MR MYSTERIOUS – The Age

Author: Elissa Blake
Date: 28/05/2010
Publication: The Age

Does he have a girlfriend or not? What did happen at that boarding school? And what’s with the “crazy man” haircut? Ben Mendelsohn is not exactly the easiest person to interview, writes Elissa Blake.
Ben Mendelsohn, wearing a crumpled brown T-shirt, a black hoodie and dark blue jeans, pops his head around the corner of a door in the dimly lit pub where we’ve arranged to meet. “Are you waiting for me?” he asks, incredulous. “F—, no one told me! I’m ready. I can’t believe you’re waiting, that’s enough waiting, f—.”

He bounds towards the bar and orders a Coke, muttering that he cannot believe I’ve been kept waiting.

It’s 2pm on a warm autumn Tuesday afternoon and I’ve been waiting less than five minutes. But Mendelsohn hates the whole idea of waiting. The photographer has already been warned: “Ben doesn’t like standing around doing nothing.” During set-ups, the Melbourne actor occupies the spare seconds putting things in his mouth: a burrito, a chocolate bar, a coffee, back-to-back cigarettes.

Typical “Ben” behaviour, apparently. Even when he’s with his friends, Mendelsohn can’t sit still. “When we play poker, if he bails out early, he’ll start dealing everyone’s rounds to keep things moving,” says actor and friend Anthony Hayes. “It’s like playing cards with a child.”

Mendelsohn is here to talk up his new film, Animal Kingdom, a crime thriller based loosely on the underworld family connected to the 1988 Walsh Street police shootings. Shot in and around Melbourne – in Bundoora, Altona, Ivanhoe, Brighton and the CBD – the film won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance in January and early reviews have compared it to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). Mendelsohn is tipped to collect awards for his performance as the cruel and violent elder brother of the family.

As well as being notoriously fidgety, he is known for being a difficult interview subject. He once drop-kicked a room-service tray out of his hotel room door during a prickly session with The Age’s Jim Schembri. He took off his boots, offering them to Schembri, saying, “I just wanted you to get a smell of me, too.” In other interviews, he has deflected every question, gone on wild tangents or simply walked out.

Today, though, his boots stay on. His cornflower blue eyes shine above his familiar crinkly smile. He speaks softly, with colourful directness (lots of F bombs), and sits perfectly still, occasionally stroking his broken, yellowing fingernails when he pauses to think. Gentleman Ben has shown up today.

I have a long list of questions but looking at the silver faux-hawk flopping across his brow, one jumps to the head of the queue: What’s with the hair?

He laughs. “Well,” he says, sucking on the first of many cigarettes. “My hair was looking a bit … whatever. So I got it cut. I asked the hairdresser for a ‘home’ cut. Slightly institutional looking, like a crazy man. He took it much further than I was thinking, but it worked out fine.”

And does it make you feel like a crazy man?

“No. But if that happens, it’s a useful synergy.”

Mendelsohn, 41, has long shaken off the boyish roles that made him one of the most recognisable actors in Australian film in the late ’80s and early ’90s – The Henderson Kids, The Year My Voice Broke, The Big Steal, Spotswood, Idiot Box, Sirens, Cosi – and is now playing darker characters: violent men, troubled fathers, prodigal sons, all of them complex and hard to love.

“I never felt like someone who was boyish and coming to terms with asking girls out or anything like that, which was what The Big Steal and Spotswood were about,” he snorts. “But I guess that’s the impression I left on people. I’d wanna be playing men by now. I’d be in trouble if I wasn’t.”

Working alongside Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Luke Ford and newcomer James Frecheville, Mendelsohn’s performance in Animal Kingdom is a master class in barely audible dialogue delivered with blank and pitiless ferocity. Director David Michod says he wrote the role specifically for Mendelsohn, trying to capture his “raw and untamed” qualities. “It was quite tense between us at times. He can be incredibly challenging,” he says.

Mendelsohn does give the impression he comes from the I-don’t-give-a-shit school of acting. He doesn’t learn his lines, doesn’t research the role. He doesn’t like to talk to other actors about the scene in advance and no one knows what he’s going to do. Love My Way co-star Brendan Cowell says Mendelsohn “can be quite unnerving” to work with.

“He’s always messing around with you, challenging you. It’s not until the end of the day you realise it was all part of making the scenes fire. I think Ben is getting better as an actor.”

He does seem to be enjoying something of a career renaissance. In the past two years, he has appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), Beautiful Kate (2009), Prime Mover (2009) and the science fiction film Knowing (2009), shot in Melbourne (standing in for Boston) with Nicolas Cage. The last three were made within weeks of each other. “There was a lot of running around during that period,” Mendelsohn says. “I’ve had quiet periods for a couple of years here and there but I always knew I’d keep going.”

Claudia Karvan, who has known Mendelsohn since they starred in Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal in 1990, aged 18 and 21 respectively, says he can be “very naughty” on a set. “He’s loud, hilarious, verging on genius. He gets bored and mucks up, but that’s fun too.” Maeve Dermody, his co-star in Beautiful Kate, says Mendelsohn has an “incredible vulnerability for a grown man … He looked after me but really he was the one who needed looking after. He’s grown up on film sets, that’s his family, his home. He talks to everyone and shares his newspaper with the crew … and it’s not random, there’s a little bit of fear there, too, an anxiety.”

He describes his childhood as “troubled”; born in Parkville in 1969, the eldest son of Frederick, a doctor, and Carole, a nurse. His early years were spent travelling and living in Europe, including a stint in Munich during which he picked up a German accent. He was teased mercilessly for it on his first day at Heidelberg Primary School. A bright child, he dreamed of being a spy, like James Bond. When his parents split he tried living with his mother, starting at Eltham High School, before heading to America where his father was working at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC. When he was 13, Mendelsohn was sent to Mercersburg Academy, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. Within six months, he was expelled.

Why?

“I burnt some stuff,” he says, blankly.

You burned stuff? Set fire to something?

“I burnt … some … stuff.” He takes a drag on his cigarette, eyes twinkling.

Returning to Melbourne, and living with his grandmother, he enrolled at Banyule High School (now Viewbank College) and chose drama as an elective because he thought it might be easy. “We did a little play called Mother which was kind of a riff on totalitarianism. I played Mother and Mother got pushed around on this scaffolding and barked out orders,” he says. “I’ve got a good memory for songs and words and I memorised the entire play and could speak all the lines really quickly. The teacher heard me doing it one day and asked if I’d do it in front of the whole school as a one-man show. From then, I wanted to be an actor.”

After playing Bottom (“the best role”) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Banyule High, he auditioned for Crawford Productions and landed roles in The Flying Doctors and The Henderson Kids. He was 15, financially independent and couldn’t see any point in continuing with school. At 17, he won an AFI award for his role in The Year My Voice Broke. “Dad was a bit worried about me becoming an actor,”

he says. His father, Professor Frederick Mendelsohn, is currently director of the Howard Florey Institute, Australia’s leading brain research facility at the University of Melbourne. “Dad spoke to my grandmother about it and she said, ‘You have to let him follow his own path’. I think Dad was probably right to worry.

“Dad was a pretty hands-off parent. And Grandma … I loved her very much. But there was a real formlessness around growing up, a real find-your-own-way attitude in most things, which I don’t think is ideal for young people. I needed more attention. Maybe that’s why I ended up being an actor. I think most actors do what they do because they like the idea of being something different to what they are … to escape their reality. I think that’s the impetus for me. And there’s the whole thing about meeting girls, too.”

What motivates him now? “I keep going because I don’t know what else to do with any kind of competence, this is all I know,” he says. “You just want to get the scenes right. That becomes the joy of it. What you have to reconcile yourself with is the waiting. Whether it’s on the day or in between jobs, you spend an enormous amount of time waiting and a very short amount of time actually doing the work.”

There’s the waiting again. He’s learning to deal with it now but in the past it nearly sent him off the rails. In the early ’90s, living in St Kilda, Mendelsohn developed a reputation as a party animal.

The pressures of early fame combined with a few quiet years saw him turn to alcohol and drugs. At the after-party for the premiere of The Piano in 1993, it was reported that Mendelsohn was in a “comatose state” at Mietta’s, using a marble table for a pillow. (“I just gave way to excessive hedonism,” he told a reporter in 1997. “It was a way of dealing with feelings.”) His then-girlfriend, the model and socialite Kate Fischer, whom he met on the set of Sirens, said at the time his drug use “drove me insane with worry”.

Mendelsohn says his wild years are long gone. He says he very seldom drinks these days and he can’t name a single pub or bar he likes to visit. He is a patron of the Mirabel Foundation, a charitable organisation based in his old haunt of St Kilda that supports children who have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of parental drug use.

Mendelsohn fills his days hanging out with friends, often playing games of backgammon and Monopoly and poker. He watches old films (Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev is a current favourite), browses bookstores for history books and downloads podcasts from BBC Radio 4. His main passion is following his beloved – now beleaguered – NRL team, the Melbourne Storm. He grew up barracking for Hawthorn but when Storm came along he “loved the cheekiness of putting a rugby league team right in the centre of Melbourne”.

Suddenly he is Die Hard Ben. He launches into a tirade against “those f—ing idiots” (the NRL’s administrators) who took away the team’s premierships and the way that disgraced Storm chief executive Brian Waldron is being held up as “some kind of Satan”. In the end, he says, “it will only make the team stronger”.

He lights another cigarette. He’s having fun now. “What else do you want to know? Ask me anything,” he says.

Is he still seeing Emily Barclay, the 25-year-old New Zealand actor, who appeared in Prime Mover with him? The pair were spotted hugging in the foyer of Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney on the opening night of That Face in February (Barclay had just turned in a strong performance as the teenaged daughter in Polly Stenham’s play about a dysfunctional family).

Mendelsohn is tight-lipped about her. “I’m not with Em,” he says firmly. Was he? He laughs. “I’m being genuine. If I was with her, I’d tell you. There’s nothing to say there. I’m a single man.”

Is he a one-woman man?

“Yes. Pretty much. I’ve never been married. I’ve only had girlfriends and the things that led to those relationships dissolving were not my infidelities, put it that way. I like having a girlfriend. I love it. I’ve kissed the odd girl. It’s probably high time to move on from that, I’m not interested in chasing girls, per se. No. I’ve done that.” He gives me a crooked smile.

Over the years, Mendelsohn has kept his private life private. He seldom attends red carpet events or parties and will not speak about his love life, saying it’s “vulgar” and his “heroes never did it”. (Those heroes are Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. His acting heroes are Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.) Early girlfriends included Justine Clarke (“we were munchkins then, but we went overseas together and it was lovely. I think she broke my heart”), Nadine Garner, his costar on The Henderson Kids, and Kate Fischer.

The gossip columns have also linked him with Kate Beahan (best known for her role as Chopper Read’s girlfriend in Chopper) and Love My Way actress Adelaide Clemens.

Is there any reason why he is not in a long-term relationship?

“I probably didn’t come from a particularly great template for relationship building,” he says. “The vagaries of the job don’t help either. The people I admire the most are family men. The most heroic thing you can do is be a good father. You’ll see guys who are like that, they’re men, but they have a softness to them as well and they’re not having to be tough. They’re great guys, really good guys. They are men that have a solidity to them and know what they’re here for.

“I’m not married with kids. So I don’t count myself as having achieved that.”

Is it something he hopes for?

“I think it would be great!” he says, pausing. “Yeah, I think it would be great.

“When you’re a young man you have certain ideas about potency and aggression and standing and making a mark but at some point that’s no longer the focus. And I think it’s really interesting, maybe it’s just me getting older too, but the people I really do admire – and I’m not being glib about it – good family people, adjusted people,” he huffs, “rather than people who are … not.” (m)

Ben Mendelsohn

Age 41

Born Parkville, 1969

Films “My first favourite film was The Yearling (1946). I saw it when I was four or five and I cried for weeks after it. The other one is Robin Hood (1973), the animated film. Then, from the time I’m about 15 and I started acting, it’s Taxi Driver (1976). I went nuts over that film.”

Books “Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) I remember loving a lot when I was growing up. Other than that I’m really liking history books, I’ve cracked open Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) at the moment.”

Television The Wire. Lateline.

Gadgets “iPod. There are 15,000-odd songs on there: hip-hop stuff, jazz, classical, country. I really do like a lot of different stuff.”

Admires “David Attenborough, the most travelled man on earth, ran the BBC, passes on a lot of his stuff, enthusiastic, warm, intelligent, inquisitive. He’s done everything.”

Greatest extravagance “Staying in the Australian film industry, I guess, that’s pretty f—ing extravagant.”

Best Advice “Anthony Hopkins gave me the best acting advice when I was working on Spotswood (1992). He said, just don’t worry about it too much, just get there and have a feeling for it, do it, don’t think about it, then go home.”

Exercise “Nothing.”

Faith “None.”

Ben’s (melbourne)

Favourite bookshop

Readings, 309 Lygon Street, Carlton, phone 9347 6633.

“It’s the best book store in Melbourne by far.”

Favourite cafes

Galleon Cafe, 9 Carlisle Street, St Kilda, phone 9534 8934.

“They do an incredibly good bacon and egg breakfast. It’s stayed the same for a long, long time and that’s what I like about it.”

Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke Street, city, phone 9662 1885.

“It is definitely the best cafe in Melbourne.”

Favourite restaurant

Leo’s Spaghetti Bar, 55 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, phone 9525 4454.

“The good thing about Leo’s is it has three levels of dining: there’s the cheap front, the middle back and the expensive bit at the top where you get your carpet bag steaks and stuff like that, which is pretty funny. It’s a good place to hang out.”

Favourite music venue

Festival Hall, 300 Dudley Street, West Melbourne. “You want a barn like Festival Hall to hear music or you want something that has an old-style feel to it like the Palais in St Kilda.”

Favourite walk

Around the city

“When I was a kid I would go into the city by myself and walk around and I’ve always loved it.”

Favourite park

Yarra River

“The North Richmond to Kew area, even up into Hurstbridge, that’s beautiful as well.”

Favourite beach

Ninety Mile Beach, Gippsland

“It’s a country beach but it’s the most awesome beach.”

Favourite view

Alfred Square in St Kilda

“You want to be high on the Upper Esplanade to see that beautiful slope stretching before you.”

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