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
‘ 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.’’
Ben Mendelsohn, left, in Sydney last year; with Scoot McNairy in
top; Mendelsohn and Nicolas Cage in
above; Mendelsohn in