Role playing with Ben – The Age

Author: Leigh Paatsch
Date: 29/03/1996
Publication: The Age

The boy who made his name playing gawky adolescents, Ben Mendelsohn, just wants to grow up. He spoke to Leigh Paatsch about his latest character, in the film Cosi.
PELLEGRINI’S Coffee Emporium; 10 o’clock in the morning. After a few self-inflicted caffeine jolts to the head, Ben Mendelsohn is sitting bolt upright, loudly lamenting the fact that the Australian media inevitably welds his name to the prefix “young Australian actor”.

“Most opinions about one’s ability are difficult to assimilate, ” offers Mendelsohn, choosing his words carefully. “There was a period in my working life – I think it was just after Spotswood – where the idea was that I was going to become the embodiment of an Australian `sweet boy’, or whatever. I don’t think people who ever buy into those kinds of labels ever investigate for evidence that much,” says the 27-year- old actor of his typecasting by the media for his initial roles playing offbeat adolescents. “Over the space of 16 films I’ve played a wide variety of characters in the best way I could do. So you can see that I don’t really place that much stock in people’s opinions of my work. It’s probably one of the shortcomings of the way that the industry tends to work,” he says.

Clearly, there’s an older head grafted on to Ben Mendelsohn’s (dare I say it?) “young” shoulders. Looking at his screen work, from his laconic turns in the charming The Year My Voice Broke (for which he won his first AFI award, aged 18) and Spotswood, through spirited performances in low-budget productions such as Return Home and Nirvana Street Murder, to last year’s rumble through suburban streets as the charismatic petrolhead Daisy in the controversial Metal Skin – it is not hard to see why. While most of his acting contemporaries are the spiritual sons of Messrs. Gibson, Weaving and Mercurio, Ben Mendelsohn is our one end-of-the-century link to that icon of the knockabout Australian persona, Chips Rafferty. It’s not that Mendelsohn gads about in a slouch hat, chewing gum and spouting, `Strewth!’ at every opportunity. He simply exudes an economical poise and honesty that is always affecting, never affected. That’s about as Australian as you’ll get in our homegrown movies these days.

Mendelsohn can be currently seen in the first big Australian film for 1996, Cosi, a crowd-pleasing comic adaptation of Louis Nowra’s hit play from earlier this decade. It’s a semi- autobiographical piece by Nowra, and Mendelsohn ambles through the central part of Lewis, a young theatre teacher landed with the job of helping a group of mental patients mount their own staging of the classic Italian opera Cosi fan tutte, in the unassuming fashion that we’ve come expect from him.

“I don’t know if you’d call the way I play Lewis in Cosi as low-key,” reflects Mendelsohn, “but it is such a comprehensive piece of writing that it didn’t need that much embellishment to make it work, you know? I guess that I was at an advantage in that I was part of the play in its original incarnation in Sydney in 1990/91. I’ve always thought of it as a really funny piece of writing, really. Like most things that start off as a play, you learn about what you are doing the further you get into it. Ideas dawn on you, and you try a few things.

Some come off, some don’t. But even though it didn’t seem to me like a play that would become a film, as the play went from city to city around Australia, the reaction to it just got stronger and stronger. The same will apply to the movie version, I think.”

Unlike most creative vocations, those immersed in the craft of film acting often take home nothing tangible from a shoot.

A waiting game then ensues to see how your work will be received in a cinema release that often comes, as it has with Cosi, well over a year down the track. So how adept is Ben Mendelsohn at coping with the `down time’ between when the cameras are packed up and the film posters are rolled out?

“You walk away with memories,” says Mendelsohn. “I hate to say it, but I also think I walk away from acting gigs wondering if I could have done better. Often, you finish work on a part, and you wish that you could start again, because you were only just starting to get a handle on that character.

That’s quite a common experience for me. But that waiting period between when you finish shooting a film and its release is quite an odd one, really. You look forward to it, sure, but there’s always that funny, nagging uncertainty about how it’s going to be received.”

And does he look forward to the day when that tag “young Australian actor” – and all the baggage that comes with it – will no longer apply to his name?

“Yeah, you gotta laugh. What am I in now? My 12th or 13th year? I can do without that kind of stuff, you know? But it’s out of my control. They can say what they like. I’ll still be around tomorrow. I’ve just always loved being in films, ever since I was a little one, because they are a pretty magical sort of thing. They are one of the few drug-free hallucinogenics around. It’s a bit like going to church, I’ve heard people say. Personally, I’ve found that they take me over. I like that.”