Charlie Rose Show Interview
By Charlie Rose (interviewer) - transcription by Chrissie
23 September 2005
Charlie Rose Show 9.23.05
© Charlie Rose Inc..
Charlie Rose: I'm pleased to welcome Viggo Mortensen back to this table. Welcome back.
Viggo Mortensen: Thank you.
CR: Tell me about this movie first of all. David Cronenberg is getting tons of attention. This is the cover of New York Times magazine over the weekend, that's Bono, but one of the stories inside is 'David Cronenberg's body language. Making films that focus on the physical self as the windows to understanding the universe.' I don't know how your movie fits into that.
VM: It's a pretty big statement. [laughs] I think it would even puzzle David.
CR: Tell me about this movie because it's an interesting story really about identity.
VM: Yeah, well it's about a lot of things or can be. I mean, I think, first of all...I'm here obviously to sell this movie and to talk about it but for me it's not a hard thing to do, or want to do. It's probably in the sense of, you know, from the planning to the execution and to the final product on screen, it's probably the best process I've ever been involved in and the best result in terms of movie-making, story-telling in film. And largely due to David and the way he works, I think. And I think that the way he approached this is not like a lot of other, probably very talented directors, or whatever, which is on a surface level to make a story about violence, make sort of an exploitation type of movie, you know, that might have some immediate gratification for those who like splatter, or like emotionally strong material. His work in this is so layered and so subtle that it becomes what I think most great works of art are...universally accessible or applicable. And I think the way he does that is by being specific. You know, it's a story about...it takes place in a specific place and by specific people. Most of it takes place in and around a small, rural community in the mid-west, United States, and, you know, there is a family, the Stalls, all these things are local, are specific but the consequences of violence or resistance of violence are universally understood. They happen, you know. And I think he really has done a really great...you're right it is about identity in many ways. It's about having secrets.
CR: Right it's the story of a guy who's living in a small town and all of a sudden in his diner, a couple of bad guys show up and he explodes with extraordinary skill in inflicting violence and, therefore, you begin to wonder who he is and whether...how could somebody like that know so much about how to inflict violence...whether he has a history back in Philadelphia.
VM: Well, what's more about Cronenberg he doesn't try to justify that violence. He doesn't try to evade it or explain it away. He just shows us these things and leaves a lot of questions. He's never, I don't think, been the kind of director who's message-oriented or who really bangs the drum in any area so that you get a message...that you understand something a certain way. He's more of an observer. Someone who observes, filters and shows you things, allows you to question, usually issues of identity like you brought up.
CR: And secrets like your wife doesn't know who you really are...like that secret's big time.
VM: Yeah, well, I think we all do, on some level...it's a question of survival, of self-preservation, I don't tell you everything that's on my mind and you don't tell me that. The people who say anything that comes into their head, act out any impulse that they have, sometimes can be entertaining. Sometimes can be amusing but usually they're people that we keep a distance from. Sometimes a great distance from. Sometimes we want to lock those people up.
I think that Cronenberg has always been a great student of human behaviour and very interested in peeling away, you know, that thin veneer of civility that is how we get along. How we jockey for position and what we present as our identity...we think our identity is...present to ourselves as well. And underneath that it's always kinda a mess and we are animals, pretty unpredictable.
CR: I was just going to say that, and nobody knows exactly what we're capable of.
VM: Even those closest to us.
CR: Exactly, because you never know what circumstances you are going to face. What would you do to protect your family that you might not do under normal circumstances.
VM: Yeah, I mean violence is tricky. One man's just cause if another man's...
VM: Yeah, murder or unjustified act of aggression, I suppose.
CR: Let me just introduce some of the characters. Ed Harris is in this movie and he plays Carl who comes to this diner looking for a guy who he does not know by the name of Tom Stall. He knows him as Joey Cusack.
[Plays movie clip]
Charlie Rose Show 9.23.05
© Charlie Rose Inc..
CR: There's part of our story.
VM: Yeah, he's a great actor - Ed Harris. [pause while he takes a drink] The way it was cast...I mean, he was meticulous...I mean David is a...he used to race cars and he's a fanatic about engines and all technical aspects...
CR: David or Ed Harris?
VM: David Cronenberg. All the technical aspects of film-making he's always up-to-date on and understands everything about the process.
CR: All kinds of cameras, all kinds of lens.
VM: Everything, and he deliberately, you know, chose to shoot this movie in a on the surface very, very simple, very straightforward way. You know, it's very plain, it's carefully designed to seem that way. Very plain looking on the surface, this movie doesn't use a lot of inserts, a lot of flashy camera moves. There is a very deliberate pace and look to it which makes you feel more like a fly on the wall. You know, like you're really observing this and likewise with the incidents of physical violence. Those are shown in a very matter-of-fact, unflashy way...they're not...he doesn't take it as an opportunity, which a lot of other fine directors would, to really show off what he can do with an action scene. It's just this is what happens and these are the consequences. It's a lot more disturbing that way somehow than some balletic blood-splattering version of it and I think he was really careful about his casting in the same way. Everything he did was very deliberate. By the time we started on the first day everybody was in sync.
CR: Any rehearsal?
VM: Yeah, there was a fair amount of rehearsal and a lot of discussion...
CR: Round-the-table kind of discussion?
VM: Yeah, in terms of his stunts and he really is someone who I think...one of his strengths, obviously, is that he's secure in himself not only as a director, as a technical director and a director of actors, but as a man. He's not threatened by input or questions in fact he invites it.
CR: Meaning he wants to take advantage of whatever creative impulses his crew has?
VM: Exactly, he never loses sight of the fact that it's his story and he's going to tell it anyway but why not avail yourself of all these people? And that's why crews return and work with him movie after movie.
CR: Because he's opened up to ideas?
VM: Yeah and his actors that I've spoken with who have worked with him on this and other movies speak very highly of him because the process is enjoyable. You don't...very little time is wasted on set or...energy...asking 'what are we doing?', 'what is this about?' or 'I thought you meant...' It's clear and so you have a lot of time in which, within a pretty tight structure, in terms of the script and preparation, to expand and take chances and it's great for an actor. Very free.
CR: Did you come away with any new insights into violence? Any more things that are perplexing for you?
VM: I guess it made me think about it some more certainly. I mean, I think that I agree with what this movie seems to say which is that violence can't be denied. It exists. It will always exist. As long as there are human beings. As long as there are most animals...you know, most animals deal in violent ways with each other. But in the way that Cronenberg told the story I also understood that violence comes in many forms and sometimes in the most harmless seeming conversation there is some sort of struggle, some kind of potential for violence, within families, close relationships of all kinds. And I also think that this movie in Cronenberg's hands is as much a movie against violence as it is about violence and the consequences of violence. I think that it points out...the story does...that humans...and in this way they're different, I suppose, from all other animals, as far as I know, can reason and therefore can imagine resisting violence. In other words can make a deliberate choice to struggle against it. And I think even the character I play who does have a propensity for it, or an ability to use
violence, or possibly a childhood that involved that, can also struggle and I think is in an ongoing struggle, and I don't think that struggle ever stops. I mean, life itself...being born is sort of violent. It's just the whole stages of life involves struggle. Always, you know. I think that's to Cronenberg's credit. He doesn't shy away from it, justify it or say it's possible to have no violence. It's just there. He's showing you things and you have a choice to say no, but it's not always easy to do that.
CR: Take a look at this - this is where Carl, played by Ed Harris, the mafia guy from Philadelphia asks Edie, played by Maria Bello, how well she knows her husband.
[Plays movie clip]
Charlie Rose Show 9.23.05
© Charlie Rose Inc..
CR: What's this lapel thing?
VM: It's a U.N. pin that somebody gave me and I think that...I wear it because I think it's a good idea. That phrase 'united nations' I think it's a lot better than...
CR: Than multi-lateralism. And you've brought me a book...
VM: I've brought you a book that...I think it's a plug for Howard Zinn's Voices of a Peoples History of the United States.
CR: Last time you were here you came in with a t-shirt that said...
VM: No more blood for oil and we talked about...this was autumn of 2002...
VM: Yeah, and I remember there was a lot of talk of 'well we're not going to'...not you...'no way we're not going to invade Iraq', ' no it's only if it's justified', you know. And a lot of people after that show said thank you it's nice to have someone at least bring up the conversation. And a few people said 'how dare you, it's treasonous' and all this stuff. Time of war you can't question the president. Well, anything, any of those little things I brought up that time have certainly come true, unfortunately, and then some. And it's quite tame what I suggested or brought up at the time compared to what's happened and I think we've come down...a long way down a bad road since then as a country.
CR: What consequences do you think?
VM: I don't know. With each step, each bad step that the Bush administration takes, in my opinion, it doesn't seem like it can get much worse but they seem to top themselves at every opportunity.
CR: Is there any hope?
VM: Yes, always.
CR: Even for the people of Iraq it could turn out alright for them? Now that their hated dictator is gone.
VM: I think if they're left to run their own affairs I think they'll do better in the long run.
CR: The U.S. should pull out right now...
VM: Absolutely, absolutely.
CR: So if civil war comes, so be it.
VM: I mean it's the same in some sense of argument as during Vietnam. It would be irresponsible to pull out completely. We owe it to them. No we don't frankly. We don't owe them anymore pain and suffering than we have indirectly caused them. Even though there are a lot of good Americans you know. Americans mean well, they want to do well. I support our troops and I think the best way to support our troops is to bring them home immediately. This is the wrong place to be. I think also just...the president ran on making us safer in 2004 and, just like they did in 2000, on moral values. And in the first time he also said I'm going to be fiscally responsible. I'm going to run this country like a grown up. I'm going to be the CEO of the company called the United States. Fiscal responsibility, moral values, national security, all of the platforms, all of the planks of his campaign platforms have proved to be rotten and unstable. You know, I really do think that governments always lie to some certain degree.
CR: All governments?
VM: Yeah, I think most politicians, you know, are one way or another kind of two-faced but I think the Bush administration has broken all the records for dishonesty. I think that they're...I mean, just the fact that they seek not only to maintain the tax cut to the richest 1% of Americans with the advent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they want to maintain that and even give more handouts to the wealthiest in the wake of an extremely costly reconstruction, aid and rebuilding in the Gulf coast region. I think it's unconscionable. It's really criminally irresponsible.
CR: You say a lot, it's more important for you to lay out what you believe. As you know they will argue...they will passionately argue that they can't leave now and we will have people here on this show who say it's not good for them to leave now. People from the region will say it's not...the troops ought to come out at some point and the Iraqis ought to be doing it and the Bush administration will say as soon as the Iraqis can deal with the insurgency we want to be out of there. That does not go to the merit of the arguments you were making when you were here for the first time, you know, which was, 'don't go there, it's not our business to be there.' And even though Saddam Hussein is an evil guy he's not...
VM: There are a lot of evil guys in the world. A lot of people would say, including me, that our president is an evil guy.
CR: But they would argue, not withstanding, whether it was good or right or wrong to go in there but once you're there, right now, you can't pull out...
VM: You've got to do the job.
CR: You've got to stabilize the region and there are lots of other issues.
VM: I understand that. I understand that.
CR: And that the Iraqis don't want them to pull out right now.
VM: I'd be open to that argument and to continuing that but I'd like to continue it with a different administration in charge. I honestly think that whether we pull out completely or eventually...however you do it...I mean, how many times do we have to be lied to in a bald-faced manner by the president, the vice-president, by Rumsfeld, by Rice, by...at the instigation of Rove and others. I mean, how often do these people have to lie straight to our faces before it adds up to 'you know what these people should be impeached.' They should be removed, they should be jailed. They should pay a price for what they've done rather than reaping the benefits of their continued corruption and mismanagement of the economy. You know, I mean conservative values in some sense are really good. True conservative values in terms of fiscal responsibility, not meddling in the affairs of other countries, not starting wars, you know, without a lot of forethought and preparation, as we did. Those are conservative ideas. These people are not conservatives. These are fanatical extremists who are clearly...they've shown by their actions...their platitudes non withstanding...that they are loyal to a handful of extremely well-off people in this country and it's evident more and more to the rest of the country. They are not working in the interests of the country and I think the whole world and America has seen that in their reaction to the disaster in the Gulf.
Charlie Rose Show 9.23.05
© Charlie Rose Inc..
CR: This is Frederick Douglass' introduction to Howard Zinn's book:
If there is no struggle there is no progress...This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.
VM: That's a good book. I recommend it. In some sense there is no such thing as national security anymore than there is individual security. You have to keep working on it.
CR: Where did this political come from...in terms of this great interest in politics from your standpoint and in your country? Is it a product of parents? Is it a product of education? Is it a product of some experience?
VM: I don't know that my parents...I know that my parents would disagree with many of the things I say but I think probably they would agree with my right to speak up. I believe in this nation and I think that , you know, as Howard Zinn, paraphrasing him, being patriotic is not supporting your government, being patriotic is supporting your country, your nation.
CR: And the principles and values...
VM: There's a complete difference.
CR: And the principles and values...
VM: For which it stands.
CR: And on which it is established and stands. This is on your website called Viggo's Perceval Press, right?
VM: Perceval Press...it's not my website. It's the site of the publishing house that we have
CR: Who's we?
VM: It's a company I have along with some other people. We publish books of photography mostly, and art books by all kinds of people.
CR: This is what's on the website. A quote by Edna St Vincent Millay.
I know. But I do not approve.
And I am not resigned.
A commentary piece from the Guardian by John Berger called 'Ignorance and abdication that amounts to madness', a piece by Zadie Smith on Greta Garbo, a piece by Frank Rich called 'Message I care about the black vote', Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, 'Not the new deal' and a column by Tom Friedman called 'Still eating our lunch'. That's all on your Perceval Press.
VM: Well it's not meant to be any kind of news service. Something I see if I'm travelling in whatever state of the country I'm in or whatever country in the world and I read something and it's interesting. It could be a poem, it could be a quote from someone a thousand years ago, it could be something I saw in a local newspaper yesterday, you know. It's just little things that interest me and maybe it will interest someone else, maybe it wouldn't but it's just...in a way it's an exercise for me and for others to pay attention to what's going on. I think that most people talk about, you know, the press has now gotten some guts again because they've started speaking for themselves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the floods.
CR: An example of the press being there and being overwhelmed by the anger and...
VM: What you're saying is happening and that this stuff is arriving and the help. It's not quite so...and so forth. They've developed a new-found spine or something. I think as bad as it was in the past five years in terms of mainstream media just repeating more or less press releases from the White House to some degree which is not really that good as far as journalism obviously. It's not, you know, from any kind of inquiry it's just mouthing things that are given to them. Even so you could always find somewhere in the newspaper, or in some newspapers, something that if you would make the time to do it, there's something to compare to something else and say 'what does that mean?' Or you can always have a conversation with someone in the street, 'what do you really think about that?'...anybody. It's like I can ask you or you can ask me. Doesn't mean that my position or yours stays fixed. You keep evolving, hopefully. I mean, that's how...
CR: What it is to be alive.
VM: That's how you grow and if there is going to be something like personal security or national security it's based on us continuing to struggle and work together. To inform ourselves and inform others, you know, and we don't have to agree all the time. If we agreed all the time it would be odd don't you think?
CR: I do. Thank you for coming, it's a pleasure to have you back.
VM: Thanks for your time.
Last edited: 6 November 2005 07:57:40
© Charlie Rose.