Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road won the Pulitzer Prize and was feted as the apogee of the novel. Now, as Hollywood dramatises its haunting vision of one man and his son after the apocalypse, the film's suitably brooding Oscar-nominated star explains why the lead role was closer to home than he could have imagined...
The barren hillside 40 miles north of Pittsburgh where The Road is being filmed is called New Galilee. It strikes me as a suitably biblical name considering this is a movie about the end of the world. It's no more than a collection of clapperboard homesteads; I sight Viggo Mortensen shuffling away from them and towards a car that will take him to his trailer a couple of miles away. He looks awful, Christlike in his destitution.
He's wearing sodden rags, for one thing, and is thin: he lost just over two stone to play a man trying to protect his ten-year-old son in a devastated, hostile, post-apocalyptic world in the screen version of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Later, when the make-up is removed, there are still dark, hollow rings around his blue eyes and his painfully slender frame reminds me of a hunger striker. He couldn't look more different from warrior Aragorn, who he played in Lord Of The Rings.
He'll be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to shoot another harrowing scene, in which the man and boy encounter cannibals. "That's going to be another tough day," he smiles.
Mortensen, who over the past five years has firmly established himself in Hollywood's top tier of leading men, wasn't planning on making this film at all.
"I was fried before I started this," he says. "I had no intention of doing a movie at this time. But of course one advantage is that the guy I'm playing is slowly dying. He's pretty tired himself, so that works."
In the film, father and son - we never know their names, a deliberate McCarthyite conceit - try to survive against overwhelming, crushingly terrible odds. The world has been laid waste by some unspecified global catastrophe. There are no animals, no crops or fruit on the trees and no marine life in the sea. No living creatures, apart from a handful of humans, have survived the maelstrom. Grey washes into grey; brief flashes of hope are extinguished by the unremittingly bleak landscape and the nihilism of anarchic survivors.
On a brighter note, it's an actor's dream gig.
"We don't have many scenes in this movie where the pressure is off either myself or the young boy, Kodi (Smit-McPhee), who plays my son. There's always some kind of physical or emotional stress - it's the story, and it's always there.
"I've had several people die in my family recently. It happens to everybody. We all have to deal with loss, but that too has meant that I don't have to look very far for the character. He's a man who has lost his wife, lost everybody except his son. So it's there, as fate would have it, and I think about it all the time."
Mortensen admits that when he's in the zone it's sometimes easier just to let the part overwhelm him and simply embrace it.
"In the story they keep trudging along and going forward and they don't give up like so many others have, including my wife (Charlize Theron). My character has lost his compassion. But my son still has the impulse to be compassionate and truly hopeful. He is my conscience and he is right."
He knows, of course, that The Road will be a hard journey for a lot of audiences. It's thought-provoking, not least because we live in a world where we're constantly warned of impending environmental disaster - though that's never spelled out as the reason for The Road's devastated landscape.
"I think it's good that what caused the apocalypse is never explained, because people can't say, well, you can see what the U.S. did or what China did... We all know war is bad and pollution is bad, and it's probably some combination of all those things.
"It's a realistic idea of what can happen. There's something more terrifying about that, because you feel it could be true, it could happen. It's in your face and it's not comfortable; it's not tricky or manipulative. It's direct and thought-provoking."
McCarthy and Mortensen go together well. McCarthy, 76, is Hollywood's favourite 'dark' author; he also wrote No Country For Old Men. Mortensen only hit it big when he was 43, with Lord Of The Rings (he's now 51). Since then he has been offered his share of blockbusters, but turned them all down, preferring more idiosyncratic roles - the cafe owner with a dark past in A History Of Violence, a gunslinger in the Western Appaloosa, the ordinary man seduced by the Nazi Party in Good.
He is intense, serious and introspective. He's dedicated to artistic passions - he writes poetry, runs a small publishing house that has produced art and anthropology books, plays the piano, occasionally plays and records with Guns N' Roses guitarist Buckethead, paints and is a keen photographer.
He is a complex but likeable fellow, and is clearly not motivated by money. His publishing company is "mostly in the red, although once in a while I get to break even.
"The money I earn from films means I can help the people I want to help - you can do a lot of good if you want to. Anyway, how much money do you need? I've been lucky over the past ten years and I've not had to think about money too much.
"I've been able to go from job to job and do things that have been interesting. But I'm not the most careful person with money. I'll probably get a call from the accountant in a year from now..."
Last year he was nominated for a best-actor Oscar for his performance as a Russian gangster in the violent thriller Eastern Promises. It contained a sensational naked knife fight in a sauna, which cemented his reputation as an actor prepared to push himself. Yet he doesn't take himself too seriously, as he revealed at the post-Oscar ball.
"Most people lose. So as we were coming out of the auditorium I thought it would be kind of fun to have a losers' dance," he says.
"You know, just a little waltz or something. They all just ran from me like I was drunk or something. Michael Moore was into it and he was a nice dance partner, very light on his feet. Cate Blanchett was quite pregnant at the time so we didn't really dance, but it was fun. I mean, you're there, you've been nominated and you didn't win. So what? I wanted to have a good time."
He's known as a practical joker on set. "There's no sense in doing something, especially if it's a hard job, if you can't have a little fun," he says.
"On Lord Of The Rings we had these little people who were stand-ins for the hobbits. One time Dominic (Monaghan, who played the hobbit Merry) and I mimicked this one particular guy who had a really distinctive voice and rang the producers to say that all the little people were stranded on (New Zealand's) South Island with nothing to eat and no water. It became this big crisis and the producers sent everyone scrambling.
"Another time I called Elijah Wood (Frodo) every day for six weeks pretending to be a long-lost German friend. Most of the calls were in the middle of the night. Fortunately he thought it was funny..."
If he'd won his Oscar last year, Mortensen had planned on giving his favourite football team, the Argentine club San Lorenzo, a big plug.
"I had the club's flag folded up and tucked inside my vest. If I'd won I was going to take it out during the speech."
Football is his favourite game and he adopts teams from all over the world, which is understandable for a man who grew up in Norway [sic], Venezuela and Argentina with a Danish father, also called Viggo, and an American mother, Grace. When his parents separated he moved back to New York State - where he was born - to live with his mother and two younger brothers.
"I got to see the world from different points of view - different cultures, languages - which was good. If there was a downside it's that I don't have an assortment of friends from when I was six or seven. But I appreciate it for the languages I know (he's fluent in English, Spanish and Danish but also speaks Norwegian, Italian, French and Swedish) and the places I know. It helps you as an actor to find another point of view, another way to look at the world - that's an essential part of the job."
He's supported San Lorenzo since he was a boy at school in Buenos Aires and his love of them is rather endearing (he's wearing a club T-shirt underneath his sweatshirt), although at times it's landed him in dangerous situations.
"Some pretty violent individuals go to games in Argentina. They don't represent the real fans any more than they do in England. They plan the schedules so that busloads of fans don't meet on the highways, because they'll kill each other. I've had rocks and bricks thrown at me. It's like, 'Run for your life!' after the match.
"Last year I went to see San Lorenzo play (Newell's Old Boys) in Rosario. We'd been leading 3-1 and in the last ten minutes we completely fell apart and it ended up 3-3. If it hadn't been for that tie we'd have won the championship.
"As soon as the game was over people were saying, 'You'd better get out of here pretty quickly and cover up your jersey.' But as we were walking down the stairs these really menacing fans started to confront us. You expect a few insults when you go to a game and sometimes it can be pretty nasty. This one guy yelled at me - in Spanish - 'Put the ring on and disappear, you ****!'
"Recognising I was in Lord Of The Rings and telling me to disappear and being abusive all at the same time - that was ingenious. I looked at him and he actually cracked a smile as he was being hateful, and I said, 'That's very good! Hats off...' And then I got out of there pretty quick."
Mortensen clearly loves the game and knows his stuff, like any true fan.
"England are very good; Capello has them playing well. I love Rooney. And what I like about those guys, apart from their amazing skill, is that they don't take dives. They just keep going; they're like little bulls.
"I hate divers, like Cristiano Ronaldo, who might be the greatest athlete in the sport, but he's a big baby. If things are going well he's great, but when things are going badly it's the ref's fault, it's his teammates' fault. And he's a big diver - he's almost as bad as Drogba."
Mortensen was married once, briefly, to American singer and actress Exene Cervenka, his co-star in the satirical comedy Salvation!, and they have a son, Henry, now 21, who is studying at Columbia University. Recently, he's been romantically linked to Spanish singer Christina Rosenvinge.
Making The Road made him think a great deal about his relationship with his son. Despite its bleak setting, it's essentially a very moving love story about a father and a son.
"Henry and I are very close," he says. "And he's a very kind person, and that's what my character in The Road has to learn - that kindness and compassion."
He's clearly struck up a close bond with his young co-star Kodi, now 13.
"I wouldn't even categorise him as a child actor, because he's better than almost all the actors I've worked with or watched work, including the most famous award-winning adults.
"In some ways I had a very similar relationship with my son when he was Kodi's age. He's always been like a wise old man and called me on things - very similar to the story. He made me appreciate that life is short - that I don't want to get to 70 and look back on some projects and think, 'I should have done that...'"