Should you ever be in Los Angeles, the city where movie stars are simply part of the native fauna, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of Ben Mendelsohn behind the wheel of a car. The expatriate Australian actor, who long ago motored around Sydney in a gold Monaro that he would publicly profess his love for, likes to go driving as a way of putting his thoughts in perspective. An engine, pedals, endless boulevards, clarity.
"I literally drive around sometimes and just smile to myself about what has happened," says Mendelsohn, an actor whose second chance has seen him become an integral element in Hollywood's hit-making equation. "There were a lot of years where there was a very real sense that I was a long shot that wouldn't get up. I almost took my money off myself."
After building a steady relationship with Hollywood, Ben Mendelsohn is never going to be a long shot again. Credit:Brendan Esposito
The actor is in Atlanta, Georgia, where he's just finished his day's work on The Outsider, a television adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel about a murder investigation that gets unhinged by the supernatural. Mendelsohn plays a police detective, with the HBO production due to be aired in 2020. Since he terrified audiences in the 2010 Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, where the dead eyes of his armed robber had the gravitational pull of a black hole, Mendelsohn has worked constantly. He's never going to be that long shot again.
Amidst a selection of independent films, Mendelsohn has covered every corner of the blockbuster map. He was a boardroom sacrificial pawn in Christopher Nolan's final Batman epic, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, the obsessive force behind the construction of the Death Star in 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Steven Spielberg's tech titan villain in 2018's Ready Player One, and now he's an alien leader intent on conquering Earth in Marvel's new superhero epic, Captain Marvel.
"For me, the Marvel universe is something I've sat back and watched with a bit of awe really at the power of it all," Mendelsohn says. "They've had an incredible decade of making these blockbuster films. There are some of them that I think are fantastic."
Mendelsohn in full prosthetics as Talos in Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel revolves around Brie Larson's title character, a former US Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers whose life is transformed when she acquires the powers of an advanced alien race – superhuman strength and the ability to fly are two of them – and joins their intergalactic military service. Set in 1995 (hopefully Hole make the soundtrack), it's the arrival of the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by Mendelsohn in serious prosthetics as their leader Talos, that loops the plot back to Earth and Samuel L. Jackson's Marvel fixture, Nick Fury.
The movie is the 21st entry in the 11 years long and running Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing a female superhero to hopefully disrupt the studio's conventions in the same way that Black Panther's Afrocentric lineage did.
For Mendelsohn it marks the point where he stopped creatively feeling like a "very fortunate dinner guest" and started believing he's contributing to the cooking, in part because he previously worked with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck on their down at heel 2015 drama Mississippi Grind.
Whether through good experiences or bad – and the 49-year-old has certainly experienced both – Mendelsohn is deeply committed to the value of collaborators on a film set. "Working with people who know what they're doing," is his biggest qualifier for how a shoot might go. The actor went back into the comic book archives to research Talos and the Skrulls, who first appeared on the page of a Fantastic Four comic book in 1961, but it was the thoughts of his directors and the circumstances in front of the camera that wielded the biggest influence.
"I started out with a lot of ideas and notes before I read where we landed and then you get to what you've got to do in the story and the scenes," Mendelsohn says. "Then Ryan and Anna say, 'We'd like you to do it like this' and you go 'OK, yeah', and you hope that that combination of the instincts of the people doing this are on song."
Mendelsohn (middle) on the set of Captain Marvel with directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.
Sometimes it appears as if Mendelsohn, who can project on the screen a cruel malignancy and unhinged ambition and yet give it recognisable human dimension, has replaced Christopher Walken and John Malkovich as Hollywood's first choice for every major villain role. Mendelsohn is aware that the sneer that seizes his expressive face is a multiplex staple, but part of his artistry is to distinguish his antagonists: Rogue One's Director Krennick, who took a reporting structure complaint to Darth Vader, had a focus that was crushing and yet delusional, while his Sheriff of Nottingham in last year's Robin Hood reboot had a theatrical flourish.
"It's fantastic to do these films and to be the bad guy is an incredible pleasure and honour. But you want to make sure each role hopefully has its own merits," Mendelsohn says. "I do think it's perfectly valid to start watching and go, 'There he is, the bad guy, la la la,' because if people enjoy the movie it's all good. But for people that want more, the idea that they're going to get it matters to me."
Part of Mendelsohn's filmmaking philosophy was instilled in him by his formative years on Australian sets. He was born in Melbourne, one of three sons to a registered nurse mother and medical researcher father, but by the age of 14 he'd stopped his formal schooling to pursue acting, starting out on television shows such as 1985's The Henderson Kids, alongside Nadine Garner and Kylie Minogue, before his 1987 movie breakthrough as a small town larrikin in John Duigan's celebrated coming-of-age drama The Year My Voice Broke.
Mendelsohn with Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal.
"If you come from the background of Australian film, you're very aware of the crew being their own team and their own machine and you can't work against them," Mendelsohn says. "You've got to be able to work with them, to match their rhythm. If you get brought up in that environment the mood matters on set."
Mendelsohn's awareness of power and how it can be used and misused, honed through four decades and being inside – and during the middle of his career, close to outside – the movie business, meant he was aware of the inequality that would explode into the #MeToo movement following the 2017 sexual assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and shocked by the specifics.
"You can have both of those reactions," Mendelsohn says. "You can be aware what is considered business as usual for some while at the same time being pretty bothered by some of the particulars."
"We're in a time where a lot of voices that weren't heard are being heard and lines are being redrawn and newly emphasised. I also think we're in a time where from the person who makes the coffee to the second in charge of everything is able to say, 'Hey, listen, can we cut that out? Can we not do this?' in terms of a behaviour or a vibe. And that's a good thing. Where it settles and how it settles is not close to being done. We're in a significant cultural change."
The first time I interviewed Mendelsohn was in 1996, when he was starring in the film adaptation of Louis Nowra's play Cosi alongside Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, David Wenham, and Jacki Weaver. We met at the back of a Paddington shop the magazine's photographer was using and then, as now, he smoked, was full of praise for his collaborators and wouldn't allow personal boundaries to be crossed. Coverage of his private life, Mendelsohn noted, was "inconsequential and not fit for publication".
Mendelsohn with Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom.Credit:Courtesy Madman Entertainment
Mendelsohn was tough on himself and could be tough on others if they didn't know their job. He would get a reputation for prickliness that persisted through the years around the turn of the century, when he was mostly unemployed and caught up in what he now calls "excessive hedonism", and through a comeback that began on television series such as Love My Way before Animal Kingdom hit.
Those ups and downs, which he negotiated in public with a laconic self-awareness, have given Mendelsohn a unique place in Australian public life. He is the wayward family member made good and the awards show regular who still wears thongs on set. The phrase "Full Mendo", celebrating his cigarette balanced on lip, jaundiced screen persona, is now part of the national vernacular.
"I lived through a lot of years there where I was a part of the furniture in Australia. I was an old armchair people were thinking of throwing out but just hadn't got around to it yet," Mendelsohn says. "But I'm still surprised by it all. I spent a long time deep under the radar and I just want to give people something to be proud of."
All successful actors are grateful for their success, but Mendelsohn's gratitude – tinged with surprise and pride – is genuine. The first time he ventured to Los Angeles early in his career, his grandfather, "part of the World War II generation", told him to be, "a good ambassador for this country." Despite the counter-intuitive answers and the wary sharpness that can flick on in an instant, Mendelsohn still takes exhortations like that seriously.
It's why the actor, who was married for four years with a daughter to the British author Emma Forrest before their divorce in 2016, doesn't like to speak publicly about Australian politics, even though he follows it closely. Mendelsohn worries it's too easy to come across as being "substance-free" with political opinions, and that it could distract audiences from a performance if they associate him with his beliefs.
The partisanship he will discuss, with happiness and despair, is his love of the Melbourne Storm. The rugby league franchise have long been Mendelsohn's team, and he sighs with deep resignation when their 21-6 defeat to Sydney Roosters in last season's grand-final comes up. The only time he swears is when describing how after his final game Storm great Billy Slater was booed by opposition fans.
"I love that team. I really love them," Mendelsohn says. "They were put there, they didn't grow there, and I love that they have an attitude about them and I love them because they're out of the limelight and they just do it again and again and again. They don't bask in media glory. They're not revered in a way that a bunch of other teams are, but they're the best team in the competition since they've joined it."
If you think about it, the same words apply to Ben Mendelsohn and Hollywood.
Captain Marvel opens on March 7.
The full Mendo
Ben Mendelsohn has been on Australian screen since the early years of Bob Hawke's prime ministership, meaning there are distinct eras to his work, profile, and reception. Here are five great movies from the many ages of Mendo.
THE BIG STEAL (1990): Mendelsohn's last performance as teenager was one of his best, playing an 18-year-old whose desperation to go out with his crush (Claudia Karvan) sees him suckered by a used car salesman (Steve Bisley), leading to a comic heist revenge scheme.
IDIOT BOX (1996): Filmmaker David Caesar gets at dead-end suburban blues with this jolting tale of best mates – Mendelsohn's Kev and Jeremy Sims' Mick – who believe they can solve their problems by robbing a bank. Notable also for Mendelsohn pulling off the tricky "Get a Dog Up Ya" T-shirt look.
BLACK AND WHITE (2002): Mendelsohn has been playing English kings recently, but back in 2002 he was young Adelaide newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch. It was a sharp supporting role in the real life story of Max Stuart, an Indigenous man wrongfully sentenced to death in 1959.
ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010): In a film suffused with dread, Mendelsohn's armed robber "Pope" Cody is terrifying not simply because of what he does, but the realisation that there's nothing he wouldn't do. The actor inhabits the role with startling, traumatic specificity.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016): With gaunt cheekbones and officious obsessiveness, Mendelsohn's driven, destructive Director Krennic is a new kind of villain for the Star Wars universe. And does he rock that cape.
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