At this point, Ben Mendelsohn should be a household name. If you couldn't name him after he stole the Netflix drama Bloodline right out from under Kyle Chandler's nose, we'd cut you some slack. But after featured appearances in Rogue One, Ready Player One, and Captain Marvel, Ben Mendelsohn is everywhere, and he's about to take over TV all over again with HBO's The Outsider, a welcome return to the medium that made him popular stateside.
Mendelsohn was first introduced to audiences in the crime drama Animal Kingdom, an indie film from Australia co-starring Joel Edgerton (then similarly unknown to American audiences) that caught a good bit of traction in 2010 for the supporting performance by Jacki Weaver that would end up receiving an unlikely Oscar nomination. Mendelsohn played the film's darkly dangerous villain with a soft-spoken menace that was impossible to shake.
Smaller roles followed in films like The Dark Knight Rises and The Place Beyond the Pines. The embodiment of the "no small parts" ethos, Mendelsohn managed to be memorable even among a sea of famous faces, and when it came time for him to shine on Bloodline, TV just about exploded. He was essentially an unknown when he took his place in the Rayburn family alongside legends like Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, and TV vets Kyle Chandler and Linda Cardellini. The catalyst for every big development on the series, Mendelsohn's Danny was a maelstrom of family dysfunction and an unrelenting reminder of past suffering, igniting something dangerous and unrecognizable in his siblings. Even at his lowest, most unsettling moments, he still managed to be a sympathetic, scarred scapegoat led to self-destruction thanks to toxic cycles of family trauma and misplaced blame. Bloodline Season 1 was arguably a perfect season of television, and that's largely thanks to Mendelsohn's performance. With less frequent on screen appearances from him in the two seasons that followed, Bloodline failed to hit those first season highs again, but Mendelsohn's career continued to flourish.
Mendelsohn certainly isn't the first actor to get typecast as a bad guy or a black sheep, but he has the unique ability to make himself a chameleon, and perhaps that's why he holds such a particular appeal. Whether he's stealing scenes from pretty boy-leading men like Ryan Reynolds in Mississippi Grind or embodying every sad-man stereotype in The Land of Steady Habits, his expressive blue eyes have the ability to manipulate us however he sees fit. Need a slimeball? He'll happily oblige. Seeking someone disarmingly charming? You won't doubt him for a minute. It seems no matter what role he inhabits -- and he's played some of the most down-and-out characters imaginable -- he leaves us wanting more. It's a star quality reminiscent of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. There's a rare excitement to his presence in any project, an assurance that no matter what he's doing, it will be worth watching.
The Outsider, the latest in a long line of recent Stephen King adaptations, is no exception, providing Mendelsohn the chance to shine as a more traditional leading man. Those familiar with Mendelsohn's career might have expected him to be cast as the accused murderer rather than the straight-laced detective, but The Outsider flips this dynamic on its head. It only further speaks to Mendelsohn's transformative ability as a performer, not to mention setting up the HBO series as an expectation-defying mystery. We have a feeling this turn could bring his career to a whole new level.
The Outsider premieres with two back-to-back episodes this Sunday Night at 9:00 PM ET on HBO.
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Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.