by Matt Grobar
EXCLUSIVE: "I didn't sleep much last night," Viggo Mortensen admits. "The building I'm in, the pipes burst on the top floor, and it was like a river of water coming down the stairways. It was insane, so we all had to leave the building, and I spent part of the night outside."
Out in cold, snowy Toronto, Mortensen managed to get a few hours of rest before returning to work. Currently in pre-production on Falling—his feature directing debut, which will go before cameras by the first week of March—Morten's morning was brightened by the news of his latest Oscar nomination for Green Book, and the overall success of the film.
Directed by Peter Farrelly from a script written with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, the Universal release tells the poignant and pertinent true story of the unlikeliest of friendships. When Vallelonga's father, Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, was enlisted to drive African-American classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, through the '60s American South, a real odd-couple dynamic resulted, and a lifelong bond was forged.
When Green Book debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it won the coveted People's Choice Award, and the film was launched on the path toward Oscarsglory, with rave reviews for Mortensen and Ali's respective turns as Lip and Shirley. The National Board of Review's pick for Best Actor, Mortensen also has drawn noms this season from the Golden Globes, BAFTA, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the Screen Actors Guild—so, it's little wonder that Mortensen scored his third nomination for Best Actor.
More important to Mortensen than his own achievement, though, is that of the film. Racking up noms at the WGA Awards, the DGA Awards, the Critics' Choice Awards, the ACE Eddies, the BAFTA Awards, and the Golden Globes—where it won three prizes, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy—Green Book took in five nominations on Oscar morning, including those for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Editing and Original Screenplay.
"I'm very happy for Green Book, obviously; it's very good for our team," the actor said. "I wish Pete Farrelly had got in as director because I think he's done something incredible. What he did with Green Book, in my opinion, puts him in the same league, at least for this movie, as Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges. He's at that level, [with] what he's accomplished, and I don't think anybody was ready for him.
"You can't have everything, but you can't complain," he continued. "We got some really nice ones, and I think we're going wider in the U.S. in the next week, so that'll help us. This kind of thing really helps people want to go see it, and that's the most important thing. That's why I've been working on both movies since last summer, non-stop, even as I was preparing this movie I'm going to direct. Anything that gets people to keep going to theaters, and to keep our numbers up."
Seeing Green Book grow at the box office over time, Mortensen feels that the film is "kicking ass" on an upward trajectory, and she believes there's been a lot to feel positive about at the movies this year. "I think it's really great to see such a variety of men, women, really low-budget movies like The Rider, super big productions like Black Panther, but very well made," he comments. "Veterans like Spike Lee, so many African-American filmmakers and actors getting noticed, and doing great work."
Admittedly, Mortensen didn't know Green Book would work, starting out, or how exactly it would register. "You have to make it for the reasons you signed up, which ideally, is because it's a great story," he says. "In this case, it's not only really well-constructed and entertaining, but it's about profound issues."
As much as Mortensen has found people and projects to celebrate this season, his reaction has been tempered and reinforced by what he has seen elsewhere, within the industry at large. While the Oscar nominee finds meaningful movies everywhere, the voices he frequently hears, "year in, year out," are the ones saying, "Oh, what a crappy year for movies."
Taking on the role of Tony Lip, and Green Book as a whole, Mortensen felt compelled to make sure he got the character and his story right—to make sure, as best he could, that this film would be good. His concern wasn't so much to do with playing a real-life person, which a performance can be judged against. "I've played Sigmund Freud; I've played a variation on William Burroughs, et cetera. I've done different characters that were real-life characters, historical characters," he notes.
His trepidation, then, was more to do with portraying an Italian-American character—given his Danish heritage—and questions of representation on screen. "I'm sensitive to the fact that there's not only a lot of great Italian-American actors out there capable of playing this role [but also] a history of memorable Italian-American characters, on TV and in movies. So I didn't want to offend anyone; I didn't want to get anything wrong—with any part, not just this one," Mortensen says. "I don't want to be doing a caricature, ever. I don't want to be copying anything or anybody. I want to get things right."
In his roles, Mortensen says, all he's doing is "trying to understand, as best I can, and learn as much as I can about the point of view of someone who is different than myself," a statement he feels is emblematic of Green Book as a whole. For what largely was a two-hander, with many scenes taking place in a car, Mortensen knew that the dynamic between his character and Ali's would have to be strong. "It could be really dull if there isn't a connection, if there isn't a good rhythm, a good dynamic. But we found our rhythm. We found the music of our scenes, and most important of all, we both listened to each other really well," the actor shares. "And it's really the reaction that we both had to each other, all the way through, that make the movie funny, dramatic in some sense, and also in the end rewarding."
Observing the clarity of Mortensen's purpose places certain controversies this season in a new light. In November, the actor participated in a Q&A moderated by Elvis Mitchell, making the mistake of uttering the N-word. Intended in conversation not as a slur but as part of a conversation about evolving race relations in America, the comment was taken out of context, placing Mortensen at the epicenter of contemporary rage, and the frequently seen immediate rush to judgment.
Apologizing in various places and ways for his comments, Mortensen nonetheless stands behind Green Book and its vital, simple message, suggesting that backlash to himself and the film has resulted from not just internet trolls, but also from the political machinery of Hollywood itself. "It's a great year for the movies, but it's a bad year for…" "The public discourse?" I ask. "Well, yeah, that too, in the country, and I don't know if that's connected. But just the campaign tactics, this thing of trying to pick apart the competition. Because obviously, nominations and awards, they do help on a business level of getting people to see a movie," he says. "What I like is that Universal, Participant [Media], our team—we have not engaged in any of that. Just likeL: 'Hey, here's our movie. We are an open book. Here it is.' I certainly am not about saying,: 'Don't see that movie. Ours is better.' I am not into that at all."
While Mortensen is a "glass-half-full" kind of guy, seeing all of this year's portraits of serious social issues as "all to the good," others don't seem to think this way. "I guess there's always a little bit of that out there, so it's unfortunate," he adds. "But hopefully, people will judge everybody's work on its merits. You can't please everybody, and you can't have everything."
Ultimately, Mortensen is proud of the way in which Green Book handles issues of race and class. He acknowledges that "Green Book's obviously not the only movie that addresses issues of race and the history of discrimination in the United States. There's a lot of other movies, [and] what's great is that it's looked at from so many different angles, in so many different ways." To the actor, what was so valuable in the film's depiction of American race relations "is the hopeful perspective that it puts on it, while not shying away from the truth of the ugly stuff."
"It's a movie that's not excluding anyone. It's made for everyone, and it's not a movie that's preaching to the converted or that's for a certain segment of the population of a defined ideology, or has a certain understanding already," he says. "It's a movie that accomplishes a lot. It's very difficult to do, to make something that's that entertaining, that's for all the public, and that deals with very difficult issues in an intelligent way."
Mortensen takes issues with various strands of film criticism that have been used in relation to the film, almost as weapons. One of these had to do with the film's point of view—its focus on Vallelonga's evolution at the expense of Shirley's arc, and the complexity of his character. "But if you believe enough in your story, you tell it anyway, and I'm a firm believer that anybody has a right to tell a story about anything they feel like. No matter who they are, we should look at the story on its own merit, not the color of the skin of the directors or the writers," he says. "There are obviously certain things that would not be appropriate to play as an actor, but storytelling is storytelling. Human beings are human beings, and to me what Green Book does is that it tries to unite people. Not, as people have said, in a cornball way."
"I've seen the same people accuse the movie of being both a 'white savior movie' and a 'magical negro movie.' It's like, make up your mind. What is it?" he says. "It's neither; it's just ridiculous. But that's going to come your way."
In his work, Mortensen is intent on following his interests, his values and his convictions, come what may. In the world today, social media furor frequently accompanies such an act, regardless of one's intent, becoming the price to pay for one's art. "If you believe in the story, you have to make the story—which is hard enough, to get something made, and then do a good job. And you have to go out and promote it, and you have to take the slings and arrows," Mortensen says. "They're part of the way social discourse has deteriorated in our country and around the world in recent years, especially on social media. It is what it is."
Regardless of today's Oscar nominations—whether Green Book was prized or snubbed—Mortensen says he would feel the exact same way about the film and the work that he put in. In hectic moments, he returns to the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who was commemorated with the national holiday this week: "'People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other.' That's exactly what Green Book is about, and that ideally is what going to the movies is about," he reflects. "It's about communication. Ignorance, this story tells you, can be eliminated, or minimized through direct experience."
In Mortensen's mind, it's impossible to make a perfect movie. If the #MeToo era has resulted in many unsettling realizations, one is the notion that every story has its many sides. Life is complex, and storytelling is, too. "You have your story; I have my story. I have my way of seeing your story; other people have other ways of seeing your story, and I try to see other people's stories without having a personal agenda against anybody involved," Mortensen reflects. "I'm just watching the stories, whether they work or not. I go and pay my money, and sit down in the dark with strangers. I always want it to work. I want to see a good movie, and if it's not great, what is good in it? I try to find something that's of value, and that's all it is to me. I wish it could be that simple all the way around."
In conversation with those who knew Tony Lip well, and those who knew Dr. Shirley, Mortensen has found affirmation and solace—and as he heads into production on his first feature, he'll get a chance to offer his own perspective from a new vantage point. Trying to get a handful of films off the ground as a director since the mid-'90s, and learning from all the great writers and directors he's worked with, Mortensen finally succeeded with Falling. A contemporary portrait of a father in his 80s, in the early stages of dementia, and his son, in his 50s, the film will employ flashbacks to examine "a lifetime of not really seeing eye to eye," in the characters' conflicted relationship, with Mortensen playing the son.
"It's a story about letting that go, on both sides, and finding a way to connect, in spite of all the scars and the damage that's been done. I think a lot of people can relate to that with their own families, or with just the way society is at times," the actor-turned-director says. For Mortensen, the idea of directing is "an unknown, a big challenge—probably even more of a stretch than playing Tony Vallelonga was."
I point out that the film might be, in some way, a continuation of the conversation he's been having all season—a conversation about how we can connect, and accept, acknowledging damage that has been done and striving to turn the page. "I guess so, yeah. In a way, it is," the actor says, as if with recognition. "Trying to find a way to get along, to at least try. Even if you fail at first, or you never succeed entirely, the fact that you make the effort makes a difference.
"Even if you're not accepted, or you're rebuffed, or you're unfairly maligned," he adds, "you've still got to do the right thing."
Turning the page for himself, Mortensen isn't quite done with Green Book yet. When news of his nomination came in this morning, his Toronto production staff brought him a "big, huge box of fried chicken" for lunch, as a way of congratulating him. "A nice joke," he laughs — one that people who've seen the movie will appreciate. "I'm going to tear into that now."