Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior in Apple TV+’s ‘The New Look’.

‘BEN MENDELSOHN IS CHRISTIAN DIOR’. Admittedly, it’s a title sequence that might seem at odds with the tough and often nefarious characters the actor is renowned for playing. Since his breakthrough role in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has portrayed an antagonist in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, an imperial officer in the Star Wars franchise and a divorced gambling addict in Mississippi Grind, alongside co-star Ryan Reynolds. So then, Monsieur Dior, with his quintessentially Parisian polish and deportment, might seem like an unlikely choice for the Emmy Award winner. But that’s precisely the point.

“I just said: when are we doing it?’” says Mendelsohn as he reflects on the moment director Todd A. Kessler told him about the project some five years ago. “It’s absolutely not like anything I’ve done; [Dior] is very restrained… quite emotional. He’s not a person that’s trying to bring attention to himself in many ways. His gifts and his virtues are within him… deeply”.

Mendelsohn is speaking to Esquire from his home in Los Angeles, which has been his base for over a decade. It’s a couple of weeks before The New Look is due to premiere on Apple TV+, and the fashion internet is alive with discussions about the clothes, the history and the stellar cast.

Set against the backdrop of WWII, The New Look charts the meteoric rise of Christian Dior’s eponymous couture house. Alongside Mendelsohn, renowned French actress Juliette Binoche plays Coco Chanel, while the John Malkovich portrays the couturier Lucien Lelong, whom Dior trained under after returning to Paris from service in the French army in 1942. Rising star Maisie Williams plays Dior’s sister, Catherine, while the legendary Glenn Close is Carmel Snow, the influential magazine editor and early advocate of Dior’s. Of the inimitable post-war silhouette the designer created for women— characterised by rounded shoulders, a full A-line skirt and cinched waist to emphasise the wearer’s figure— Snow coined the phrase: ‘The New Look.’

But not everyone was on board with the designer’s dramatic new proposal. Chanel, having enjoyed her own trailblazing moment some two decades earlier with the little black dress and Chanel suit for women, seemed particularly intent on discrediting the designer’s success. “Christian Dior ruined French couture,” says Binoche’s Chanel in an early episode. “And I’m coming back to save it.”

John Malkovich as Lucien Leong.

The series marks a magnetic turn for Mendelsohn. He confesses it was a massive undertaking; a role he was intent on doing justice as no one has ever seen him quite like this. “This job is the job that I have held on to hope for more than five years. I just kept hoping it would get made. I think there was [no role] that was more personally important to me, and that I had more hope for.”

Inhabiting the psychology of Dior— an incredibly private man living a very public life—was one of the biggest undertakings. “There was a two-week period there where I think I worked harder than I’d ever worked. And I think I probably hit [greater] heights of intensity than I’d ever hit”. Given he’s starred alongside Brad Pitt in pacy crime thriller Killing them Softly and Ryan Gosling in hair-raising caper The Place Beyond the Pines, this is no small feat.

But that’s the thing about Ben Mendelsohn. Whether he’s starring in a small indie or playing a supporting role in a major Hollywood blockbuster, he approaches everything with an equal level of dedication. To prepare for Mississippi Grind, his first lead role in a Hollywood feature—he was 46 years old at the time— the actor studied with a professional gambler, colloquially known as a grinder, to familiarise himself with the world. The film premiered in 2015 to positive reviews, and soon after that Mendelsohn landed the role that would see him win an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor, in Netflix series Bloodline.

Bloodline, he says, was “colossal”. “I could not believe that Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepherd were playing my mum and dad”.

Maisie Williams as Catherine Dior.

After 30 years of acting—and that includes time spent washing dishes in Bondi restaurants when jobs dried up—it was after Bloodline that his career finally seemed to be taking shape.

“Australia back then was different,” reflects the actor. “It was not a place where [success] could happen easily. It was just ludicrous. But when I got The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing Them Softly, Starred Up, Mississippi Grind [and then] Bloodline… I knew I was on a roll.” Then, in 2023, came Star Wars: The Bad Batch. “I knew once I made Star Wars, that that’s when I realised. It was like, ‘You had nothing to fucking spin out about. If you’d have known that one day, you’d be in a Star Wars film, you wouldn’t have worried about half the shit that you did. But if you didn’t worry about all that shit that you did, you’d have never been in a Star Wars film.

“I never thought I’d be an actor. I didn’t consider myself an appealing entity or person. I didn’t think that I looked like a person that could do it.” But growing up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, he looked up to men like Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine, men “who looked like they could deal with the world”.

The further Mendelsohn gets into his career, the more high-profile parts he seems to be landing. Today, he’s easily one of Australia’s most respected actors. In a 2023 interview, Mendelsohn’s Secret Invasion co-star Emilia Clarke said, “I’m obsessed with him… he’s just the best actor I’ve ever worked with”. Yet despite mainstream successes, Mendelsohn has continued to pursue unlikely and offbeat parts, like in the 2020 Australian feature Babyteeth, in which he played a psychiatrist trying to come to terms with his young daughter’s terminal illness and the implications of her romance with a homeless older boy. It remains one of the most fulfilling projects he’s worked on, and he says he would love to work on more Australian productions: “If there were things coming out that I was fortunate enough to be offered and that stood up… without a doubt.”

In the meantime, international jobs keep beckoning. And reuniting with his Bloodline director Todd A. Kessler on The New Look was something of a dream come true.

“Christian Dior’s artistic passion was the touchstone of his life, his true north”, writes Kessler in an email to Esquire. “Monsieur Dior’s dedication to creating and expressing his emotional life through his art helped him survive.”

Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel and Claes Bang as Baron Hans Gűnther von Dincklage.

The series is authentic in its portrayal of 1950s Paris. The show was shot in several locations that Dior himself spent time at, including the original Dior headquarters, and on the same stage Dior spoke while taking part in the ‘Aesthetics of Fashion’ conference at Sorbonne University in 1955. The production transformed the exterior of 30 Avenue Montaigne, where Monsieur Dior started his fashion house and where the headquarters of the Dior company sit to this day, back to how it looked in 1946. No piece of lacquered furniture, gilded mirror or toile de Jouy fabric was spared. Kessler and his crew were also granted rare access to the Dior archives, and every sweater, sock and suit created for the show was true to that of the period.

But there’s also a tinge of punk energy to The New Look. This comes through in the show’s soundtrack, which is produced by Grammy winner Jack Antonoff and features covers by Lana Del Rey, The 1975, Nick Cave and Florence and the Machine. Jack Antonoff even sings the season finale song, a ballad called ‘Almost Like Being in Love’.

From the first episode, though, it’s clear that despite his talent and success, things aren’t going to be easy for Dior.

“As with many artists, Monsieur Dior had to navigate both internal and external conflict with no clear path toward resolution,” observes Kessler. For Mendelsohn, of course, the challenge of existing in this complex state was a privilege. “Both Ben and Christian Dior are sensitive souls with [a] deep connection to [and] empathy for others.

“Ben’s ability to convey emotion [and] his willingness to explore vulnerability and sensitivity were essential to bringing Christian Dior to life,” the director adds.

Perhaps part of Mendelsohn’s ‘willingness’ comes down to possessing some sense of shared experience; Dior was 40 when he launched his eponymous couture house, and 41 when he unveiled the debut collection that would put him on the map of the fashion world. Mendelsohn was 41 when Animal Kingdom premiered. At 54, Mendelsohn continues to be cast in the biggest and most rewarding roles of his career. And he’s not done seeking out challenging and unpredictable parts that push him out of his comfort zone.

The New Look is no exception.

This story appears in the March/April 2024 issue of Esquire Australia. On sale now. Find your nearest stockist.

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