He’s one of the country’s greatest film exports but actor Ben Mendelsohn tells Stephen A Russell he would gladly live in Melbourne if he could.
HE'S played a cop and a killer, Rupert Murdoch and a standover man, and has been nominated for more than a dozen awards in a glittering career spanning 30 years.
But if Ben Mendelsohn could choose one dream role, it would be Doctor Doom, nemesis of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four.
While he relished his cameo in this year’s finale of the Batman juggernaut, The Dark Knight Rises, Mendelsohn admits he has his eye on Doom.
And he may get his chance, with a rumoured reboot in the pipeline. “I’d do anything to play Doctor Doom. I love the Doctor.”
It turns out Mendelsohn, 44, is a closet geek. One of Melbourne’s most successful film stars, he is reluctantly based in Los Angeles for most of the year.
On visits home he could once be found surfing the shelves of his favourite comic book store, Windsor’s sadly departed Alternate Worlds. “I loved that place; it’s so f*cked that it’s gone,” he sighs.
An elemental force on screen, Mendelsohn is on a run of playing bad guys, from his terrifying, AFI-winning turn as violent criminal Andrew ‘‘Pope’’ Cody in David Michod’s murky underworld drama Animal Kingdom to his latest role in mob-movie-with-a-difference, Killing Them Softly.
It wasn’t always this way. “There was an earlier period, a long time ago now, where I was perceived as this sweet, wide-eyed, sensitive boy full of longing,” he says. “If you’re around long enough, people are fortunately able to see you in more dimensions.”
Killing Them Softly finds Mendelsohn front and centre amid a fiercely strong cast, including an on-form Brad Pitt, The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini and Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta.
The Aussie actor retains his down-under accent as one half of a rather hapless crime duo trying to score their way out of social and economic depression by ripping off a mob-run card game, alongside newcomer Scoot McNairy (Monsters, Argo) as his wingman.
The latter is an easily led, loveable rogue, and their zingy dialogue and rapscallion antics add a great deal of black humour to the grim proceedings.
Mendelsohn’s best mate, writer-director Andrew Dominik, has cleverly adapted George V Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, retaining much of the swagger of that decade’s genre greats, such as Dirty Harry, Get Carter, and The Godfather, while bringing it bang up to date.
Relocated to 2008, with the US collapsing under the weight of the encroaching GFC, the movie plays out against the changing of the guard from George W Bush to a hope-inspiring Obama.
Mendelsohn and McNairy’s believable screen partnership was aided by the fact that both were on set together for the duration of the shoot, and even ended up sharing a pad.
“With the more expensive components of the cast, it gets scheduled around them, so Scoot and I had a lot of time when we’re just sort of there,” Mendelsohn says. “We had plenty of time to go through a pretty comprehensive arc of liking each other, having arguments and the whole bit. It was a very close relationship.”
Mendelsohn relishes forming a bond with his co-stars, and says it helps stave off the blues when filming far from home. “Truth be told, working on location is a pretty solitary business. When you’re not filming, you’re just sitting around a hotel room in a foreign city. After a while, you come to depend on the people around you. Scoot was completely up for it, and off we went.”
Killing Them Softly took some time to get off the ground, and Mendelsohn was about to take another role when he got a frantic call from Dominik asking him to drop everything and head to New Orleans, where the film was shot. It was Dominik’s call to have him retain his accent.
“When we took it to Cannes people wanted to know, because of the political commentary of the film, whether Andrew was getting at something about the relationship between Australia and America,” Mendelsohn says. “I like the fact it does that for people.”
Set during the final leg of the tooth-and-nail US presidential election, and with the film’s liberal use of political speeches by Obama, Bush and John McCain, filmgoers can read a fair bit into it. “Hmmm, that’s a pretty tantalising quality,” says Mendelsohn, laughing. “It really elevates the film, and that’s all Andrew. He added all of that, including the fantastic closing scene. It’s a beauty.”
Although he likes to think of himself as “of no-fixed address,” Mendelsohn acknowledges that post-Animal Kingdom, it made sense to base himself Stateside. “You find it a bit easier as time goes on. There’s a basic old work imperative after all.”
Not that he has had to worry about work all that much. After Killing Them Softly he’ll star alongside Rose Byrne and Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines, written and directed by Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance, then in the Doris Lessing adaptation, Two Mothers, alongside Naomi Watts and Robin Wright.
“Animal Kingdom has been very good for pretty much everybody involved in it,” Mendelsohn says. “It was the most visible, but it’s a bit of a cumulative effect, a one-two punch, because Beautiful Kate travelled to a lot of film people too.”
The latter scored his co-star, fellow Melbourne success story Rachel Griffiths, a Best Supporting Actress gong at the AFIs in 2009. Both actors have successfully juggled television and film careers for many years. Mendelsohn had early stints opposite Kylie Minogue in The Henderson Kids and Neighbours, played Rob in the cult hit The Secret Life of Us, and Lewis Feingold in Foxtel’s finest, Love My Way, then later Vince Kovak in Tangle.
“Television is, first of all, an incredible training ground for young actors in particular and mate, I’m perfectly happy with it,” he says. “To a degree, the rise of quality cable programming has taken the place of what used to be daring, independent cinema. If you look at the big guns over the last quarter century of television, cable is overrepresented. Love My Way really kicked open the door for that type of programming in Australia.”
Mendelsohn, who attended Banyule High School in Rosanna, got into acting class originally because he thought it would be easy. Falling fast and hard for his chosen profession, he clearly recalls an incredible sense of melancholy one year into his acting career, at the age of 15. “I was really sad because I thought I’d only do this once or twice and that would be that. I just tried to work hard so I didn’t have to leave.”
Three decades later, he needn’t have worried. “If you keep trying to do better work, you’ve got a chance. I mean, there’re all sorts of commercial aspects that come into it, like how you look, but in terms of what you can actually control, [you have to] stay focused on the audience, and the people you’re working with. You need to have a primacy of respect for the fact you’ve got a certain amount of time to get this stuff done, and done well, if you give a f*ck about it.”
While he may increasingly be considered big stuff overseas, Mendelsohn is unequivocal about his love of Melbourne. “I’d be back to Melbourne at the drop of a hat if there was the right job going. I always remind people that the first feature film in the world was shot in Melbourne.”
He’s speaking of the 1906 treasure, The Story of the Ned Kelly Gang, shot all over the city, from St Kilda to Heidelberg, which debuted at the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street. Recognised by the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the Ned Kelly drama is all over in 60 minutes, compared with the two hours-plus epics we’ve become accustomed to.
“Melbourne’s the home of the feature film,” beams Mendelsohn, “and I’m very proud to be one of its current export commodities.”
Killing Them Softly is in cinemas on October 11.