Viggo Mortensen has consistently earned acclaim for his work in a wide range of films, including most recently Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2008, he starred again with and was directed by Ed Harris in Appaloosa.
We sat down with him this past weekend to talk about his new movie, The Road, the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the beloved, best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote No Country for Old Men. Mortensen leads an all-star cast featuring Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and young newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in this epic post-apocalyptic tale of the survival of a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a barren America that was destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm.
Directed by John Hillcoat, The Road is an adventure story, a horror story, a road movie and ultimately a love story between a father and his son and a man and his wife. It’s also a celebration of the inextinguishable will to live, a thrilling evocation of human endurance and an unflinching examination of people at their worst – and at their best. Read our interview with this great actor after the jump:
Q: Can you talk about how physically demanding this film was?
VM: Well, you know, it was and it needed to be. If it hadn’t been and if we hadn’t shot outside in the winter, I don’t think it would be as good a movie because no matter how well you fake it visually, the actors aren’t going to feel the same. It’s not the same. Cody said it one day. He said, “It’s a lot easier to be cold than to pretend to be cold. We have enough things to worry about.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” And it also affected our relationship because I felt naturally extra protective of him, not just character to character, but just the boy himself. He’s a skinny little kid from southern Australia. He’d never even seen snow. I would tease him. He was saying to somebody, “That’s really cool. The snow is falling from the sky.” I go “What do you think? You think it grows out of the ground?” (Laughs) He got really offended when I said that. He was very cold and it would wear him out, quickly sometimes. I knew that he was making that much more of an effort and accomplishing that much more by dealing with it, but it helped us as miserable as it was sometimes.
Q: Can you talk about what it was about this role and the themes in this film that really resonated with you as an actor?
VM: Well I liked the idea of getting to a point where you stop making excuses for your behavior, justifying not doing the right thing. I liked that lesson that in a way is what the movie is about — that man learns from what happens to them but mainly from the boy in the end about forgiving oneself and forgiving others and realizing that it doesn’t matter how bad things are, something good could happen always and that it doesn’t matter how many excuses you have for behaving in an unkind manner towards others that there’s never any excuse for not being kind and that it’s always better to be kind even if it seems pointless and that that in fact is the highest wisdom – being kind. It sounds like a very noble, ethereal, simplistic idea but it’s true and when you go through the movie – you know, it’s hard to explain it – but since you’ve seen it, you know that when you go through this journey, you do earn that conclusion. You do earn that strangely uplifting feeling that you get at the end, I think.
Q: How did you physically prepare for the movie? Did you go on a crash diet?
VM: No, I just ate a lot less and that took me a while. I think the older you get the harder it is to [lose] probably. Your metabolism slows down, whatever, but I’m a pretty active person so I just became a little more active physically.
Q: How much did you end up losing?
Q: Did having a son of your own influence your performance?
VM: It helped, certainly in the beginning. Throughout the movie I did think many times, “Oh my son did something like that once.” Something that Cody did or it reminded me of myself or my dad. But generally, it didn’t matter after a while. It was my way in. When I was first preparing, I thought a lot about it and then I kind of put it away because I think just like someone who reads this book and is touched by it, they don’t have to be a dad or a mom to relate to the predicament these people are in – this adult and this child.
Q: Your character is trying to teach his son what a human should be. What have you tried to teach your own son about that?
VM: Just simple little things. Someone does something for you. Kids are shy and they often don’t want to make eye contact or say “thank you.” Let’s say if you’re out in a restaurant having a pizza and someone comes and they put it down and then you just sit there and you just can’t wait to eat the pizza and then they walk away, I might say “Well you should look at them and say ‘thank you’ because they’re working” and whatever. It’s just a simple thing, things like that, and then you might forget to do it sometime and then they might say “You didn’t say thanks, dad.” I’d say “Oh yeah, you’re right.” It’s that thing that happens and this story is in a very profound way about that – that keeping an eye on each other out of affection, wanting your dad to be a good guy. Once you learn the idea of what a good guy is, you want your dad to be a good guy, and when your dad lets you down and doesn’t act like a good guy, it’s disappointing and can make you angry as you see it happen, which is beautiful and very believable. I thought that evolution, that transition was handled really well in the movie.
Q: Is this a director who gave the actors a lot of direction or was there room to play and improvise and stay in the environment for a while before doing a scene?
VM: The best thing he did was, in the weeks before, especially because Cody and I were basically the ones who were working every day and sometimes these wonderful actors would show up and do a day’s work or two. As we sat down for a week or more, maybe a couple weeks in Pittsburgh, and every day we just went through the script little by little with Cody, with Cody’s dad who’s also an actor so he’d be there, and his dad wanted to get a feel for how the dynamic was going to be, I’m sure, between me and him, and wanted to make sure his kid was safe and in good hands and that his kid was working properly and that was fine. With another kind of parent that was very meddling, it wouldn’t have worked but he was really great with Cody and knew how to just let the director do his thing and the director and the writer. We all sat around and we went through the script and that was really smart because first of all, we’re shooting in winter and there’s limited hours.
It had to look gray so that cuts it down even more. And we wouldn’t have time to mess around and try to break down and talk about it and discuss on the set so you had to be on the same page. All directors should do it. It’s rare unfortunately. But we did go through it and everybody knew and I could understand in that process. I got to know Cody because we’d been talking and joking. It was a big sort of room, office area, and I remember there was wall-to-wall carpeting and we had a ball, a soccer ball for football. When we would get bored, and then the grown-ups – because it was almost like I wasn’t a grown-up – Cody and I, we got to know each other. We would even read scenes sometimes kicking the ball back and forth. We got to know each other and I got to see something that was really interesting to me [which] was that he really understood the book. It wasn’t just a kid that was going to be sheltered and just be shown this and “we’re just going to do this and you just need to do that and just mimic this.” He actually knew what it was about. So he invested his own feelings in it and you can see that and that helped me a lot. Because if it was up to me to do it on my own and they had to do tricks with the camera to cheat around the boy and manipulate him into giving what looked like an intelligent performance but wasn’t, it would have been a lot harder and I don’t think I could’ve been as open and found as many things as I did in that. The movie wouldn’t have worked because the movie is only as good as that relationship is, as believable as that relationship is. That’s the fate of the movie right there.
Q: Was it an emotionally taxing role for you?
VM: Yeah. To be honest, that was the hardest part. It was harder than the physical part, for me. I mean, I’ve been in movies where I’ve had to do physical – you know, whether I was in extreme heat or cold, mountains, horse work, fights, all that – I may have done things that I knew “Oh God, we’ve got weeks or months of this” – and you just get through it. But it’s a whole other thing to have to – and I’ve been naked physically in movies – but it’s a whole other thing to be naked emotionally in a way that’s not just a distraction or a character. It had to be very sincere or it wouldn’t work because just the landscape we’re in is so real. It’s so raw and in a way it’s such an open wound that our feelings had to be on that level, which was kind of a measuring stick, I felt. And then, I’ve never been in a movie where the environment was so consistently a character. Even though it was dead or dying, it was very alive in its dying, in its death throes. It was so helpful.
Q: Those trees!
VM: Yeah. It was intense – the trees, the waterfall, just the weird cityscapes. I mean, it was very helpful. It was like another character and I think not only the weather helped us acting-wise, but being in these real places, we didn’t have to. It wasn’t like a sci-fi thing and a green screen and we had to just imagine where the director said, “Yes, you’ll be talking to this tennis ball but really it’s a cannibal.” No. Everything that you saw, we saw, which was very helpful – and a necessity. It’s not a big budget movie so it’s a movie that needs… We had to shoot it that way. We had to shoot in those places. But I think the director, even if he’d had twice the budget, would have probably done the same. His approach was good, I think. He wanted to be faithful to the book and that was the way to do it.
Q: Were you shocked by the realness of the locations that you were seeing and were they enhanced by the production team?
VM: Sometimes they weren’t. Some of that mining, the slag piles and things, that’s just what’s there. That strip mall where we were wandering around and he sees that deer head, that was pretty much… We didn’t touch it. It was a part of New Orleans that just hasn’t been cleaned up. If you look at it closer – I don’t know if you can see it or not – but what I was amazed at was that at about this height (demonstrates) in all these shops and on all the walls, the exterior walls, there was this slimy green line. That was where the water had been for a long time. And everything – like that thing where he looks at the deer head was a recruiting office and there was still hanging slightly sidewise a picture of George Bush looking very young from his first presidential portrait – you know, not so much gray and having that crazed smile – but then there was the guy’s briefcase that was slightly open on the desk of the recruiting officer and his passport. It was bizarre. It was like it hasn’t been touched and people could’ve stolen that but they don’t care.
I mean, they’ve got other problems. And so, that was unusual. The movie theater where he kicks the can? That’s a movie theater and there’s a concession stand and the marquee has all the titles of the movies that were playing that day and there’s a clock that stopped at that time. You know, all that sort of … That was unusual. I mean, at first I thought why would we be doing that? It seems we have a limited budget to go and take the crew and go down there for a few days. We could’ve shot this in Pittsburgh and you could. You could’ve shot in the industrial areas where we were shooting, but there was something intangible about those ghosts that probably had something for sure. I mean, it felt unusual. Where I’m walking in the neighborhood where it’s in my old house, they added some gray and some dirt and dust and stuff but basically that’s the way those houses look.
Q: Did they say what the catastrophe may have been? I would probably think that’s why the director wanted New Orleans because this was a legitimate catastrophe.
VM: Yeah. Well Mount St. Helens was a natural catastrophe and other places – well Katrina was also a natural catastrophe. But other places, as far as the mining and other things, were manmade catastrophes and other polluted areas that we were in and industrial affected, places affected by heavy industry. No, they didn’t and the book doesn’t either and I think it’s appropriate not to go into it. If you want to see that and get all those answers about that which is an external thing, you see another kind of movie. I haven’t seen it, but I imagine “2012″ probably deals with that kind of stuff, the spectacle of things coming undone. There’s a beautiful line in the book. I wish I had it with me. “The counter spectacle of things ceasing to be. There’s something beautiful in that.” But anyway, if you want to see that and explain, it’s beside the point. Yes, it’s interesting but if you tell the story emotionally in a truthful way, then you start naturally looking at the landscape and thinking “Wow, we have to watch out.” It’s fine to think that but really it’s a device. Stripping everything away just leaves us with nothing but each other and to learn how to appreciate that. That’s what it’s about. It makes extreme what any parent who is halfway responsible worries about. “Well how’s my kid going to be if
I’m not around for a few hours or forever.” Mostly it’s “Well, is he going to have friends or food?” or “Will he have enough money to go to college?” or something. “Will he get a job or a girlfriend or a boyfriend or whatever?” In this case, it’s not about any of that. It’s just “What the hell is he going to do?” He’s got no roof, he’s got no food, he’s got people who want to kill him and eat him. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare in a way, but it’s just a way of getting to that. It’s also a way of exaggerating a thing that’s natural with adults and kids anyway, that adults, we accumulate memories, life experiences, and therefore regrets. We often live in the past a lot more than we probably realize and it’s only, many times, when somebody hits you in traffic or something or getting bad news about somebody in your family, you’re immediately there. Everything falls away. Or you get really sick and you’re supposed to go to work today and do all these things and go shopping and do this and that or pick someone up at school and suddenly you can’t. You’re just in bed so everything disappears except your body and what’s happening. And, in this situation, you’re there all the time and the father remembers the world the way it used to be and he has these flashes of the horrors, the flowers or his wife being pregnant and beautiful, the sound of cicadas or bees. That’s all over. The kid never knew that. So it even exaggerates that difference. The kid is much more in the moment, like kids are because they don’t have that accumulated memory, but it’s even more extreme because the father remembers the whole world that the kid will never know about except for the father telling him about it.
Q: What about “The Hobbit”? Are you going to be involved with that at all? I know your Ring character is not in it, is he?
Q: Would you do something in “The Hobbit” if they asked you and if it was interesting to you?
VM: Well, I mean, I would rather finish playing the part if he’s going to be in it than have someone else do it. The only way it would work is if they made a connective story between “The Hobbit.” There’s about 60 years that go by between “The Hobbit” and the start of “The Lord of the Rings,” I think. Something like that if I remember correctly. I mean, my character is not in that book but he was alive. He was young. But because he ages so slowly, in a bridge story I could certainly do it, but I don’t know if they intend to do it. I’m sure that fans would like to do it and that those guys would be sure of making money if they knew that they could put some of the characters that people got to know, some of the actors that people got to know, in the trilogy. So I’d like to but I haven’t been contacted. I think they’re having enough trouble just getting the first one made.
Q: What is next for you?
VM: I’m doing a play next.
Q: In New York?
VM: In Madrid actually. In Spanish.
Q: What about the U.S. release of Alatriste?
VM: I don’t know. That was a shame because it’s a beautiful movie. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie. It hasn’t even come out on DVD which is crazy. I don’t know why. It’s a beautiful movie and really good actors in it. I mean, the best actors in Spain. And visually, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. If you like Velasquez paintings from the 17th century, it looks exactly like them. It feels like that, really.
“The Road” opens in theaters on November 25th.