Meeting with the immense Viggo on the subject of David Oelhoffen's Algerian war western.
© One World Films..
In Far From Men, a David Oelhoffen adaptation of a new Albert Camus story (The Host, published in the collection L'Exil et le Royaume), Viggo Mortensen plays a French teacher of Spanish origin who lives in Algeria at the time when the war breaks out. For this movie in which he is also involved as co-producer, the actor is not only playing in French for the first time, but also in Arabic. He speaks here of his collaboration with Reda Kateb, of his dedication to Albert Camus and of his vision of the star system.
You often say that the acting profession allows you to continuously learn and to stay awake. What has Far From Men taught you?
So many things. Arabic, already. And then to speak French better. But also the history of Algeria, the history of France, that of the 20th century. I discovered the Algerian landscapes, the Atlas Mountains, I became more familiar with the thoughts of Albert Camus, writer and righteous man that I already admired before the project. The idea was that my character, Daru, be a bit like Camus and make the effort to take good decisions every day.
Your character is forced to take a stand while he has always liked to navigate between different cultures. Is this also what attracted you?
Yes, I believe that all good drama is about ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations. Daru is a complicated man, he is essentially a mixture of cultures and languages, he lives in Algeria, in the same region as Mohamed, Reda Kateb's character, but he has Andalusian parents and his native language was Spanish before he learned French at school. He was a Free France soldier during World War II and since then he has been teaching Algerian children. Camus wrote in Les Justes that "it is so much easier to die of your contradictions than to live with them". I totally agree with that.
Director David Oelhoffen presents the movie as a western. You've already shot several films that flirt with the genre, such as Appaloosa or Jauja (which will be released in France on April 29, 2015.)
I don't really like to classify films in genres but we could say that Lisandro Alonso's film, Jauja, is a kind of existential western, yes. Far From Men and Jauja have some western scenery in common, and each describes in its own way a colonial situation where Europeans come into a landscape already inhabited by other populations seeking, to a certain extent, to impose their culture.
The duo that you form with Reda Kateb occupies the heart of the film. How did this collaboration come to pass?
For such a project, it was very important to have a good actor in front, someone with whom we can communicate through gestures, through looks. I was very lucky to work with Reda because the filming passed well, and I believe that a good human relationship between actors is the basis of a successful interpretation. The way my character and his are able to react to one another comes from our chemistry on the set.
Daru would like to get out of the tumult of the world, but he is forced to make some difficult decisions. Does this idea of commitment also animate your acting choices?
I love to connect with people, I prefer it rather than being in conflict with them. For that, you have to try to understand others, you have to take time to listen to each other, to live together, to travel and see other cultures. For Far From Men, I reread everything I already knew of Albert Camus, but I also discovered his correspondence with René Char and I read what he had written as a journalist in Algeria before the Second World War. It was very enlightening for me.
We cannot help but see a little of Aragorn in your character, his nobility and his lucidity, which is again expressed against some majestic natural landscapes.
I understand that people make connections between my movies and it doesn't bother me. The viewers will think of Aragorn to the end of my life, because Peter Jackson's trilogy was a cultural and cinematic phenomenon worldwide. It gave me a lot of opportunities, including the chance to work with David Cronenberg, or to play Captain Alatriste. We need a little bit of luck in life but then we must succeed in managing the opportunities that come our way.
You write poems and paint. Would you like to make movies now?
I had written a scenario 15 years ago, it's a film that I wanted to make in Denmark but I didn't find the money. I've written another one since then, which is also a kind of western. We'll see how it evolves. But I learned by working with David Oelhoffen that if you really want to make a movie, you have to go all the way and not ask yourself a thousand questions. You will always find ways to make it if you really believe in it, and you have to take the time to be prepared if you want the result to be worthwhile. And I think I would have to stop working as an actor to find the necessary concentration and energy.
What do you think of Hollywood today? You remain outside of it.
There are all kinds of filmmakers, actors and stories being made in the United States, there is happily not only one genre of movies being produced there. Hollywood is first and foremost an idea, rather than a place. There are great directors in the United States, but also in France, in Spain, everywhere. I'm ready to work with a director regardless of the language or the film's country of origin, it's really the subject that's important to me and it must be a movie that I'd be curious to see at the cinema.
Are you much sought after by big Hollywood productions, for example to play a villain in a superhero movie?
It happens to me, yes. But when I say yes to an independent and singular film such as Far From Men, it takes time to raise the financing, the technical team. The preparation for films like Far From Men and Jauja can take up to two or three years, and during this time I received proposals for big films that I preferred to decline. Because I have the habit of staying until the end of a project even if it causes me to miss opportunities. I understand very well that there are consequences and viewers may forget me if I don't make a blockbuster movie after four or five years. But I gain many more things than I lose in the end. For example, I know that I will be able to watch Far From Men in twenty years, knowing that it's a good movie that deserved to be made, and of which I can be proud.
In fact, Far From Men has a very universal subject and structure, almost timeless.
Yes, and I hope that the film will appeal in France. It's already a victory that Far From Men could be shown in Algiers and Marrakech. We also sold the film in Israel and in several Arab countries. I think this was Camus' way of thinking, it's important to create connections so that people try to understand one another. What we see in Far From Men makes us think about what is happening in Syria, or Egypt, in Lebanon, in Iraq, the situation between Israel and Palestine, as well as the history of France and its relations with Africa and the Middle East. It was essential to make a film that has the Algerian war as background, but which is not an ideological work. Because the film deals above all with the themes of friendship and understanding and it will be very interesting for me to see the reactions of both critics and the public in the different countries where it will be shown.