Nobody dangles a cigarette from their mouth on screen like Ben Mendelsohn. The actor defies the laws of physics to keep it hanging from his lips for an unnatural amount of time. There’s sometimes the added difficulty curve of lighting the cigarette at the same time. These are the nuances Mendelsohn brings to each performance. A master of ‘less is more’, his characters move low and slow to control their status in any situation and it makes Mendelsohn a magnetic screen presence. Mendelsohn has built a career playing rogues using his downtrodden, laid back style of acting. Early in his career, Mendelsohn’s approach was classified by comedians, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, on their radio show Martin Molloy as going: “Full Mendo”. Mendelsohn has become an in-demand actor by going Full Mendo.
There have been varying degrees of Mendo over the years, but Full Mendo is the one we want. He began his career appearing in The Year My Voice Broke, The Big Steal, Spotswood, Sirens, Sample People and Cosi. Full Mendo would emerge in the 1990s in Idiot Box, a film about bogan brothers who turn to crime after they drawn their last dole cheque.
Watch 'Idiot Box' now at SBS On Demand:
Idiot Box shows Mendelsohn is at his greasy, browbeaten best. He was also a mainstay on Australian television throughout the '80s and '90s in A Country Practice, The Henderson Kids, Neighbours and The Secret Life of Us.
Mullet followed – they put a picture him dangling a cigarette on the poster – that’s the power of the iconography of Full Mendo.
He flirted with Hollywood with appearances in the mountain climbing thriller, Vertical Limit, Knowing, Terrence Malick’s The New World and Baz Lurhmann’s Australia. More television followed with Love My Way and Tangle, and then it was back into the Australian film scene with Beautiful Kate, which suited his dark side perfectly.
"A master of ‘less is more’, his characters move low and slow to control their status in any situation and it makes Mendelsohn a magnetic screen presence."
Everything changed for Mendelsohn in 2010 with Animal Kingdom, an Australian crime drama where he played Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody, a criminal on the run from the law living in Melbourne being protected by his crime family. Pope is one of the definitive scumbags of Mendelsohn’s career who turned the word ‘mate’ into a terrifying acceptance of criminal collusion. Mendelsohn also flipped the perception of what the criminal underworld in Australia looks like: forget the stereotypical suits, Aussie gangsters do it in boardshorts, thongs and a stained t-shirt.
Animal Kingdom (coming to SBS VICELAND on May 8) got a lot of attention thanks to the award season run of Jackie Weaver, playing the matriarch of the crime family, who made it all the way to a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. Weaver’s hunt for an Oscar put the film in front of Academy Award voters, which meant the cast became wanted by casting directors – and they wanted a piece of Full Mendo action.
Mendelsohn played a sleazy corporate type in The Dark Knight Rises, which was a little Half Mendo, but he was back to his sweaty best in The Place Beyond the Pines and Killing Them Softly. Next was an appearance on the HBO TV series, Girls, the calm before the Full Mendo storm would erupt in Hollywood.
Starred Up is where Mendelsohn solidifies himself, in all his Full Mendo glory, as one of the great modern actors and one of Australia’s best dramatic exports. Starred Up tells the story of a teenager (Jack O’Connell) who is deemed too violent for the juvenile prison system, so he’s moved to an adult facility where his estranged father (Mendelsohn) is serving a sentence, while running a standover gang with a lot of power. Mendelsohn elevates all tools in his Full Mendo arsenal to create one of the best performances of his career to-date.
Netflix’s Bloodline was up next where he played Danny Rayburn, the black sheep brother of a wealthy family living in the Florida. Mendelsohn shines as the misunderstood brother who plays to his family’s dire expectations of him. Mendelsohn is coated in sweat and constantly surrounded by cigarette smoke in Bloodline – it gets a big tick in the Full Mendo department. The performances was rewarded with an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2016.
Full Mendo has now gone mainstream with a villainous appearance in the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One where he was paired with Darth Vader.
Even Steven Spielberg is a Full Mendo fan, casting him in his big screen adaption of the popular novel, Ready Player One. Mendelsohn will play the Sheriff of Nottingham in the upcoming Robin Hood reboot, and he’ll be seen later this year in The Darkest Hour, playing King George VI in a dramatisation of Winston Churchill’s showdown with Adolf Hitler during World War II.
You’ve come a long way, Mendo.
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Watch 'Animal Kingdom'
SBS VICELAND, 8.30pm Monday 8 May
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand
Director: David Michôd
Starring: Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Anthony Hayes, Sullivan Stapleton
What's it about?
Set amidst the explosive world of a family addicted to crime, as experienced through the eyes of a naïve 17-year-old youth (James Frecheville) who enters their lair. It’s the Wild West, where criminals and police wage their war on the city’s streets, while the innocent suffer the consequences.