Some actors are clearly uncomfortable giving press interviews, but they put up with the questions — about their roles, their co-stars, their process — with a stiff smile because they know talking up their work to reporters is part of the job of selling a new movie.
Ben Mendelsohn, on the other hand, leaps from his chair when I enter the room at the Intercontinental Hotel, looking like there’s nowhere he’d rather be. He has a big, slightly goofy smile and a booming voice, and he exudes I’m-game-for-anything energy. (This was, of course, well before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and the entire country went into lockdown mode.)
“Come on in here,” he says, in the Australian accent he’s masterfully concealed in recent American roles — as a detective on HBO’s “The Outsider” or the wayward brother in a Florida Keys family in “Bloodlines” on Netflix, for which Mendelsohn won a 2016 Emmy Award.
Mendelsohn was in San Francisco in February to screen his latest movie, the Aussie indie “Babyteeth,” at the Mostly British Film Festival. The film is now set to open in select theaters and will be available to stream on Friday, June 19.
“I love this. I love all of this. It’s joie de vivre,” Mendelsohn, 51, says, stretching his arms out wide. A naturally garrulous talker, within minutes he has made it clear just how wide-ranging his enthusiasms are.
Mendelsohn says he loves playing villains as well as comedic misfits. He loves being in what he calls the “sweet spot” of a career that he once feared would flame out before Hollywood caught on to his talents. He loves America. He loves newspapers. He loves to drive. (Mendelsohn made a last-second decision the night before to drive up to San Francisco from Los Angeles instead of flying, jumping in the car with his publicist, Suzie, and her tiny dog.)
And, yes, he loves acting. And he loves talking about how much he loves acting — in everything from blockbusters (“Captain Marvel”) to small, offbeat dramas like “Babyteeth,” “a brutal little shoot I knocked out just before ‘The Outsider.’”
“It’s my favorite film of mine that I’ve seen. I can’t overstate how much I love this film and am proud of it. I think it’s the coolest film I’ve ever been in,” says Mendelsohn, right before his knee starts jangling and he says how badly he wants a cigarette.
But the smoke break can wait. He decides to keep gushing about “Babyteeth.”
“I just said one word to my agent when I read it: ‘Beautiful,’” Mendelsohn recalls.
The bittersweet family drama, which won raves at last year’s Venice Film Festival, has an unusually dreamy, humorous, unsentimental tone that’s rare for a film that tackles terminal illness, addiction and the varied ways people cope with trauma.
Mendelsohn plays Henry, the psychiatrist father of a very ill 16-year-old, Milla (played by Eliza Scanlen of “Little Women”). Her cancer treatments have been draining the life from her when Milla meets and instantly falls for a charismatic 23-year-old, Moses (played by a magnetic Toby Wallace), who knocks into her one day at the train station. Moses’ fearlessness and disregard for rules are a tonic for Milla. He’s just what she needs.
The catch: Moses is about the last person Milla’s parents (Mendelsohn and Essie Davis of “Game of Thrones”) want around their very sick daughter who plays violin and attends a preppy all-girls school. Moses is a small-time drug dealer addicted to heroin and pills. He breaks into their home looking for Milla’s cancer meds. He lives on the streets and has a rattail haircut and face tattoo.
Yet, despite Henry’s misgivings, he sees the pure joy Moses brings his daughter when nothing else does and asks him to come live with their family in the leafy Sydney suburbs.
“I think there’s something very Australian about this film,” says Mendelsohn. “There’s a certain sense of humor, maybe where you don’t expect it, and that real Australian virtue of, ‘We don’t mind if you’re a real mess, we can deal with you even if you’re a f—up.’ ”
“Babyteeth” is based on a 2012 play by Australian playwright and actress Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s the first feature film directed by Shannon Murphy, known for her vibrant short films and theater work.
“It’s got a hard tone to get right, and Shannon far exceeded my expectations as a first-time director,” Mendelsohn says. “She smashed it out of the park.”
Mendelsohn says he loved the opportunity to work in Australia again, something he hadn’t done since “Animal Kingdom” (2010), the David Michôd-directed gangster film shot in his hometown, Melbourne, that finally got Mendelsohn noticed by Hollywood heavyweights. “That’s really what started the American experience for me,” he says.
Mendelsohn had had a thriving acting career in Australian television and film since he was a teen, but he didn’t break through in the U.S. until his early 40s. He describes the period of fruitless Los Angeles auditions as so intensely frustrating he thought of quitting acting.
“It was starting to look delusional,” he says. “I’d been knocking on the door for so long — we’re talking 15 years, something like that. After a while, you’ve got to get realistic. I was ready to give up.”
Good thing Mendelsohn stayed in the game. After “Animal Kingdom,” he started to be cast regularly in higher-profile projects. He was in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” and he played King George VI (opposite Gary Oldman’s Oscar turn as Churchill) in “Darkest Hour.”
And Mendelsohn earned not only Hollywood’s attention, but also a spot on its A-list. Especially in his indie roles, American audiences have now gotten a good look at what Australian fans have for years been calling the “Full Mendo” — short-hand to describe Mendelsohn’s menacing cool on screen, the way he reads as vulnerable but a bit broken, sometimes sleazy, with a trademark ability to hold a cigarette dangling impossibly from his lower lip throughout a scene.
Henry in “Babyteeth” is a great example of Mendelsohn’s multidimensionality. He’s calm, but seems ready to snap. His wife catches him shooting up morphine in his office. He runs out on a therapy session while a patient is on the couch, and he kisses his young pregnant neighbor.
“There’s something to be said for being complicated,” Mendelsohn says. “Also, undoubtedly there’s some of my own qualities in that.”
“Babyteeth” (Unrated) opens in select theaters and is available on video on demand starting Friday, June 19. www.babyteeth.movie/watch-at-home