People are saying The Road is all depressing because it's about the end of the world, but to me getting to see Viggo Mortensen survive the wasteland is a must see. Viggo sees the good in the story too, even though he had to wither away to starving nothing. He expressed such perspective in a roundtable interview with press at the film's junket.
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
What was your first experience reading the book?
I read it the same day that I read the script because I thought, "This is a really good script. A tough story but beautiful, and strangely kind of uplifting at the end." I went through a lot of things reading the script. I couldn't believe how much my emotion was condensed into it, and visually what it could be, you know? And so I ran out to the book store and I was happy to see that this was a very faithful adaptation of the book.
That's a pretty intense day though.
Yeah, I was worthless by the end of the day. I was at my mother's house actually visiting her and she said, "So what do you want to do for dinner?" I said, "Dinner? How can I eat now?"
How did you prepare for being so thin?
I didn't do that [eating chips]. It took a certain amount of discipline and fortunately I had enough time to get there.
How much time?
I don't know. Well, I mean you can always use more. It was as I was traveling and doing other things, promoting Eastern Promises actually. It was that period. Even at the Oscars for example, that was like a day before shooting our first day. It was bizarre to go to this ceremony when we'd been already preparing, seeing this world and thinking that way, and suddenly I leave the winter of Pittsburgh and this weird area of town that we're in and then I'm suddenly on the red carpet in Hollywood. It was really weird. I felt strangely calm because I said, "Well, how bad can it be? It's fine. It's nothing compared to what I'm going to be doing the next couple of months. I can handle these photographers. They're not cannibals, as far as I can tell." Maybe they were.
You couldn't party or have the lavish dinners.
Well, I also had to leave. I had to be on a plane, so no.
There was a chocolate shaped Oscar at the Governor's Ball with gold wrapping and I remember I ate the head off of that.
You have a really close relationships with Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film. He's young, how much could you do beforehand and what was it like on set?
Well my first worry when I said yes, which is always what happens to some degree, you say yes when you're fortunate that you're offered this role and then you think, "Oh no, now I've got to do this. How am I going to do this?" And in this case more than usual because in talking to the director I knew that he was going to, in principle, do things right as far as the look, shooting in real places and not green screen. The places we were going to shoot in were going to look right. The people he hired as far as other actors and the crew were all really good. So if we had some luck with the weather and so forth, we might have a chance to make this look right. But, I felt like I had a burden that I hadn't had before on an emotional level to constantly have this sort of turbulence under the surface and regret and all these things mixed together. How am I going to do that believably? Once I saw the landscapes I thought well if this is so raw and so real, and you can look at it as a measuring stick, we can't be any less real in our feelings and how we do things. So I was worried about that. But then as worried maybe even more worried because I was so dependent on whoever played the boy. I said to the director, "You know, if we don't find a genius kid to do this part, we can only do so much. The movie can only reach a certain level. It doesn't matter how well it's done, how well designed, or how hard I work or am able to be honest and emotional. We're limited." It really has to work, that relationship, and we're lucky we found him because he was able to give as good as he got.
What was most emotionally and most physically challenging?
Most physically challenging? Well, the fact that I was a lot thinner, that I had not much body fat at all meant that I got tired more quickly in the cold weather, just like Kodi who's naturally skinny. So that was just trying to stay focused and get through the day, basically. But it wasn't as hard as the emotional thing sometimes was, although that became easier as my relationship with him became stronger, because I trusted him more and he trusted me more. By the end we really felt like we could do anything together. It was a great feeling to have an acting partner like that.
Is there a part of this that's a rollicking adventure?
We had fun. One great thing about him is that he's kind of a prankster. He's a kid. He's a well adjusted kid so as much as he can channel, I don't know where from, this intense emotion and sadness and presence that he has, that melancholy, he's a goofball. He's running around all the time, making fun of people, pulling jokes on people, and that helped us a lot. But even though it was devastated, those landscapes. Mt. St. Helens and the surrounding areas were incredibly beautiful. The coast of Oregon, unfortunately we had terrible weather and the water was freezing and the air was freezing, but it's beautiful. New Orleans, that was very intense to be in those parts of the city that still haven't been almost touched. When you see the water line marks on the mall and everywhere, the office where the boy is where the deer head is in the water, that's a recruiting office. There's still a little askew hanging picture of George Bush, his first presidential portrait where his hair wasn't gray and he had that crazed, demented smile. Then there's the briefcase of the recruiting officer on the desk that's sort of half opened with papers, his passport. It was like everybody had been teletransported somewhere and everything was just as it was, or the movie theater where he kicks the can of coke. The marquis still has the movies that were playing that day. The clock is stopped at a certain time. There's a water mark line. It was weird in those kind of ghost [towns]. Even that was beautiful or affecting. Not beautiful I guess, but it meant something. So all of that helped us as actors, and the fact that the crew was so into the story. It was more than a job. That doesn't happen that often on movies. I remember that being the case in Lord of the Rings, that there were copies of the book around. They were really into it on a daily basis but in this case, they'd be excited knowing because it was so close to the book, "Tomorrow Eli shows up who Robert Duvall plays. That's going to be interesting to see how that plays out. I wonder if it's going to be like that." They got excited and you felt that support. It was like playing on your home field if you're a sports team. You know that there's an unspoken support which helps you do better.
Does that come from the story being about the most important relationship you can have, with your parent?
Maybe. I remember talking a lot with the crew members about that. They would talk about their sons, they would talk about their dads or their grandparents. Yeah, the sons and daughters, and it was men and women talking about that stuff.
Did it resonate with you?
Totally. You don't have to be a parent to understand or care about the story or to play the part of the father, but it certainly helped me to begin with that I have a son.
If you were in this situation, what would you do?
Well, you never know. That's what makes it dramatically interesting, a story like this and what makes life interesting. I think it's something that reaffirmed my belief in the preciousness of life and the value of making the most of life. I just think the extreme physical and emotional tests that our characters go through in this story forced us to, not just as characters but ourselves too in some cases, to come face to face with, to acknowledge our personals weaknesses and strengths and by the end of the story I think to recognize that potential that everybody has, no matter how dire the circumstances might be, to be loving. Just because it's the right thing, not because it's useful. When everything is taken away, which is why the wife says, "What's the point?" She's right but then it's a learning thing. This is what the movie teaches I think in a way if anything that it's worthwhile just for its own sake to treat other people and hence yourself kindly. It sounds silly in a way if you hear that. Not silly, it sounds like, "Well, yeah, sure, it's a simple, nice idea, concept," but you see the movie and you know what that means. It's something that's hard to do, to earn that journey, but when you get that at the end, that's why it's strangely uplifting, because you believe that potentially. Not saying you all do, but I did anyway. In a profound way you understand that no matter what, no matter what, it's always better to be nice. It just is. It's not always the easy thing and sometimes it's like, "I've got a lot of reasons to be annoyed here." Yeah, but still it's better not to be if you can avoid it, or to recognize when you do things wrong, which is also what it's about and what the kid teaches the man, which is done really well, I think.
When you finish a film like this, do you just appreciate food so much more?
I did, I did, I did. The last few days of the shoot Charlize showed up to do all those flashback scenes, and I was saying, "It would be great if I had a week where I could eat and gain some weight," because I'm supposed to look healthier and then gradually less as you see the evolution of our relationship and her eventual disappearance. They said, "No, I'm sorry..." so I started cheating. Like a couple days before I started just [eating] and I couldn't eat. My stomach didn't want that much food, but I started for a couple days before she showed up. And then the day she showed up I was just wolfing down huge amounts of food and really was like, "Wow, that's what that is!" Not that I wasn't eating before, but I wasn't overeating.
Did you crash from that? What did you go for?
Lots of Italian food, sweets, lot of sweets. Most of the movie what I ate was black chocolate and drank a lot of mate, but I indulged myself tremendously to the point where I had to lie down. My body couldn't take it. It did work. I can see in some of the scenes with her and then towards the end when I'm with the horse. I seem healthier to me.
Are you really retiring? Can we look forward to more great work from you?
I don't know. It's always a crapshoot. I might do terribly next time. But yeah, I mean somebody wrote that because they asked me and I just gave them an honest answer, "What do you have lined up next as far as a movie?" And I said, "I don't. There isn't anything right now." I could have said, "Oh, there's a bunch of things I'm not at liberty to discuss at this time," or something like that, like people say. But it was the truth. I didn't have something lined up. They said, "Ah, he's quit." And no, the next thing I'm going to do is a play which is as terrifying as doing The Road to me because I haven't done a play in over 20 years. And then I think I'm going to do a movie, a very small movie, in Spanish in Argentina about a year from now.
Is the play in NY or LA?
The play is in Madrid so I'm going to do two projects in a row in Spanish.
It's a play by Ariel Dorfman who wrote Death and the Maiden. It's called Purgatorio. It's kind of based on Medea in a way. It's as if Jason and Medea were talking after the fact in some limbo state and trying to forgive themselves and each other. Another joy ride. They're having it out but there are some moments of humor in it. Any kind of play would be terrifying for me right now but this one is two characters on stage, no props to speak of, with no intermission so it's kind of like we'll see what happens.