Sunday 21 January 2018

Cinema: Mainstream Mendelsohn

Actor Ben Mendelsohn is no longer a boutique concern. He's leading a big, new Netflix show about a darkly dysfunctional family

Front and centre: Ben Mendlesohn stars in Bloodling alongside Sissy Spacek
Front and centre: Ben Mendlesohn stars in Bloodling alongside Sissy Spacek

Julia Molony

There's a packet of cigarettes on the hotel coffee table in front of Ben Mendelsohn, and the soft pall of nicotine hanging in the air, but he still has the slightly jittery edge of the deprived addict.

Over three decades, since his breakthrough role in the cult film The Year My Voice Broke, the 45-year-old Australian actor, has become a stalwart supporting player, channelling his restless energy into a range of performances that are never less than compelling. Last year, he described his position in Hollywood and beyond as a "boutique concern". It seemed to be a designation which suited him; specialist rather than mainstream, and in keeping with theoutsider quality he has often brought to roles.

But he may not be a boutique concern for much longer. Earlier this month, Netflix debuted Bloodline a new, flagship TV series to rival hit shows House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black, in which Mendelsohn is very much front and centre. And rumour has it he's being eyed for a lead role in a new Star Wars spin-off.

A sardonic, dry, gravelly-voiced Australian, he's not the type, though, to buy into any hype.

"Look I'm very flattered," he says of the noise around Bloodline. "In the basic sense of things I'm very very flattered with the way things have panned out. . . And I guess we'll see. You can't predict this stuff too much. And God forbid one starts to make a lot of assumptions, without having tested it. I think the noise and clamour about some things - you don't want to get too much into that. You just want to try and make the stuff you are doing work. And the other stuff, all very well and good. But it's not where the game is at."

The action in Bloodline takes place against the sun-starched beauty of the Florida Keyes. Mendelsohn plays Danny, the eldest son of the Rayburns, a prominent local family with a difficult past. As the action opens, Danny, the black sheep of the family and a slippery, enigmatic figure, returns home to the family-run inn and proceeds to set about rousing all the sleeping dogs.

It's a deft, perfectly intuitive bit of casting. There's something unpredictable and mercurial about Mendelsohn as a performer, his expression as changeable as Irish weather - moving from hang-dog to menacing, to opaque in one take. In person, he seems more open and straightforward than on-screen. Still somewhat crumpled, yes, like Danny Rayburne. But against the backdrop of a luxury London hotel, his tan looks salubrious, rather than weather-beaten and salty.

Socialising on set, he says, he and the rest of the cast allowed themselves to fall into a kind of simulacrum of the family dynamics and roles that we see in the plot. Which meant actor Kyle Chandler, who plays the responsible family man on the show was "very much the centre of the base of operations," off it too. "You just let that stuff mirror," he explains. "You don't force anything but . . . you just sort of try and feel your way into that stuff a bit. And you find that there are parts of you that sort of want to go in the same direction as the character. . . So the actors will tend to let themselves go to places - they might let themselves go to places where they are very uncomfortable to be around. They'll do things, we'll just find ourselves playing around really. In a sort of a grown-up, sophisticated version of cops and robbers."

He is an eldest child himself, with two younger brothers, but isn't about to be drawn into simplistic comparisons between himself and his character. "My family life is significantly different to Danny Rayburns," he says dryly.

Mendelsohn is married to the writer Emma Forrest, with whom he lives in Los Angeles. They have a small daughter together, and he has another daughter from a previous relationship.

Given that Forrest, who started out as a enfant terrible columnist in London, is a confessional writer who has written extensively about her romantic life, including her relationship with Colin Farrell, her husband is surprisingly guarded about their lives together. Though he will admit that her work writing and developing screenplays has helped to deepen his understanding of his craft. "Yeah look, absolutely," he says. "Writers, I don't know how they do that. That's a job that I just go, 'Oh, boy. You think you've got it tough.' But it's the discipline that I find most impressive too . . . It's deepened my respect for it."

Having a writer at home has also "made a lot of conversations for me easier, about writing, because I can sort of understand . . . I'd like to think it's deepened my appreciation for it."

It's a useful common ground between them as a couple. "We talk about stuff a lot," he says. "I mean Emma watches a lot of stuff, she reads a lot of stuff. I think she's more, way more, across stuff than I am. She knows the landscape much much better than I do. What I do is, I guess, quite specialised, in that way. But she has great knowledge - she's a really good partner in that sort of way. She's a great collaborator and a great resource. And in the same way, I'd like to think that there are elements of the dialogue and perspective and male perspective and stuff like that . . ." that he brings to the table. "We do have that dimension together and that's pretty good."

He recently had to cut short a six-month break he'd set aside to spend time with Emma and their toddler. "I mean, you know they've travelled with me as well, but there still has been a lot of time away," he says. "Too much, you know." But he knows he has to "strike while the iron is hot and make hay while the sun shines . . . particularly when you've got to think about the nuts and bolts of normal life, and the realities of what this job is like, over a long period."

Bloodline is out now on Netflix

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