With his chiseled good looks and clear blue eyes, actor Viggo Mortensen may be the last person a casting director would think of for the role of Sigmund Freud, the Jewish-born father of modern psychoanalysis. Mortensen, 53, was skeptical of the idea when his friend and longtime collaborator, director David Cronenberg, sought him out for the role in his new film, A Dangerous Method, to be released November 23.
"I did have some misgivings," says Mortensen, who at first declined the offer, but later changed his mind. "I've worked with [Cronenberg] before, and he's my friend and I respect him. So if he thinks I could do it, I trust him."
To turn himself into a convincing Freud, Mr. Mortensen donned a prosthetic nose, a beard and dark contacts, designed by Stephan Dupuis, part of the same team that turned Jeff Goldblum into a bug in Cronenberg's science fiction film The Fly. Mortensen also smokes cigars and endows Freud with a deep humanity and a cutting sense of humor that has earned him some "Best Supporting Actor" buzz among Oscar watchers.
The film is a leap for Cronenberg as well. The Canadian director is known for his graphic depictions of violence in sci-fi films such as The Fly, in which a scientist turns into an insect, and thrillers like Eastern Promises, about scary looking Russian mobsters in London. What A Dangerous Method, lacks in violence, it makes up for in scenes depicting people talking frankly about their feelings.
Based on a book that was later adapted to a stage play, the film focuses on Jung (Michael Fassbender) as he develops a protégé-mentor relationship with Freud (Mortensen) over the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a Russian teenager suffering from a particularly nasty case of hysterical psychosis. Speakeasy recently caught up with Mr. Mortensen and talked to him about how he prepared for the role and his relationship with Cronenberg. An edited transcript:
When David Cronenberg, who you've worked with on A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007)--first asked you to play Freud in A Dangerous Method you said no. What were your misgivings based on?
I just felt it was a stretch, just physically because of the way I look. You might think I'd be more right to play Jung, let's say, or the character that looks more like him, just physically--my face, my type, physically speaking. The other thing is that it was a different kind of role for me because they speak so much. Freud uses words to convey evasion, manipulation, seduction in a way that I usually use gestures. Most of the characters I've been given to play have been relatively non-verbal.
And when they are verbal it seems that they tend to speak in a different language.
In Eastern Promises, [a 2007 Cronenberg film in which he plays the driver and clean-up man for a Russian gangster] if that's what you're thinking of, I didn't speak that much. That was a stretch too, just to play the Russian. That was more of a question of rolling up my sleeves and going to Russia and learning all the mannerisms and everything else.
You underwent sort of a physical transformation to play the father of modern psychoanalysis.
Once we started talking about it, I thought with the help of a great makeup person--David's longtime makeup collaborator Stephan Dupuis who was nominated for an Oscar for The Fly,--it could work. He altered my nose. And one thing that's mentioned a lot by his contemporaries is that Freud had a particular type of penetrating brown-eyed gaze. I said "Montgomery Clift did it with his clear eyes in John Huston's movie," [the 1962 film, Freud: The Secret Passion] but I don't think if we're trying to be accurate that it would be right. So he started playing around with lenses that looked right but also didn't take away my own eyes' expressiveness.
What else did you do?
I was cast late in the game but I started doing the physical transformation, all the usual research. I went to Vienna, to his birthplace. I read a lot of material about him. I listened to composers like Mahler. Half the fun--no, really all the fun--is in the preparation.
Did you start smoking cigars?
Yes. I smoked a lot of 'em, yeah. There's only one scene in the movie where I am not smoking a cigar, I think, and that's when Jung comes over for dinner. David and I wrote 20-30 emails just about cigars, finding the kind that was exactly Freud's type.
Have you ever gone to a psychoanalyst?
I went to see someone about 20 years ago for a couple of months. I found it to be very interesting.
Did you read the things that Freud liked to read, in addition to reading about the man, and his own writings?
I spoke to antiquarian book people in Vienna--owners of book shops and collectors who could talk to me. I made a long list of books that Freud had in his library, not just academic stuff, but stuff he liked to read for fun. He was a voracious reader, who liked English writers, Irish writers. He read Oscar Wilde. He met and admired Mark Twain. He liked Scandinavian writers. He loved Shakespeare, and loved humorists.... Because of the strong censorship laws in 19th century and early 20th century Vienna, the people he admired the most--the humorists and the playwrights--were people who got around the censorship laws with wordplay, clever ways of saying things that weren't allowed to be said.
David Cronenberg said that you and Freud both had a mischievous sense of humor.
He said that? That's nice. I see that in him too.
You've said that you used David Cronenberg as part of your inspiration for Freud. Is that true? If so, what part?
David is very well read like Freud was, very intelligent and a very good conversationalist. He also has a similar kind of wit. David is the kind of person, who, like Freud, might say something scathingly funny--making fun of someone else, a situation, or even of himself--and if you don't get the joke, he may have not even smiled but he'll just keep going. If you do get it then you have a connection. If not, then you just skate right on. It's a dry, stereotypically English humor, that dry wit that can be really brutal.
Did you see any parallels between Freud and Jung and your own close relationship with Cronenberg? It seems as if the two of you communicate fairly frequently and openly and honestly.
Well, I guess what's similar is that, like Freud and Jung, we are different people. He's Jewish and I was baptized Lutheran but we're probably both equally Atheists. I do think we see eye to eye more than Jung and Freud did. We have a shared sensibility and a shared sense of humor. I don't think Jung got Freud's humor all the time. He was very intelligent but they were just different. And I think what's interesting in the movie...it was more to do with their personality differences, than differences of opinion scientifically, that drove them apart. What's interesting about the movie is that it's not this dry movie about science, it's about people and their weaknesses: their competitiveness, their jealousies. What's sad ultimately is that Jung and Freud didn't find a way to patch things up.
This is your third collaboration with David Cronenberg - and the last two were very violent films. This is pretty different in that respect. Could you talk about how different this one was?
I've heard some people make comments as if it was just a given, "This is not a Cronenberg movie." It's like, who's movie do you think it is? I wish people would just look at the movie and stop comparing it to what they think he ought to be making or has been making all these years. Each subject he takes on, he shoots it the way he sees fit for that particular story. [The three films I've collaborated with him on] are three quite different stories, and three different approaches. And all three characters were very different for me as an actor.
Do you think playing Freud was the biggest departure for you as an actor?
I eventually got used to the idea and I am really glad I got to play him. But it was a stretch for me, more so than playing the Russian character [in Eastern Promises]. Sometimes it's good to be put in a position where you're forced to try something that you didn't think you were capable of. I think that the fact that Cronenberg would make a movie about psychoanalysts wasn't that surprising to me. A lot of the things that he's been interested in are dealing frankly and honestly with the body. That was one of the things that made Freud so shocking and revolutionary to people, and something that made even Jung uncomfortable. He was like "Let's just call it what it is." And Jung said "Can we find another term for it? Can we say 'erotic' rather than 'sexual'? Can we say something other than 'anus' or 'penis'?" And Freud said, "Why should we?"