Going Full Mendo: the five greatest Ben Mendelsohn performances

When did Ben Mendelsohn become one of the world’s greatest villains? It feels like Mendo’s transformation from a squeamishly good character actor, best-known for playing an assortment of creepy criminals, to an eating-puppies-for-breakfast uber villain has been gradual. Then, POW! The bloke is popping up everywhere as a go-to guy for nefarious, cat-stroking-type baddies.

A quick glance at his CV suggests his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One (more on that in a moment) ushered in a new era of blockbuster-sized Mendo-mania. The actor’s upcoming roles include the inevitably slimy and twisted Sheriff of Nottingham in another Robin Hood movie, and the primary villain in 2019’s Captain Marvel. There is even a term to describe his performance style: Full Mendo.

In 2018 Mendelsohn will storm the screen as the chief bad guy in Ready Player One, directed by some cash-strapped, no-name indie filmmaker – Steven Spiel-something-or-other. The first proper look at Mendo as Nolan Sorrento, the ruthless head of a murderous gang of gamers called Sixers, arrived this week, with Ready Player One’s bombastic new trailer.

To mark the occasion, I’ve picked five of my favourite Mendelsohn performances, and described where they sit on the Full Mendo scale. The majority of these roles are seriously creepy, though I’ve thrown in one with a very different tone for a palette cleanser – also, a reminder that this very fine Australian actor has dramatic range in addition to menace. Lots and lots of menace.

Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

It can’t be easy to hold your own as an intergalactic bad guy, in a field of hero-slaying villains as prestigious as Darth Vader, Jabba the Hut and Emperor Palpatine. But Orson Krennic, played by Mendelsohn, managed to do the job, with considerably less makeup than his other, dark side of the Force luminaries. Although Krennic did, admittedly, fail at the job for which he was actually employed: to build the Death Star.

When this pride-filled, pernicious, pathological professional claimed that the planet-sized ball of destruction was actually a peace-keeping superweapon, only to be told that he was confusing peace with terror, Mendelsohn delivered Rogue One’s best line: “Well, you have to start somewhere.”

Full Mendo factor: the Force is strong with this one

Kev in Idiot Box (1996)

Director David Caesar’s highly energetic Australian crime drama about a pair of risk-taking derros follows Mendo as hard-drinking criminal Kev, and his lowlife pal Mick (Jeremy Sims). In the first act, Kev steals a bucket of cash from a man in a koala suit collecting money for charity – who then chases him through a cemetery – thus earning the performance early points in Full Mendo factor. At one point Mick tells Mendelsohn’s Kev that he’s angry all the time; Mick responds that he enjoys being that way, thank you very much. One of those moments when you’re not entirely sure whether the actor or the character is speaking.

Full Mendo factor: considerable

Danny in The Big Steal (1990)

No Australian film better embodies the spirit of a John Hughes high school movie then director Nadia Tass’ beloved coming-of-age film, featuring Mendelsohn in his first lead role. The Big Steal follows the wily Dan (Mendo) who hatches an elaborate revenge plot against an oily car salesman (Steve Bisley). Mendelsohn paints a thoroughly affable, endearing, crowd-pleasing presence – which is to say, not Full Mendo at all. Released in 1990, that term had not yet been coined, so we’ll cut him some slack on this one.

Full Mendo factor: n/a

Russell in Killing Them Softly (2012)

Mendelsohn’s performance in the bold, bloody and brilliant third feature film from a fellow Australian, director Andrew Dominik, is small but hideously high impact. In a quintessential ‘can’t watch but can’t look away’ role, Mendo owns every scene as a sweat-drenched, wastoid, small-time scumbag. At one point he injects heroin then recounts a story about driving in the rain in a car full of dogs, which ends up exploding and running over a fellow miscreant. Because Mendo.

Full Mendo factor: approaching maxed out

Pope in Animal Kingdom (2010)

The most shocking, skin-crawling Mendo moment yet committed to film belongs to writer/director David Michod’s 2010 Scorsesian crime drama Animal Kingdom. As the despicable criminal Pope, Mendo sits on a couch and…that’s pretty much it. The music video of Air Supply’s I’m All Out of Live plays on the teev. Pope’s gaze moves to a teenage girl passed out on the couch.

There is a context around why this scene is extra creepy, including Pope’s provision of heroin to a minor. But it speaks volumes about Mendelsohn’s gooseflesh-raising abilities as a character actor, that he can so totally own the moment by seeming to do so little.

Full Mendo factor: off the charts