Una’s Ben Mendelsohn on his American roots
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 four-year-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 late-40s 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.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Native animal". Subscribe here.