Interviews 2008

Viggo Mortensen Talks "Appaloosa"

Source: Premiere

Viggo Mortensen describes why he was apprehensive about starring in a Western, visiting concentration camps to prepare for Good, and the intensity of filming The Road.

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© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
As journalists and publicists scurry from one appointment to the next during the Toronto Film Festival, the last sight one would expect to see is one of Hollywood's highest paid actors seated in a corner of the lobby of Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel at a grand piano, playing a slow, beautiful ballad. The pianist is Viggo Mortensen. On second thought, perhaps the scene is not that surprising. The striking actor is something of a Hollywood renegade who, in his own quiet and determined way, pursues interests in other realms like poetry, music, and painting. Mortensen even founded a small publishing company, Perceval Press. Watching him this morning, he seems oblivious of his surroundings. No one has noticed the impromptu concert in their midst; Mortensen is playing only for himself.

Perhaps best known for his roles as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Tom Stall in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, and Nikolai Luzhin in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, the Oscar-nominated actor is careful about the parts he chooses. As he is eclectic in his love of the arts, so is he eclectic in his choice of movie roles, as his three upcoming roles prove. Mortensen stars in Appaloosa, a Western with Ed Harris and Renée Zellweger, which opens September 19th in limited release. In December, he'll appear in Good, a World War II thriller about the moral struggles of a "good" man who becomes embroiled in German Nationalism and a gradual breakdown of his ethics. Mortensen's most hotly anticipated role is The Man in The Road, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. As a survivor of a nuclear disaster, he must navigate his young son to safety through a grey, ravaged landscape. The Road opens in November.

In Appaloosa, Mortensen plays peacekeeper Everett Hitch who, with his partner Virgil Cole (Ed Harris), is brought to the small New Mexico town to establish law and order after the marshal there is killed. Everett and Virgil have been friends for years, and their bond is their mutual respect for each other and the fact that they keep each other alive. Their nemesis is Randall Bragg, played by Jeremy Irons, a ruthless rancher who has taken control of the towns with help from his henchmen. Ed Harris -- who co-wrote the screenplay, directed, and produced Appaloosa -- approached Mortensen while they were doing press for A History of Violence at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. Harris presented him with a copy of the novel by Robert B. Parker on which the screenplay was based, but the idea of doing a Western initially filled Mortensen with trepidation.

"I like Westerns, and I have some old favorites," he says, "But generally speaking, most Westerns, ninety-nine percent of them are horrible... They are not very well acted or terribly interesting. They are not works of art -- to me. But the ones that are good are really good. And this one had the makings of a very good Western, I thought. It was easy. I had a great time working with Ed on A History of Violence. I had admired his work as an actor for a long time, and I knew he was a good director from Pollock and a good writer. So it was pretty easy. The hard part was for Ed to try and get the money together, and pull all the elements together, which he managed to do. And he didn't lose his mind shooting it, wearing so many hats."

The Western, he notes, has a universal appeal. "There are film buffs and story buffs who like the apparent simplicity. Although in a movie like this you can see that, yes, there is silence and there's an easy pace at times punctuated by dramatic tension, but in that silence, if it is well acted, and it is a good Western, which I think this is, then that silence is full of complicated things and a lot of subtext. I think, though, that the main reason that the Western became so popular in the world [is]... because it is universal: you can see it in European cop movies or New Zealand or Australian movies which have their own Westerns or takes on it. I think it is because at the birth of moviemaking, at least in North America, the Western was the biggest thing, and it was the biggest thing for decades. They made not hundreds but thousands of them. There were serials. You could see them every Saturday and you could see a couple more. And they were pretty much all badly made because they were made in a hurry. But every once in awhile there would be a great one. Then you had John Ford come along, and [then] Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, and, later on, Sam Peckinpah, and now Clint Eastwood and Ed Harris. This movie, I think, fits in with that tradition, with the ones that are art."

A dusty, lawless town where the only hope to restore order is a mysterious outsider who confronts the bullying overlord is the stuff of Western legends. In Appaloosa, Virgil is granted complete power, makes himself sheriff, and appoints Everett his deputy. Just as peace seems to be taking root, a provocative woman with unconventional ways and a dubious history arrives in town to upset the applecart; the partnership between Mortensen's character and Ed Harris' is threatened when Virgil falls for Allison French (Renée Zellweger). "When Renée's character comes into town," says Mortensen, "one of the things that is unsettling and is really interesting [is] it changes the dynamic between us, even in that Allison French is not so interested in the boundaries. She comes out and says things that are in way startling and off-putting to Virgil, but there is part of him that kind of likes it. Her spiritedness, her behavior isn't our behavior."

Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
In the film adaptation of the play Good, Mortensen's John Halder is a literature professor who is essentially a "good" man struggling with the pressures of keeping his job and providing for a family that demands much of his time, especially his senile mother. When he writes a novel that advocates compassionate euthanasia, the Nazi regime appropriates it for their propaganda campaign in support of so-called mercy killings. He's conflicted, but when he starts getting perks like a promotion, more money, and a mistress as a result of his new status in the Nazi government, he finds himself on a path of no return. Production initially began in Germany, but after financing fell through, the film's shoot was moved to Budapest, Hungary. For Mortensen, travel and the opportunity to discover the character on location has been a great benefit, and one of the reasons, he says, he remains enthralled with acting.

"It is always different when you go to a place where you are going to be [a character]. For example, I did a movie called Alatriste about 17th Century Spain, and visually, intentionally, the colors, the lighting, the way it was photographed, it looks like a Velasquez painting. And in fact, they are a character in the movie, almost. And I had seen Velazquez paintings in the Prado Museum in Madrid before, I had seen them many times, but it was very different to go there and look at them and look for myself, the character I was going to play. And I found myself, and I found others in the story... It is a very different thing."

For Good, he returned some of the locations that his character John Halder would have visited. "I had been to a couple of concentration camps before, and I had been to Germany before. And I had Mahler perform before live, but when I went to Berlin and to Munich and to Warsaw, and I went to Auschwitz and to Treblinka and to Dachau and so forth, this time I walked around by the river and in the park in Munich and where I had been before, thinking of myself walking around there in the 1930s, thinking of John Halder, listening to that music by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It is different. And going to Auschwitz or Birkenau and thinking about my friend Maurice [in Good] or myself, there is a different immediacy and usefulness and application. That is part of what I like. As much as there are a lot of annoying satellite things to it, the hype and the business side of it that can be really annoying and draining sometimes. But the storytelling aspect and what you get out of it... Like in Dr. Seuss: The Places You Will Go! The places you will or can go in your mind in this line of work is still why I am doing it."

For much of The Road, the place where Mortensen and his co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee went was Pennsylvania in order to capture the bleak cold of the ash-covered landscape that the two must travel through in order to survive. "The great fortune we all had, and I think audiences who liked the book that Cormac McCarthy wrote, is that in The Road The Boy is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and he is unbelievable. He is such a fine actor. I haven't seen the movie, but I know because I was close as anyone to him, and we became friends and are friends. It was devastating and so beautiful and not a false note -- what I saw him do. I don't think they can ruin that in the editing, whatever they do. Also, even though she came in at the very end, Charlize Theron [as Wife] was amazingly intense. She came into something midstream -- or at the end of it -- as we are about to go out into the sea and the movie is soon to be over with, and she pushed it up another notch. And I didn't think that was possible because it had been so intense and emotionally draining. And she came in and just brought whole another [level]. It was incredible what she did."

Having mentioned that I am reading the book, he inquires where I am in the novel. I admit that I am on page 75 so not that far into it. "It gets worse and worse. Or better and better," he smiles wryly, "depending on what you are referring to."
Last edited: 22 September 2008 09:05:29
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