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.