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Ben Mendelsohn: From dish pig to Hollywood’s A-list

Ben Mendelsohn is one of the hottest Australian actors in Hollywood right now – yet just over a decade ago he was washing dishes at a Bondi restaurant. What changed?

(Originally posted in the June 17th issue of Good Weekend Magazine. Byline: Michael Bodey)

Ben Mendelsohn has died once too often. In 2010, he sizzled in the Australian TV drama Tangle before his character’s spectacular death at the end of its first series. Last year, he won an Emmy for his eviscerating portrayal of the black sheep in a dysfunctional Florida family in the hit Netflix series Bloodline. Despite the star turn, his character was murdered in the penultimate episode of the show’s debut season. And last summer he joined the Star Wars universe as the white-caped villain Orson Krennic in Rogue One. But he won’t be returning to that galaxy far, far away, either.

Then there was the time early in the last decade when his career died, due both to an industry downturn and his own hand. “I really did think by 2007, ‘God, this has got to be over now,’ ” he admits.

As far as career dives go, Mendelsohn’s was deep. In the early 2000s, he was living in a cheap flat in Bondi, above a butcher shop on a busy intersection where buses chugged by all day and night. Shunned by directors, he took a job washing dishes at a glamorous restaurant frequented by members of the film industry he was no longer a part of. He moonlighted at a bakery.

Today, he’s kicking back in the bar of the Los Angeles celebrity haunt, Chateau Marmont. Yet he still looks like he’s come from a back-kitchen job. Dressed in black jeans, sneakers and a stained grey T-shirt, with messed hair, Mendelsohn shirks attention in a place where others go to get it. Everyone around him knows he’s an actor, even if some of them don’t quite know which actor he is.

Well might he take advantage of all that Hollywood has to offer. Many observers of Mendelsohn’s career fail to grasp the wilderness he inhabited not so long ago. And it’s a sign of the high regard in which he’s held that nobody talks about why he wasn’t working.

We’ll get to that later. Right now, at 48, Mendelsohn is soaring, a sustained run of thrilling performances making the world take note. Better to talk about why he’s so alive today, although he’d rather leave the assessment of his success to others. “Look, there’s no way to talk about it without imagining it, in print, sucking,” he says, looking away. “It’s good and life can be very, very sweet.”

For at least the next 18 months, Mendelsohn’s work will be omnipresent. Athletes talk of rare periods when they’re “in the zone”, when everything just works perfectly. Mendelsohn is there, and his industry knows it.

“Everybody wants to work with him. People are desperate to get into a room with him,” says Benedict Andrews, the expat Australian director of the British drama Una, which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on June 9 ahead of its national release next week.

It’s a sign of Mendelsohn’s pulling power that the festival joined forces with distributor Madman Entertainment and Sydney’s Vivid Ideas festival to bring Mendelsohn out from Los Angeles, where he’s based, for the premiere of this dark film about sexual abuse. His co-star, Rooney Mara, was not here, nor Andrews, the theatrical wunderkind for whom Una is a feature-film debut.

Those helping propel Mendelsohn into the filmic stratosphere include Steven Spielberg, who cast him in his coming sci-fi thriller, Ready Player One; New York indie comedy darling Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits); Atonement’s Joe Wright (Darkest Hour); and rising director Otto Bathurst, who is reimagining the Robin Hood legend with the Australian as his Sheriff of Nottingham. (Bathurst has cast another Aussie, Tim Minchin, as Friar Tuck.) There’s also Untogether, a movie made with his soon-to-be ex-wife, British author turned director Emma Forrest, and narration for Gorillaz’ new album and a video game. In the midst of that prodigious run, he won that Emmy Award for his magnetic supporting performance in Bloodline.

Mendelsohn leans forward and agrees he’s worked hard for it but doesn’t have a problem with his luck. “It’s not just what I’ve done, it’s being fortunate enough to be in things that have hit in some way or another,” he says. “I’ve had times when no one gave a f… – I’ve had those times. I know what a fair-weather friend looks like. Whatever. Fair-weather friends are fine; you don’t want them around when there’s rain.”

He’s been based in Los Angeles for five years now, sucking up work. And it doesn’t rain in LA.

The friends who stuck by Mendelsohn in Australia enthuse like fans. They expected his current success. Claudia Karvan, his partner in the 1990 Australian film The Big Steal, is very happy to talk about the guy she calls “the best actor in the world”.

“I don’t see anything different between his performances in Rogue One or Bloodline and The Big Steal,” Karvan says. “It was there at the beginning, he’s just on a different stage now.”

Nadia Tass, who directed Mendelsohn and Karvan in The Big Steal, also waxes lyrical. “Ben has never disappointed me,” she says. “I know I’m gushing about him but I don’t know what else to say. He is an actor who is just so brilliant.”

Mendelsohn was one of those omnipresent Australian actors we grew up with. He’d pop up regularly and duly charm and entertain us. But while his collaborators saw it, Australian audiences arguably didn’t quite appreciate his star power before Hollywood put it out there for the wider world to enjoy.

It’s undeniable now. He’s no longer the kid who grew up in the Crawford Productions TV caravan on The Henderson Kids, Special Squad and Neighbours, and made a sweet transition to feature films including The Year My Voice Broke and Spotswood.

“Nobody quite knows what star quality is, but he’s engaged and therefore you become engaged in him,” says John Edwards, Mendelsohn’s producer on Love My Way and Tangle. “And he has this capacity for something always surprising. That’s what stars are.”

Kevin Macdonald, who directed Mendelsohn in the submarine heist drama Black Sea, describes him as having “a lot more going on” than many actors, a “capability of mayhem and violence in him, but also this extraordinary vulnerability”.

David Caesar puts it more agriculturally. A long-time friend who first directed the 19-year-old Mendelsohn in the 1989 short film, The Big End, he describes him as having a “kind of Australian quality, a character that I don’t necessarily see anywhere else, which we used to call a ‘mad c…’ “. He attributes the same quality to Ned Kelly and AC/DC’s Bon Scott. “All these people I see as iconically Australian are like that. He’s not like that off screen, but on screen he’s mesmerising. You can’t take your eyes off him.”

Acting has been Mendelsohn’s trade since he was a teenager emerging from a nomadic upbringing. A pop psychology cliché would have his picaresque journey continuing when he discovered his next travelling circus: acting. “Very much,” he agrees, “and I’ve always thought of filmmaking and stuff as essentially carnival people. The only question is, ‘Are they high carnies or low carnies?’ And I still don’t know the answer.”

His travelling circus upbringing was due to his parents being “high carnies” – serious professionals travelling the world with their work. His father, Frederick, grew up in Lara, a suburb between Geelong and Melbourne. Fred wanted to be a physicist; his imperious father wanted him to be a doctor. So Fred studied medicine at the University of Melbourne before advancing to a distinguished career as a neuroscientist, culminating in a stint as the director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. Mendelsohn’s mother, Carole, who died in 2004, was a nurse.

Mendelsohn was born in Melbourne in 1969 but moved overseas as a toddler while his father advanced his early career. The experiences remain vivid: slight memories of Britain; facing violence at school in Germany as a foreigner; and boarding school in the US. His parents separated when he was six.

“It was a sad and shitty time,” Mendelsohn recalls. “My mother and father were not having a good time and there was a patina of a lot of sadness that went on for a long time.”

He returned to Australia to the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne that would form him, such as Eltham and Research, living separately with his mum and dad. “I lived in so many places – Hurstbridge, Warrandyte, I think we even lived in Diamond Creek for a while.”

He laughs that his father anticipated Eltham as an “artsy, free-feeling space”. Mendelsohn’s own assessment was of a childhood spent in “gnarly, tough outer suburbs”. He moved in with his grandmother as the family fractured and was not “highly supervised” while hanging out with the local kids.

“[That’s] essentially where I learnt how to be an Australian and that’s the sort of vibe that really carried me through the better part of a decade of acting.” By “being an Australian”, I take him to mean independent, physical and emotionally guarded.

The acting required a spark, though. He took drama as an easy option at Banyule High School, and discovered he had a wonderful memory for lyrics and lines. Peter Stephens, a teacher, made him perform a party trick, reciting lines at great speed, in front of the school. “And a bunch of kids who didn’t particularly like me before that, liked me fine after that and I got the ‘oooh’ [moment],” Mendelsohn says.

That led to amateur theatre and a commitment among school mates to respond to a Crawford Productions casting ad for The Henderson Kids that one of them had seen in the paper. When he received an appointment time, Mendelsohn asked his mates about theirs. None had applied. So the young teen went to Box Hill to be interviewed by producer Alan Hardy who, Mendelsohn later learnt, ran around the office afterwards rubbing his hands saying, “I’ve got one! I’ve really got one!”

Mendelsohn stood out against the coiffed children of theatre mums. He was the kid in black T-shirt and jeans, with a science magazine as a prop. In that context he felt like the kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

“There was a lot of moving to new places trying to fit in,” he explains of his childhood. “There’s been a lot of performance in all of that.”

A lot of acting before the acting.

Mendelsohn gives the air of a louche natural, yet friends speak of his inquisitiveness. He’s reading a newspaper when I arrive, and jumps into conversation about politics. Caesar recalls an intense conversation with an actor on the set of his 2001 film Mullet while Mendelsohn was nearby smoking, with his feet up, reading a book about the latest philosopher he was interested in. “The other actor saw him and said, ‘I don’t know why I bother. I work really hard and struggle and yet it’s so easy for him.’ ”

Benedict Andrews lauds Mendelsohn’s “awareness of what is needed on set”. John Edwards notes many actors are expert at the tricks and short cuts of acting, and he can see them – but not in Ben. Mendelsohn believes that secrets matter in his business: “You don’t want to let ’em see the stitching.”

Put another way, viewers shouldn’t see behind the curtain. “And we’ve lost that as an old-fashioned notion,” he says. “The old magic that comes out of here [Hollywood] was very powerful, because you only had your relationship with the film and nothing else. You didn’t have any other experience and I love that. I wish it were like that. It’s not.”

Mendelsohn is far from an old-school Hollywood song and dance man, though, specialising as he does in troubled types. In Una, an adaptation of David Harrower’s 2005 play, Blackbird, he plays Ray, a man trying to rebuild his life after being imprisoned for an affair with a minor. Years later, his victim, played by Rooney Mara, finds him.

The film’s director, Andrews, who cast Mendelsohn as Marc Anthony in his 2005 Sydney Theatre Company production of Julius Caesar, says the actor is “not afraid to peer into the dark recesses of characters”.

“I’m loathe to use the word ‘humanise’ but he’s able to involve us when he plays a dark character, these damaged men,” says Andrews. “What he’s done in that relationship with that girl makes him repellent to us, a monster, yet Ben finds ways to invite us to understand this man.”

Bloodline co-creator Todd A. Kessler suspects Mendelsohn’s “surprising depths of vulnerability and emotion” derive from his willingness to “abandon any sense of trying to get things right”.

“Ben approaches every scene with the simple motto of ‘making the first pancake’,” he says. “We all have to flip the first one before the others can be made.”

That Mendelsohn’s mad men of recent years have been complicated, dark figures is understandable given the apparent spark for this fertile period wasAnimal Kingdom, David Michod’s 2010 Melbourne crime drama in which Mendelsohn played the ringleader in a family of criminal brothers. The independent film was an international hit, prominent enough to earn Jacki Weaver an Academy Award nomination for her role as the family matriarch, and was later adapted into a US television series.

The magic story goes that Animal Kingdom propelled Weaver and Mendelsohn straight into Hollywood’s A-league. It wasn’t quite so simple. “My reading of what happened was that I was fortunate enough to get a couple of one-two punches,” he explains, mimicking a competent left jab and right upper-cut.

Beautiful Kate and Animal Kingdom were the first one-two, an Australian double in which Rachel Ward’s 2009 family drama was eclipsed by Michod’s Oscar nominee. Yet the gorgeously shot and traditional Beautiful Kate played the right festivals and provided a great contrast against Animal Kingdom‘s grit and intensity.

Soon after, two American independent films – The Place Beyond the Pines and expat John Hillcoat’s Killing Them Softly – juxtaposed two more strikingly different performances.

His third one-two comprised Bloodline and the acclaimed British prison drama Starred Up, for which he snared an award as best supporting actor in the UK. The latter was “the great secret one that did a lot of work, particularly in England”, he explains “And I thought they were going to murder me for it, going over to England, playing an English character.”

Risks are easier to take when you’ve come from where Mendelsohn found himself in the early 2000s; barely employable, with regular trips to LA amounting to nothing. “I remember those years very well,” he notes. “There was a lot of walking the dog.”

Mendelsohn was a victim of an industry-wide malaise that saw many actors leave the business. He was in his early 30s, which is “probably just a weird age for a guy”, he muses. “I was too old by that stage to be a classically young leading man and not old enough to be a ‘man-man’.”

The former household name was working washing dishes at the Bondi restaurant beloved at the time by visiting movie stars and filmmakers, Sean’s Panaroma, perched across the road from the famous strip of sand. “Tough kitchen to work, busy, organic kitchen – a green kitchen before green kitchens – so there was no hard dishwashing liquid,” he remembers. “A nightmare.”

That was relatively glamorous next to other gigs, including a stint at a Brumby’s Bakery in Melbourne. “I just went and got a job when I had to get a job.” Beyond the industry downturn, though, he was unemployable as an actor due to what he once called “excessive hedonism”. He’s reluctant to expand on what excessive hedonism constitutes: “I’ll leave it at that.”

Later, when speaking of those wasted forays into Hollywood, he suggests fate might have been against him. It wasn’t his time, he needed it too much and he realises now “when you’re doing something wrong, you’ve got to sort of not try while doing what you have to do to still be in play”. A kinder description of the time might be that he was not trying way too hard.

It is a measure of the film world’s affection for Mendelsohn that the period could be described as his “subtext years”, a period that saddened many yet remains verboten. His peers skirt around his malaise. He smiles knowingly: “And they’re very kind to.”

Recalls Nadia Tass, who cast him opposite Rachel Griffiths in Amy in 1997 and then in the telemovie Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story in 2000: “I needed Ben. I found him and said, ‘Okay, dude, get on board, I need you.’ He kind of explored life outside the parameters of performance, and some of us were not going to let him go away.”

Edwards concedes he “fortunately wasn’t around through any of the dark days”, while Caesar recounts, “People were getting exasperated with him”, telling him “you’re so talented and you’re f…ing it up”.

Mendelsohn acknowledges all this. “I tell you what, Claudia saved my career,” he declares emphatically. “She saved my career.”

Claudia is Karvan who, as co-creator and star of Love My Way, cast Mendelsohn as her love interest in the opening series, which screened at the end of 2004. The three-season Foxtel TV show about a wounded cabal of Sydney 30-somethings recalibrated Australian TV drama, winning AFI awards and giving the pay TV service credibility by showing that it could make the kind of high-quality, serious drama then emerging from the US.

Karvan laughs that she still gets random calls  from Mendelsohn enthusing, “Clauds, I wouldn’t be here if not for Love My Way!” That role as Karvan’s love interest was written especially for Mendelsohn, although she recalls his casting being “slightly controversial”, given his reputation at that time.

“One director, when I told him, said, ‘I wouldn’t hire him until I could see the light back in his eyes,’ ” Karvan notes. “But we thought we’d won the lotto.”

Mendelsohn has no interest in revisiting his hedonistic ways for the media, even as a cautionary tale. “Being a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I have a very…” – his voice quavers a little – “a very acute sense of how a young person might take that into themselves, whether or not they wanted to, or thought they would.” It’s the only moment his confident conversation falters. “And that’s why I never go there. And I don’t want to go there, full stop. I just don’t like it. And I don’t know that I ever will.”

I can’t help but wonder whether there was a little romanticism to it, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge seeking to discover the self through self-destruction. “I don’t know,” he ponders.

“It was a different time and place. There’s a lot of ways you can look at it all and I don’t know that any of them makes any more sense than any of the others.”

The thing that makes sense now is that if Mendelsohn “ruled the world”, there would be “very, very liberal policies in everything for grown-up people and we’d have draconian child-protection laws. I mean draconian.” He continues, “That’s my takeaway from life. Yeah. That’s enough. Anyone can put that picture together, I think.”

One positive to emerge from that period – which is being magnified in people’s joy at his success – is the affection for Mendelsohn, measured by how protective the industry has been. “I’m honestly very touched by it and I don’t think of it as deserved or not deserved,” he muses, his voice breaking. Then he smiles. “It’s been a continuing sweet surprise.”

You can appreciate why there’s affection. Of all the male actors I’ve interviewed, he’s the one who makes me think, “I want what he’s got.” That’s not about jealousy, just his charisma. Mendelsohn is at this exalted place called Hollywood without the obvious chiselled jaw, inflated biceps or pop-star looks. That aside, as Andrews notes, “He has one of the great faces of cinema now.”

It’s a face that has its appeal, which he’s used to advantage with women. “Loves entertaining them, cooking for them, which I always found it quite charming, because, really, there’s been a few of them,” says Caesar with a laugh.

Mendelsohn is in the throes of a divorce from his wife of four years, Emma Forrest. They have a four-year-old daughter, Carolina, and he has a 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. “And you know what, I’d like to have more if I could get on with it,” he states, reaching for another American Spirit cigarette. All four women joined him on a recent film shoot so life is amicable, even after he and Forrest realised they “weren’t great house mates”.

“Emma and I are fortunate enough to have a beautiful girl and we’re trying to make sure our missteps don’t become her lode stone,” he says.

Mendelsohn, it seems, is in a good place, both personally and professionally. He’s been through enough getting there to know he should savour it. There’s no chance of him facing any existential crisis about what he does, either.

“The idea that somehow or other you’re here to change the world or make it a better place is something that fortunately we are not belaboured with in our culture,” he notes. “The notion you might want to entertain people and give them something interesting to look at at the end of their f…ing work day is a pretty good aspiration, and it’s kind of the bedrock of the whole deal and a perfectly noble pursuit. And if they get other bits from it – meaning, catharsis, whatever – f…in’ beauty.”

Read the interview here.


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