Mr. Maverick – The Sun Herald

Author: Tim Elliott
Date: 19/11/2006
Publication: Sun Herald

Ben Mendelsohn is a multifaceted character – actor, rugby league aficionado, writer, larrikin – but he’s not fond of talking about any of it. What he will share, however, are his thoughts about dissecting cows. By Tim Elliott.
It’s the way he’s eating his muffin, not really eating but eviscerating it, like a crow does carrion. I’m sitting in a room at Sydney’s Fox Studios with Ben Mendelsohn, actor, Melbourne Storm supporter and maybe even one-time author (more on that later), trying to ask about his latest film, the 1930s-era romantic comedy Hunt Angels. But Mendelsohn wants to talk meat. Dead meat. “It was very full on, mainly because of the people who worked there,” he says, describing the two months he spent working in an abattoir in Burnley, in Melbourne’s southern suburbs, in 1986. The then 17-year-old Mendelsohn was working on a TV series. “But it was in between shows and I was short of cash. I used to drink with the abattoir workers in the local pub and one day they said that I should come down and try to get a start.”

So he did. “The abattoir did all types of meat,” says Mendelsohn, chewing listlessly. “Pigs and sheep but mainly cows. It was a hierarchical system: you had the boning room, which is where they cut it all up, and then the butchers, and I was just the guy who took out the bone cuts and sorted them and shifted the carcasses along the line. But the centre of the whole operation was the guy who operated the bullet gun, the guy who killed the animals. He was a very big, imposing kind of a guy. It was all about him; he was the one who had the mystique.”

So, I ask, are there any parallels between the abattoir and acting? “I suppose there are some, I guess…” Mendelsohn nods, staring into the middle distance. “If you want to draw a long bow…” He laughs cryptically, leans back and sucks the last morsel of muffin from between his teeth. For a long moment he looks as if he might add something but in the end he just sits there, staring. Insinuation and allusion are Mendelsohn’s stock in trade. But elaboration, it seems, isn’t on the menu.

With his powder-blue eyes, bullfrog mouth and hair like a rumpled Doona, the 37-year-old Mendelsohn is one of Australian film’s most recognisable faces. “Ben is part of this country’s cinema iconography,” says Hunt Angels producer Sue Maslin, whose credits include Road To Nhill and Japanese Story. “He’s been around so long it’s almost as if you grew up with him.”

Hunt Angels (which is out on Thursday) sees Mendelsohn playing real-life filmmaker Rupert Kathner who fought the US stranglehold on the Australian film industry in the 1930s. “Ben was the first choice for the lead,” says director Alec Morgan, who stumbled upon Kathner’s story seven years ago while researching a documentary on famous Australian crimes. “He has the perfect relationship to Kathner’s character. They both have a certain larrikinism but they’re savvy, too.”

Evocatively shot in black and white for less than $2 million, Hunt Angels was plagued with problems and hold-ups. “It was technically complex to make,” says Morgan. The production team used a new type of digital compositing to marry archival material to contemporary footage, shooting live action on a “green screen”, then matching the foreground to a background plate. “People said we’d never make

the movie on our budget. In the end, Ben and I took to calling each other ‘Mr Kathner’. We both felt like mavericks.”

Twelve-hour set days were common. “Ben was extraordinarily professional,” says Morgan, who has worked as a writer and director, mainly of documentaries, for more than 25 years. “He’s so experienced that I learnt a lot from him in regard to directing. Sometimes they’d be setting up a scene and he’d whisper, ‘Look, they’re going to put the lights over there, there and there,’ and sure enough when they did, he’d wink and go, ‘Told you so.'”

Co-star Victoria Hill describes Mendelsohn as an almost paternal presence on set. “There was one day when we were falling really behind on shooting. We arrived late, during afternoon peak hour, to shoot at Sydney’s State Theatre [in the CBD]. No one knew where we were meant to be parking or what we were meant to be doing. Ben just jumped out of the car and started organising people, directing traffic and moving everyone in the right direction. That’s when his experience really showed.”

Indeed, Mendelsohn has been on our screens, in one guise or another, for more than 20 years. “Acting is Ben’s profession and his passion,” says his 63-year-old father, Professor Fred Mendelsohn, a prominent scientist and director of the Howard Florey Institute in Melbourne. “When he was a little kid, we used to sit around the campfire telling stories and when he was four, he would be chirping in. He told such wonderful stories that he captivated the adults and I think he got a sense of the power of acting through experiences like that.”

Born in Parkville, Melbourne, the actor, who has two younger brothers – David, 35, a horticulturalist, and Tom, 29, a storeman (with a younger half-brother and -sister from his father’s second marriage) – spent most of his formative years travelling and living abroad, mainly in London and Munich. Returning to Melbourne from Germany at age six, he was teased on his first day at Heidelberg Primary for his thick German accent and lederhosen-like pants. “I dropped the accent pretty quick,” says Mendelsohn. “Best acting lesson I ever got.” When his father and mother, Carole, a registered nurse, split in 1982, Ben went to live with his dad, accompanying him to the US when he took a job at Washington’s National Institutes of Health. Ben went to Mercersburg Academy, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, but hated it. “They called it an academy but it was just full of boorish and boring people,” he says.

Returning to Australia at age 13, Mendelsohn enrolled in drama at Banyule High School (now Viewbank College), reputedly because he thought “it was an easy class”. After performing well in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he and some mates from the play agreed to answer an audition notice placed by Crawfords Australia but only Mendelsohn went through with it. “The Flying Doctors was my first show,” he says. “Then there was The Henderson Kids, Prime Time. I loved it.

I mean, I was 15 and I was working.”

Although his father was initially worried by his son’s decision to leave school – “I was a one-eyed scientist and I hoped he would do science” – there wasn’t

a lot he could do. “Ben has always been headstrong and determined to get his own way, which I think has been good.” (Mendelsohn says he tried to go back and “finish school” by correspondence in 1986 but that “it didn’t really work out”.)

Besides, by the time the 17-year-old Mendelsohn scored a part in John Duigan’s coming-of-age classic The Year My Voice Broke in 1987, the die was well and truly cast. Mendelsohn played Trevor Leishman, a small-town jock who competes with Noah Taylor for the affection of a local girl, a performance that won him an AFI award for Best Supporting Actor. Other films followed: The Big Steal (1990), where he starred opposite Claudia Karvan; Spotswood (1992) with Anthony Hopkins and an unknown Russell Crowe; Sirens (1994) with Hugh Grant and Sam Neill; Cosi (1996), as a theatre director in a mental asylum; and Idiot Box (1996), as Kev the bungling bank robber.

He’s been fortunate enough to have had almost constant work across a range of genres, from 2000’s big-budget US thriller Vertical Limit to stage gigs such as Marc Antony in the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2005 production of Julius Caesar; he even appeared in beer commercials for Fosters in 1998. Last year saw him working on the Foxtel drama series Love My Way, plus a small role in Terrence Malick’s clash-of-cultures epic The New World, shot in the swamps of Virginia. His talent is unquestioned yet it hasn’t for the most part translated into overseas success, particularly compared with contemporaries such as Russell Crowe and Noah Taylor. So what gives?

“Who’s to know?” says Hunt Angels’ Sue Maslin. “It’s true to say that Ben did quite a few boyish roles when he was younger and once you do that and you become typecast, it can be difficult to break out.”

His temperament may also be to blame. Like his character, Eddie Maloney, in the 2001 movie Mullet, Mendelsohn is an intriguing mix of arrogance and awkwardness, a black sheep who both revels in and disowns his outsider status. Rumours of his hard-living lifestyle abound: “I love la dolce vita,” he told a journalist in 2001. “I love having a good time.”

Katie Fischer, who dated Mendelsohn between 1992 and 1994 after they met on the set of Sirens, calls him “larger than life”. “When he’s insecure, he’s more insecure than anyone; when he’s funny, he’s funnier than anyone; when he’s sexy, he’s sexier than anyone.”

The relationship eventually broke down due to “a combination of things”, she says, but that Mendelsohn’s long-whispered drug use “certainly didn’t help”. “Of course, I tried to talk him out of it,” says Fischer. “It drove me insane with worry.”

When I mention drugs, Mendelsohn bristles. “I dunno, I was a young guy in Australia and I was an actor. I mean, what do you do? You have a bit of fun.”

Famously prickly in interviews, Mendelsohn once drop-kicked a room-service tray out the door of his hotel room during a conversation with Jim Schembri, a journalist from The Age. Taking off his boots, he then placed them close to Schembri, saying,

“I just wanted you to get a smell of me, too.”

As our interview progresses, it becomes clear he’s not having fun. “This is a little like pulling teeth for me,” he says. “These kind of in-depth f–king thing-a-ma-jiggies … they’re not, you know…” (In the end, he walks out, for reasons that are never made clear.)

Such behaviour can be a blessing and a curse. “You would have to say he is one of our most natural screen talents ever,” says Sydney actor Brendan Cowell, who met Mendelsohn last year while working on Love My Way. “But Ben is not

a quiet presence. Everyone knows when he is on set, especially the make-up girls, and sometimes you wish he’d shut up but he does eventually, when he shoves another Marlboro Red in his head.”

A producer who has worked closely with Mendelsohn cites his “vulnerabilities”. “Ben certainly has things he doesn’t want to go into. Family stuff that you just can’t go anywhere near.” Earlier this year Fred Mendelsohn told Good Weekend that his adult son had “come to terms a lot more with those demons of his childhood. I don’t really know what the demons were about. No doubt the break-up of my first marriage contributed… But some of it I think might be innate.”

Last year Mendelsohn told The Australian that he’s “had a bit of a look”‘ at Hollywood but US work has been thin on the ground. “The fact that he walked out [of the Sunday Life interview] probably indicates why he hasn’t done well here,” says an Australian working in Hollywood. “You have to be able to play the suck game unless, of course, you’re as talented and have as much bravado as Russell.”

But in many ways, Hollywood seems immaterial to Mendelsohn. After all, this is a high-school drop-out who, according to Mullet director David Caesar, reads philosophy and history texts on set and who claims to have penned several

books under a pseudonym. (“Gosh,” says Fred Mendelsohn when told about this, “I didn’t know about that.”)

“Ben’s a one-off and not the kind of guy you can constrain,” says Alec Morgan. “One day, after a really tedious seven-hour delay in shooting, we finally got the shot ready and I gave him all these instructions about how to do the scene,

which he totally disregarded. He just went on and improvised. And guess what? It was some of the best stuff we got all shoot.”