Ben Men­del­sohn talks about his teen years in Amer­ica

“Amer­i­cans are a lot more at ease than us, in a lot of ways. We think of our­selves as the easy­go­ing ones – it’s ab­so­lute bull­shit.”

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Ben Men­del­sohn

A cig­a­rette. Ben Men­del­sohn needs a smoke, and the pub­li­cists he has just ush­ered out of the ho­tel room with a tilt of his head and a wave of his hands knew that, he says. But here we are six floors above Syd­ney’s Dar­ling Har­bour and a free­way over­pass, be­gin­ning our chat an hour late in a day of me­dia in­ter­views, and the Mel­bourne-born, Los An­ge­les-based ac­tor, back home two days and jet lagged yet brim­ming with sharp, ner­vous en­ergy, needs his nico­tine hit. He sug­gests we be­gin the in­ter­view out­side so he can have a puff.

The Emmy-win­ning, 48-year-old star of the Net­flix se­ries Blood­line and now of the first fea­ture film of ex­pat Aus­tralian the­atre di­rec­tor Bene­dict An­drews, Una, is dressed in a dark blue jacket and black jeans, his thick, grey mussy hair fram­ing steely blue eyes. The eyes con­nect his boy­ish every­man look in his ear­li­est film and tele­vi­sion parts to his vis­age in the much seamier roles of the present – play­ing men crin­kled of brow and with crim­i­nal ten­den­cies – though to­day he of­ten flashes a wry, friendly smile.

Men­del­sohn had ear­lier said I look fa­mil­iar and asked if we’d met. No, but I in­ter­viewed him over the phone when he was still a teenager and I was a green sub­ur­ban news­pa­per journo who looked af­ter the TV guide. It was 1988, and Men­del­sohn was pro­mot­ing a mini-se­ries called All the Way, a Craw­ford pro­duc­tion for Chan­nel Nine, about a 1960s Aus­tralian fam­ily.

Now as we walk down the ho­tel cor­ri­dor to­wards the lift, the pub­li­cists in our stream, he says that’s a show of­ten for­got­ten in his CV, but smiles obliquely, re­call­ing nos­tal­gic de­tails.

Men­del­sohn had starred in John Duigan’s clas­sic com­ing-of-age film The Year My Voice Broke the pre­vi­ous year, for which he’d picked up an AFI award for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. His work in Spotswood and Cosi, as well as his wilder, he­do­nis­tic per­sonal years in the ’90s, was yet to come. The role in David Michôd’s crime fam­ily drama An­i­mal King­dom, which broke his ca­reer in the United States, didn’t come un­til 2010. I re­mem­ber he was charm­ing and well man­nered nearly 30 years ago, but I’d had no idea then that act­ing had saved him from a trou­bled teenage life.

Out­side, in an al­cove tucked un­der the noisy over­pass, Men­del­sohn lights up and takes my recorder to speak into di­rectly. He points to busy lanes of belch­ing traf­fic atop the vast con­crete wall. “This isn’t go­ing to be too bad, I think. See? Look at that: it’s a bit sonic-y, bouncy.”

His smile of techy au­dio ap­proval re­minds me he has sung in a cou­ple of movies. “Cool Wa­ter”, from Lost River, had him sound­ing a lit­tle like Nick Cave or Leonard Co­hen. More re­cently he recorded some nar­ra­tive bits on the new Go­ril­laz al­bum, too. He no­tices a con­crete stoop to sit on. “We can even get a fuckin’ foot­path up here. Does it bother you? Let’s do it.”

I in­ter­viewed Bene­dict An­drews over the phone nearly two years ago, when the now Reykjavik-based di­rec­tor was in London, edit­ing Una. Rooney Mara plays the tit­u­lar Una, who, hav­ing been reg­u­larly sex­u­ally as­saulted by Men­del­sohn’s char­ac­ter, Ray, from the age of 13, sud­denly turns up at Ray’s work­place 15 years later to ask: Why?

I’m guess­ing An­drews’ work­ing meth­ods are equally in­formed by the­atre as by film. “Well, we started off the re­hearsal very much as you would a the­atre piece,” says Men­del­sohn. “We sat down with the script around a table for a num­ber of days, and we would ro­tate in – Rooney would have a ses­sion, I would have a ses­sion, and we’d do it to­gether. So it was very for­mal in that way.

“It was al­most like a play, ex­cept we missed the get­ting to the stage and block­ing out all those bits of ac­tions. We went then into the film­ing of it. You’re deal­ing essen­tially with the two char­ac­ters, and the heart of the is­sue, and you’ve got ques­tions of love and lies, re­ally. If you know your chops, they’re rel­a­tively straight­for­ward ar­eas to play in.”

Tech­ni­cally, per­haps, but emo­tion­ally as an au­di­ence mem­ber, while I can see Ray wants to atone for the past ac­tions that saw him jailed, I feel a gut punch when he tries to go there again sex­u­ally with the dis­traught adult Una, who then asks: “Am I not young enough?”

Does Men­del­sohn have to sus­pend judge­ment to play Ray? “Well, you can have your judge­ment about some­one, but you’ve got to give the re­spect to the text,” he says. “You’ve got to play those scenes with as much im­me­di­acy and turn­ing up for them as you can. Look, twirling mous­taches can be in­cred­i­bly en­joy­able, but they’re for a dif­fer­ent type of pro­duc­tion.”

Rain starts to pour, and we head back up in the lift to con­tinue the in­ter­view in the ho­tel room.

In the scorching Florida heat, Men­del­sohn played dodgy Danny, the prin­ci­pal fo­cus of a fam­ily’s dis­tress, over the first two sea­sons of Blood­line, be­fore a chill­ing re­turn in the penul­ti­mate episode of the fi­nal sea­son. What will he miss most about that se­ries? “It’s the kind of crafts­man­ship you miss the most,” he says. “It’s the crew mem­bers, the guy that shoots it, it’s the cam­era­man, it’s April the clap­per-loader.

“Those guys, the Kessler broth­ers [Todd and Glenn] and Daniel Zel­man, they’re mas­ter crafts­men at be­ing able to weave to­gether a very co­her­ent, dys­func­tional kind of fam­ily dy­namic with these height­ened thriller as­pects.”

Ben Men­del­sohn’s own “very dis­parate” fam­ily – his phrase – might lend it­self to flash­backs and jump cuts, too, to per­haps partly ex­plain his grav­i­ta­tion to roles of men bur­dened with frac­tured kin­ship.

His mother, the late Ca­role Ann (née Fer­gu­son), a nurse, had wanted to call her son Ben, but in­stead he was named Paul at birth be­cause Men­del­sohn’s pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Os­car, baulked. “Ben Men­del­sohn was far too Jewish-sound­ing for my grand­fa­ther,” he says. Os­car was a com­poser who trained at the Juil­liard School and was the son of Saul Men­del­sohn, who com­posed the folk song “Bris­bane Ladies”, adapted from a sea shanty.

“Os­car re­jected the faith. He put his foot down. So Mum went, ‘Okay, I’ll call him Paul’, but then a week later, she started calling me Ben, so every­one had to fol­low suit. Paul is on my birth cer­tifi­cate, but the only peo­ple that call me Paul are bor­der guards and po­lice­men.”

His par­ents split when he was six. He lived with Ca­role Ann un­til the age of 13, then moved to Wash­ing­ton, DC, where his fa­ther, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Fred Men­del­sohn, had taken up a po­si­tion.

Af­ter six months at his board­ing school, Mercers­burg Acad­emy in Penn­syl­va­nia, Ben was ex­pelled. What for? “Oh, it was noth­ing ex­otic,” says Men­del­sohn. “I burnt some of… you know those spray cans, where you could light things back in the day?

So I was muck­ing around with one of them and so I burnt a bit of this and I burnt a bit of that. I just made up this whole bull­shit story of how it could have been some­one else and la, la, la. I wasn’t do­ing very well there, aca­dem­i­cally. I wasn’t do­ing any of the work.

“The cul­tural shift was pro­found and deeply weird to me. I couldn’t make any sense of who those strange be­ings were. I did not fit into Amer­ica and gladly so. I was in the throes of ado­les­cence. It was not a great time. There is a long, long pe­riod that was not a bar­rel of laughs.”

Men­del­sohn re­turned to Mel­bourne to live with his grand­mother and started act­ing. “I took it as an easy sub­ject in high school. Then I had a great mem­ory for lines: we did some lit­tle play, and I could re­mem­ber what every­one said. I would do it at 10 times the speed and play all the dif­fer­ent parts. The drama teacher, Mr Peter Stevens, who ends up be­ing ab­so­lutely cru­cial in this story, says: ‘Right, good. Now do it in front of the whole school.’

“The kids who didn’t like me much be­fore­hand were like, ‘Oh, he’s all right.’ Then I did A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, and a very pri­apis­mic read­ing of the char­ac­ter Bot­tom. That was re­ally the thing. That open­ing night of that play, I will never top that kind of act­ing re­ac­tion or ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Feel­ing that en­ergy, that’s still the best, and all the cast mates, and the girl, the one that was play­ing Puck...” He gives a las­civ­i­ous smile, though his amorous in­tent went un­re­quited. “It’s all that clas­sic shit you hear, like some rock gui­tar nerd. It’s the dif­fer­ence in the way peo­ple re­gard you, be­fore and af­ter a per­for­mance – that’s what gets peo­ple to fol­low down these artis­tic en­deav­ours. It’s pretty ba­sic shit, re­ally.”

In 2012, Men­del­sohn mar­ried Bri­tish-born jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Emma For­rest, who re­port­edly filed for di­vorce late last year. The cou­ple has a fouryear-old daugh­ter, Carolina, while Men­del­sohn has an­other daugh­ter, Sophia, 14, from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship, who lives in Aus­tralia. In 2015, For­rest tweeted a picture of Men­del­sohn next to An­thony Hopkins in a 1992 pro­mo­tional card for Spotswood, with the line, “When hus­band was sweet and wide-eyed”, then as­tutely fol­lowed up by not­ing that Danny in Blood­line is a “heart­bro­ken vil­lain”.

Is Men­del­sohn cur­rently sin­gle, di­vorced, mar­ried, in a re­la­tion­ship? “I guess you could say al­most all of the above,” he says. If he’s in a re­la­tion­ship, may I say with whom? “Well, you can, if you can find out,” he chuck­les.

Does play­ing nice guys in­ter­est him any­more?

“Oh yeah, yeah. Like, I’m much more in­ter­ested in just turn­ing up and go­ing to work on some­thing I think has a chance of work­ing. That’s my es­sen­tial lit­mus test, that hope­fully it’s in­ter­est­ing. It’s like pick­ing up a form guide for the races: you’re look­ing at the peo­ple you’re work­ing with; they ran fourth at Caulfield, they had a good start at Moonee Val­ley.

“You get a lot of feed­back, ‘Oh, you’re play­ing the bad guy’ or ‘You’re play­ing the lar­rikin’ or ‘Oh, you’re play­ing the sweet boy’. Then again, I’ve been around long enough – I know that this is the way it is. Peo­ple rarely will take in the body of your ca­reer. Act­ing is like the pop charts, but over a longer pe­riod of time. But the at­ten­tion span for some­one ap­pear­ing in what­ever piece of pop cul­ture tends to be a cou­ple of years.”

Af­ter play­ing in last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and with a role com­ing up in Steven Spiel­berg’s sci-fi ad­ven­ture Ready Player One, Men­del­sohn’s late40s self is much bet­ter ad­justed to Amer­i­can life than his teenage self man­aged to be.

“The cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween the US and Aus­tralia are kind of pro­found,” he says. “They’re a lot more at ease than us, in a lot of ways. We think of it the other way around. We think of our­selves as the easy­go­ing ones – it’s fuck­ing bull­shit. It’s ab­so­lute bull­shit.

“We are much more har­ried here in the way we talk to each other and the way we com­mu­ni­cate. There’s a lot more ag­gres­sion in Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ca­tion, there’s a lot more hav­ing to qual­ify things. It could be that it’s more to do with the cities, but I tend to think of it as an Aus­tralian thing: we are more con­cerned about ad­verse im­pacts than they are. We have bill­boards say­ing if you speed we are watch­ing you and if you throw a cig­a­rette out the win­dow you’re go­ing to fuckin’ fuck the en­vi­ron­ment.

“We are much more gen­er­ally opin­ion­ated than they are. I do think so. We’re far more up­tight.” Has he changed, then, liv­ing in the US? “Prob­a­bly. Maybe. I don’t think in the core of me I’ve changed since I was kid, re­ally. Same old, same old.”

Will he do more Aus­tralian films? “I’d like to. I’d like to do a bunch more. I don’t think we do enough here.”

A pub­li­cist, who has twice al­ready poked her head in the door hold­ing up fin­gers sug­gest­ing a time limit, has now walked in to wind us up sev­eral min­utes short of our al­lot­ted 45 min­utes to­gether. Men­del­sohn nods po­litely and says he’s en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence. The ac­tor who once dourly told an in­ter­viewer prob­ing his life, “There will be no tears, no weepy weepy – I don’t look at the world like

• that”, has a know­ing im­pact when he con­fers a smile.

Ben Men­del­sohn, cur­rently seen in the har­row­ing drama Una, has adapted to life in the US, where he has be­come an in-de­mand film ac­tor. But his teen years spent liv­ing there were more tu­mul­tuous, he tells Steve Dow.

STEVE DOW is a Syd­ney­based arts writer and the au­thor of Gay: The Tenth An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion.

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