Viggo Mortensen is a study in contradictions: rugged and undeniably virile, and yet thoroughly and irresistibly sensitive; the kind of man movie stars are made from, but seemingly more satisfied in a more subdued role in a smaller film. Appropriately, his latest film is both a post-apocalyptic epic and a profound character study; The Road is an adaptation of the acclaimed Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, and Viggo plays its main character, a father desperately trying to protect his son from an unhospitable world, both physically and emotionally.
Cinematical recently sat down with Mortensen at the film's press day to discuss his work in the film, which was directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition). In addition to talking about navigating an unforgiving landscape, he discussed the challenges of balancing fealty to source material and simply making a fulfilling movie, and revealed a few of his own fears and insecurities when facing the prospect of sustaining a career both as a movie star and character actor, often at the same time.
You can read our interview with director John Hillcoat over here.
Cinematical: Given the richness of the source material and the familiarity that audiences will have with it, do you make an effort to draw upon the text for your character, or do you have to divorce yourself from it and focus on what's in the script?
Viggo Mortensen: It almost became a superstition. I have it with me pretty much everywhere I've been going recently, but I had it with me all of the time on the set. I knew it was a very good adaptation of the book, the script, and it became more so as we got closer to shooting because we fine-tuned things. During the shoot, it was a good thing to refer to because part of my job and our job as a team was to get across what [Cormac] McCarthy does so well in his medium, which is the descriptions – in all of his books - the prose, the descriptions of landscapes and the interior life of the characters, it's beautiful; it's poetry, you know.
It's just really heightened language without being pretentious; it's just very beautiful and detailed. He combines an extensive scientific knowledge of terminology for things in nature and weather and obscure bits of knowledge with a poetic sensibility. It's a great combination for a writer writing these kinds of stories, but how do you do that in a movie? It's not like we're going to have someone talking the whole time; that's ridiculous. So I had to act that and Kodi [Smit-McPhee] had to act that; we had to get across gestures and little things, little grace notes that have to do with behavior, unspoken things. Because it was so close to the book, I would read passages again and again to sort of keep that in mind – that's the spirit of what we're going after – so it was useful.
Then later, in post-production, when they decided that maybe it would be good to sort of bookend and then have a couple of little glimpses of voiceover of that man's interior life, the thoughts that he has in his head including the set-up and then the concluding one which has to do with the acceptance of things as they are. There's a beauty in it - Cormac McCarthy [saying] when the frailty of everything is revealed at last, that there's also some beauty in accepting things as they are. All of those things, we wanted to make sure they were accurate, so we were making sure that we picked and chose from the book as well as possible.
So yeah, I had it around and I was conscious of it, and I did hear some people saying "I don't think there's any way they can live up to the book," or it's one of those books that's impossible [to adapt], for the various reasons that I said. I didn't really feel it was impossible; I knew it was very difficult and I knew a lot of it had to do with making an extreme commitment emotionally to be very sincere. To lay yourself bare in a way and hope that you had the luck of getting a partner, of finding a boy who was up to that task – who had an understanding of the story beyond what a kid his age would normally have. Not just an emotional range and sort of a presence or precociousness, but a real and deep understanding of what this was about – and we got that in Kodi. I had this partner that no matter how far out on a limb I'd go, he was there, and no matter how far out on a limb he went, I was there. And the more we got into difficult scenes, the closer and closer we became in reality.
And I think the landscape is so real – we shot in real places, which was so valuable, and being cold and wet was helpful – but visually it's so real and it's so tangibly a character, the environment, that that was our measuring stick. We couldn't be any less real or to the bone honest than the landscape, so that was helpful to have all of those things come together, but I knew it was going to be about that; the challenge was going to be to let it all hang out. But it was a great experience – it was unlike any other so far acting challenge I've had; there were elements that I was familiar with, certain physical [challenges] like working in the environment and working in the cold, and certain aspects of the story, that there's a certain stubbornness that even if he doesn't know why that he keeps going, there's a stubborn reluctance to quit. I've played characters that have had that before in certain measures, but this was a person who was persevering while carrying an emotional burden, and it had a lot to do with regret and nostalgia and a profound kind of sadness, and the trick was doing that honestly so it's believable. I don't know how to do that without really going there, so I knew that was a tall order.
The other thing in terms of storytelling was how do you do that without boring people – you know, where they go "enough of the suffering. Jesus!" Well, that again had to do with trusting McCarthy's story; it's inherently dramatic, the situations they're in, and the circumstances they encounter along the way. If you trust that and don't try to dress it up or overdo things, just be sincere emotionally and trust the story you're telling, it's going to work; if it's going to work, it's going to work because you do it that way. But if you try anything else, or try to twist the ending or do anything on the way, add some kind of melodramatic flourishes that aren't part of the book, they're going to be shortcuts that just in the end won't work as a whole. So it was definitely a story in which you couldn't take shortcuts more than any I've seen.
I think the director was on the right track, and even if he had twice the budget – if it hadn't been a relatively low-budget movie – I don't really think he would have probably done it that much differently. We might have had a few more days to shoot or something like that, but neither he nor the cinematographer would have done it differently in the sense that they wanted it to be organic and be real, shoot in real landscapes, whatever that was, just taking the chance that we would not have bad weather, and then we would be screwed. We were lucky, it was really crappy weather (laughs), almost always. And the cinematographer, even though there was a truck and his camera guys would say, "we have this fancy equipment – when are we going to use it?" He would say, "I don't know, I don't think we're going to." He did it old-school, really tough, and as a photographer I couldn't believe what he was doing; at all times I was impressed. Just like certain kinds of acting don't grab your attention in a superficial way – they're more subtle like, say, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. That was an incredible performance but it wasn't showy, so that flies underneath the radar; it was kind of a small miracle that he was nominated for an Oscar, and I thought well-deserved - he could have won it as far as I'm concerned. But the cinematographer [on The Road] did that, and as a photographer I admired what he did with so little light and such a limited palette, those colors, and equipment. He painted an incredible series of pictures, and I challenge any cinematographer to do better.
Cinematical: One of the constant strengths of your performances is a multidimensionality of character. You described your preparation earlier, do you have to be more intuitive once you get on set and in character in order to achieve that, or does that preparation provide a concrete foundation for what you're going to do?
Mortensen: No, some people seem to do things that way, and if they're technically really gifted and good and well-prepared, it can work just fine. I have nothing against people who do things that way, but I have generally always tended to prepare very meticulously and do anything I can, but then when it comes to the moment when they say action, for it to be satisfying for me, all bets have to be off. It depends in this case on generally what happened with me and Kodi in that moment, and because he was so good at going with the flow and giving as good as he got, it was fun, it was interesting, and it was always worthwhile. But more so than any other movie, I really threw everything away each time they said action, and just counted on whatever I needed that had to do with the character and physicality and everything else in my way of speaking for him and dealing with him. It was going to be there because we'd already found that and now we had to trust it.
I think it comes with experience; in recent roles, a little bit more each time I think I've tended to trust my instincts and trust whatever preparation I've done. I mean, I've always felt dependent on others, which I think is a good thing; I don't think it's a weakness, I think, really, my performance depends on other people all of the time. Not just the actors, well, mainly the actors but the crew [as well]. I have kind of a sense of the camera; being a photographer, I understand about lenses and I know what they're trying to do. I also forget that, but beforehand it's like you see the lay of the land and then you just go into battle and forget everything. And with Kodi, once I know he trusts me and he knows that I trust him, then we can do all kinds of things. By the end of the shoot we got so good at playing with each other that I felt we could do just about anything, or that we were capable of a lot more than when we started out. Just because of that trust that was generated, I knew that he would be able to do the end scenes even though they were difficult; and in fact, I suggested that we not even rehearse. I said to the director, I think he's in a state; he's there.
But that takes work; that takes trust and there are no shortcuts to that. But I have felt more and more even though it feels risky sometimes that you're ready enough that it's enough with what's right in front of you. I assume what you're talking about is when someone prepares every move in the mirror or something, and even if that can come off very polished, you can only go so far with that. That would be like if I planned everything I was going to do regardless of who was cast as the boy; it might be good, I might sort of steal scenes from him, I suppose, or my sh*t can look good and he can look like he's flailing because I'm not there. That's the shortcoming, and in a story like this I don't think it would have worked very well. I think for this to be organic and really truthful, we had to just be desperately dependent on each other, and we were.
And then out of that came the easy parts, or the parts which became easier, anyway, just the walking and talking and normal sort of things like when we do have a stroke of good luck and we're at ease and we have some food, that that was natural. It wasn't like, oh, I don't even know you because I've just been doing my thing and you've been doing yours, and now we have to fake it; we didn't have to fake anything because we're friends, and we earned that. Just like you earn the ending – you earn that strange, uplifting ending by going through the difficult things.
Cinematical: Do you feel like this is a character who is present in each moment, or did you see a central struggle that he faced that informed your performance or even just the film?
Mortensen: I think he has an idea of what he wants to do vaguely – he wants to get to the coast, he wants to stay alive, and keep the boy alive. In fact I think it's caring for the boy that on the one hand that keeps him alive longer than he would have lived otherwise, but on the other hand, it's what causes him to make certain mistakes, not trust other people, be unkind, really cruel in a way out of wanting to protect the boy. He justifies that, and I think in a way what I could see, especially watching it a second time, was [that] I compared it to not just what individuals do when we're up against it and can be pretty aggressive and defensive, but what societies do sometimes, or gangs or neighborhoods or countries. Well, we're going to war to keep them from taking our sh*t! Well, you don't have to do that. Yeah we do! Why? Well, we do. And no matter how much I say to the boy, well, I'm doing it because I'm helping, well, because I'm scared, the boy's basically saying there's never any good reason for it. It's never a good thing; you can justify it all you want, but it's not what you taught me. And the man has a sense eventually to realize, yeah, he's right.
That's beautiful to see how that transition is handled, that natural evolution that has to happen in any coming of age story; I mean, any parent and child or adult and child – it doesn't have to be blood-tied – relationship, if it lasts long enough, there is that change, that moment where the kid looks at you as a dad, and I went through it with my kid, and I remember doing it to my dad, where the kid at some point goes, "you're not God," and knocks him off the pedestal, sometimes brutally. Because it's like they're almost angry that "you've been tricking me." And then the kid becomes an adult and if things go naturally and the kid lives long enough, either when he or she has kids or they get in their mid-20s maybe, sometimes it takes until someone's 40, 50 and they finally realize, hey, I'm not God either. Maybe I was a little too hard on them. Maybe my parents are okay, or maybe I can't always blame them for whatever I don't have. That's life and that's really handled beautifully in this story.
Cinematical: Thanks in no small part to the success of the Lord of the Rings movies you've had more chances to work in different kinds of films. Have you found that has given you more creative opportunities, or-
Mortensen: I mean the only big movie I've done since Lord of the Rings that would be even close to being called one of those big kind of movies would be Hidalgo, which I thought was an interesting story and another challenge. I liked the multicultural aspect of it and the historical aspect of it even though it was an entertainment. But basically I just had more options to do what I've always tried to do, which is find good stories. And I have been looking; you can't just say "I just want to do something good," you have to have someone offer it to you. So the Cronenberg movies, those were really instructive, and I wouldn't have gotten those if it wasn't for Lord of the Rings being popular, but then those things feed each other and you can't look back and think, if History of Violence helped me get Eastern Promises, and Eastern Promises [helped with] Appaloosa; who knows what combination Hillcoat or the producers saw that allowed me to play this. But without those movies, I don't think with just Lord of the Rings alone, I would have been allowed to do The Road, or I don't think so.
But sort of that accumulation gave me that chance, because I know the part in The Road, there were others actors that wanted that part, and I can see why. It was a phenomenal honor to play the part, so you do have to be lucky. But you also have to be ready; when somebody gives you a break and calls you up to play in the show, you've got to be ready to do something. So the best thing you can do, even though I can get really crabby about it, is to take on things if they come your way and say yes to them that are scary; they might not work. If it's just "I can do this with my eyes closed," then what are you going to learn? Maybe something, but probably not much. And with The Road, I knew if I somehow could get through it, and we did a good job, well I've got to learn something – there's no other way. The next thing I'm doing is a play and I haven't done a play in over 20 years, and now I'm in that terrified state because I'm not there rehearsing like I should be, I feel, and I don't know what's going to happen. It's going to be what it's going to be, and I'll learn something – I'm already learning something from it. But at the moment I feel like all I'm learning is how to be scared all over again (laughs).