Welcome to the seventeenth installment of ACTING UP, a Casting Networks column designed to call attention to standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature shines a light on how certain actors got to where they are now. Have a peek and then check out these noteworthy performances to help hone your craft.
For supernatural 17: Ben Mendelsohn plays Ralph Anderson, a seasoned cop trying to make sense of an 11-year-old boy’s gruesome murder in the eerie new HBO series, The Outsider. (Premiere date: January 12, 2020)
You’re only minutes into The Outsider when you realize it’s going to be a tough watch. Anytime you’re dealing with the kidnapping and murder of a young child, you’re in for more than a few uncomfortable moments. Luckily, we have Ben Mendelsohn’s standout performance as the tortured lead detective on the case, Ralph Anderson, to get us through it all.
In what first seems like a slam-dunk case becomes anything but as Anderson, who happens to have lost a child several years earlier, must quickly deal with a batch of conflicting evidence showing lead suspect Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) in two places at one time. As he hashes through the case details, he recruits help from the most unlikely of places, including private investigator Holly Gibney (played masterfully by current Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo), a possibly autistic/OCD hybrid with an uncanny knack for remembering details à la Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.
But as the case unfolds, it seems more questions than answers appear. It’s through this confusion that Anderson tries to crack this case with Gibney after a traumatic episode at work relinquishes him to paid leave.
Meanwhile, Mendelsohn’s ability to convey pain from his character’s past and use it as fuel for his desperate pursuit of the truth is one reason The Outsider is so good. It’s a quality many actors can’t play so well — expressing vulnerability, compassion and softness amidst the presence of deep pain. It’s a quality on display when Anderson sits in his therapist’s office, trying to avoid all the things he should clearly be talking about.
In the meantime, the trail of evidence keeps getting stranger and stranger, revealing evidence and counter-evidence at an almost equal clip. Anderson’s frustrations heighten as things play out, summed up by his admissions to Gibney that “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable” and then to a fellow cop, “You keep your mind open, I’m just going to look for things like facts, evidence, dumb cop shit like that” — which tells you all you need to know about Ralph: He’s a man who relies on what he can see or hear, but in the face of the unexplainable, does not know what to make of it all.
That’s Mendelsohn’s strength as an actor — his ability to keep you engaged in Anderson’s journey of disbelief in the face of faceless, supernatural twists. And why The Outsider, based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel and adapted by Richard Price (The Deuce and The Wire) is such a wild ride.
It’s quite possible that if you’ve formed an impression of Ben Mendelsohn, the actor, based only on his previous roles, then you dislike him. Immensely.
That’s because the 50-year-old Mendelsohn has made a habit of playing villainous, loathsome characters, including Talos in Captain Marvel (2019) to Sorrento in Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), and Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). For the record, there was also Bane-enabler John Daggett, in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and twisted patriarchal prick Andrew “Pope” Cody in the Aussie family crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010), which eventually got adapted for American TV on TNT. Basically, there was a long stint where if you were casting a devious, relentless douchebag, Ben Mendelsohn was your man.
He ultimately won an Emmy in 2016 for his role as Danny Rayburn on Netflix’s Bloodline, where he exemplified what great acting is all about, playing the black sheep of a family filled with horrible people. That’s where many American audience members first took note of this incredibly talented actor for the first time. And if you think “incredibly talented” is an overstatement, take into account that he had a whole other life as an actor in his native Australia, where he began his career at age 15, landing a role in a TV show you’ve probably never heard of, The Henderson Kids (1985).
It was shortly thereafter when he became no longer [down] under the radar, starring as a hapless juvenile delinquent in The Year My Voice Broke (1987), the first of many leading roles to come that propelled him to be a top young adult star amongst other Aussie actors coming up at the time including Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Noah Taylor.
At this point, Mendelsohn has only been acting in the States for a little over 10 years, but he’s been super busy since he got here. Luckily for us, his role as uber-relatable cop Anderson in The Outsider is a welcomed departure from his usual detestable characters — and one you’re destined to like.
Not bad for a guy who’s been playing the bad guy for a long, long time.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.