EVIL EMPIRE

‘Rogue One’ Baddie Ben Mendelsohn on His Beef with Darth Vader

The acclaimed Aussie actor opens up about his militaristic villain in the new ‘Star Wars’ film, and the movie’s politics.

Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilms

If you sense a disturbance in the force, or at least in the air between Rogue One’s sinister Death Star boss Orson Krennic and Star Wars’ iconic Darth Vader, it’s because the two heavies of the Galactic Empire have their own interoffice beef in this week’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Animal Kingdom) shed light on the animosity between Rogue One’s sinister and ambitious Krennic and Darth Vader, who returns to the franchise in Gareth Edwards’ standalone spin-off set during a crucial moment in Alliance history leading up to the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

“While I think that Krennic is dismissive of the mythology around Vader, I don’t think he dismisses his toe-to-toe abilities by any stretch of the imagination,” Mendelsohn told The Daily Beast ahead of Rogue One’s premiere. The gulf between the two Imperial enforcers is so vast, it’s literally designed into their costumes: Vader commanding in his signature shiny black, Krennic preening in his antiseptic white cloak.

“Vader is an incredibly powerful individual,” Mendelsohn granted. “But Krennic’s attitude is, ‘What does this guy actually do?’”

Rank and standing in the Empire’s upper echelons is a sore point of contention for Krennic, a non-Force user who’s had to climb his way up the chain the old-fashioned way: through brutality and shrewd scheming. As Rogue One opens, he descends with armed stormtroopers upon the remote farm hideout of old pal and ex-Imperial scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), hell-bent on finishing the mega-project he’s staked his career on.

“I think what drives Orson Krennic is a sort of an outsider’s resentment,” Mendelsohn mused. “An inverse snobbery about the officer class that populates the Imperium. I also think he’s very driven by his practical goal—he’s the head of military intelligence and operations—of bringing the Death Star online. And that’s a very pressing concern.”

More than any other figure in Rogue One or last year’s The Force Awakens, Krennic represents the punishing military arm of the Empire. His planet-killing weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star, is what his even more sinister superiors intend to use to justify securing “peace” in the galaxy. Absent the spiritual conflict dividing warriors of the dark side from their Jedi counterparts, officers like Krennic, whose high-collared cape deliberately recalls a 20th century fascist aesthetic, reflect a familiar impulse toward war and genocide.

“Oh, yeah. These kind of practices are very well-established, which is why we are able to write about them,” said Mendelsohn. “There’s nothing that we do in any drama or film, I believe, that doesn’t have its origins in the real world. So there are always those ways of looking through at this stuff—if you want to.”

Contrary to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s insistence that Rogue One “is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” Mendelsohn hinted that correlations can be found by those willing to look.

“The beauty of Star Wars and part of its enduring power is that there are several dimensions you could access it on, should you choose,” he said. “There’s basic entertainment, spiritual quest journey stuff, there is this historical [aspect], real world iterations. It’s no mistake that during the latter part of the Cold War the first film comes out, and it deals with weapons that can destroy entire worlds. That’s always been the case, and of course we don’t stand outside that tradition.”

He stopped short of answering whether or not Director Krennic, with his ruthless career ambitions and cruel modus operandi, might find a place in a Donald Trump cabinet that’s filling up with figures seemingly at questionable odds with the interests they’ve been chosen to oversee.

“I think it would be perhaps very remiss of me to comment on that, given two things,” he answered slowly. “First of all, I think it’s something I try not to do, to comment on political situations, and also I’m an Australian who has the very good fortune of working in this country. So that’s another extra reason…”

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“What I would say about Rogue One is that it’s a lot grittier, and perhaps there is a grayer area of readings,” he said. “Particularly with the motivations of different characters and them having a less black and white, if you like, color palette.”

That gray moral ground is a more interesting place for a villain to operate in, says Mendelsohn, whose prolific screen career has been highlighted by great turns as compelling criminals existing on the edge of society (see: Animal Kingdom; Starred Up; and his Emmy-winning turn on Netflix’s Bloodline). “I think that oftentimes that does make for the most uncomfortable villains, because they’re closer to us than you’d think… and sometimes closer than you’d like them to be,” he said.

Mendelsohn calls Krennic a “true believer,” a company man for the Empire. “He is someone who’s really bought into the full Imperial lie—he really does believe that once we get these things in order, we can have peace,” he said. “It’s sort of a top-down reading of the way the world should work. I imagine he does feel like there can be a liberty and a peace once these damaging rebel factions are brought under control, or neutralized.”

“I also think he feels that once we show the rebels what awaits them if they don’t come into line [by demonstrating the destructive power of Death Star] we can really shortcut this process and save an incredible amount of lives! It’s that type of thinking.”

Mendelsohn’s relative moralism is punctuated in his interactions with Rogue One’s other characters: Galen Erso, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Vader, and… other major figures in the Empire who won’t be spoiled here, and who make even the authoritarian Krennic quake in his Imperial boots. He imagines Krennic as a young, cruel child bully who grew up with ambitions blunted because he lacks Force powers.

“As far as Krennic is concerned, Force means force—it’s not some sort of esoteric kind of… faffery, and in that regard there’s a bunch of officers that sort of resent the part that Vader’s come to play as the Emperor’s favorite little pet,” he said amusedly.

Still: “He would rather have him on our side. Better with us than with them, absolutely, so it’s a really good thing the Emperor did, to bring Anakin over. But now that he’s brought him over we don’t need to pander to this guy, you know? We’re the ones doing all the work here!”

Mendelsohn was seven years old when he sat down in a theater and took in that iconic opening crawl: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… “It’s beautiful,” he sighed. “And because we are the most faithful to A New Hope it crazy took me back, just seeing all the instrumentation and the beautiful black of the sets. It was gorgeous.”

His younger self, however, might have been rather dismayed to know he’d grow up to be the evil face of the Empire in Rogue One—and without a lightsaber or The Force, no less.

“I think seven-year-old me would have much rather have been Luke,” he laughed. “But if I could have told my seven-year-old self—and my nine-year-old self, and my 14-year-old self, and after that—that one day you’d be in a Star Wars film, so don’t worry that this girl’s not going to go out with you… I think I would have sweated a lot less.”