For a man best known as Hollywood’s spikiest villain, Ben Mendelsohn sure is happy to see us. “NME – as in New Musical Express?” he asks, just after we’re introduced on a phone call from London to his base in Los Angeles. “Fuck me – had I known that my life would bear such fruit… Fucking hell.”
The 51-year-old Melbourne-born actor quickly tells us his memories of buying the magazine during the mid-’70s – and about the artists that he discovered in its inky pages, like ska legend Prince Buster. “Now, we’re talking the days of NME old. [Buster] really was the king of ska,” he says. “Jamaica is, pound for pound, the heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to music.”
“Jamaica is, pound for pound, the heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to music”
Until recently, Mendelsohn had been defined as one of film’s most reliable baddies, bringing a fine-tuned snarl and air of malice to Ready Player One, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and more recently Captain Marvel as fan favourite Talos. With his new film Babyteeth however, the actor was able to prove he’s much more than a go-to villain.
Set in Sydney, the film follows an unconventional family trying their best to manage the terminal illness of teenage daughter Milla (Little Women and Sharp Objects star Eliza Scanlen). It’s a mesmeric, often devastating first feature from Killing Eve director Shannon Murphy, whose filmmaking abilities have left their mark on Mendelsohn: “She is a muscular, feminine filmmaker,” he says. “She’s a hunter. She unleashes this film on you and bam! It gobbles you up. But you’re very glad to be inside it.”
Mendelsohn plays Henry in the film – the gentle, quietly wounded father to Milla’s precious teen, who reluctantly allows her feral, rat-tailed yet well-meaning love interest Moses (newcomer Toby Wallace) into their home for the sake of her happiness.
“Babyteeth is my favourite movie of mine that I’ve ever seen,” he says. It’s a statement that would seem disingenuous coming from most actors, but Mendelsohn appears totally sincere. “The most important thing for me was to keep Henry and Anna (his onscreen wife played by Essie Davis) out of the way so that we’re just pillars that support this really profound story.”
“‘Babyteeth’ is my favourite ever movie of mine”
You get the sense speaking with Mendelsohn that remaining humble is a priority to him; a feeling which solidifies when asked if he sees any of himself in 23-year-old Moses. “I was never as charming,” he says. “Moses is a character with a great deal more devotion, and I don’t think that was a virtue I had. Plus I had a way to make money so I didn’t need to do crime as much.”
Born in 1969, Mendelsohn was brought up in Melbourne by – in his own words – “absent” parents. His mother was a nurse, his father a prestigious medical researcher. After being expelled from one school at 13 for arson, he dropped out of formal education altogether to pursue acting, fuelled by his love of Wild West icons John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
“They gave me an idea of how to behave in the world,” he remembers. “Then, in terms of the instruction manual for movies, Michael Caine’s work was pretty big for me. I remember watching [‘70s crime thriller] Get Carter and all of his harder stuff when I was very young.”
The pair would eventually star together in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman instalment The Dark Knight Rises. Caine reprised his role as weepy butler Alfred, while Mendelsohn stepped in to play Bruce Wayne’s slippery business nemesis Daggett. “Getting to meet the man decades later was a quiet joy,” he recalls. “I didn’t say anything to him, but I was very, very happy.”
After starting out on well-loved Australian shows like Neighbours and Love My Way, Ben’s career lolloped forward in a series of fits and starts. His big movie break came when he was cast as the ruthless, shark-eyed smalltown criminal Pope in 2010’s trailblazing Australian drama Animal Kingdom. As a result, he got jobs playing complex lawbreakers in Killing Them Softly opposite James Gandolfini, The Place Beyond the Pines and British prison drama Starred Up.
Perhaps the finest example of Mendelsohn bringing cult status to this new brand of baddy was in Slow West, where he plays a gang leader sporting an impressive fur coat that the actor immortalised by wearing to the film’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival.
“I never would’ve thought that film would have the legs that it did,” says Mendelsohn of the low budget western’s fan-fuelled endurance. “If people want to know how that coat came to be a full expression of that character, they should go back and look at the baddy in Robert Altman’s western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And yes, I still have the coat.”
This early typecasting caught the attention of some of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers for its biggest franchises. Gareth Edwards dressed him up in a theatrical white cape and gave him the keys to the Galactic Empire in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and a few years later Steven Spielberg cast him as the besuited enemy in CGI-laden family epic Ready Player One. People had developed an appetite for watching the actor wreak havoc in this world and the next, and Mendelsohn seemed content amid the chaos.
More recently, though, he appears to be taking the first steps needed to consciously distance himself from going “full Mendo” – a phrase lovingly coined by Australians as shorthand for his seasoned surliness. The departure is working in his favour: his most recent role in HBO series The Outsider – an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2018 novel which Mendelsohn also produced – has earned him praise for his stoic performance as a beleaguered local detective solving an impossible crime. Even his turn as Talos, the misunderstood and heavily made-up Skrull commander in 2019’s Captain Marvel, became a surprise hit with fans of the franchise.
“That truly exceeded my expectations,” he says. “[Talos] was gonna die at around page 60 [in the script] originally and he survived that, so he’s done pretty well. And if that fucking shapeshifter rears his ugly head again, I’ll do my best to be inside it.”
“There are far fewer niceties in Australian filmmaking. We do things rough and ready”
For his latest film, Babyteeth, Mendelsohn stepped away from the bright lights of Tinseltown. For the first time in eight years, he shot on location in his home country. “I was reminded that there are far less niceties in Australian filmmaking, we do things pretty rough and ready” he says. “We showed up in the midst of Australian summer, and we’d be sitting on milk crates in between shots. It was not a pleasant shoot, but you pray for the films that are bad to make because they often end up being the ones that are really good.”
For Mendelsohn, the move between smaller titles like Babyteeth and gargantuan blockbusters isn’t a conscious one: “In my case, I just follow whoever’s making the film, be it mum or dad,” he says. “My job is to just make sure that we’re not leaving any juice in the orange, and that the audience gets what we’re doing. I’m always suspicious of people wanting to make films for personal reasons, because at the end of the day it’s all about the audience.”
After 15 years of non-stop work – Mendelsohn has shot roughly three projects a year since 2005 – the veteran actor, much like the rest of us, has found himself stuck at home for months due to the pandemic.
“I’ve been listening to Waylon Jennings and a lot of country music, plus some rock and some funk shit,” he says. “Music has always been a huge part of my life: I learned a lot about acting through listening to hip hop and the blues.”
“Music has always been a huge part of my life”
His favourite method of listening is in a vehicle with the volume up high, but when he’s at home, he turns to documentaries and podcasts. “I like to listen to any podcasts that allow me to learn something,” he says. “I left school when I was young, so I’m enjoying learning new stuff now.”
He’s an avid gamer too: “I’ve got my copy of The Last Of Us Part II in my hand right now. I’m only a third of the way through now because my PlayStation got misplaced and I had to buy a new one. I always thought that there was more to Joel and Ellie’s story but I was worried that a sequel might dampen the impact of the first game. So far it hasn’t.”
Lockdown has also given Mendelsohn time to think – and plan his future career. So far, he’s managed to tick off many of Hollywood’s biggest franchises – Star Wars, Marvel, Spielberg – but there’s one that continues to elude him: 007.
“I was just the other day singing Thunderball,” he says. “James Bond was without a doubt the coolest man alive and he didn’t even fucking live. I didn’t even realise that he was a stupid fucking male fantasy. He was the best one, lock, stock and barrel. Roger Moore is the Bond that I grew up with, but then I was incredibly moved by His Majesty’s Secret Service which starred George Lazenby. And you can’t get past Sean Connery.”
“James Bond is the coolest man alive and he didn’t even fucking live”
Most would cast him as the villain, surely. But what if the call came to slip on that famous tux, instead? “Yeah, absolutely. No doubt,” he says. “There’d be no doubt that I would definitely play James Bond.”
Leading men don’t come more heroic than the notorious British secret agent. It’s the ideal part for Mendelsohn as he looks to break away from being the baddy. But if he ever changes his mind, he’s still got that fur coat to fall back on…