Sundance 2015: The nervous charms of Ben Mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn stars in Mississippi Grind, one of the breakout performances of the festival

The Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn was at a slopeside hotel last weekend, lugging a large piece of orange l‎uggage out the front door. His wife, the British-born novelist Emma Forrest, was next to him, as the couple waited for a car to take them to the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Mississippi Grind," Mendelsohn's new gambling drama.

Ryan Reynolds, Mendelsohn’s co-star in the odd-couple film, walked up to them.

“What's in that thing?” Reynolds asked, gesturing to the suitcase.

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“Oh, this?” Mendelsohn leaned down and opened the zipper, revealing the suitcase's lone object—a massive, disturbingly lifelike stole of fur.

“I have another premiere later,” he said matter-of-factly. “‘Slow West.’ A Western. I’m going to wear it on stage.”

“It looks like it may have a few bullet holes in it already,” Reynolds said.

Mendelsohn and Forrest climbed into the car, which pulled out behind Reynolds’ vehicle.“Can you get ahead of him?” Mendelsohn asked the driver. The driver stayed back.

A few streets later Mendelsohn asked again, “Maybe find a way to swing in front of him?”  Mendelsohn was concerned that it would be a sign of disrespect if he arrived at the premiere after Reynolds, at 38 seven years his junior but the better-known star.

“Mommy,” he said to Forrest, using his pet name for her, “we really should be in front of him.”

Mendelsohn was wearing a bespoke dark jacket and had his salt-and-pepper hair in a much shorter cut than it often appears on screen. The actor has been on something of a career hot streak lately, often by playing the kind of  Edward G. Robinson-type tough guy Hollywood doesn't produce much these days. Though active in his native country since the late 1980s, Mendelsohn became known in the U.S. with the Aussie crime drama “Animal Kingdom”—his only previous Sundance appearance, in 2010—and then leveraged its acclaim to parts in blockbusters like “The Dark Knight Rises” and U.S. indies such as “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

In "Grind," from the "Half Nelson" directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a dissolute and hyper-talkative card player who is constantly on the make but rarely successful, a hustler without the hustle.

“The thing about Gerry is that he just says what he thinks because he doesn’t care about the politics of it all,” Mendelsohn said. “I think I may have a little bit of Jerry in me.”

Mendelsohn made sure the fur was safely in the back, kissed his wife on the lips and got out of the car (Reynolds had arrived first). Mendelsohn came up on the red carpet to his co-star, who was directed the bulk of the questions, mainly of the tabloid variety.

For all its picturesque scenery and party legend, Sundance can be grueling for many who come with a movie. There are, on one side, actors too insignificant for anyone to care much about. And there are those, like Reynolds, significant enough that they can frequently say no.

Mendelsohn occupies the more demanding stratum in-between—there are many requirements, and he is expected to meet all of them.

Felled by a cold on this unusual two-premiere day, the actor ran a bath for several hours before 9 a.m., when he embarked on a series of interviews for “Slow West,” in which he plays a bounty hunter in Civil War-era frontier country. Now, in the early afternoon, he would run a gantlet that would include a red carpet, a screening, a post-screening Q&A, more media interviews and a party appearance, all for “Grind.” Then he would repeat much of it for “Slow West,” whose premiere was that evening. The events will take him all the way to midnight.

Cast members took their seats at the front of Sundance's large Eccles Theater as Fleck and Boden introduced “Grind,” which has Mendelsohn and Reynolds' characters hitting the road in the South and Midwest looking for a big card-game score.

Mendelsohn, however, squatted on a rail next to Reynolds. He never watches his own movies, ever--he hasn't seen a frame of a film he’s in going back more than 10 years--and he was planning a quick getaway. The second the lights went down, Mendelsohn had made a beeline for a side exit, materializing teleportatively in front of the theater with a cigarette a  second later.

“I don’t know. it started because it seemed yucky, looking at what I do,” he said. "And I guess now it’s a thing.” Forrest remained in the theater to watch the film. She said she doesn’t know how long her husband has been doing this. “He always tells me ‘since I got good.’”

Mendelsohn said he came close to giving up acting back in the early 2000s, when even rudimentary TV roles had dried up. “You start to think, ‘Am I crazy," and at what point am I staying too long, and being that guy. And if I give it up am I leaving something I love.' But then ‘Animal Kingdom, ‘ and doosh.” "Doosh" is a popular Mendelsohn phrase; it has a meaning somewhere between a substantive "and there it goes" and a Millennial’s "like."

Intensely serious and a little shy—he frequently avoids eye contact even deep into a conversation—Mendelsohn described how the character parts started. He was given, as a young man in Australia, “sweet, boyish roles, and it would bother me a little.”

But as he aged, his face took on sharper angles and craggier lines, and he developed the kind of tough-but-wounded personae that made him so menacing, for instance,  as Pope in “Animal Kingdom” and also gives him the kind of lived-in look in “Grind,” in what is easily one of the festival’s best performances.“I think I’ve benefited from not being hugely known," he said. "It means I have to do something really effective to be noticed.”

Reynolds, who calls Mendelsohn “Benny” with a kind of sibling playfulness (Mendelsohn has no such moniker for Reynolds), described the actor’s on-set manner. “There’s a kind of manic quality to what he’s doing. He's always trying to keep you off balance. I don't think I've ever worked with anyone who does it like he does it."

“Grind,” which does not yet have U.S. distribution, is one of numerous new roles for Mendelsohn. He plays a submariner in Kevin Macdonald’s newly released adventure tale “Black Sea”; the scion of a dysfunctional Florida family in Netflix's upcoming series "Bloodline”; and a  pedophile in the upcoming hot-button film drama “Blackbird.” He had thought about not taking on that last role, fearing it would upset Forrest, but checked with her and she reassured him it was OK.

The well-connected novelist, whom he married in 2012, is, he says, his “lucky charm” and a reason behind his recent prolific run. She also serves as a kind of keeper-of-the-schedule for the decidedly right-brained Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has an endearing, almost childlike quality around Forrest—when he is apart from her for more than a few minutes he will eagerly seek her out, and he relies on her for logistical and emotional guidance.

“Emma has a lot more sense of the wider world,” he said. “I'm more of a much burrower and just push narrowly, straight ahead.” The couple, who live in Los Angeles, have a daughter, age 2; Mendelsohn also has a child from a previous relationship.  

There is a vulnerability to the actor, almost like an uncertain pre-adolescent is hiding in a 45-year-old’s body. It can seem at odds with Mendelsohn’s characters. If you met him and were asked what his go-to cinematic mode was, tough-guy swagger would be far down the list.

On-screen, meanwhile, Mendelsohn has the kind of shape-shifting character-actor quality that can make you forget where you saw him, or if you saw him. The “Grind” directors Fleck and Boden liked Mendelsohn when they watched him as a working-class bank robber in “Place Beyond the Pines” (the two films shared producers) but thought he was just a local non-pro from upstate New York.

“I don’t believe in the transformation myth, where if you have more success life changes for you," Mendelsohn said. "Gerry in the movie believes if just the right card comes up, your life will change. I used to think that. But as these roles have happened, I realize it's a lie."

He continued, “The people that impress me are Bob Dylan. The ones who keep working, year in and year out, and keep coming up with stuff."

The screening ended—Mendelsohn had spent much of it alternating between cigarette breaks in the Utah chill and small talk in a makeshift green room with Reynolds—and the pair joined filmmakers and other cast members on stage at the cavernous Eccles. 

Mendelsohn pitched forward a little as he walked out, in the manner of anxious people. Reynolds charmed the audience with jokes and just-revealing-enough glimpses into his mind. Mendelsohn was stiffer. Someone in the audience asked him about what he saw in his performance, and Mendelsohn explained his no-viewing policy.

“You don’t want to watch it, because you only think about the mistake bits. [Roles] are made for other people to watch.” The audience laughed. His anxiety was playing as comedy, though he didn't mean it that way.

The Q&A ended, and Mendelsohn was spirited backstage. There was a momentary look of concern in his eyes. “Where’s Emma?” he said to a nearby publicist. She was soon brought back. Mendelsohn kissed her, and they walked out with Reynolds to a private back parking lot to make their escape, where some savvy young selfie-seekers were nonetheless waiting behind a barricade. Reynolds went over to them to pose and gladhand. Mendelsohn lingered behind, no one looking to have his celebrity grace their  Facebook walls.

Finally, someone asked him for a selfie. He obliged. “I like your accent,” she called out as he walked away. “I like yours too,” he said over his shoulder.

He and Forrest clambered into the back seat of a car headed for Park City's Main Street, where a series of appearances awaited.

“How was the movie?” Mendelsohn said as they rode.

“It was really great,” Forrest replied.

"Oh. That’s good,” Mendelsohn said.

The two discussed the next series of obligations. There was some venue switching, and Mendelsohn was having some difficulty understanding the plan. Forrest waited patiently, explained it again. He nodded. Then the car pulled up at the first spot. He kissed on her on the lips before they swung open the doors.

“Mommy,” he said.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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