Image Wilson Webb.
© Bleecker Street.
"He looked perfectly natural and happy and fine up there," says Captain Fantastic writer-director Matt Ross when told of Mortensen's terror during the mountain climbing scene. "He kept it all to himself. I remember he didn't want to come down for lunch. He would say, 'I am fine. I'm fine,' I had no idea."
With Ross, a prolific actor who currently plays Hooli CEO Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley and was in the 1998 Whit Stillman movie The Last Days of Disco, Mortensen may just have found his next great collaborator after Cronenberg.
Captain Fantastic stars Mortensen as Ben Cash, the surviving half of a couple who has utterly rejected capitalist society, deciding to raise their children in the wilds of Washington State on the food they hunt and the classic literature they consume night and day. The brood's leftist, utopian ideal—not only do the kids speak multiple languages, including Esperanto, but they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday in lieu of Christmas—is threatened when they have return to proper society for the funeral of their matriarch.
With his Jeremiah Johnson mane and quiet yet ferocious intellect and moral integrity—not to mention his gentleness with the young cast—Cash seems on the surface to be the most Viggo Mortensen-ish of all Viggo Mortensen roles. In truth, Ross initially conceived of the role quite differently than Mortensen played it.
"As written, the role was maybe a little more kinetic," says Ross, whose film was one of the best reviewed to appear at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "It had more sparkle and an insouciant quality. Viggo brought his own quiet gravitas and integrity to it. They were qualities that were always in the role, I just hadn't envisioned it quite the way he interpreted it. But what was surprising to me about working with him is that I could never catch him acting. He doesn't have any false moments."
In keeping with the other projects he has embarked upon since his Lord of the Rings windfall, Captain Fantastic is personal to Mortensen, echoing his journey both as a child and and a father. Like the Cash children, Mortensen and his younger brothers Walter and Charles had singular childhoods. He was born in New York City and raised in Buenos Aires and rural Argentina, where his Danish father, Viggo Sr., was an agriculture manager. When he was 11, he and his brothers moved with their American mother to upstate New York after their parents divorced. At the time, the boys only spoke Spanish.
By playing the world's most bizarrely devoted dad, Mortensen is also revisiting his parenthood as well. After all, he did spend the bulk of Henry's teen years in far off New Zealand, helping to turn his son's favorite books into movie magic.
"I started thinking it's also an interesting exercise as a parent to say, what if I devoted every single second to the best possible forming of my children, giving all my attention to give them a best possible start I could?" says Mortensen of his attraction to the Captain Fantastic script. "What if you gave them a start that was intellectual in every way, that encouraged open discourse? What if I really walk-the-talk in terms of not being a 'no, because I said so' dad, but being 'I don't think so and let me explain why and then I'd love to hear if you know differently?' It takes time and energy to be that second dad. That's the kind of dad this guy is."
Mortensen—Hollywood's most outspoken Dennis Kucinich supporter in 2008— shares a similar political viewpoint as his character. Still, it was important to that the film not be a progressive polemic.
"You think at first, this movie is going to be some kind of liberal utopian fantasy," says Mortensen, whose character's political and societal opposite number in the film is his wife's disapproving father, played by The Father's Frank Langella. "But one would be mistaken. I guess if I were a conservative person, I would have figured okay, great, the enemy is going to be all people like me. And then you realize after awhile, it's not like that. Actually, our lifestyle choice isn't condoned. It's not condemned either. Neither is their grandparents' way of life. It's much more gratifyingly layered, profound and complex than that."
For Mortensen, Captain Fantastic is a film of the political moment, even if it is not a political film per se. He sees it as cut from the same cloth as canonized '70s films like Taxi Driver and Network, or even his own more recent collaborations with Cronenberg. And he is not wrong.
"This film talks to, indirectly, a communication problem that I think we have in the U.S.," says Mortensen, who dressed the Cash compound with many of his own books and objects from his home. "You hear it echoed by political campaigns, and the media feeds it, but it's not all invented. It's actually based on the reality that people are polarized. People are not talking to each other based on things like religion and race, and that's a real problem. That leads to things like Britain exiting the European Union."
Suddenly, Mortensen flashes on a connection to Captain Fantastic. "Jesus, they're isolating themselves in a way like the Cash family is in the woods!" he exclaims. "Yeah, they want to take care of their own thing and be authentic but what happens when you're not talking to the other people in the world? A few years from now, this film will feel like a movie very much of this time."