Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn on ‘Una’, Moral Ambiguity, ‘Robin Hood’ and More
Directed by Benedict Andrews and based on Scottish playwright David Harrower’s play Blackbird, the intense and unsettling drama UNA follows a young woman (Rooney Mara) looking for answers to unresolved questions and longings that only Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) can provide some insight on. But as her abrupt arrival threatens to destroy his new life, secrets and memories surface that could derail them both.
During this phone interview with Collider, co-stars Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn talked about what drew them to UNA, how the emotional story made them feel, how important it was to them that they got to collaborate with the playwright (who also adapted it for the screen), the most challenging moments of the shoot, and the story’s sense of moral ambiguity. Mendelsohn also talked about signing on to play Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood (with Taron Egerton as Robin Hood and Jamie Dornan as Will Scarlet) while Mara talked about working with Joaquin Phoenix on Mary Magdalene and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
Collider: Obviously, this is difficult subject matter to delve into. Do you sign on for something like this because it’s a story worth telling, as opposed to something you think you’d have fun doing?
ROONEY MARA: I needed the money. No. It was something I’d always wanted to do, and it seemed like it would be a unique experience to make something like this, which it was. I knew what it was, when I was signing up for it.
BEN MENDELSOHN: From my perspective, I knew its pedigree. I knew that Rooney was attached and I knew that Benedict [Andrews] was going to be directing it. I hadn’t seen the play, so I came at it with no real preconceptions. I found it an absolutely thrilling read and ride. That was what got me.
What were the emotions that you went through, either the first time reading the script or when you saw the play? Did thinking about the story from the point of view of your character affect how you wanted to play the role?
MENDELSOHN: I’m not sure if it affected the way I wanted to play the role, but I can remember feeling a lot of dread and a sense of being really in quite a bit of suspense and a feeling of my heart in my throat. I did hope and trust that that would be translated to the final experience.
MARA: I felt the same.
MENDELSOHN: The surprise for me, in the aftermath of this, is the degree to which questions that may not have felt to me, going in, that they were a live question were very much live questions for people, after they’ve seen the film.
This was a play adapted for the cinema by its writer, directed by a theatre director making his feature film directorial debut. What was it like to work with this material, with those collaborators?
MARA: Obviously, having David [Harrower] adapt the screenplay was hugely helpful. Benedict had directed the play about 10 years before, so he knew the material better than anyone. That definitely made me feel like the material was in safe hands.
MENDELSOHN: It gave the feeling that we did have the official version, if you like, or the official authorized version. One of the things that was very interesting, as a participant with one eye on being a bystander, was the degree to which David’s take on things had a lot of room, whereas Benedict seemed to contain it all within him and have answers that sometimes even David was not displaying that he had. That’s counter to what you might expect. Certainly, having them there felt like we had full authorization.
The writer, the director and the handling of material like this definitely seems so important when it comes to ensuring that audiences want to take such an intense ride with these characters.
MENDELSOHN: If you’re going to go there, you don’t want to be going there on a half-assed notion. You want to know that the people taking you there have the authority over the material. That really gave us a good deal of security, and also made us feel like we could push against the edges.
Obviously, any time you do nudity, there’s a sense of vulnerability, but some of the moments where you’re fully clothed seem even more vulnerable. What were the most challenging moments or scenes of this shoot?
MENDELSOHN: When they become physical, there’s a lot of stuff there. Certainly from my perspective, there were a lot of things that came into consideration with that. There were times when we were doing stuff with Ruby [Stokes], who plays young Una, where it was particularly difficult. There’s a lot of nauseating and really difficult bits.
Rooney, watching your character is like watching someone live out their PTSD without even realizing that’s what’s happening. Did you think about that or research that, when you were digging into this character?
MARA: I don’t know if I thought of that term, exactly. There were a lot of things I thought about, with what she’s experiencing, and certainly they could all fall into that, but I don’t think I ever specifically thought of it like that or did any specific research on that. I wasn’t actively trying to portray that. But certainly, she falls into that category, in a way.
What do you think it is that Una really wants from Ray? Is she looking for an apology or explanation, and is there any response that could have really satisfied her?
MARA: I don’t know if there’s anything that could have satisfied her. This is a thing in her life that happened when she was a certain age, and it defined every single part of who she is. She thought it was one thing, and everyone told her it was something else. It never left her. She’s never been able to make peace with it or come to any kind of understanding, and I think she goes there searching for something, but she doesn’t even know what she’s searching for, exactly. I don’t think she gets an answer, per se, but I think she definitely realizes that she is a whole person and not just one thing that happened to her, and she doesn’t have to let it define the rest of her life.
Ben, how did you view Ray? Do you think that he’s essentially a good man who made a terrible mistake, or is he a pedophile?
MENDELSOHN: I think that’s a question that I better not answer directly. I just feel like so much of the interaction with this film rests on an audience not having decided the answer to that question. I think that Ray is very capable of engaging and having a good deal of conviction around what he presents. It seems that people don’t quite know, and I quite like that.
Was it important to you that a certain sense of moral ambiguity and a lack of moral judgement was present in this?
MARA: I don’t think we set out to have one or the other get more empathy from the audience. I didn’t ever come at it from a place of judgement. I had to just came at it from Una’s perspective.
MENDELSOHN: What I think we wanted people to come away with is a feeling that Una’s central question gets some attention. Was she the only one? Did he love her? Why did it end up like this? Does he still love her, or is she now to old to be loved by him? I think we wanted to fill out that stuff. But when you talk about judgement, it’s important to be able to enter into the spirit of the scenes. You can have all the judgement you like about that stuff, but that’s not so important. What’s important is to balance those things, as delicately as you can, and that requires you to give yourself over to the supposition. It doesn’t really matter what the judgements are, in that degree. You never want to crush your judgement into things you’re actively doing.
Ben, what made you want to take on the Sheriff of Nottingham for Robin Hood? What makes this version of the character different from other versions?
MENDELSOHN: Well, there are certain performances of that, that you’re never going to surpass. You’re never going to outdo Alan Rickman, god rest his beautiful soul. Certain roles enjoy being played, again and again and again. I was just delighted that they saw something in me that was Sheriff of Nottingham like. The first love of mine, ever, was the Disney cartoon. I went to see it in Germany, and the first time I ever had a Halloween thing, I had my mom make a paper mache fox head, and Maid Marian was the first character that I ever fell in love with.
Rooney, you did Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot with Gus Van Sant. What attracted you to that project and character?
MARA: I only worked a few days on that film. It was a very small part that’s almost a cameo. But I’ve always wanted to work with Gus, and I’ve worked with Joaquin [Phoenix] several times. They asked me to do it, so I said, “Sure, I’m not doing anything else.”
How was the experience of working with Joaquin Phoenix on Mary Magdalene, as Mary Magdalene opposite his Jesus?
MARA: It was definitely an experience.
MENDELSOHN: I would imagine going from Jesus to John Callahan was interesting.
It seems like it would be a very interesting double feature to watch together.
MENDELSOHN: Oh, fuck yeah! I’d watch that!
Do you guys have a sense of what you’re looking for in roles, at this point, or are you still searching for what that thing is that gets your attention?
MARA: I don’t know what I’m searching for. I haven’t found it. I don’t have a job, and I don’t have anything lined up. I don’t know what I’m looking for.
MENDELSOHN: It tends to come together in a more complete picture, in one way or another. Things come along and it’s about, will they work in this configuration? Hopefully, you get stuff which you can be a part of and contribute something to, and most importantly, they work and live in the world.
Una is now playing in select theaters.