“Ben’s fantastic,” director, Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly), told FilmInk of Ben Mendelsohn. “He’s just a force of nature.” While the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman might get all the plaudits and acclaim for their high flying international success, when it comes down to the pure craft of acting, multiple AFI Award winner Ben Mendelsohn could comfortably throw down the gauntlet to any of them. This towering, hardworking, charismatic thesp is truly one of the best in the business, a man capable of playing any character in the book, from hard boiled psychos and flawed heroes to funny guys and romantic leads.
Though it feels like he’s been around forever, Mendelsohn still exudes a boyish charm and youthful vigour on screen, and is an equally rakish and entertaining presence off screen. Born in 1969 in Melbourne to a medical researcher father and registered nurse mother, Mendelsohn moved with his family to Europe and the US for long periods of time, before finally returning to Melbourne to attend high school.
He took drama because he thought it was an easy class, and was the only one of his friends to follow up an advertised audition for TV’s Crawford Productions. In 1983, while still at high school, Mendelsohn appeared in the role of an enslaved Inca in The Heidelberg Theatre Company’s production of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, and then started picking up regular work on television, with roles on series such as A Country Practice, The Henderson Kids and Neighbours. In 1987, however, Mendelsohn was cast as complex teenage larrikin Trevor in John Duigan’s coming-of-age masterpiece, The Year My Voice Broke, and instantly established himself as an actor of formidable gifts. Receiving wide acclaim, Mendelsohn has worked non-stop in film and television ever since.
He has featured in over 25 feature films (including the likes of Australia, Knowing, The New World, Vertical Limit, Sample People, Black And White, Hunt Angels, Map Of The Human Heart, Sirens, Killer Elite, Needle, The Place Beyond The Pines, Starred Up, and The Dark Knight Rises) and a fistful of TV shows (Love My Way, Tangle, Girls, and Bloodline, for which he received rapturous praise). “When Ben comes to set, you get on a ride,” Ryan Gosling – who worked with Mendelsohn on The Place Beyond The Pines, and also on his directorial debut, Lost River – told FilmInk. “He shows up, listening to 2 Live Crew, but doing it like Al Jolson. He’s just a force! I loved [Rachel Ward’s 2009 film] Beautiful Kate – that’s where I first saw him.”
On his highlight list, Mendelsohn has crafted fascinating portraits of compromised Australian men in Mullet and the aforementioned Beautiful Kate; edgy wild boys in Idiot Box (“He’s just a fuckin’ lost boofhead”), Lover Boy and Metal Skin; loveable nice guys in Cosi, The Big Steal, Return Home, and Spotswood; and broiling, unforgettable villains in Prime Mover and Animal Kingdom.
And as Director Orson Krennic in this week’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, expect Ben Mendelsohn to have another fearsome bad guy to put on his already impressive list. “For my money, you don’t need to go, ‘Ooga boooga boooga’ in order to be scary,” the actor told FilmInk of his extraordinary performance in Animal Kingdom. “It’s enough that you simply don’t know what this guy will do next.”
Have you felt a change in perception about you overseas since Animal Kingdom? “What do you think? [Laughs] It’s night and day…it’s just like a whole, different thing for all of us. Take Jacki Weaver; she’s been a staple of Australian entertainment – on stage, screen, and television – for a very long time. It wasn’t like anyone was desperate to work with Jacki in the states. But they go and see Animal Kingdom, and say, ‘Oh my god, oh my god!’ All of a sudden, it’s all about that! It did good things for everyone, so it’s like night and day.”
Does that change the whole situation for you in America? Does it help with auditions, and that whole process? “Of course, I still have to audition. There are periods at home where I haven’t auditioned but, relatively speaking, they’re still in the minority. I had to audition for Beautiful Kate, and I had a bunch of films out that year. The Dark Knight Rises didn’t come through Animal Kingdom at all though; that was my agent pestering me to put something on tape when I was doing Killing Them Softly. Most of the time, though, they still come from auditions. There are certain things that I’ll get offered here and there, but most of the time, I’ve got to go and put something down.”
The Dark Knight Rises is, of course, a major blockbuster. Was that a thrill for you to be a part of the film? “Christopher Nolan’s stuff is really special. His are tent pole movies, but they’re made by someone really, really interesting, and a really good filmmaker. It doesn’t always happen that way. There tends to be a lot of compromise, although in the best examples, there never are. Toy Story 3, for instance, is brilliant, and it does its job well. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are fantastic, but the thing that impressed itself most upon me was how unfussed it is at the top, in inverted commas. You’re on pretty much one of the biggest films on earth, and there’s an enormous artillery of equipment, but when you get to the floor, it’s all very calm. It’s unfussed, and no one’s really trying to pretend, and no one’s posing. No one’s doing anything to assert their status, or any of that shit. It’s just like, ‘Next shot, next shot, next shot.’ It’s unfussed, and very relaxed. Most of the people on the film had worked together before, so it was like being an invited guest to a pretty good dinner party. I’ve gotta say, that was what was most exciting about it: the degree to which there weren’t any dramas…like, nil.”
What about the thriller, Trespass, with Nicolas Cage? “That was a real eleventh hour thing. At that time, I was really grabbing my current representation by the lapels, and trying to impress upon them that if I wasn’t going to get a job after the current swag of films that I’d done, then I never would. And then I got a call out of the blue from [director] Joel Schumacher a few days later. I got sent the script in the morning, and then he rang me at midday, and said, ‘Are you gonna do the film?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do the film…thank you for asking.’ [Laughs] And that was that! That was actually the first film that I did in the US for quite a while. I did The New World many years before, but Trespass was the first one over here since then. That got the ball rolling a little bit, but it was really Andrew’s film and the Batman film that have lifted and shifted stuff around.”
Are you living in America now? Do you go back and forth between there and Australia now? “I’ve been in the states for about four years now; I’ve got a place at home too. I’ve been backwards and forwards a few times.”
Do you like living in the US? “I always used to like coming here because there was a feeling like no one knew who I was, which was good. I like it. It shocks you when you first get here because you can’t believe the actual physicality of it all from everything that you’ve seen on television and in films. You cannot believe the physical presence of Los Angeles; it feels very different from what you think it’s going to feel like. It takes time to discover it on its own terms. I have friends who have been over here for a long time; a fair whack of the peers that I came up with either went to London or LA. I’ve been coming here since the early nineties, and I’ve always liked getting out for a bit. Travelling around has been my life since I was tiny. We’d pack up, go somewhere, pack up, and go somewhere else, so it just feels normal.”
You’ve been acting for so long…do you sometimes sit back and reflect and think that it’s been a strange life? “It’s coming up to thirty years now, but you can never rest into it too much. You’ve got to keep trying to find what it is. That’s pretty exhilarating, but it’s the insecurity of the job that sometimes makes you wish for something a little less hand-to-mouth. It’s got a lot of fantastic stuff about it though. There was a small handful of actors that came up that my work sort of meant something to, and that’s a really good feeling…a really good feeling. There’s almost an extended family vibe about some of the local jobs…it’s pretty good.”
Do you get recognised a lot? “Yeah, yeah. It comes in waves, and then it goes away again. People, for the most part, have been pretty good. There are a few city slickers that can get a bit snooty and stuff, but most people are pretty good. For most people, they don’t know me at first, but then they hear my voice and I might sound a bit familiar.”
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released in cinemas on December 15.