In the series finale of The Outsider on Sunday night, detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) and investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) have seemingly defeated a great and terrifying evil, but even then, they don’t know all the answers—and they’re certainly not going to tell the rest of the world that the horrifying entity they've come to know as El Cuco actually exists. And if Mendelsohn himself knows more than Ralph or Holly do, he’s not telling.
“When asked specific things about drama, I find it's very important not to do the interpreting. I really feel that's part of the joy of watching and participating in the journey,” Mendelsohn explains the day after the finale. “That would be ripping people off, and I like people to get the bang for their buck.”
That’s not to say Mendelsohn isn’t willing to talk—far from it. Unlike his onscreen detective, a taciturn and deeply burdened small-town non-believer, the Rogue One and Captain Marvel star is chatty as all heck—now that the season’s over, anyway.
“I don't have a problem doing interviews. I believe it's all entertainment,” he happily explains, moments after he's briefly walked too far from his phone to be heard clearly, caught up in playing a game on his iPad (The Raid: Shadow Legends, for those wondering). “I don't believe in necessarily doing interviews during the run of a show because I think people need to be left the fuck alone, to enjoy the character, and not have the actor pop up and make a lot of jokes on a late-night show.”
Over its ten episodes, The Outsider gave viewers plenty to ponder on their own—like the nature of evil, for starters—even if the finale left audiences with some questions that may or may not be revisited in a second season. (HBO hasn’t confirmed a Season Two yet, but Mendelsohn says there’s “more than enough meat on the bone” to expand the Stephen King adaptation beyond the book.) The first season, helmed by The Night Of writer Richard Price, started in a small Georgia town with the arrest of Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) for a brutal murder we quickly learn he couldn’t possibly have committed due to conflicting evidence of his whereabouts. It ended with a knuckle-biting shootout and a standoff with a supernatural personification of evil in the depths of a Tennessee cave. That journey of horrifying discovery made for one of the best shows of the year so far.
Despite his desire to let audiences sit with their questions, Mendelsohn is more than happy to clarify some mysteries from the finale (like that head-scratching “Who’s Terry?” moment).
GQ: Why do you think that a show like this resonated with so many people at this moment? It seems like the buzz has been pretty much uniformly positive.
Ben Mendelsohn: It really took me by surprise. I had no doubt that we had a decent chance to make something work, but it fucking knocked it out of the park as far as what my expectations were.
How much of the success of the show do you think is because of the Stephen King of it all—the spooky supernatural stuff and the core story—and how much is indebted to Richard Price?
This is the thing. This is the actual magic. I don't know who organized that crossover, but it's some fucking smart crossover. We've never seen that slow peeling back like that, where you're at times ahead of Ralph, at times just behind him. That’s what’s really enjoyable about horrors, thrillers, mysteries, and procedurals. So that's a genius combination and it's not one that would have occurred to me.
Let’s dig into the minutiae of the finale. What was Ralph thinking when he saw the ghosts of Ollie Peterson and his own son, Derek, in the caves?
It's not so much about thinking, it's about feeling. We don't know what he's thinking, but there are two major possibilities and it's important that I don't spoil it for an audience by choosing sides. The first possibility is that it actually genuinely weighs him down; that he feels it, and that it is an effective attack. The second is that it tightens his coil of purpose and fury. Now, which one happens? I couldn't tell you. And if I could tell you, I wouldn't, because I think that stuff is the exclusive preserve of the viewer.
When you say "attack," do you mean the ghosts were El Cuco's projections?
Yeah, that's [El Cuco] attacking. That's him fucking with him. Right? He knows Ralph's coming, so he's launching some psychic missiles. Or it could be that the cave is actually where ghosts are. There are many readings of it.
Can you elaborate on the significance behind one major change from the book—where Ralph's son Derek is just away at camp rather than being dead?
Genius. Another fucking masterstroke. What it did was it gave us Ralph with a precondition. He cares about the protection of the young, particularly in this case, young males—anyone that could stand-in for his son. He was likely to be loaded about the murder of the boy. He's lost a son himself and he knows what that feels like. His son was lost to natural causes, but to have someone take a life in that really grotesque attack—it is beyond challenging.
There’s been a little bit of confusion about Holly’s “Who’s Terry?” moment in the cave. What’s your interpretation of that scene? Some people think it’s an early sign that El Cuco got her, but I think she’s just caught up in the moment, since she’s killed the literal boogeyman.
It's the intensity of the moment. We've moved so far beyond the initial concern of the judicial aspect clearing of his name. Holly's whole thing is, she's this absolute genius with this incredible focus, incredible knowledge, incredible abilities, but also these gaps of things she can't do, can't comprehend, can't participate in. At that moment, she may be so involved in the fucking murder of El Cuco that the question doesn't have anything to do with anything for her. She's honestly confused by the question because of her immersion in what she's doing. All praise to Cynthia [Erivo] for her readings.
A lot of the season is about Ralph struggling to accept that El Cuco exists. Was that doubt difficult to play as an actor? Did you, personally, ever want Ralph to wise up a little faster as you were playing him?
It's a tension, and it's a tension which more acutely felt by the directors than it was by me. The important thing that mattered was that [the doubt] was alive enough until Ralph was well beyond a reasonable doubt. For Ralph, the concepts that we were talking about are so away from the world [he knows]; that raised that bar of reasonable doubt higher than the courtroom bar of reasonable doubt. And what the other characters say is right. He's starting to screw them because of his inability to see the truth about El Cuco.
What I really love about The Outsider is the Trojan Horses inside it. I think there are ideas and themes about being a man. There is an evolution in this story, I think, of moving forward from that classical, police detective protector-type. Initially, it’s the women who know something that's not available to Ralph. It's staring him in the face, but it is not available to him with the operating system that he has. I mean... the fucking boogeyman? Come on. Any "real guy"—serious, slightly hard-beaten and weary—is going to have a hard time being open when presented with the idea that the thing causing all the problems around town is the boogeyman.
Because we're in “GQ Land” and it's important to talk about it—there is a fantastic, gentle change rolling through what it is to be a man. And the enormous breadth that started to open up around that idea. It's a great time to be a guy. I'm Australian, and we have a very classical notion of what honor and masculinity is about. It's fucking beautiful to see that start to be opened up. There are real opportunities for men in this time to actually get better at being a human. The gold is in them thar hills.
Where do you, Ben Mendelsohn, stand when it comes to belief in the supernatural? Are you more of a Ralph or a Yunis?
There was a guy called Arthur Koestler who wrote that book Ghost in the Machine—which later became a Police album. He said that at some point during our history, we shut down a lot of our mystical faculties. That's who I am. I'm the guy that is aware that we shut down a lot of our mystical faculties, but doesn't yet know how to do the next thing.
Which shape-shifter would win in a fight: El Cuco, or Talos, the Skrull you played in Captain Marvel?
Oh, Talos would kill the fuck out of him. Talos would kick the fuck out of him, and here’s why. Because El Cuco would get confused because, you know what, I can become a fucking filing cabinet. Try beating that, you fucking stupid moronic fucking demon punk bitch. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Originally Appeared on GQ