Author: Lauren Martin
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Once Australian cinema’s favourite laconic teenager, Ben Mendelsohn now has other plans – going overseas, for instance, where at least they might let him wash dishes. LAUREN MARTIN reports.
AFTER 14 years on screen, Ben Mendelsohn knows what he can and cannot get away with. With a reel of the finest suburban adolescent performances Australia has filmed, Mendelsohn hasn’t done accents, hasn’t done Hamlet, hasn’t done an action movie. However, he has done the iconic laconic teenager. In the fickle, high-risk movie business, the question is: do producers think Ben Mendelsohn can get away with the roles that Ben Mendelsohn himself, at 28, thinks he can get away with? “I don’t think people should be expected to take these things at anything more than face value,” he says, tapping out the cigarette, sipping the short black. “I have an idea of what I’m capable of. Questions of range and aptitude and abilities are only proven after the fact, and that’s cool because that’s the way it works.
“I feel quietly confident I will get done what needs to get done. As to how soon or not – that’s what I don’t have control over in the short term. But I don’t have those can-I-or-can’t-I questions biting at me all the time any more.”
Those anxieties dogged the young man whose growing up was claimed as part of the country’s popular culture. They caused him to take job after job just to prove something – and they caused him then to put the brakes on his career, just to fend off audience fatigue of him in film after film. “I turned down a few jobs,” he recalls. “And all of a sudden I had no jobs.
“Then there was this new wave of films – like Romper Stomper and Strictly Ballroom – and I felt on the periphery again, after having been on the inner for so long. It gave me a sense of how fickle all this stuff is and how fleeting it can all be.”
Startled, he began what he calls a “Drew Barrymore sort of rite of passage”. Like Mendelsohn, Barrymore had to be savvy in slogging herself out of the on- and off-screen reputation she had established as a teenager. For Mendelsohn – who played his first father role to critical raves on the ABC this week and has just wrapped up shooting on Nadia Tass’s upcoming feature film, Amy – it probably means leaving Australia.
“My plan is to do another job here so that I’ve got some money to take away to LA or New York or London and really sit around at the bottom again and try that out. Which is pretty uncomfortable.
“None of them knows me,” he says – and as if on cue, a teenager stops to stare at his newly peroxided locks, suddenly realising it’s him. Mendelsohn is charmingly embarrassed and amused, and he adds, “But that will be interesting too.”
He’ll start overseas without the Hollywood wallets courting him but with a fast-maturing perspective. At least someone will give him a dishwashing shift there, he says; he got refused in Melbourne. “I just wanted it for a fill-in, but they sort of couldn’t bear to give it to me, they just didn’t want me to do it,” Mendelsohn says incredulously. “People see it as much more of a change of pace than I feel it actually is. As an actor, there might be people to get you tea or coffee or whatnot, but essentially you’ve got to get out there at the time when it’s required and produce what’s required.”
Whatever illusions screen stars harbour, Mendelsohn is happy to be Mendelsohn the actor. Being Mendelsohn the movie star doesn’t so much matter to him any more. “If you have the abilities to act – or be a musician or in any of the arts – you can be a fad or you can stay around and keep working. It doesn’t mean you’re going to reach the dizzying heights of whatever, but you can keep working, whether it’s as a session musician or whatever.
“Unlike a few years ago, I don’t feel like I need to do it (a) to survive or (b) to be who I am. I think I’ve just heard enough bullshit and I’ve just been around and I’ve met a lot of people – a lot of notables and whatnot – and I know that the equation is wrong that fame or money equal joy. Or that it would cure any ailment. It doesn’t.”
Still, he skates away from cynicism. He applauds the new stars – Miranda Otto, Matt Day, Frances O’Connor, Richard Roxburgh. Are they just the new Ben, Noah, Claudia and Jacqui? No, he says, the industry has grown to accommodate more. “The spotlight moves around,” he says.
He admits he’s happier as an adult than he was before. He’s newly comfortable with himself.
He is at turns coy (“Oh, there’s something I’m writing at the moment but I don’t really want to talk about it”) and larrikin (“Anything stronger?” asks the waiter when we ask for water. “Oh, mate,” says the actor, “a lemon squash would be great.”) and politically literate (from US constitutional debates to Liberal film-funding plans).
He’s no longer the suburban teenager. He knows he can still play one for laughs, confessing for the Midday show to “a bit of property damage” in those days. Kerry-Anne is mock-shocked, but hell, Ben Mendelsohn knows he can get away with it.