This week everybody’s talking about... BEN MENDELSOHN
Aussie actor was happy to sit in a room with his directing hero let alone star in his next blockbuster, writes James Wigney
BEN Mendelsohn is still trying to get his head around the fact that Steven Spielberg knew who the hell he was.
Arguably the greatest director of his generation, Spielberg had seen the Aussie actor in his acclaimed Netflix drama Bloodline, for which he won an Emmy, and thought Mendelsohn would be the perfect villain for his new sci-fi blockbuster, Ready Player One.
When the two met to discuss the film, based on the bestselling novel of the same name, Mendelsohn, a child of the ’70s and ’80s, had already ticked off one of his life goals, regardless of whether or not he landed the part.
The Melbourne-born actor, who turns 49 next week, had been brought up on a staple diet of Spielberg, naming Jaws (“I remember being taken to see that at the drive-in and I couldn’t get up over the seat”) and Poltergeist (“An unusual one, I discovered, for people to get fixated on”) as the two that made the biggest impression.
“I went and met with him and he laid it out,” says Mendelsohn. “I mean, he didn’t lay it out for me straight there, but it looked pretty good.
And I said:
‘Look, you give me the job, you don’t give me the job, this is good enough for me. I got to sit in a room with you’. It was all jam, mate.”
Since breaking through internationally thanks to his role in Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom,
Mendelsohn’s career has soared to heights he’d never dared dream about when he was child actor alongside Kylie Minogue in The Henderson Kids and Neighbours.
He has become Hollywood’s go-to villain, breaking bad in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and, most famously, the hit Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One.
With such success behind him — and further bad-guy roles coming up in yet another big screen version of Robin Hood and the superhero blockbuster Captain Marvel
— surely he’s accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the business?
Actually, no. “I am just not used to it,” he says, an air of bewilderment in his voice. “It’s really weird and really nice, but I am just not used to it. I smile sometimes when I am driving around when I think about it. Someone was just asking why there are so many of us — why do we kick up so many Australians doing well over here? You can’t think like that too much where we come from, it’s a different vibe.” Mendelsohn’s status as one of the most indemand actors around is all the more extraordinary given that at one point he thought it could have been all over. After burning bright in local films such as The Year My Voice Broke, The Big Steal, Spotswood and Mullet, the roles had largely dried up in the early 2000s. He indulged in what he has cryptically termed “excessive hedonism”, and at various points took jobs in a Melbourne bakery and washing dishes in a fancy Sydney restaurant. He’s philosophical about those tough times now, just as he is about his current purple patch.
“I wasn’t working a lot — but I had some pretty happy times not working a lot,” he reflects. “I mean, if you have to not work a lot, Australia is pretty kind to you. Just getting older, mate, you just know. You get a sense that life’s really good, smile, enjoy it.”
In Ready Player One Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the head of a rapacious tech corporation that wants to seize control of the virtual reality world known as The OASIS to use for its own nefarious and money-grubbing ends. Mendelsohn doesn’t hold back on his assessment of his character. “He’s a guy with wounded vanity who ended up finagling his way into becoming a master of the universe and wants everyone else to pay for it, basically,” he says with a laugh. “Just some punk who’s trying to suck up to the guy who made the internet, got rebuffed, got angry and has manoeuvred his way up a chain inside this corporation and took it over.”
Much of the action in Ready Player One takes place inside the fantastical virtual world of The OASIS, where Mendelsohn’s character takes on the form of a hugely muscled, square-jawed version of himself. Where the film cautions against the addictively immersive nature of such worlds over real human contact, Mendelsohn is relaxed about the emergence of technology. “I tend to reflect on the idea that any time new technologies come up there is a great deal of anxiety about them as well as an overestimation of hope about what they are going to do for us,” he says. “But I think we are a little bit better than we sometimes worry we are.” Despite working on some big films in recent years — Ready Player One had a budget more than 200 times that of his acclaimed 2001 Australian drama Mullet — Mendelsohn says he’s fundamentally the same actor.
“It’s more intimate on Mullet, it’s cosier, but the job is the same,” he says. “You have to try to not get spooked by the scale. I more or less carry on with the same kind of palaver and make myself feel comfortable there.”
“I MEAN, IF YOU HAVE TO NOT WORK A LOT, AUSTRALIA IS PRETTY KIND TO YOU”
AUSSIE BEN MENDELSOHN, AND TOP, AS NOLAN SORRENTO IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD OF READY PLAYER ONE.