Raw talent

Author: By Elissa Blake
Date: 27/05/2010
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald

He might be playing dark, troubled men on screen but off screen, former angry young man Ben Mendelsohn has mellowed. Just don’t mention the Melbourne Storm. By 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 Newtown’s dimly lit Bank Hotel. “Are you waiting for me?” he asks, incredulous. “Faaark … no one told me! I’m ready. I can’t believe you’re waiting, f… it, that’s enough waiting, f…”

He bounds towards the bar and orders a Coke, muttering. It’s 2pm on a warm autumn Tuesday afternoon and I’ve been killing time for less than five minutes. Mendelsohn, you see, hates the whole idea of waiting.

The photographer has already been warned by his minders: “Ben really likes to get going – he’s not big on standing around.” During set-ups, the actor occupies the spare minutes 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 mates, 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 good friend Anthony Hayes. “It’s like playing cards with a child.”

As well as being notoriously fidgety, he is also known for being a difficult interview. He once drop-kicked a room-service tray out a Melbourne 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 an interview with Herald journalist Tim Elliott, he deflected every question, became irritated with the line of questioning and walked out. But today, Mendelsohn proves to be polite and attentive. His boots stay on. His smile is a familiar crinkle. He speaks softly, with colourful directness (he swears a lot), and sits perfectly still, occasionally stroking his broken, yellowing fingernails when he pauses to think.

He has reason to be less volatile, more content these days. His new film, Animal Kingdom, a crime thriller about the Melbourne underworld, won the World Cinema Jury Prize (Drama) at Sundance in January and early reviews have compared it to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Mendelsohn is tipped to collect awards for his blistering performance as Pope, the cruel and violent elder brother of the Cody family.

I have a long list of questions for him 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 something 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 him feel like a crazy man? “No. But if that happens, it’s a useful synergy.”

At 41, Mendelsohn has moved on from the boyish roles that made him one of the most famous Australian actors in the late ’80s and early ’90s – The Year My Voice Broke, The Big Steal, Spotswood, Sirens, Cosi, Idiot Box – and is now playing much 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 and Guy Pearce, Mendelsohn’s seething performance in Animal Kingdom is a masterclass in menacing stare-downs, barely audible threats and out-of-nowhere brain explosions, all delivered with blank and pitiless ferocity. David Michod wrote the role specifically for Mendelsohn, trying to capture his “raw and untamed” qualities, but the first-time feature director says he wasn’t prepared for the actor’s on-set intensity. “It was quite tense between us at times,” Michod says. “He can be incredibly challenging. But he got more takes out of me than anybody else. It’s not that he isn’t getting it right, it’s that he’s so unpredictable. Each take is so different, it’s exciting to see what he’ll do next.”

Mendelsohn gives the impression he comes from the I-don’t-give-a-stuff school of acting. He doesn’t learn his lines (legend has it he has an extraordinary memory), doesn’t research the role. He doesn’t talk to other actors about the scene in advance and no one knows what he’s going to do.

(There are exceptions to his rules. He coached 18-year-old actor Laura Wheelwright through a difficult drug scene in Animal Kingdom, while Maeve Dermody says he was “very protective and supportive” during their confronting sex scenes in Beautiful Kate.)

His 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, partly because writers are starting to create roles that are closer to him, a little more gregarious, more playful, more mad – and he is revelling in them.”

He does seem to be enjoying something of a career renaissance. In the past two years, he has appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Rachel Ward’s directorial debut, Beautiful Kate, David Caesar’s quirky Prime Mover and Alex Proyas’s science fiction/disaster film Knowing. “I feel kinda lucky,” he says, “because I have been around for a long time. I’ve had quiet periods for a couple of years here and there but I always knew I’d keep going.”

Maeve Dermody 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.”

Actor and long-time friend Justine Clarke, who stars with Mendelsohn in the pay-TV series Tangle, adds that Mendelsohn is sensitive but also “unapologetically male”. “I first saw him in The Year My Voice Broke and his performance had a huge impact on me as a young actor. He has great emotional depth and power. He’s also deeply private and a bit of a loner.”

The path to success hasn’t always been smooth. Paul Benjamin Mendelsohn was born in Parkville, Melbourne, in 1969, the eldest son of Frederick, a doctor, and Carole, a nurse. He describes his childhood as “troubled”. 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 of primary school in Melbourne.

A bright child, he dreamed of being a spy, like James Bond. His parents split when he was seven years old and he lived with his mother for a few years before moving in with his father and stepmother, travelling to the US with them when his father began work at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC. At 13, Mendelsohn was sent to Mercersburg Academy, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, with the motto “Integrity, Virility, Fidelity”. Within six months, he was expelled. “I burnt some stuff,” he says, blankly. He burnt stuff? Set fire to something? “I burnt … some … stuff.” He takes a drag on his cigarette, eyes smiling.

Returning to Melbourne and living with his grandmother, he did drama at school because he thought it might be easy. “We did a little play called Mother, which was kind of a riff on totalitarianism,” 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 school, he auditioned for Crawfords and landed roles in The Flying Doctors and The Henderson Kids. He was 15, financially independent and couldn’t see any point in continuing his education. His father wasn’t so sure. “Dad was a bit worried about me becoming an actor.” Mendelsohn snr, now director of the Howard Florey Institute, Australia’s leading brain research facility, “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.”

His father, he adds, “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.”

Acting is all he knows, 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, before he moved to Sydney, Mendelsohn developed a reputation for being a party animal. The rush of early fame combined with a few quiet years, waiting for jobs, saw him turn to alcohol and drugs. At the after-party premiere for The Piano in 1993, it was reported that Mendelsohn was in a “comatose state”, 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, Kate Fischer, whom he met on the set of Sirens, said at the time his drug use “drove me insane with worry”. But Mendelsohn says his wild years are long gone. He seldom drinks these days and can’t name a single pub or bar he likes to visit. He is an ambassador for the Mirabel Foundation, a charitable organisation supporting children who have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of parental drug use.

He lives a mild bachelor lifestyle, rarely heading out more than a block from his home. Based in Sydney for more than 15 years, first in Surry Hills and then at Bondi and Tamarama, he now lives in well-heeled Woollahra. “I’m glad to say I lived in St Kilda and Surry Hills and Bondi before they turned,” he says. “Those areas got safe and infested with right-on people, people you just don’t want to be around.”

Woollahra is not exactly edgy but as he points out, “I’m an old bugger now so

I don’t care about that any more. I live in the east because most of my friends are there. It’s good and repulsive at the same time. But at least there is nothing right-on about Woollahra.”

Mendelsohn fills his days hanging out with friends, often playing games of backgammon, 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 AFL team Hawthorn but when the 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 ex-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” so everyone can “just get f…ed”.

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

Okay. Are you still seeing Emily Barclay? He smiles. Ask anything you like but don’t expect an answer.

Over the years, Mendelsohn has kept his private life private. He rarely 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 include Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, 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 co-star on The Henderson Kids, and model and socialite Kate Fischer. The gossip columns have also linked him with Kate Beahan (best known for her role as Mark Read’s girlfriend in Chopper) and Love My Way actress Adelaide Clemens.

Most recently, he was reported to be seeing 25-year-old New Zealand actor Emily Barclay, who appeared in Prime Mover with him. The pair were spotted hugging and kissing in the foyer of Belvoir St Theatre on the opening night of That Face in February, after Barclay had turned in an astonishing performance as a troubled schoolgirl. But Mendelsohn is tight-lipped about her. “I’m not with Em,” he says firmly. “I’m being genuine. If I was with her, I’d tell you. There’s nothing to say there. I’m a single man.”

He has 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 says he “didn’t come from a particularly great template for relationship building”, which may explain why he is not in a long-term relationship. “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 really good guys.”

Is it a role he could see himself in down the track? “I think it would be great,” he says, without obvious enthusiasm.

Perhaps there are some parts even an actor can’t see himself playing. “When you’re a young man, you have certain ideas about potency and aggression and standing and making a mark.” He pauses. “But at some point, that’s no longer the focus.” (s)

BEN’S SYDNEY …

Bookshop

Lesley McKay’s Bookshop, 118-122 Queen Street, Woollahra.

“The guy in there is extraordinary. I asked him a very obscure question about the Thirty Years’ War. I’d been looking for a while and couldn’t find anything. He knew exactly what

I needed.”

Cafe

Nostimo Cafe, 113 Queen Street, Woollahra.

“The most normal cafe in Woollahra. I like the people who work there – it’s not flash and they do a decent cup of coffee. It’s where I used to go every morning with John Cann, the [theatrical] agent who passed away.”

Restaurant

Pier, 594 New

South Head Road, Rose Bay.

“It’s a fish joint down on Rose Bay. It’s super fancy and very good.”

View

Dudley Page Reserve, Dover Heights.

“It’s beautiful; you can look out over the bridge and the city.”

Park

Cooper Park, Bellevue Hill.

“It’s one of those parks made in a period when they just left it to nature. It’s beautiful, very steep on both sides.”

Beach Gordon’s Bay, Clovelly.

“Because no one is there. Same with Clovelly Bay.”

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