Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
Viggo Mortensen is a kind, engaging, soft-spoken man, but he sure is a talker. The Oscar-nominated actor can take the simplest question and speak for several minutes on the nature of man - whether that was part of the question or not.
Of course, this isn't actually a bad thing, especially since human nature is such a central theme The Road, Mortensen's new post-apocalyptic drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. Mortensen plays a man trying to get his son to the coast and, along the way, teaches the boy about survival and morality in a world seemingly barren of both civilization and compassion.
"When you take everything away, what's life about?" Mortensen ponders during one of his many tangents. "Do you just live to survive and kill if you have to and take care of your own and that's it? Or is there something more - being a good guy? Carrying the fire? If you don't examine that idea of what it is to be human, you can't confidently say at the end of the movie, 'I know what that means.'"
But Mortensen isn't all humourless rhetoric; the 50-year-old lights up when interacting with Kodi Smit-McPhee, the 13-year-old Australian who plays his son in the film. The two are constantly kidding with each other and jokingly insulting one another.
"This morning, someone asked him, 'Kodi, what was it like to work with Viggo?'" Mortensen recalls, giving Smit-McPhee the stink eye. "And he says, 'The first thing you have to understand is: he sucks.'"
Smit-McPhee just grins back, making Mortensen laugh.
The young actor is consistently upbeat and mischievous in real life; it's difficult to believe this is the same heartbreaking boy from The Road. It seems as though it must have been so difficult for such a happy child to go to such a dark place for the movie; The Road, certainly, has to be the hardest movie Smit-McPhee will ever do.
"I don't know because I haven't done that many [films]," he replies with an easy smirk. "I'll tell you in 20 years."
The father-son dynamic between him and Mortensen is palpable even now, two years after the film was shot; Mortensen will frequently redirect reporters' questions to his on-screen progeny and encourage him to offer his thoughts on The Road. It's clear Mortensen not only cares a lot for Smit-McPhee but is genuinely impressed by him.
"He taught me everything on the shoot, or at least reminded me of certain ways of being professional and committing. I guess he sort of solidified my commitment," Mortensen remembers. "I said to [director] John Hillcoat, 'If we don't find a genius to play the boy, you're not going to get what you got in the book, where the boy breaks your heart.' I said, 'We need to find a genius.'"
"And you didn't," quips Smit-McPhee.
"Yeah, you sucked. Thank goodness for special effects, makeup and voice-dubbing," he says, rolling his eyes. "There was something about Kodi, though. He had a certain wisdom. He translated an experience that was right somehow. I was really glad they chose [him]."
Joking aside, however, Mortensen does most - and we do mean most - of the talking. But only when it comes to The Road; personal questions are met with hesitation and discomfort. When he makes an off-hand remark about once getting lost in the woods, Mortensen immediately regrets it because it brings on a barrage of questions about the experience.
"I got lucky," he eventually answers. "Winter came kind of suddenly and I was not dressed as warmly as I should and I probably shouldn't have been hiking in that area that late in the year. That's why I say I was lucky because I probably didn't deserve to get through it that easily. But that's what our story's about."
And, just like that, Mortensen is back to what he wants to talk about: the underlying themes of The Road.
"I'm an optimist. I think people are resourceful. I'd like to think that I would take the approach that when you're really up against it, you'd make the right choice, even if it's not the easy one," he says. "The most important thing about life is life itself, and that's what this movie gets down to."