Every decade, it seems, has its version of the Australian invasion — actors from the antipodean continent who arrive in Hollywood and take American cinema by storm. In the 1980s, “Mad Max” and “Dead Calm” made future household names of Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman. In the 1990s it was Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce by way of “L.A. Confidential.” The early 2000s brought us Naomi Watts (“Mulholland Dr.”) and Jason Clarke (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”).
And in 2010 a brand-new crew of Aussie talents washed up on our shores in the crime thriller “Animal Kingdom,” which introduced American audiences to Jacki Weaver (now a double Oscar nominee) and Joel Edgerton. But perhaps the most ubiquitous “Animal Kingdom” alum of late has been Ben Mendelsohn, who’s currently enjoying something of a mid-career renaissance. Mendelsohn currently co-stars with Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a sprawling drama written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”). Gosling has already cast Mendelsohn in his own directorial debut, “How to Catch a Monster,” slated to begin filming later this spring.
Not bad for a 44-year-old actor who has been famous for 30 years in Australia, but who was on the verge of quitting not long ago. “There was a period for a few years where there was really nothing,” Mendelsohn said recently from Los Angeles. “There was a severe drop-off in business [in Australia], and I went through a couple of years of not really working at all. And I was a grown up. I was a man well into my 40s, and I had to give myself a time limit in the sense of of what else I’d do. The time limit ran out and bam.”
Bam, it turns out, was “Animal Kingdom” and the life-changing effect it had on his and his co-stars’ lives. “If it hadn’t have been for ‘Animal Kingdom,’ then all this wouldn’t have happened,” he said flatly. “Plain and simple.”
Born in Melbourne, the son of a medical researcher and a nurse, Mendelsohn began his career as a young teen in the television series “The Henderson Kids” and “Neighbours,” then went on to win a clutch of awards for his role in the 1987 coming-of-age movie “The Year My Voice Broke.” Mendelsohn never pursued formal training; instead, he soaked up the wisdom of his castmates while doing plays and on film sets. (While filming “The Efficiency Expert” with Anthony Hopkins in 1991, he asked the revered star for his secrets of the trade. “He said, ‘I don’t try hard to push things, I don’t do this, I don’t do that,’” Mendelsohn recalled. “Because, he said, ‘I know what I’m doing.’”)
Meanwhile, Mendelsohn engaged the services of a U.S. talent agent, but he had to watch from the sidelines as such contemporaries as Pearce, Russell and Watts made it big in Hollywood. “I’d been coming to America for 20 years before I got any traction,” he remembered, adding that it wasn’t always easy on his actorly ego. “I’ve got enough of the naturally competitive instinct to not feel completely comfortable with it,” he said.
Now that he’s finally arrived, he’s swiftly become a reliably fascinating presence in whatever endeavor he undertakes, whether he’s playing the brutal older brother of a crime family in “Animal Kingdom,” Bruce Wayne’s business rival John Daggett in “The Dark Knight Rises,” a motormouthed ruffian in “Killing Them Softly” or, in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” an upstate New York mechanic and erstwhile bank robber who becomes best friend and mentor to a stunt motorcyclist played by Gosling. With their dazzling blue eyes locking on to each other within their often gloomy environs, Gosling and Mendelsohn develop a simmering, vaguely romantic dynamic reminiscent of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in their heyday.
“Pines” director Cianfrance recalled seeing Mendelsohn for the first time in “Animal Kingdom.” “I was like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ” Cianfrance said. “I had no idea he’d been this Australian national treasure since the age of 13.” When Cianfrance asked to meet with Mendelsohn for “Pines,” the director said, “He was three hours early for his audition. And he looked like a wreck. He was really out of sorts. He had this plastic bracelet on his wrist; I couldn’t tell if it was from a party that had been raging all night or from a hospital. . . . And he just said, ‘Please, mate, don’t make me read for you. If you make me audition, it’s going to ruin the whole thing. If you give me the role, I’ll carry a spear for you.’ And literally, in a minute I cast him. Just because I was so struck by him.”
The actor laughed when he remembered that day. “I have no idea what the plastic bracelet was, it could [have been from] a party or a hospital,” he said. “Some mornings, it takes me a while to look decent. But I did tell him I’d carry a spear for him. There’s a couple of people I’d happily carry a spear for.”
Mendelsohn has been living in Los Angeles for the past couple of years “on one of those funky visas that lets you stay while you’re employed.” He married writer Emma Forrest last year, and they’ll be welcoming a baby soon (he has a 10-year-old daughter back in Australia). “I did not expect to be having such an upswing of good fortune at this stage of my life,” he said before signing off. “I hadn’t planned on that. There were plenty of people who had put their money on ‘not to win,’ as it were. So things are really good.”
(140 minutes) in area theaters, contains profanity throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference.