The first thing I asked Captain Marvel's Ben Mendelsohn when we met at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel to discuss his recent Netflix movie, The Land of Steady Habits, was whether or not he tries to make his characters likable. It may seem like an odd question to ask the man who, since breaking out as the lowlife Pope in the Australian crime saga Animal Kingdom, has cemented himself as Hollywood’s go-to bad guy. He was the slimy construction magnate John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises; the black-sheep brother, Danny Rayburn, in the Netflix thriller Bloodline; the sinister Director Krennick in Rogue One; and the megalomaniacal CEO, Nolan Sorrento, in Ready Player One. In other words, this is a man who’s become very good at being bad.
Mendelsohn is uniquely familiar with the nuanced differences between his current home and the country he was born in. After making a name for himself as an actor in his native Australia, Mendelsohn did what so many of his Aussie counterparts had done before him—he came to Hollywood. But while such contemporaries like Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce shot to stardom, Mendelsohn was relegated to the sidelines. Business was so slow that he considered quitting acting altogether. But just as his self-imposed time limit was set to run out, David Michod cast him in the surprise hit Animal Kingdom alongside Joel Edgerton and, well, here we are.
In the Skrulls' evil, vile attempt to infiltrate Earth, they pick someone that looks a bit like a pudgy me. That was crafty of them.
So how does Mendelsohn apply that dictum to his own career? “My thinking about that is just not wanting to rip people off.” It’s exactly the type of thinking that led him to Holofcener, who—in an industry dominated by superheroes and sequels—has become one of the last remaining adults in the room. “Her work is accessible from different levels,” he says of Holofcener, whose films include Enough Said, Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. “She, amongst filmmaking and acting circles, is top-tier. She makes movies that are geared towards adults, while still thinking about what an audience is going to be entertained by.”
Mendelsohn’s audience-first approach might be the reason that, despite his roots in smaller, more intimate fare, he keeps coming back to big, bold studio movies, a way of working that he’s admittedly still coming to terms with. “I still get so blown away sometimes by what feels like the bigness of it all, but it can take a moment to adjust,” he says of his time on the set of Ready Player One, Spielberg’s latest CGI extravaganza. “It can feel like, ‘Wait, hold on. I’m here,’ especially if you come from the world of smaller films or theatre, and then all of a sudden, people are making a much bigger deal about your work. It’s much more visible. If you’ve got game, you can step up, but it can be daunting, like, 'Whoa, I’m playing against you now?’"
When I ask Mendelsohn if, with all his success, he’ll ever get used to the idea of working alongside Hollywood’s elite, he launches into a sports analogy that signals just how long he’s been living and working stateside. “You may look over, and you may see [Allen] Iverson running up the court towards you. You may be facing LeBron [James]. Reggie Jackson may be right there. You look across the court, and you’re like, ‘Shit, that's [Scottie] Pippen over there. Fuck, there’s [Michael] Jordan.’ We’re outsiders, we get in the grime, we’re tough, we do our own thing, and if you come from Australia, and you come from outside that world, you want to be able to adopt that outsider mentality because at one point or another, you’re going to be on the other side. You’re going to become the Lakers or the Celtics, an establishment kind of team.” If Mendelsohn continues on his current trajectory, that shift is going to happen sooner rather than later.
Lead photo credit: Myles Pettengill