1 July 2001

Interview: Ben Mendelsohn

For a professional actor on a mid-career surge, Ben Mendelsohn is uncharacteristically modest... “I’ve been doing this (acting) since pretty much the beginning of my teenage years, and I’ve been financially independent since I was fifteen but it’s not really a career, is it? It’s a series of jobs, is what it is! I mean, you will never get to be ‘Head of South East Asian acting’. You might have a great life but it’s not a career.”

It’s mid-morning and we’re talking in a café overlooking Bondi Beach. “Bondi’s got a bit hectic – I’m shifting basically. I remember seeing this great TV special when I was 12, it was about Penthouse Pets and one of ‘em lived in Bondi – and I remember all these shots on the beach and I thought what a promised land – Bondi! I love living here but it’s getting very hectic.”
Mendelsohn is dressed smart casual, freshly shaved, hair combed and still wet from his morning shower. His world weary delivery, punctuated by a steady succession of ‘Styvo Reds’, are at odds with his image, which is reminiscent of a naughty boy wagging Sunday school. How refreshing, we comment, to find an actor not obsessed with his public image; a thespian, no less, unencumbered by “vaulting ambition”. Oops, spoke too soon…

“Oh, I have very unhealthy ambitions,” he protests, “but I don’t see the point in advertising ‘em, y’know? I don’t see the point in sitting down and telling you (slipping into mock American accent) what I’m gonna do next. Coz if I do it I’ll do it and we’ll know about it then.

"I can just see that quote coming up – ‘I have a lot of unhealthy ambitions’.”

If there’s blood coursing in his veins he should. On the back of good notices for his supporting role in the Hollywood blockbuster VERTICAL LIMIT, Mendelsohn is on a roll, with last year’s SAMPLE PEOPLE garnering him favourable press and anticipation high for his new release, a comedy drama called MULLET, which reunites the actor with David Caesar, his director in the 1995 hit, IDIOT BOX. And with CHILD STAR, his third film with director Nadia Tass, set for release in a couple of months, now is as good a time as any for ambition.

“Since the whole Vertical Limit thing my face has been back in the newspapers, and I’ve had a few more scripts come my way. I mean I’ve been in this business so long that I’m not expecting that much. It’s about working, y’know? About getting a bit of money in the bank, enough to not have to work for a while. I mean I don’t give a fuck – y’know? I don’t give a fuck.

“I hang out with a couple of actors but most of my time isn’t spent with other actors. My private life is not in the business. I’m not a big networker and luckily I’m not in a position where I need to do that and I’m glad about that. You’d go fucking mad – all you talk about is how much you’re working or how much you’re not working – I think about that stuff enough, I don’t need to pump it up any more.”

Having spent half his young life in the limelight, he’s more than accustomed to the drill. A new film, a round of publicity, same old questions: “It’s all bullshit, mate,” he intimates in reassuringly hushed tones.

Mendelsohn has been in the public’s consciousness since he was 15 and the HENDERSON KIDS was a hit on our TV screens. And it’s been more than 14 years since his remarkable film debut in the director John Duigan’s groundbreaking THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE, a film that also launched the career of his contemporary, Noah Taylor.

He remembers the film fondly. “It was slated as a telemovie, in amongst a bunch of films that Kennedy Miller were doing for TEN. They loved it so much in the first weeks that decided to go ahead and make it into a feature. I had no idea it was going to be so big.

“Duigan was fuckin’ great! He’s like a horse whisperer. He’s got the abilty to point you in a direction and just let you go. They’re the ones I like to work with, and look at the performances he got out of us – they’re pretty fucken on the money!”

Mendelsohn won the first of his AFI Awards for the role, and a string of distinguished performances ensued in some of the local industry’s best films of the late 1980’s and 1990s - THE BIG STEAL, SPOTSWOOD, MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART, SIRENS, METAL SKIN (attracting his second AFI Award), COSI, and IDIOT BOX. He’s an actor that relies on his natural gift and sheer charisma. You can drop all that method "bullshit"!

“One of the misconceptions about performance is the idea that you can get it perfect, that the more you wring your hands about it the better it’s gonna be – that’s bullshit. If a director or another actor asks me what my motivation is, well, I tell ‘em it’s got nothing to do with them.

“I wanted to be a spy when I was a kid,” he says straight-faced, which somehow figures perfectly. “I left school at 15, and I haven’t ever formally studied acting. I mean talking about acting is a bit like fucking for chastity, y’know?” He checks for a second, and is obviously keen to impress that he’s still very serious about his work: “That doesn’t mean I don’t do whatever I need to do to get the performance up there, I just think there’s a certain cult that focuses more on the preparation than on the actual result whereas I think there’s a lot to be said for just jumping in and doing it. I do like to think I’m getting better at it, but I don’t know that! I’m very critical of my own work and I see the bits that don’t work before the bits that do.”

Mendelsohn’s aim is to be ‘in the moment’ when the camera is rolling, a characteristic self-evident in his easygoing performance in MULLET, a modest but moving comedy drama set in a small south coast fishing village. Headlining a bevy of accomplished Australian actors like Susie Porter, Andrew S Gilbert and Steve L Marquand, Mendelsohn carries the film with an easy Aussie charm. He plays the lead role of a bloke in his late twenties who returns home from the Big Smoke. When Mullet upped and left after three years earlier he didn’t tell a soul, and so his friends, family and ex-girlfriend don’t exactly accept him back into the fold with open arms.

“Mullet’s a guy whose taken a turn in life and he can’t go forward without taking a counter turn… and so he has to go back home and try and reconcile what it is he’s trying to leave behind. Which is place, where he comes from, the situation with his family.”

Mendelsohn himself comes from Melbourne, but he’s been “living in Sydney close on ten years. I lived back in Melbourne in 96/97 for a year or so… I still see myself as an expatriate Melbournite more than a Sydney boy."

And after the exposure afforded by VERTICAL LIMIT, what about the ‘States? “Yeah, what about the ‘States? I dunno, I guess I’ll go over and have a look. I was there recently very briefly, saw a couple a people. I’ve got an agent there but I don’t talk to her. I got an agent in Britain too, but I don’t talk to her either.

“I’m Australian based until I’m not. More or less.”

One thing’s for sure, when he does do it, we’ll be the first to know.

MICHAEL HUTAK
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First published in Australian Style

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