When Hollywood needs a bad guy, Ben Mendelsohn will answer the call. The 54-year-old Australian was on hand to help Darth Vader develop the Death Star in 2016’s Rogue One, and stomped his way around Sherwood Forest as the Sheriff of Nottingham in 2018’s Robin Hood. His filmography is stacked full of scummy, shady characters who’ll menace your grandmother as soon as look at her, but that’s all a far cry from the thoroughly charming bloke I find myself in conversation with one sunny Friday morning.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks as we settle in. “Does it bother you?” Given that we’re speaking over video call from opposite sides of Los Angeles, I figure I’m probably safe from second-hand smoke. Still, it’s polite of him to ask. He grins impishly as if to say, well, you can’t be too careful these days. “You know,” he says, with a wave of his soon-to-be-lit cigarette, “2024!”
Mendelsohn is at home in Silver Lake, in a navy blue sweater and a pair of black-framed glasses that he habitually removes to gesticulate with, as a sort of counterweight to the cigarette in his other hand. He’s eager to tell me about his latest role, which isn’t a baddie at all. He’s playing the wildly influential French fashion designer Christian Dior in the Apple TV+ series The New Look, which premieres tomorrow. The show looks tailored to debut as the perfect date show for Valentine’s Day: part haute couture biopic, part Second World War thriller. “Dior is a beautiful guy to play, with his reserve of strength, his fragility and integrity,” says Mendelsohn. “We all know his name, but no one knows anything about him, really.”
The New Look tells the remarkable true story of the wartime exploits of Dior and Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche), as well as their fellow Parisian fashion designers Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich), Cristóbal Balenciaga (Nuno Lopes) and Pierre Balmain (Thomas Poitevin). In the opening scenes, we see Chanel publicly disparaging Dior for designing ball gowns for the Nazis during the occupation, which she claims she refused to do. As quickly becomes clear, however, in truth she was spying for the Germans while having an affair with a Nazi called Spatz (Claes Bang), whereas Dior was funnelling money and support to the French resistance, particularly his beloved sister Catherine (Maisie Williams).
Mendelsohn first heard the outlandish tale of designers-as-spies when the screenwriter Todd Kessler was round his house, cooking pizza and telling him about a history book he’d been reading. “He talked about the difficulty Dior had in reconciling his private, authentic self with his public business self,” says Mendelsohn. “I just said: ‘When are we doing it?’”
The pair had worked together before, on the 2015 Netflix thriller series Bloodline, which Kessler co-created and which won Mendelsohn the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2016. It was this shared history that Mendelsohn thinks helped Kessler see him in the role of Dior, when other filmmakers might have already typecast him. Certainly Mendelsohn felt he could relate to Dior, who was forced to hide his feelings, his sexuality and his allegiances behind a mask. “I have a shyness about me,” he says. “I have a lot of high sensitivity, a lot of insecurity, all the sort of stuff that Dior had. I think that thing of reconciling private self and public self is something we all go through. It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re in the public eye. That sense of what is really you, versus the way you are in the world. That was really the hook.”
Mendelsohn, who was born in Melbourne in 1969, had an unconventional upbringing that gave him an early sense of the distance between the way you are and the way the world sees you. His father, Fred, was a high-flying, globe-trotting neuroscientist. His mother, Carole, who died in 2004, was a nurse. His parents split when he was six years old, and as a boy he lived between their separate homes in the outer reaches of Melbourne for a while before moving in with his grandmother. It was a largely unsupervised existence, where a shy, sensitive young man found new role models in the tough guys he saw on screen: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight. He took drama at high school because he thought it sounded easy, but never dreamed he’d make a living out of it. “I grew up in the suburbs, in a place where you’d watch a television show and it was a million miles away,” he says. “To see yourself in that would be an act of hubris.”
As a teenager, he was tipped off to an advert in the newspaper looking for young actors and encouraged his mates to apply. He was the only who did. “I just thought: ‘F*** it, I’ll go,’” he remembers. “I turned up in my street clothes, and there were a lot of stage kids there with their moms and whatnot. But I got a job! That same company, Crawford’s, kept on employing me, and that was basically it.”
After landing a role on the 1985 Australian family television series The Henderson Kids, alongside a teenage Kylie Minogue, he remained a working actor on stage and screen in Australia for the next couple of decades until he sensed things starting to dry up. He battled addiction issues, and was reportedly found in a comatose state at an afterparty for the premiere of The Piano in 1993, later saying he’d given way to “excessive hedonism”. “I assumed it was more or less over in my thirties,” he says now. “One day I thought: ‘F***, I’m one of the 95 per cent of people who work for a certain time in the business and then have to go find a real life.’ Then I got very, very fortunate.”
In 2010, he appeared opposite Joel Edgerton and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, a tense underworld drama inspired by the real-life exploits of a Melbourne crime family. Mendelsohn is a revelation in the role of psychopathic older brother Pope: unhinged, unstable and constantly (justifiably) paranoid about the cops. It’s little wonder Hollywood started casting him as villains soon after. “That was the birth of this entire iteration of my career,” he says.
I tell Mendelsohn it’s hard to match the laidback guy in front of me with the unsettling characters I’ve seen him play on screen, and he flashes a grin like the wolf waiting for Red Riding Hood. “I mean, I’m being well behaved now,” he smirks. “But I think if you grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne in the Eighties, that was a very rough and tumble time. There were a lot of those characters around. There were guys who would misinterpret what you’re saying to them, and if they misinterpret it they think you’re offending them. And if they think you’re offending them, they’re f***ing deadly.”
In 2012, as Mendelsohn’s career was beginning to take off in the States, he married the English writer and director Emma Forrest. They had a child in 2014 and lived together in Los Angeles before divorcing a couple of years later. In 2022, she published a memoir, Busy Being Free, which deals in part with their separation. Mendelsohn shrugs off the idea he might’ve been concerned about the way Forrest portrayed him. “Ultimately I support her right as an artist to write whatever the f*** she wants, and to see me the way she sees me,” he says. “She gave it to me to read, and there were a couple of things that I was like: ‘Em, come on!’ But look, Emma and I still remain close. We have a kid together. So I support her right to practise her art. I’ve never stood in the way of that, and I wouldn’t.”
Mendelsohn, as actors go, seems to have a pretty healthy relationship with his own ego. As is often the way for those cast as screen villains, he has become accustomed to dying on screen. He was blown up by his own death ray in Rogue One, while Marvel fans will know that last year Talos, his much-loved shape-shifting Skrull general first introduced in 2019’s Captain Marvel, finally met his end in Secret Invasion. “Look, it’s the way of the world, you know?” says Mendelsohn. “Characters get killed off. C’est la vie. I was really, really thrilled to work with Marvel. They’re a fantastic company to work for, and who knows? Who knows?”
There have been rumours online that Mendelsohn could feasibly return to the Marvel universe as Director Keller, the human Shield boss who Talos kidnapped and then impersonated. “Right, yeah,” says Mendelsohn, somewhat unenthusiastically. “I’d prefer to try Doctor Doom! Best Marvel character ever made, but who knows?”
I think humans have sort of a fatalistic worry about the world, armageddon or whatever
He’s chirpily unconcerned by industry fears that the rise of AI could see digital replicas put him out of a job altogether. “Oh, I think I’ve been scanned and reproduced a number of times!” he says with a smile. “Look, I think these concerns come up. I remember with CGI 20 years ago, it was the death knell of everything la la la. I think humans have sort of a fatalistic worry about the world, armageddon or whatever. It transfers itself onto the newest thing coming through.”
Whether he’s required to design dresses in war-torn Paris, or threaten the fate of the universe, Mendelsohn fancies there’ll still be a need for the sorts of characters he loves to play: rogues, villains, tortured souls, even the occasional hero. “I’m pretty content being an old fashioned, Gielgud-type jobbing actor,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette. “I flatter myself a little there, but that school of jobbing actor is a perfectly great school and I’m happy to belong to it, and happy to be wanted in it.”
‘The New Look’ is on Apple TV+ from 14 February