“In the last several years, I don’t personally think I’ve become a better actor,” says Ben Mendelsohn, the 46-year-old Aussie actor whose career couldn’t be hotter at the moment — he recently landed an Emmy nom for his performance on Netflix’s Bloodline, was cast in the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One and received a Spirit Award nom for his killer perf in the indie Mississippi Grind — as we sit down to record the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “But I probably am more at ease.”
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and others — on iTunes.)
Mendelsohn has been acting since he stumbled onto an Australian TV show as a child. “Once I started working, I didn’t want it to end,” he says, noting, “It was like having a [second] family.” In the years since, he has worked steadily — if not with much acclaim or attention — as his career evolved in phases. He started out playing hyperactive delinquents; transitioned into sweet, innocent, wide-eyed boys; spent a few years as “larrikins,” or bros; and, most recently — since being cast on a cable show as “a bit of an asshole” and then landing the part of a deranged killer in David Michod‘s Aussie breakout hit Animal Kingdom — has been the go-to-actors for bad guys.
“I did not have grand ambitions,” Mendelsohn says, although he admits that he “wasn’t happy” that he remained a working actor in Australia while so many of his old friends, contemporaries and “heroes” — people like Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts — landed jobs in America and became international stars. “It became a recurrent question,” he sighs. By the time he wrapped Animal Kingdom, on his 40th birthday, he had more or less come to terms with the idea that his career was over. “It was just a case of being sensible, really,” he says. “I did have a sadness about it, but I also felt like I’d had a great career, I’d seen it, I’d done it, I’d lived it and it was over.” He continues, “I thought about just getting out of the business entirely,” but people encouraged him not to. “I just figured, ‘Well, I’m gonna have to go and do something else.’ I mean, I would’ve driven a truck, I would’ve done whatever.”
But in the year after Animal Kingdom‘s release, people in Hollywood began catching up with it and inquiring about the guy who played the character Pope, and eventually things began taking off for Mendelsohn. He got a call from Joel Schumacher, at the recommendation of Kidman, and was cast in 2011’s Trespass. That was followed by among others, Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, Derek Cianfrance‘s The Place Beyond the Pines, Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings and the list goes on.
Just as Mendelsohn’s Hollywood film career was taking off, however, he made a decision that caught some by surprise: he took the role of Danny Rayburn, the black sheep in a prestigious family in the Florida Keys, in Neftlix’s Bloodline. He says he found it to be “incredibly powerful material” and figured “it would be a significant role in something that, in some cases, more people would see and would be around for longer,” and his faith was rewarded: he ended up stealing the show from much higher-profile costars and wound up with an Emmy nomination. (Though his character was killed in the first episode of season one, the rest of the season was done in flashback so he factored into it heavily — and it has been announced that, somehow, he will be back in season two!)
But Bloodline has not kept Mendelsohn from continuing to work in films. The best of the lot that have been released since he signed on to the show is Mississippi Grind, a story about two gamblers — including Mendelsohn’s Gerry, a “beautiful loser” — who take a road trip together, the other being “profoundly underrated” Ryan Reynolds. The role came about because Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who co-wrote and co-directed Half Nelson, saw The Place Beyond the Pines, which was produced by their regular producers Lynette Howell and Jamie Patricof, and wanted to work with the guy who they assumed was an upstate New York-local.
Mendelsohn is perfectly cast (his terrific poker face makes it difficult for those he encounters to tell if his character is being straight with them) and he plays the character memorably (reeking of desperation and totally convinced his next bet will be the one that will make up for all of the others), which is why it’s not surprising that he landed a best actor Spirit Award nom — and why one can’t rule out the possibility that he will be a surprise Oscar nominee, as well. It’s a long shot, but as Mendelsohn’s character in the film — like his career itself — reminds us, long shots do pay off once in a while.
Mississippi Grind was released by A24 on Sept. 25. Awards voters are being asked to consider Mendelsohn for best actor.