those people. That would just be excellent, if someone set there for 13 hours and just went, “I’m on the train and I’m not going to get off.” I did that with Season 5 of Breaking Bad. That’s the only season I watched on Netflix, and I think it took me a day. I watched it straight through because the next one would just start up.
Bloodline is available at Netflix.