Viggo Mortensen Talking To Janet Maslin at C.U.N.Y.
6 January 2006
New York Times Arts and Leisure Weekend
Interview at C.U.N.Y. 1.6.06.
© cityladynyc. Used by permission.
Our guest tonight has worked with some of today's most admired film directors, starred in one of the most admired film fantasies of all time, and is currently attracting attention for his work in one of the most admired films of the season. Beyond his work on the screen this versatile talent is also a poet, a musician, a photographer and a painter. You will hear much more about him from our moderator, who I'm now pleased to introduce. In 1977 she joined the Times as a film critic and spent the next twenty years guiding us with her insightful reviews. In 1999 she decided to trade the glow of the movie screen for the glow of the reading lamp. And she now sheds light on the printed page as a book critic. She too has a rich life beyond the bi-line, serving as among other things the president of the Board of Directors of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. Please join me in welcoming New York Times book critic Janet Maslin and our special guest Viggo Mortensen.
Viggo Mortensen: (giggling) Hello. It works!
Janet Maslin: Hello. Now, I'm sure you know, looking at this audience, I know you know about Lord of the Rings, I know you know about The Blouse Man, (audience laughter) and I imagine most of you know that Viggo has written books and has books of his artwork but maybe you don't realize how many there are or how extraordinary they are. This is one of them. It is called Signlanguage. And I have a whole set of them here, but the one that really astounded me is a book called Theology in the Religions - A Dialogue, edited by Viggo Mortensen, and it has one section on "Intercultural Theology as a New Paradigm". And it has also a section on "The Missionary Challenge to Inter-religious Dialogue". The point is he didn't write this (audience laughter) but he can do practically anything else, apparently. He is amazingly versatile.
VM: But we recommend this book.
JM: But we recommend it.
JM: It's not even a relative.
VM: Actually he didn't...I think he edited that and there's some of his stuff. He's written other books and he's from Denmark. He's a Lutheran...
JM: A Lutheran theologist.
VM: Yes. And he talks about the Lutheran strain of Christianity, I guess, as modernized. He talks about it more in terms of compassion rather than punishment and guilt. That's sort of the rough idea I have of him which is a good thing. (audience laughter)
JM: We have you described tonight in the program as an actor, an activist, a musician, a poet and a photographer. That order is almost alphabetical. I assumed that is what it is supposed to be. But if you had to arrange those things in terms of your own priorities how would it go?
VM: I would just say artist. That would cover all of them I think. I think they are all related really, you know. I mean I draw on other disciplines when, say, I'm taking pictures. I am thinking of story telling, I'm thinking of history sometimes, I'm thinking of painting, but it doesn't even have to be conscious, it's just the actual act of observing and filtering and presenting something, you know, if it's only for yourself I think it's all the same thing.
JM: When do you do this? Do you do this while you are on film sets or between films?
VM: Late at night. (laughing) I kind of do...I usually have a lot of things going at once but, you know, I'm generally always taking pictures, not constantly but, you know, regularly. And writing things down on scraps of paper, like that, and I really enjoy that in these books, some of them are from Perceval Press which is a small press I have started in 2002. And one of the most enjoyable things is working as an editor, you know, trying to help. Whether it's a painter or someone who's trying to, you know, someone who can look objectively at their images and help them order them, or someone who can help someone write an introduction and things like that. I really enjoy that. It's a lot easier sometimes to help someone, another artist, when there is nothing at stake for you, you know. In the sense that you're not nervous, you're not so wrapped up and it's not coming out of you so you can be more objective, and I enjoy that.
JM: How does that relate to your film work? Is it something you do that to get away from acting or does it enhance your acting, or...?
VM: Sometimes it's to get away maybe. But mostly it's just connected, you know. I'll often get an idea, you know, if I'm on a set, we've just finished working on something, there will be a thought that comes to me as a result of something that happened just then on set and might give me an idea for a story or make me think about something that someone else did or they are in a process of doing. And I'll call and say "did you finish that yet? I had a thought", you know. That's...in that sense I think they feed each other in the different disciplines. And I also think that being an actor, I mean it's, there are as many different ways of being an actor as there are actors obviously, and it's one thing to learn how to act beyond, you know, just mimicking. To actually portray believably, you know, someone who isn't you. It's another thing altogether to learn about storytelling, to learn what role, what your part is in the story, you know. That's what I like.
JM: When you are acting in someone else's film and you have such a highly developed visual sense, do you see what the director is doing and sometimes wonder why the director's doing it?
VM: (laughs) Yeah.
JM: My case in point...
VM: I'm going to say not to mention any names.
JM: No, I won't. A case in point...
VM: What are you doing? Yeah, I've thought that a lot. And I'm sure they've thought that about me as well.
JM: You've worked with directors as different as Sean Penn who - I think The Indian Runner is just a wonderful film, very simple in it's style, very straightforward - and you were in Crimson Tide, the submarine movie, directed by Tony Scott, and you're the guy on whom the entire world depends, it might or might not. Does anyone remember this? (applause) Oh.
VM: Yeah, I play the weapons officer.
JM: Depending on what you do the plan is whether you go or stay and you are lit so that half of your face is blue and half of your face is green and the line is right down the middle of your face. And I watched this thinking: What's it like for a guy who's so creative in his own right to have his main job being standing on mark so as to keep that lighting?
VM: Well, I couldn't see it. I was playing my part. When I saw it I did think it kind of looked like that David Bowie record cover Aladdin Sane (audience laughter). No, but I enjoyed that...I mean that particular job. And I think any job for an actor, it's what you make of it. You can perform the same ritual or...well, you can learn it depends on who is there and where it's being done. In that case Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington had a lot...quite a bit of dialogue, and it was being filmed in Culver City in the west side of Los Angeles, near where I lived. So I would go on my days off, which were many, and just watch them. It was a free class, you know. You know, so there is always something happening there. And I enjoyed a lot of the things that Tony Scott invented, you know, on the spot, he's pretty creative, so...
JM: You play a very kind of stony guy in that movie, very kind of repressed, contained character. Whereas in Hidalgo - who's seen that? (applause) - you appear to be having a great time. You play a much more extroverted, wild, Clint Eastwood kind of guy. Are you more comfortable when you get to be more demonstrative or when you are holding it in?
VM: I don't know that I have a preference, I'll probably think of a good answer tomorrow sometime (laughter), but I mean, I just read a script. I mean, a script doesn't really...um...tell me what to do. It tells me a story, it starts me off somewhere and then I do the same thing always, you know, I start from when the character is born and invent all that. And it takes it's own...
JM: For Hidalgo you must have thought "I'm gonna ride across the desert and...
JM: ...and talk to a horse a lot and be with Omar Sharif."
VM: Yeah, well, I was looking forward to...in particular to working with Omar Sharif, that was a bonus. I mean I'd already signed up and then they said Omar Sharif is gonna play that part.
JM: And you bought the horse.
VM: I did, yeah. And working with him was a particularly interesting thing 'cause my mother used to take me to the movies a lot when I was a little kid. You know, those sort of longer movies like the Doctor Zhivagos when they were released or when they were released again and, you know, when I was a little kid they still would have the intermission, you know, you get the popcorn and candy, whatever. And my mom would take me, typically I'd get out of school earlier or right after school, and it was just this thing that we did many times and that was one of the movies that I remember very clearly seeing with her, I was really little, Doctor Zhivago. And she was really taken with that movie. I remember really, really clearly seeing that with her. So knowing that I was going to work with him and being able to tell my mom...
JM: Did you see Lawrence of Arabia as well?
VM: Oh yeah. I think I saw that with her as well. And, so that was really enjoyable. But, you know, certain things are demanded and it depends on the story. Obviously I needed to work for a while with the horses and all that. Each part asks different things of you and it's not always what you expect, and I think the things that end up being the most interesting and sometimes the most difficult are things that you can't foresee, you know, if you remain open to what might happen. Which is the way I like to work, and that's what I mean by: "It's not just enough to act", it's "So what am I? Why am I in this story? How do I help tell it?" You know what I mean? That's the fun part to me.
Interview at C.U.N.Y. 1.6.06.
© Viggo's Knight. Used by permission.
JM: Let's talk specifically about A History of Violence for a little while. How many of you have seen it? (applause)
VM: It's not working?
JM: Who would mind if we blow the big plot secret? (audience laughter) Um.
VM: Put it on the coat...having some microphone problems.
JM: You have such a tricky role, because you have to give a performance that can be watched either by people who don't know the truth about the character or people who do, and so you have to be lying, but in an interesting way.
JM: You have to be lying convincingly for yourself, for the people in the movie and also for the audience somehow.
VM: Yeah. Well, I mean you're always lying as an actor.
JM: Well, excellent. (audience laughter)
VM: That's your job. So I had a double duty on it, I should have asked for...to be paid twice as much I suppose. (audience laughter) But I was, you know, I was very happy to be directed by David Cronenberg in it, because he is, you know, a subtle artist, you know, he is an intelligent artist. He doesn't really give you, you know, whether it's about identity or anything else, he doesn't really give you very...any easy answers. I don't know that he gives you any really, he just tells a story very intelligently. And usually his movies prove in time to have been ahead of people's thinking, maybe even of his own thinking, maybe there's things that, because he is extremely well prepared, and yet he leaves a certain amount to chance always, you know, he lets us find things. And because it was him directing and not someone else, a lesser or less gifted director, you know, it was never going to be: "It's one person, and then don't give away the story because then it's another guy." The man in black and the man in white, or something. It's much more, it's messier than that, like life is, you know, like we all are. There's, I'm never one thing, it's always the same person, really. And that was fun doing that with him, because there were moments where, when...say the first third of the movie, where we'd do it, you know, we'd finish a take and we'd talk, and we'd say "What do you think? Are we giving too much away there or not?" It was sort of a fun thing thinking, "Okay, first time viewing and then second time viewing, what's it like?" Which is not something I'm usually accustomed to doing, cause I don't usually think, consciously anyway, about the audience as I'm doing it. You know, you're trying to tell the story. So I enjoyed that and I thought he put together a really interesting cast in terms of the identity thing, you know. Working with William Hurt was particularly enjoyable. He's also really smart.
JM: And he came along after you had come up with your, the second half of the movie character, Joey Cusack.
JM: And he had to fit in with what you had devised and begin to seem like your brother. And he told me that you and he developed a whole family history for the two of them and a lot of things that aren't in the film.
VM: I did that with Ed Harris as well, obviously with Maria Bello and Ashton Holmes, you know, the young actor who plays our son. I mean everybody sort of worked out certain stories that they had in common, which doesn't always happen and it's not absolutely necessary for a movie to work, but I think you get a lot more when people work that way. With William, for example, I didn't know how he worked...um...I'd never met him in fact, and when he arrived I called him in his hotel and asked him if he wanted to go, you know, and have a cup of coffee and I could tell him what we had been up to, if it was of any benefit, and if not fine. And he said " Oh yeah, let's have a cup of coffee", and eight hours later, you know, we had...and we kept doing it. We kept working out little things that were, you know, you see it on screen, there are gestures or looks or things...where you just feel that there's a lot going on between the words and beneath the words, you know, between us. Because we...I think that's the fruit of that, that kind of team work, and I really liked it. And I think that we both seemed to understand that in a sense the character I'm playing, Joey-Tom, sort of a dual character, but it's always one person, but also Joey and Richie, the character he played, are essentially the same person in a way, you know. I mean, I looked at in that way. A lot of times I felt like what I was doing to him I was doing to myself in a sense and vice versa. There's even...I don't know, I mean, has anybody not seen it, am I going to ruin something?
JM: We're safe. We're okay.
VM: Okay. In his last moments, you know, when I open the door, and he says "Jesus, Joey." You know, he looks at me and my answer to him, after he is on the ground, is to say "Jesus, Richie." And I said to David, "I think it would be interesting if I also said, the character not actually realising it, "Jesus, Joey", you know. And we did do a take like that or two, just to have it, and he liked it, and he was on that wavelength too, you know, that you don't realise you're kind of, it's your monster double or whatever you want to call it. And it was interesting to try it and it felt really odd which I felt was a good thing. And then David said: "I know you enjoyed that, (laughing), but I'm not gonna do that." (more laughter)
JM: But you like to bring props. You like to bring your own stuff and I gather you did in the restaurant in the early part of the film. And you are wearing pencils or pens in your shirt pocket, I wondered if that kind of thing is your...
VM: Yeah, we had a lot of things. There was actually...it was sort of a nightmare, the pen thing, for the prop department, because I think there was a blue one and a green one. And there were certain scenes, so there was a continuity, "When did you get the green pen? When did you..." I said "Well there's pens in the restaurant." "Well okay but we just have to keep track of it now."
JM: But did you say "I think he's the kind of guy who'd be..."
VM: Yeah. He seemed like the guy that had the cell phone clipped to his belt and the pens and...I mean, he's a business man. (audience laughter). And, you know, he's sincerely doing his job, and...um...yeah, I mean, Carol Spier who has done most of David's movies...
JM: She's a production designer?
VM: Yeah. She's incredible. I mean, all of his movies, the way they look has a lot to do with Carol. She's incredible. And she made...she absolutely didn't need any of the knick-knacks I brought, at all, (laughing) and it wasn't, you know, I don't think it was entirely because...they didn't need to do that to humour me, like they put some of these fish things in there and all that. But...but there were things...I mean, where when I went to junior and high school, near the Canadian border, in northern New York state...
JM: You lived in Watertown?
VM: Yeah. Do you know that area?
JM: My college room-mate was from Watertown.
VM: Where did you go to college?
JM: University of Rochester. We'll talk later...(audience laughter)
VM: So you've been up there?
VM: Yeah OK, and the landscape is not unlike the Mid-West. The way of speaking, the way people look, the sort of ethnic make up of the, you know, population, of the fictional town in our story, that's meant to be in Indiana, it's not unlike that. It's not unlike southern Ontario either, which is why you could so easily...
JM: Is that where it was shot?
VM: Yeah, we shot the whole movie there and he does pretty much all his movies in Canada. It's not just in that way, or because it's the crew, but in terms of the sensibility, I think, it's really Canadian movie, you know. Even though it's made by an American company. But, yeah, there were a lot of things. I would go across, cause it was about four hour's drive, so I would drive from Toronto on weekends to go see my mom and stuff that's still up there, and my dad, and there were things that were there in the house, or there were things that you'd find in bait shops and things. You know what I mean, things that would be in the Mid-West. And I bought sacks and sacks, I mean, and we only used a couple of those things. Maybe they were humouring me, I don't know. (audience laughter). But there were lots of things that aren't...that are similar to what you'd have in Ontario, but I mean in Canada you're not gonna find screaming bald eagles as symbols of national identity for example. You know what I mean? A part of, you know, Indiana...
JM: The movie is very schematic also in the way that it looks, aside from the production design being very elaborate. There's that shot where you are, you're between... This is like the Tony Scott submarine thing, but instead of your face being blue and green you're standing between two doorways, as your character's sort of split identities, one leads to the kitchen and the other one leads to the stairs. And...
VM: Oh, I liked that, yeah, that was fun.
JM: And it looks like the shot has been composed of putting...
VM: And the daughter is coming down the stairs...and the son...don't you love the cereal dripping from his spoon? (audience laughter) That was my favourite thing about that scene. (audience laughter) I was laughing so hard.
JM: Was there a big emphasis on it, because there's a kind of symbolic way that the house is used after the sex scene on the stairs which we're going to discuss (audience laughter)...then she goes up the stairs and leaves you down in the kind of purgatory part of the stairs.
VM: One thing, visually, that was interesting, that he did very consciously, David and Peter Suschitzky, his cinematographer, which is something that...um...relates the movie in a way to certain kinds of westerns, I guess, is that he uses a particular lens. A pretty wide lens, you know, and he used that lens repeatedly, and the benefit of it was that, whether he was close to any of the characters or further away, as in that sort of tableau you just described in the house, you see everything. So there's a sense of realism that he achieves, you know, a sense of the audience as that...they're eavesdropping.
JM: It's very spooky, yes.
VM: Yeah. So when you're in a close-up, everything isn't blurry around you, you actually see the other things as well. It is a 27 mm lens that he uses, most of the way or a lot of the time, and I thought that was really effective. And, you know, I think that both David's work, and the cinematographer, also Howard Shore's work in this movie, scoring, it's very subtle. It's so simple, it works so well and so easily that I think a lot of people, including a lot of, you know, film buffs and critics even, take a certain amount for granted there, you know. And they will be swayed by something that's more, in terms of score, more bombastic or in terms of cinematography something with more flare, or directing something that is, you know what I mean, more obvious that it is the director doing his job.
JM: I think this film's gonna be picked over very closely by people, in the future, writing, you know, monographs about it.
VM: I think in film schools, I agree. I think it's one of those movies that will be studied for a long time, but in terms of in the moment now...really getting the credit he deserves for what he's done with this movie and other movies, I think it falls short. And you see movies that I don't think will be studied in film schools ten years from now getting more credit. But that's the way it always seems to be.
JM: Um, let's talk about sex on the stairs. (audience laughter) The movie, because it's schematic that way has a sort of peaceful guy sex scene with the cheerleader outfit and then it has the violent guy sex scene, during which you look like you took a terrible beating, especially if you had to do that over and over again. I wonder how blocked out all that was, or did you just...um...move anywhere you wanted.
VM: Well, I think Maria... You want some water? (audience laughter)
VM: Before we get into this? (giggle) I do. (laughter). No, I think Maria had...
JM: We're not even up to the blouse man yet. (audience laughter)
VM: ...she (laughing) she bore more of the brunt of that maybe, but we both did get banged up and bruised on it, but it wasn't a question of thinking "Oh, we're going to." We did sort of one loose rehearsal, and didn't take it to the end of the scene, just to get an idea of positions for the camera really, and realised "Wow, that hurts." (audience laughter) And then David actually called a stunt coordinator and said, "Listen, I know you're not called in today, but could we have some pads." He goes,"What are you doing? Why am I not there?" And he goes, "Well, it's a sex scene." He goes, "You need pads for that?" (audience laughter). You know he said it had never happened before, he had never heard of such a thing. But we didn't use them obviously, because you couldn't, and Maria's, you know, very game. I don't think she...it wasn't her idea, the pads, she was going for it. Which was a great help, honestly, I would have felt... It would have been a lot harder if someone had been less available, less giving, not just in that scene, but overall. Um. It was a question where...um...she had a lot of questions actually about how and what was going to be done and David basically said to her and to both of us, "You know this is a scene where you're not in control. This is a scene where this thing is just gonna happen. And let's just...let's do it." You know. I mean at that point we obviously knew where our characters were and it was written a certain way but it went much further, and I think that that's...that is a scene, that whole sequence from downstairs with the sheriff and then going to that, it's a microcosm really in a lot of ways of that relationship. It's kind of...you could make an argument for that sequence being the heart of the movie in a weird way, because at the centre of this story is this relationship between this man and this woman, and it's, you know, tearing apart at the seams at that point. And there have been only a couple of people I've heard say, including one critic, which I was surprised, he seems to be otherwise somewhat intelligent, (audience laughter) he called it a rape scene. I know his name, I'm not gonna say it, doesn't really matter, but I thought that was a real profound misunderstanding of what was going on in that scene. Which is a scene that, like any relationship in good times and bad, boring times or exciting times, there is always on some level a jockeying for position going on, a power struggle, and that scene was really about that, physically, mentally and emotionally. It was really...it was exhausting I think for all of us but it was exhilarating. It was...it really felt like we were finding things as we were doing it. I guess that's the short answer I should have given you. (laughing)
JM: Ahm, the movie...sorry I was... (audience laughter) Never mind.
VM: Did I get out of something?
JM: No, no. (audience laughter) The movie's based on a graphic novel that nobody has any use for...I mean you don't wanna talk about it and I've seen that you don't think that's very relevant, but it does have a little bit of the kind of broad strokes of a graphic novel.
JM: You can see the roots of it at least.
VM: Yeah. Yeah. There's a moment where you're..."This can't be real." (laughing)
JM: But you've also compared it to High Noon which I thought was very interesting, and you brought up Gary Cooper a number of times in talking about your own work.
VM: In other interviews I guess?
JM: You did it talking about Lord of the Rings also and I wonder if he is a big influence on you some way.
VM: I don't know that he is...um...I don't remember talking about that with regard to Lord of the Rings, but I did press for three years straight so...
JM: Listen, it's out there...
VM: I probably said everything about Lord of the Rings (audience laughter) and some of it may have been true. (audience laughter) Um...but I did think, well, in terms of History of Violence, it was, among other things, not necessarily Gary Cooper as an actor or necessarily his character so much but the way the movie was made, the feel of the movie, and also the place of that movie in the time it came out in the mid-fifties, and the place of History of Violence in the time that it comes out now. Both are very reactionary times in the United States and times where people are kind of...that's changing a bit now with, you know, the lower approval ratings of the government and all that...but people have been for the last, you know, since 2001 September 11, have certainly been afraid to speak their minds as much as they had before, about just things that they took for granted that they could just talk in a free society about. And that was certainly the way it was in the fifties. Also on a certain...there were certain subjects that were taboo and all that. And that I thought that both movies on the surface feel somewhat conventional, certainly in the beginning of History of Violence there are certain themes, there are certain archetypes it seems, you know, like the one of Gary Cooper's, that you're familiar with, so you ease into this movie, you know, with the few like horrifying bloody things and then, but it's still kind of conventional. And both movies I think in the time that they come out are pretty subversive, you know, in terms of what they're about, in terms of the way they're shot. They're deceptively simple looking, but consciously showing certain things, you know, in terms of time or in terms of identity. In terms of a lot of things that we sort of take for granted on the surface about relationships between people and how society works or doesn't, all that. That's I guess what I was...I was talking more about the movies themselves I think. Although you may...I'm sure you found something...
JM: I don't mind, go on.
VM: Okay. About Gary Cooper.
JM: Um...one tiny more thing about History of Violence. The family in the graphic novel is called McKenna, and in the book [sic] the name is changed to Stall. Where did that come from?
VM: That's David. He has sort of...he really, I think, takes a lot of pleasure if you look at his movies, in giving unusual names. Sometimes there's little riddles involved I think, in other times it's just something that works...and that may be subconsciously he was doing something. I mean, I don't know if he was thinking about it at all. I mean, I don't like to, after the fact like now, we talk about it...it doesn't help me do the job, to figure out "Why Stall?", other than, well, kind of "What was he thinking?", you know. And, you know, and I think he was being really honest when he says it was available, you know. (audience laughter) But I think the idea of Stall meaning someone who is stalled, who is...someone who is...thinks he is, made something happen but really is caught in between two worlds, is appropriate. I don't know if David...I wouldn't be surprised if he was thinking of that, I didn't ask him about it.
JM: I'm so glad I saw it twice cause it really changes the second time when you can see how detailed all of this is.
VM: In the beginning you see lots of things don't you? There's little tiny looks.
Interview at C.U.N.Y. 1.6.06.
© cityladynyc. Used by permission.
JM: Now, the blouse man. Um...(audience laughter) Just one...now who is that? Soon at a certain point you are all gonna get to ask questions with this microphone, so I'll just cover this part very quickly, but...you also are on the record as saying you didn't wanna do that because you were worried that the character wasn't complicated enough.
VM: Did I say that?
JM: Yeah. (laughing) You did.
VM: I really should give much shorter answers. (audience laughing) The accumulations get me in trouble.
JM: You can take it back right now or fix it.
VM: It wasn't complicated enough? On paper?
VM: Um...I suppose I probably think that about every character in some way and part of that is that fear that sets in as soon as you say yes, you know. How am I gonna do this now? I'm glad you think I can do it but I have to believe that I can do it, you know.
JM: So what did you do to complicate that?
VM: Well, it's not so much to complicate it, it's just to be, whether you wanna call it contrary or perverse or just curious...um... yeah, a character like that why...why does he act the way he does? And where does he live? And things like that, became...actually there and I brought loads and loads of stuff on the set (laughing) and created, I mean, a lot of what's in the bedroom, that... You know, I don't know whether that's scene in there where I go and we have a conversation in my childhood bedroom? Yeah, that was a longer scene, and you saw more of it but I think it sort of...maybe for the audience but definitely for Diane Lane's character, it's seeing that this man lives in his childhood room and his childhood room is full of all his little boy things is very telling, you know. Um...and the fact he lives with his mom. And actually there was a scene with my mom...when she comes to the house.
JM: Your actual mom, or...?
VM: Oh yeah, not my mom, but in the movie. (audience laughter) When she comes to the...what show are we watching? They got these rights to a show from the sixties. We were watching a TV show, it wasn't Gilligan's Island, it may have been a cartoon. We're sitting on the couch and we're eating pie and having like a coffee and cake or hot cider, I don't know what...we're sitting on this couch, and I'm sitting with my mom watching cartoons and eating cake and she comes in and I go to the door "Oh how you doing?" And she looks in and it's, like I'm acting all of a sudden like this, instead of being this guiding, very mature, you know, man, that's have been helping her think through some things maybe or whatever. Um...she comes to the door and it's kind of like a teenager, and she's out there...and she looks and then she say's "Hi!" and I go "Just go upstairs". Up to the room. It's like teenagers, you know, you don't want the parents...you know. And in fact..."What is going on?" And that was interesting. Does this have anything to do with your question?
JM: It does. (audience laughter) Well, it does, because the character could have been very - not dislikeable, but...there could have been something sort of sad about him...
VM: Ah, that he's just looking and seeing an opportunity and taking advantage of her...
JM: Yeah and basically he does not a great thing...um...in the larger scheme of the film. But the way you did it...it was very nice, (laughing) and it was a good thing that you did.
VM: Well, I mean, we were complicit, in fact we worked...I really enjoyed working with Diane Lane. I think she is a really good actress and that was one of the best experiences I ever had in terms of working...um...with another actor. We really came up with a lot of those things, there was...there was, there were...there was a scene I think, that also was not there where...which was emotionally kind of a tough scene, where certain things...where she's saying "No, listen, how is this gonna work? We can't, we have to talk about," you know, that kind of scene. And that was really...she was incredible in that scene. And, but, yeah, I agree if it had been done - just like I was saying about A History of Violence - if there hadn't been Tony Goldwyn and someone else had said "No, we just need this guy to be the hippie, and he does this thing." It would have been not so interesting. And likewise, if, you know, Liev Schreiber's character...I think it was important that you see more than just one side to him. He should't just be some guy who is not paying attention or is this geeky guy. There should be a lot of layers to any character.
JM: Do you know it's almost impossible to type his name on a computer? Liev Schreiber? I know because when I used to review I would type it in and it would fix the spelling problem for me. It would come out to Live Schreiber. However... (audience giggles)
VM: Mmh. Yeah. That was an enjoyable movie that.
JM: Ahem. If you had to pick a film of yours...and you do right now it, that would be most like you would do if you were directing...um...probably wouldn't be in terms of Crimson Tide...
VM: In terms of the process?
JM: No, no. Just, I mean, you do so many other things but you haven't directed a film yet and, like,maybe sooner or later you're gonna do it, but I wonder if maybe Sean Penn is more like what you would envision for yourself or maybe a three hour thing...nine hour thing about hobbits, I don't know.
VM: Um...well, I don't know, it just depends on...there's a lot of good stories out there and you can certainly come up with lots of good stories, you know. So I don't know that there is a type of movie necessarily that I would wanna do. It probably wouldn't necessarily have a lot of...um...special effects. I like personally as an actor working with a person that I'm in a scene with rather than imagining it all, although that's interesting to learn. But as far as a directing style, a way of preparing a story and telling it, and that is a director who's directed all different kinds of stories. Um...from my experience of...I don't know how many movies, there's 30 odd movies probably, 30 odd directors, maybe including TV probably 40...I would say David Cronenberg without question is the best director in terms of story telling, directing actors...um...working with a crew, and, you know, having...not taking himself too seriously. So if I...if I ever did direct and I could do it the way he does it, that would be...that would be the ideal.
JM: Um...don't you want to?
VM: Um...I've thought about it and I've had a couple inquiries about doing it and I may, you know, but I wouldn't wanna, you know, as an actor I'm able to run...sometimes a little bit frantically but...you know, a publishing house. I prepare shows like the one I'm gonna have in a couple of weeks, as an artist, do lots of things, but I think when you're directing a movie it's so...it should or it ought to be so all encompassing the challenge, that you really don't...you're not able to do anything else.
VM: And you know my son is in his last year of high school and, you know, that's important too, to be there for that and you can't really, as a director. Unless you're like David and you direct your movies in your home town and go home at night, but...um...
JM: Do you have a good sense of how the business works...um...in case you ever needed to...
VM: ...to do it?
VM: No, I could. And obviously my interest in imagery as well as story telling and the fact that I actually like actors - there's a lot of directors that I don't think do, no matter what they say (audience laughter). They don't show it anyway. They don't show an interest in learning about the process no matter how much opportunity they get, and it's unfortunate cause in the end they are the ones that suffer because the movie isn't as good as it...as it could be. Um...I am interested in the, you know, the right things I suppose (laughing) in terms of, yeah, directing, ahem, I guess the ingredients, you could say, are there, but I would want to do something, I wouldn't do it just to do it, if someone said, "I'm going to let you direct this", and if it wasn't a story I really cared about. I can see that it takes a long time to prepare it, to shoot it, to put it together and then to sell it. It's years you know, and I'd only do it if it was the right thing and I had the time to do it right, so... But I may, I may.
Interview at C.U.N.Y. 1.6.06.
© Viggo's Knight. Used by permission.
JM: Do you think your career line would have...well you don't probably know this...would have taken a different turn if you had not suddenly at the last minute been told to go to New Zealand or invited to go to New Zealand and step into Lord of the Rings and have this gigantic thing on your resumee?
VM: Oh, I don't know what else, you know, I mean, I suppose I would have found another job instead but...um...there's a good chance that I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now, frankly. I mean, because, yes, we're here, we're having a conversation, and, you know, and you're here to listen, but some of that has to do with that, with that phone call.
JM: There would not be a likeness of you in chocolate on the set of the Steven Colbert Report (audience laughter) if you hadn't done that.
VM: Yeah, I wouldn't have gotten to do A History of Violence even if David had thought I was right...um...the studio...
JM: Is that really true?
VM: Well sure, yeah. I mean, if you're not...or the Spanish movie I did, Captain Alatriste, which is the biggest budget that they've ever had in Spain, and to play a main actor in that they have to be able to sell it, you know, or...um...Hidalgo. I mean, those movies...um...sometimes you get lucky, you know. I think that with say Walk on the Moon...um...that was a case where I know that Diane Lane was...was supportive of me getting the part, and I know Tony Goldwyn liked the idea and, but it wasn't a given, you know. Not that History of Violence was a given but should the director want me to do it the studio had nothing against it because of the success of Lord of the Rings. So, yeah, it would have been different and I don't know what I would have been doing.
JM: Were you ever in any danger after The Lord of the Rings of having that be "the big thing", everybody, anyone seeing you on the street..."Oh, it's Aragorn"?
VM: Um...well, I've been asked that question quite a few times by journalists, and other people too...
VM: Are you worried that it's gonna be...um... (laughs) ...journalists. Journalists are people too...um... (laughter)
JM: It's the New York Times Arts and Leisure run by the New York Times.
VM: You know, and even that during...after the first one came out then already when the Two Towers was coming out that was one of the questions running, "Aren't you worried that all people are gonna think of you as this, you know, Strider or Aragorn or any of the many names of that character?" (audience laughter) Um, and I said, "No, I don't really think about it that much." And you know, if that's what happens there's not much I can do about it. You know, people...I think people have too much confidence in what they can do to sculpt their own image, you know, some people are more successful at it for a time than others but, you know, the truth will out and people have their own opinions about things and, whatever. So if that's what's gonna happen, that's what's gonna happen. But I haven't chosen roles since then with that in mind, to try to get away from it,um...
JM: No, what I was trying to get at is that you're extraordinarily lucky that along came History of Violence...
VM: Yeah. Which is such a good movie.
JM: ...which is such a good movie that it, it keeps...will keep that from happening.
VM: Yeah, well, good. (laughing)
JM: Since you mentioned journalists...um...I, most of...many, many of the interviews you, you've done, are with lady journalists, um...who always like you a lot, (audience laughter) and there's one...um...a lot of times you take your shoes off, or that's in California. And, there's one who starts the story...um...you're on the beach, it's sun set, it's beautiful out..errr...
JM: ...so you take her out for a margarita, anyway, um...do you get along particularily well...
VM: Is that really unprofessional?
JM: No! Work's great!
VM: Since I have you here, I think...
VM: It's just something that happened, you know.
JM: There's another one who writes that you, and this really is a very kind thing that you did, you spoke to her right before September 11and she lived in New York, and then after that happened you called her up and asked her if she was alright and said you felt badly for having talked about just ordinary things and would have might...something...
VM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think actually our interview was probably on the 10th or something. I forgot about that. Yeah.
JM: Anyway, are you aware of the fact that you often just charm them in ways that turn up on the page? That's...
VM: Am I doing that on purpose? (audience laughter) Um...in general whether it's with men or with women I would rather get along with people...um...like most people...
JM: Well, there's getting along and there's getting along...
VM: Well unless you are totally, sincerely are, you know, nihilist or something...um...I think that most of us would rather people get along and actually like us than not. I would rather as an actor that people like my work than not...um...but then again I don't do my work thinking, "How are they gonna look at this scene?", you know. Nor do I do the interviews that way. If it's going well and we're getting along it makes it easier to talk. Sometimes I regret that, you know, that familiarity. Sometimes later I read and go: "Oh, I was too forthcoming with my answers", you know, and...um...but what are you gonna do?
JM: When you...when you go back, if you do look at those...any kind of profiles of you, they are all done in a kind of standard way, it always starts with, in the present tense: "Viggo Mortensen is sitting in a restaurant waiting for a cheque to come" or whatever. It's...it's you in the moment, it begins with an image like that and then it kind of...if it were film it would pull back to give a wider picture of who you are and what you're doing. I wonder if you've ever noticed the incredible repetitiveness of how those stories work, really?
VM: Well I don't think I've read as many of them as you have, (audience laughter) which is...I mean, I understand, you're doing research and like that, um...so, I don't know.
JM: Yeah. (laughing) Let me tell you they're all the same.
JM: Let's have, it's...I think...
VM: So should I do them all on the phone from now on? (audience laughter)
JM: No...um...in person is good.
Last edited: 10 March 2007 13:45:21
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