Aussies in Hollywood Podcast: Ben Mendelsohn
Jenny Cooney interviews Ben Mendelsohn for the Aussies in Hollywood podcast.
Ben Mendelsohn has been a leading man in the Australian film industry since he was a teenager. But interestingly, it wasn't until he was in his 40s that Ben was able to crack Hollywood.
I'd be here all day if I tried listing all of Ben Mendelsohn's credits, from his early Aussie shows like The Henderson Kids, The Secret Life Of Us, and Love My Way, to more recent movies, including Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. But it was Ben's Netflix series Bloodline, which earned him an Emmy, a Golden Globe nomination, and caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who cast him in his upcoming sci-fi drama, Ready Player One.
Ben also played Orson Krennic in the 2016 Star Wars film, Rogue One. And later this year, he'll play the Sheriff of Nottingham in the new Robin Hood film with Taryn Edgerton and Jamie Foxx. I've known Ben a long time and watched him struggle as he came in and out of LA, probably winning the award for the actor who struggled longest before he made it, but it turns out good things do come to those who wait.
Jenny: When I caught up with Ben at his rep’s office in Beverly Hills, we started off talking about why so many Aussies these have made it in Hollywood.
Ben: First of all, we are part of the Anglosphere, so that's suits us very, very well. There’s us, New Zealand, England, South Africa, a couple of other small places, and then the US. So, we're in a good group for that immediately. The other thing about us is we have this non-profit model of making films, which means that you can muck around and fail, and this and that, in a financial sense, and it still works out OK. But I think one of the things that that strikes me as to why we do well over here is a lot of our communication is nonverbal.
We communicate, I think – we're a lot less comfortable talking about ourselves and stuff like that. We are not as at ease as Americans are with that stuff. And so there tends to be a lot more going on behind words. I think that's one of the things which makes Australian actors do pretty well here. And I also think we're snobs. I think we have very strong opinions on what's good. And you get beaten up in Australia in a social sense if you're not doing something that they like. So, I think it's a tough training ground. I did a G’day USA thing which – as you know because you were there – and I said that going from Australia to the US was a bit like going to the moon, that the gravity felt a lot lighter, and I think there's something in that.
And having gone back there just very recently, there's a real ease in America, which is different to Australia. We are very easygoing about a bunch of stuff, but we’re also – we watch ourselves more. We have to watch how we behave more in Australia, whereas in America, you don't as much.
Jenny: When you say that, do you mean for the sake of representing the country or –
Ben: No, no. Good God, no. I mean that thing that's in the Declaration of Independence, all that business, about freedom that they carry on with here, actually has sunk into something very much in the American psyche, and they have an ease about things which we don't. And if they don't have an ease about it, then they pipe up about it, and they talk about it and whatnot.
Whereas I think a lot of our things are – Australians I think are very, very sure about things, and I stick my hand up with all of my less flattering observations about Australia, I own them fully. I'm not pretending I'm not an Australian. I very much am. But it just strikes me that there's something about the whole thing of freedom that's very much in the American psyche, and we still very much have a post-colonial vibe.
Jenny: We have a great work ethic.
Ben: We do have a very good work ethic.
Jenny: That’s what a lot of directors here have said to me, that, sometimes, they go to hire an Australian, because they know they're going to get less of the other crap and people that work their butts off.
Ben: On the positive side, yes, you can't put on airs and graces. You do have to have a very strong work ethic. These are the things in Australia, if you display a crappy work ethic, and you have airs and – you just can't get away with that shit. So that becomes very much a part of the psyche there too, and that's a really good thing. I think those are really positive things about us.
Jenny: Well, you grew up in Australia, but you travelled a lot when you were very young.
Jenny: Can you tell us where were you at what point in your life and how did that impact you?
Ben: So my dad was a doctor, a medical scientist dude. And that meant that when I was – before I went to primary school, I had been in Germany and England. And England first, and my recollections are very hazy of England. Germany, I remember very well, and that was Munich, and that was probably 1974, and it was really tough. The kids were really, really tough, lots of throwing rocks at the kindergarten teacher. I know, it was full on.
Jenny: By the way, you can swear on this.
Ben: Fair enough. They're used to me swearing, so, maybe, I'll just give it a rest for a bit. They would beat each other up. It was rough. England was really chilled out, but when I got back to Australia, I had a thick German accent. I was quite big. I was carrying quite a lot of weight. And I had on these funky pseudo-lederhosen German clothes.
Jenny: I wish I could see a photo.
Ben: God, I'm glad there's not one. So, when I walked into first grade at primary school, and I come in –
Jenny: This was Melbourne?
Ben: This was in Melbourne. This was in Heidelberg. And Heidelberg was a pretty rough and tumble area. And so, when I walked into primary school, I copped it immediately. And my mum tells the story – we used to speak German, I used to speak fluent German – that two days after we got home, my brother and I spoke in thick Australian accents and never spoke a word of German again. So that is – when I think about how I ended up becoming an actor, I think that was a lot of it.
And I can remember doing – they had us do this thing where you imagine you're driving, and you're telling off a person behind you in your rearview mirror, but you can't use any words. And I remember acting this out in front of the class, and the class being very impressed and saying you can – you're telling a lot without using any words. So that was the first time I ever had a positive acting experience was at Heidelberg primary.
Jenny: And so you accidentally fell into it with this Crawford Productions thing that you've talked about before, but was it something that really was an accident? I don’t think –
Ben: Well, it wasn't an accident accident, but there –
Jenny: Because you actually went there.
Ben: – was a couple of steps. Absolutely, I went there. I did a play at high school. I took it for a bludge. And it was –
Jenny: I love that only the audience listening to this will know what a bludge means.
Ben: Yes. No, but I took it for a bludge. And I'd done one or two things, at Eltham High before I'd left and gone to America for about six months, got kicked out of that boarding school, and came back to Australia.
Jenny: You missed that – you were in a boarding school –
Ben: Never mind all that.
Jenny: – for six months?
Ben: Yes. I'm just going to cut to this, and we can go back and do –
Ben: – boarding school in America if you want. But I took it for a bludge, and there was a bunch of mates with me. And then I had been told about these auditions at Crawfords, and I told all my mates, said let's all write in. They went, ‘Yeah, yeah, cool.’ But it turns out none of them did, which I didn't learn until it was time to go in there. And then I thought, well, I'm going to go. I'll just go. So that's how it started.
Jenny: And you got a job straight out of that audition.
Ben: Yes. That was the first thing I did. And that was for The Henderson Kids, but that got delayed. For whatever reason, that didn't happen for about another six or eight months after that. So I did The Flying Doctors, the miniseries, was the first thing I ever did.
And then I did another couple of small jobs for them. I think I did a Special Squad, and I did a miniseries called Matthew and Son, which I appear as an extra in now, maybe, an episode of a thing called Zoo Family. Although that was, maybe, afterwards. I can't remember. But, basically, I did a couple of things, and then I did The Henderson Kids, but The Henderson Kids was the big one. And it's still the best shoot that I've ever done, easily.
Ben: Easily. Easily.
Jenny: That says a lot.
Ben: Yes, but it was six months. It was all of us together for a very, very long time. I was 15. It was magical. And it was also very difficult and very lonely, but it was great. It was beautiful.
Jenny: So, let's go back to the six months in boarding school, just for a second; what happened?
Ben: So, what happened is that we – I was at Eltham High, and I was living with my dad. And my dad got a thing in Bethesda, in Washington DC in Bethesda. So, he chucked us in a boarding school in Pennsylvania. And I went there, and that was Amish country. That was a real cultural shock. We're talking about 1982, I want to say, something like that. ’82, maybe. Maybe ’83, I can't really remember, but – anyway, so I came over, and I went to boarding school, a coed boarding school in Pennsylvania, and I lasted about six months.
I wasn't doing – it was pretty crap. It was just kids that for whatever reason weren't living at home. There weren't many foreign students. There was a couple, but it was largely just these prep kids. And, anyway, I got the boot out of there after six months. And that was –
Jenny: Did you do something specifically to get the boot?
Ben: Yes, but whatever.
Jenny: You don’t want to share that?
Ben: That’s none of your business. None of your business whatsoever, my school record. But that too, getting kicked out of there, that was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I would have been sitting around in boarding school until about whatever it was, 1987 or something, ’86, this would never have happened; what's happened would never have happened.
Jenny: The big break then was The Year My Voice Broke in 1987, right?
Jenny: That was a little bit after that. You come back for a few years and did other things.
Ben: Yes, I’d come back, I was just – largely, I was working for Crawfords. The Henderson Kids finished. I got another job with them. And then another job with them. And then there was a telemovie that was The Year My Voice Broke, which they started shooting and decided that they really loved what they were getting, and they were going to make it into a feature. And that that was one of those things that just way exceeded all expectations and stuff, and it really blew up.
And then a couple of years after that, or a year or whatever, I started doing leads in Australian films like The Big Steal which is going to be screening any moment in the Melbourne Film Festival. And then –
Jenny: With Cosi and –
Ben: – then Spotswood, all that business, and that was the next several years of that.
Jenny: So, what was your first non-Australian film?
Ben: The first non-Australian film, well, there's a couple that fall into that category. The first studio film I did was a film called Quigley Down Under.
Jenny: I remember, with Tom Selleck.
Ben: That's it.
Jenny: Tony Bonner.
Ben: It's a Western. It still plays, it still plays quite a bit on cable, but that was shot in Australia. And then there was another one called Map of the Human Heart, which was directed by Vincent Ward.
Jenny: When did you first come to LA?
Ben: I think it would’ve been 1989 or ’90, and then I came back. I came back a few times in the 90s, but it's really the 2000s that I started coming regularly.
Jenny: So, you showed up in LA as part of a travel – a trip that you’d been doing –
Jenny: – but you thought while I'm here – what did you do? Did you know anyone, did you
Ben: No. I didn't. I phoned up a couple of people. I had my agency back at home do what they couldn't do and try and get some meeting. I got someone here. And then pretty soon after that I had to leave, but I got myself an agent here, and nothing happened of it. I came backwards and forwards a few times to nothing really.
Jenny: How frustrating was that?
Ben: Yes, it’s a bummer. Look, I knew the two classic stories of that time were Nicole, and then later on, Naomi, but Nicole had come here, she'd had things that looked like they were going to go, looked like they were going to go, and she was about to leave. And then within a day or two of her deciding, well, stuff this, I'm going back home, she got the film Billy Bathgate, and that kicked her off.
And then much later, Naomi, who had been here for a very long time, and had worked, but nothing really, and not a lot, then had Mulholland Drive. So, I did have the idea that if you just kept coming back, sooner or later, something was going to give. Now, as it turns out, I don't know whether or not that's true. There's absolutely no doubt that it's all Animal Kingdom. And then from that period on, it’s the getting of something of a one two punch in.
Jenny: It's ironic then, isn't it that you had to get this amazing movie back in Australia?
Ben: Yes, it is, but it also was a case of, well, what else are you going to do? I'd watched everyone come over and have great careers and a big fuss made about them. And look, there's no doubt that we respond very positively to people kicking goals overseas. That's always been a big deal.
Jenny: Coming up on Aussies in Hollywood, Ben talks about some of the famous couches he’s surfed during his lean years trying to crack it in Hollywood. And you'll hear why he called me a dickhead, which almost sounds like a compliment coming from Ben.
Jenny: When you did your wonderful speech at the G’day USA event when you were honoured for excellence in film and TV – excellence, I love that, it's true – you gave a really beautiful speech, but you then listed a long list of people that you wanted to thank.
Ben: Now, there are many Australians over the decades that provided me with bed, board, a car. If you didn't charge me rent, there's a good chance you're in this list. Simon Baker, Rebecca Rigg, Dominic Purcell, Rebecca Williamson, Andrew Dominic, Robin Tunney, Peter Wilson, Heath Ledger; Naomi Watts is not in that list, but she's a big inspiration, and so is Nicole Kidman.
Jenny: Was it really a matter of couch surfing for a long time?
Ben: Look, absolutely, for a really long time. There's no way I would have – I just didn't have the wherewithal to be paying for places and this and that. And also, I didn't want to be sitting around here with nothing going on in a house alone. That was just a nightmare scenario. So I was very fortunate that there was a group of people in the time that I had come up and come through, that did have good working lives here.
And Rebecca and Simon, that's Rebecca Rigg and Simon Baker, were a real linchpin of the Australians of my age in LA. They had this place, and it was a good scene. There were good people around, and they're really good people, and she's a fantastic person.
Jenny: I think it's ironic that Nicole had the guesthouse in the beginning, and people like Simon and Rebecca stayed with her, and then they passed it along.
Jenny: And Heath was famous for doing that too.
Ben: Yes. Absolutely. And Heath’s place, and that was much, much later, but Heath’s place, that was the most fun I'd ever had being a guest in a house.
Ben: Heath wasn’t around. He was working somewhere, but there were a bunch of guys in that place. And that place – that was a lot of fun, that time. That was a very, very good time.
Jenny: So, did you ever get to that point where – because there's only so much rejection you can take.
Ben: Well, it just became the idea of, well, this is stupid, and you give it X amount of turns, and then you go, well, this isn't happening, and so I'm going to have to think about what else I do with my life. So, yes, that happened.
Jenny: When did that happen?
Ben: That happened a few times. But it was around about 2007, just is pulling a rough enough sounding date. By about that time, 2007, 2008, it was pretty obvious that nothing was happening. My 30s were ending, and I was going to have to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Now, I knew I could go back, and I could work at home, but I didn't know that – I thought – I'm not sure that that's what I want to do. So, I had a time limit on it, and then that time limit ran out. And then I thought, what am I going to do?
And as is the nature of these things, you get a job or something happens, and you tick along for another six months or so, and that happened. And then I got a tonne of work at home, and that was around about, I don’t know, 2008, 2009. And the last job of that, I think I did five or six things in a row, and the last one of those was Animal Kingdom. And when that finished, I turned 40 the day after that finished.
Jenny: And did you know immediately while you guys were working on that –
Ben: Absolutely not.
Jenny: – that had the potential?
Ben: No, absolutely not. I knew that I didn't know as well. I'd stopped watching myself many years before, so –
Jenny: Have you seen it –
Ben: – it’s still my attitude.
Jenny: – since?
Ben: No. No, I’ve never seen it.
Jenny: You’ve never seen Animal Kingdom. Have you seen any of your films?
Ben: Yes, I’ve seen a couple of them.
Jenny: Let me guess, Star Wars.
Ben: Yes, I've seen Star Wars. I've seen Star Wars.
Jenny: You had to see yourself with Darth Vader, didn't you?
Ben: We got taken to Skywalker Ranch. We all got flown up there to see it before it opened.
Jenny: Well, that's like that movie, I'm imagining, was one of those pinch me moments for you, I would imagine, being in that world.
Ben: Yes. Look, that was – I say this a bit, and I'm bored of myself saying it, but –
Jenny: They’re clean, I swear.
Ben: – I would say that if I could have told the younger me, don't worry about it. One day, you'll be in Star Wars, I would have saved myself a lot of drama, and a lot of worry.
Jenny: So, after Animal Kingdom, it pretty much continued to escalate, right?
Ben: Yes, it did, but –
Jenny: And I know when you did –
Ben: – it doesn't feel like that in it. What happened after Animal Kingdom was I thought – it was actually Animal Kingdom and Beautiful Kate, because they both came over here. They were both in the festival circuit. And they were both quite different. Beautiful Kate had challenging material, but it was shot very beautifully, and Animal Kingdom was clearly down and dirty and gritty, and really up the end of the spectrum in terms of a character.
So, it was both of them together, and I thought, if anything's ever going to happen, this is it. So, I called up my reps and said, fire up the barbie. And then I came over, and then nothing much seemed to be happening. So I gave him the arse. And then the next day, out of the blue, I got a call, and then it did kick on after that.
Jenny: So, Bloodline was a risk then because you'd finally got to this point with the movie career, and you decided to do a series over here. I know it was a Netflix series, but that was a risk, right?
Ben: I guess it was, but I – look, the potential for it to go right far outweighed the risk. If it didn't work, oh, well, it soon disappears from memory and consciousness, and, bummer, that didn't work, but it did work. It worked gangbusters, and that was pretty awesome.
The storyline is about a black sheep coming home. The oldest brother played by Ben Mendelsohn, he's returning to his roots, and he's asking to work in the family business. Ben Mendelsohn brings an incredible vulnerability to the role. And he's also someone who can turn on dime and bring a rather magnificent menace to the room.
Jenny: It was such a great character. What did you think about this Danny Rayburn when you first read him, and did you feel that you could do something with him that –
Ben: Well, that's not how it happened. They came to me and asked me if I wanted to do it. And they got me in first, before they got anyone else in. So I didn't know – they told me about him. And they said, look, we've seen you work, and we really want you to do this, and we think – and they just said, we want to see what you'll do with it. And I was just, ‘OK.’ So I hadn’t read anything.
And so, by the time it came to doing it – I didn't think I can do something with this guy, I just felt like, I knew what it was they were – what area they were trying to get to. And I was just very glad that Sissy Spacek was my mum, that was what I thought. That was just like –
Jenny: And Sam Shepard and –
Ben: Yes, Sam Shepard's dad, and the great Kyle Chandler is my baby brother, and the fantastic Linda Cardellini, and Norbert Leo Butz. That's an incredibly strong acting cast, so it was just like rolling in clover.
Jenny: So, I know I told you a few years ago when I saw you that I'd interviewed Steven Spielberg and asked him about his TV habits. And at that time, he had said, ‘Bloodline’, and, ‘I can't wait to work with Ben Mendelsohn.’ And here you are now, you've done a Steven Spielberg movie, can you talk about what that was like, and did he call you up one day? How did it all happen, which is ironic, again, because we were just talking about how TV is a risk, but it was a TV show that he watched.
Ben: And that's the thing now, and I think that's actually long since passed, the people that, in inverted commas, ‘don't do TV’ is not a very substantial list either in terms of the size of star or necessarily even the acting chops. Everyone now has done or is doing or will very soon do what we call TV. But look, I can’t even remember how – I think it was my agent, Charlie Jennings, who was on the Spielberg film, and he had been whispering sweet nothings.
But, basically, I went there, and I took the meeting with him, and he just wanted to talk about Bloodline for a bit and tell me a bit about the film. I said, look, I get the film. I don't get the film. It's all gravy. I got to sit in a room with you. That was – look, he’s Steven Spielberg, so, that was – it's been really good.
Jenny: Ready Player One, what will we expect from you and the film?
Ben: You should expect that to be – look, I'm really, really excited about Ready Player One. I think it's going to be an absolute joy. It's a fantastic book and story. And Steven Spielberg is directing a film about the collapse of society where everyone spends their time in virtual reality reliving the 80s, essentially, more or less, so that's going to be one heck of a ride.
It’s a very classical hero’s journey kind of number and –
Jenny: And you’re the hero.
Ben: Come off it. Don’t be a dickhead. So, I’m looking forward to that.
Jenny: You joke about that, half joke about that.
Ben: No. I just respond to your joke about it.
Jenny: Well, I’m assuming that means you don't have this need to prove –
Ben: I get the job. I do the job. That's my hope for that. I've played good guys. I've played bad guys. I've played indifferent guys. I've played enough different types of – I'm an actor. I get it. I try and do the best that I can with it, that's my basic raison d'etre. I'm not too fussed. And I only ever think about it when I'm doing interviews. That's the only time I've ever seems to be like something that needs to be justified. I'm very, very, very happy with my working life, really happy.
Jenny: I can imagine. It looks like the last few years have been an absolute incredible ride for you. And I saw you in Budapest not that long ago on the set of –
Ben: Indeed. Indeed.
Jenny: And suddenly, you're in the Robin Hood world.
Ben: That's it. Yes.
Jenny: I talked to Tim Minchin for the podcast last week, and he was just telling you how much fun everybody had on that set.
Ben: They did. They did. And we were very, very value added by having Tim there. Tim, what a colossal talent. What a ferocious talent. There you go.
Jenny: So, what's next?
Ben: Bludge. I’m going to bludge for a moment. There’s six coming out. That'll do. That'll do for now. That'll do for now.
Jenny: Do you have any advice for the Aussies that are doing the part of that thing where they come backwards and forwards all the time right now?
Ben: Take Fountain.
Jenny: I take Fountain all the time.
Ben: Right? That’s the best bit of advice –
Jenny: For anybody that doesn’t know what that means, come over here –
Ben: Come over.
Jenny: – and try and get on Sunset Boulevard. Well, thank you so much. I'm really thrilled with everything that's happened for you. And it was really a treat to see you get celebrated at the G’day USA Gala. I'm sure that was a very special night for you too.
Ben: It was, indeed, it was. And thank you, Jen. Thank you very, very much.
Jenny: A few things I probably need to explain before signing off. If you're not an Aussie, a bludge is Aussie slang for sitting around doing nothing, which is something Ben's definitely earned coming off six films back-to-back. And when he says his advice to young actors is to Take Fountain, he's quoting Bette Davis, who famously joked about the shortcut to avoid driving east on Sunset.
He's currently appearing opposite Gary Oldman’s Golden Globe nominated performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and he’s playing King George the Sixth. So, it seems if the Brits are casting Ben as the King of England, he's really passed every test now.