The Road: Interview with Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Contender

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Viggo Mortensen gives one of his most haunting and emotional performances in The Road, the post-apocalyptic tale from the pen of the great American author, Cormac McCarthy, whose book No Country for Old Men deservedly won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar. It may be premature, but I think that Viggo Mortensen's work in this tough, relentlessly grim but ultimately humanistic picture should get a serious consideration comes Oscar time.

And now comes the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the beloved, best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. Oscar-nominee Viggo 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 (Mortsensen) and his young son (Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a barren America that was destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm. The Road boldly imagines a future in which men are pushed to the worst and the best that they are capable of -- a future in which a father and his son are sustained by love.

It is more than ten years since the world was destroyed-by what, nobody can say. It could have been a nuclear event, or the collision of the Earth with another cosmic entity. Or the sun may have imploded and taken out the planet as collateral damage to its own flameout. One day there was a big flash of light, and then nothing. The result of this cataclysmic event, whatever it was, is that there is no energy, no power, no vegetation, no food. Millions of people have been eradicated, destroyed by fires and floods or scorched and incinerated in their cars where they sat when the event hit or suffocated by starvation and despair in civilization's slow death after the power went out.

The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) - "each the other's world entire," as McCarthy describes them in his novel - are on the move with all their precious possessions -- whatever food and clothing they can scrounge, utensils and tools, plastic bags, tarps, blankets and anything else to keep warm in the frigid, sunless, ash-filled outdoors -- on their backs and in a shopping cart outfitted with a bicycle mirror so they can see who's coming up behind them. Their desperate, improvised traveling gear and their scruffy unwashed bodies give them the look of the homeless. And that is what they are. That's what everybody is in this lifeless frontier.

For every mother, every father who's ever had a child, for every son of a father, The Road will be a journey into the human spirit. It is a survivor's story in which the heroes carry the fire that is the life force that keeps hope alive no matter what.

Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar Award for his riveting performance in Eastern Promises, rooted his portrayal in the father-son dynamic as well. And though at the time he was offered the role, the actor was coming off a period of working a lot and looking forward to a break, he says, when he got the script and read the book, there was no way he couldn't do it.

Hard to Say No

"I thought, 'Wow, it's going to be pretty hard to say no to something like this, this kind of character.' It's one of those books that's hard to put down, once it gets going you want to know how it turns out," he says.

Book's Popularity

When The Road was first published, the novel was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her influential book list, and that helped get it out there in the universal consciousness, to be accepted by the public in addition to the critics who have always sparked to McCarthy's work. "The reason so many people have read this book," adds Mortensen, "is that it really struck a chord in America. The story is universal. Any parent that cares about their kid, has these feelings, these doubts, these fears, these concerns. What's going to happen when I'm gone? Is my kid going to be all right? If my kid gets sick what's going to happen? But the main one is what will happen when I'm not around."

In this story, Mortensen notes, that basic human concern is cranked up a few notches because it takes place in a bleak universe where every human certainty is gone. "It's taken to an extreme," he says. "It's not just that I'll be gone and his mother will take care of him or his aunt, extended family or just society somehow. There's nobody. Zero. If I'm gone he's alone in the world. As extreme as that is, it still connects for people with their own families. Any mother, any father, how they feel about their child, what they worry about.

"So, all those things are worth exploring," he says of his preparation for playing The Man in this movie of McCarthy's dystopian saga, "I realized that I had that inside of me. I needed to just sort of look inside to play this."

Soul of the Character

The story of The Road is simple, yet compelling, and though there are other characters, it's really about the father and the son. Mortensen says the deep questions the book raises were what led him to find the soul of his character. "Because of what the story's about, and because of the thoughts I had when I first read the script and the book,' he says, "It made me think about what's happening, what does the future hold? When we are no more, what does it mean?

"In a way, that's what this story is about. What happens when everything is taken from you? I mean everything. These two people, this man and this boy, that's what's happened. And when you think nothing else can be taken, the boy loses everything. Even more. That's a pretty good recipe for a drama, if it's handled right. What happens when everything is taken from you? How do you behave, how do you react? How do you deal with people who you fear might take more things from you? Or people who have things that you don't have. And when you're tired, when you're afraid of them, how do you react. Do you act aggressively? Sometimes. Do you try to stay away from them? Probably. If you think you can, do you take their things? Sometimes you do, even if you think of yourself as a good guy. All those things happen in the story, all these tests. The tests of: what happens when you think everything's been taken from you. That's what carrying the fire means, even if you think they've taken everything from you, the fact that you're sitting here, thinking about it and complaining about it means they haven't. You're still here. Until you're not here, they haven't taken everything from you."

Film's Title

Mortensen adds that the film's title is more than ironic. "I knew that if we did it right, it would be a challenge emotionally. I would have to go on a journey."

For director Hillcoat, there was never any question that Viggo Mortensen should play the father. During the concept stage of pre-production, he says, his vision for the father was one of stolid strength heartened by a palpable inner vulnerability. His ideal for the role would be someone on the order of Gregory Peck. "It became clear that Viggo could be an everyman but also could have the intensity and the physicality the role demands. His character goes through a range of emotions."

If anyone could survive in a post-apocalyptic world, the director says, it would be Viggo. "It's such a challenging and extreme survival world that he has to do things that have to be credible," he says. And yet, the role requires not only physical verisimilitude, but the ability to show tenderness and inner strength. "For some actors it might be a stretch that they're so tender and sensitive to a child and yet be able to physically do what he has to do. Viggo's very intense and very wound up, and that is what the father is all about. He's so haunted by the suicide of his loved one - his wife and partner - and yet he has this incredible protective relationship with his son. It is a love story, and in such a challenging and extreme survival world, he has to do things that have to be credible."

Intense Preparation

When Mortensen committed to the role, he began a period of intense preparation involving researching the character and the extreme milieu of the story. He immersed himself in the world of the novel and its extreme hypothetical situation. His research took him not only to books and materials, but also to noticing the patterns and habits of people in our times who must exist by their wits, scraping the refuse bin of society -- the homeless. The actor also had some conversations with Cormac McCarthy, mostly about McCarthy's own relationship with his young son John Francis, to whom he dedicated the novel. "We talked about his relationship with his own boy and I talked about my son and how he was at the age of the character in the book," he says. "I thought about what I felt about my own family, my relations. A lot of chapters have ended as I was starting to shoot this and while I was shooting this. It's made me think about things, from years ago that I hadn't thought about. In terms of my son, when he was the age of the character of the boy now."

But for this movie, a science fiction tale about two isolated people walking thousands of miles across a dead planet, the actor's preparation would have to be about a lot more than internal geography. Mortensen has been described as a physical actor who incorporates his surroundings into his method, and this is another reason why he was perfectly cast to play the father. When the elements, the weather and the terrain get tough, Viggo gets going.

Using the Environment

"Different actors have different processes that they use. What I've seen with Viggo is that he is able to use the environment more so than any other actor I've worked with before to put him where he needs to be emotionally," says producer Simmons, who had a lot to do with the physical setup of the film and its locations. "And maybe it's pouring down rain, and he'll walk away from umbrellas, raincoats. He'll walk away from any tent that's being offered or any blanket to be intentionally cold and wet, and it seems to take him to a place that's quite remarkable. I've seen it happen over and over again in the snow, the rain, cold, the fog - anything that he is able to use that puts him in the world of the character. He's a very physical actor as well, and it's been a remarkable process to watch that. I would imagine it takes an enormous amount of concentration to be able to not let the cold ground or the rocks on the road or whatever it may be break your concentration, but it's taken him to a place that is pretty amazing over and over and over again."

Incredible Depth

Nick Wechsler concurs. "Viggo has the perfect qualities as a man and as an actor to do this part. He's got incredible depth of soul. He so immerses himself in a particular character you think, 'Wow, that is the character. That's not an actor playing the character.' And that's what we wanted for this part -- somebody who submerges himself into the role as well as any actor I've ever worked with."

Viggo Born to Play the Part

Though the role of the father was sought after by many leading actors in Hollywood, there was never a question in the minds of the filmmakers that if they could get him, he would define the character. "Viggo was born to play this part, and he's absolutely riveting," says producer Steve Schwartz. "Part of the challenge for an actor doing a movie like this -- where the material is so challenging and where there is so much sadness -- is to stay in role amidst the tumult of the set. There's a lot of stuff going on on this set. There's stuff being moved, there's noise, there's rain and horrific weather -- a lot of diversions. I was overwhelmed by the actor's ability to stay focused and stay in role. And I hope I'm not saying something out of school here -- and I don't know how Viggo will feel about this -- but for the first few days of the shoot, he slept in his clothes to stay in role. He paid attention to every detail. If his shoes weren't wet enough, he would spray himself. He was totally absorbed and obsessed with the part. He became The Man."
Last edited: 8 October 2009 04:34:41
© Emanuel Levy.