COR­NER­ING THE SCUM­BAG

Ben Men­del­sohn started in made his name in Oz crime flick turned up in and now, as Hol­ly­wood’s go-to sleaze­ball, is pulling heists with Ryan Gosling, writes Alex God­frey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Guardian

‘ NO, no, no there’s absolutely no prob­lem. It’s just one of those things, mate. I’d be very in­clined to do ex­actly the same thing, and I know the sub­se­quent f . . in’ dread and all the other shit, so please, not at all.’’

Ben Men­del­sohn had me at hello. An un­ex­pect­edly chilled-out hello, con­sid­er­ing I’d phoned him an hour-and-a-half later than planned, slightly pan­icky, pro­fusely sorry. Due to bleary-eyed, sleep-de­prived email-read­ing, I’d got the time wrong, I’d got the day wrong, and would have been none the wiser had his publi­cist not con­tacted me to ask how the in­ter­view had gone.

It’s 8.30am in LA and, luck­ily for me, not only is Men­del­sohn at home in West Hol­ly­wood do­ing not a lot, he’s also about as re­laxed and as un­guarded as one could wish for from an ac­tor. What is he do­ing, ex­actly?

‘‘ Well, noth­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was just mak­ing some poached eggs and I’ll prob­a­bly go back to bed in the next cou­ple of hours. Ac­tor’s life, re­ally. I wake up very early, usu­ally, which is why I sug­gested we do it at 7. Typ­i­cally I’ll wake up at 4.30 in the morn­ing. It’s just the con­tin­ual jet lag residue, just weird sleep­ing hours.’’

The rest of our hour fol­lows suit. Noth­ing the 44-year-old says is pre­med­i­tated; there are no au­topi­lot pro­mo­tional mono­logues. Of­fi­cially, he’s talk­ing to me to plug his new film The Place Be­yond The Pines, but he doesn’t even bring it up; I do, af­ter 40 min­utes. He’s lived in LA for a cou­ple of years. ‘‘ I’ve been com­ing back­wards and for­wards for a very, very long time,’’ he says, ‘‘ and post- An­i­mal King­dom, they fi­nally started giv­ing me work.’’

An­i­mal King­dom, 2010’s nasty, thrilling Aus­tralian crime drama, gave Men­del­sohn a sec­ond act and took him to Hol­ly­wood. For 25 years he’d been a suc­cess­ful TV and film ac­tor in the lo­cal scene, and was quite com­fort­able there. But his fright­en­ing per­for­mance as An­i­mal King­dom’s hor­ri­ble psy­chopath Pope ‘‘ changed the pa­ram­e­ters’’, he says.

‘‘ It’s been very good to me, that film. It’s been f . . ing great for me.’’ Af­ter test­ing the wa­ter with a cou­ple of dodgy Amer­i­can films ( Killer Elite, with Ja­son Statham, and Tres­pass, with Ni­co­las Cage), he’s started bag­ging beefier gigs. He played Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises and, more notably, Rus­sell in Brad Pitt gang­ster drama Killing Them Softly, in which he played just about the seed­i­est ex­cuse for a hu­man you could imag­ine. Be­fore we see him, we’re told ‘‘ he looks like shit and he’s got no f . . in’ man­ners’’. We meet him sec­onds later, to find that, yes, this is one greasy, jumped-up, smack-ad­dled, thick-headed slime­ball. Later, there’s an in­sin­u­a­tion he en­joyed car­nal plea­sure with a dog.

So far, so scummy. Yet there’s some­thing about Men­del­sohn that gives such roles more depth than they might sug­gest. His per­for­mance in Killing Them Softly is tremen­dous, and led him to The Place Be­yond the Pines op­po­site Ryan Gosling, a guest spot on Girls, and a role in Gosling’s forth­com­ing di­rec­to­rial de­but How To Catch A Mon­ster.

He started act­ing at school, and in 1986, aged 17, scored a stint on Neigh­bours at the height of Kylie and Ja­son fever.

What was it like be­ing in the eye of that storm? ‘‘ It was hec­tic,’’ he re­calls. ‘‘ Kylie and Ja­son were friends of mine. I had a lit­tle place in the in­ner-city sub­urbs of Melbourne, and Ja­son was over one af­ter­noon, and I heard all this crap go­ing on out­side. There was a throng of hun­dreds of the neigh­bour­hood kids climb­ing the lit­tle fence and bang­ing on my door, peer­ing through the win­dows of this lit­tle house. So, yeah. All that run­ning out of shop­ping cen­tre ap­pear­ances with se­cu­rity guards, pretty hec­tic.’’

Did it give him a taste for fame on that level? ‘‘ No, no, no. I felt like a par­tic­i­pant plenty enough . . . So no, it was fun and silly, but I didn’t look on with shades of green.’’

Af­ter Neigh­bours, he broke into films, then had an al­most 20-year run of steady work un­til 2005, when things abruptly dried up. ‘‘ There was a pe­riod of three years where f . . k-all was hap­pen­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ It was a very sad time for the in­dus­try in gen­eral. $3000 from a resid­ual cheque was all I made one year. And I was fast be­com­ing a proper adult, into my 30s, and I thought, ‘ Well, f..k ... I bet­ter think about what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life’. My main con­cern was whether I was gonna leave the in­dus­try en­tirely and do some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent — I don’t know what, maybe start a shop, go and work some­where. So I gave it a two-year time­frame, and in clas­sic sce­nario the time­frame ran out, but then, bam, off it all went again.’’

Af­ter get­ting back in the sad­dle with a cou­ple of films, An­i­mal King­dom hit, and Men­del­sohn moved to LA, which brings us back to to­day, and The Place Be­yond the Pines.

Derek Cian­france’s fol­low-up to break-up gem Blue Valen­tine is a sprawl­ing crime drama, which un­der­goes dras­tic tonal shifts to un­steady ef­fect. It’s at its strong­est in its first 40 min­utes, with Gosling as a mo­tor­cy­cle ma­niac rob­bing banks, and Men­del­sohn as his un­ruly co­hort. It’s a vis­ceral, ex­cit­ing strand, and Men­del­sohn is great as some­one who’s hardly a model cit­i­zen but has his head screwed on a lot firmer than Gosling’s stunt rider. There’s a deep sad­ness about him.

‘‘ We just went for it,’’ he says. ‘‘ We ac­tu­ally shot a lot more stuff, which went a lot fur­ther into their re­la­tion­ship. Derek said he had enough to make an en­tire film based around what we’d done. I’m very, very proud of it be­cause it feels ton­ally dif­fer­ent to how you might ap­proach that kind of thing, two guys get­ting to­gether and rob­bing banks.’’

Men­del­sohn is ex­cep­tional at not only play­ing scuzzballs but giv­ing them life. He shines when he’s in the gut­ter, play­ing un­trust­wor­thy messes from the wrong side of the tracks. Is he aware that he’s cor­ner­ing the dirt­bag mar­ket?

‘‘ Oh, f . . k yeah, I’m aware of it, absolutely. The rea­son I got the job on Pines in the first place, I’m sure, is that orig­i­nally the char­ac­ter was writ­ten as a very malev­o­lent ex-con, a dark, con­trol­ling, spi­dery pup­pet­mas­ter. But Derek didn’t like what he wrote and wanted to try to find some­thing bet­ter, and we switched the char­ac­ter. Look, at any pe­riod of an ac­tor’s life it’s fairly likely that they’ll be cast in ways that are rem­i­nis­cent. That’s the way it goes. One of the things that I found very con­fronting in my early work­ing life was that peo­ple thought I was some sen­si­tive doe-eyed lovelorn boy, be­cause they’d seen me do that a cou­ple of times. What tends to hap­pen is you get a run of sim­i­lar roles.’’

For sure, his char­ac­ters in The Place Be­yond the Pines, Killing Them Softly and The Dark Knight Rises are all very dif­fer­ent men, but they do share com­mon ground in that they’re all im­pres­sively un­palat­able.

‘‘ Well, yes, and I take that as a com­pli­ment. Yeah, there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences but, yeah, they are un­palat­able char­ac­ters in one sense. But if you’re a ‘ char­ac­ter ac­tor’ you get hired to play bad­dies a lot.’’

There it is. He said it. Char­ac­ter ac­tor. For risk of of­fend­ing, I wouldn’t have linked those two words and said them out loud. What does it mean to him to be clas­si­fied as such?

‘‘ Ah, it’s a f . . kin’ great com­pli­ment,’’ he says. ‘‘ Look, I’ve spent var­i­ous pe­ri­ods of my ca­reer be­ing thought of as var­i­ous things, var­i­ous de­grees of sub­stance and ideas. I def­i­nitely felt the change a cou­ple of years ago, the way peo­ple were re­gard­ing me. It’s been a f . . king great pe­riod, and you know what? I’ve been try­ing to get some de­cent act­ing ac­tion go­ing on for a long time, and I’ve watched a lot of con­tem­po­raries do very well. I’ve been com­ing here to LA for 20 years — 20 years! And now that it’s go­ing on, phon­ing it in is re­ally not an op­tion.’’

Killing Them Softly, Know­ing, The Place Be­yond the Pines,

Ben Men­del­sohn, left, in Syd­ney last year; with Scoot McNairy in

top; Men­del­sohn and Ni­co­las Cage in

above; Men­del­sohn in

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