Interviews 2009

Viggo Mortensen Travels The Road

Source: IESB

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Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Faithfully adapted from Cormac McCarthy's beloved, best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road is a poignant tale of humanity and survival. The post-apocalyptic story of a father (Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) shows the danger they avert at every turn, as they journey across America to reach the coast.

The Road presents the audience with a world that is a shell of its former glory. Gone is the social structure, along with the order and beauty of the world. In this new reality, the whole mission of the father is to journey to the coast, in hopes of finding safety and warmth. But, the journey isn't easy, as they come across all sorts of desperate people along the way.

At the film's press day, actor Viggo Mortensen talked about preparing for this challenging love story between a father and his son.

How did you mentally prepare for this kind of role?

Viggo: I tried to do things that I thought would be helpful, like listening to certain kinds of music, watching certain kinds of movies and keeping in mind what I thought they were headed for, visually. I read certain things and leaned on certain things that might be helpful or get me in a certain state, where I could go to those places that the character demanded emotionally. I always do that, to some degree. But really, in the end, there wasn't anything I could do.

It was very different from any other role, in that sense, how much I had to just throw away. Really, it's about being naked emotionally and just being honest about it, in subtle ways and in ways that were more obvious. It had to be very real and organic, which was the most daunting thing. It wasn't so much the physical journey, but what I would have to expose.

I was like, "I'm going to need some help, especially from the boy. I hope they find a great boy." I read with the last four, and Kodi [Smit-McPhee] was the last one. There was something about him. He understood the story in a way that the other kids didn't, and there was something in his eyes. He's a joyful, well-adjusted kid, but there was something in his eyes when he was playing the scenes, even in the audition, that was sad and knowing. I thought, "Wow, this could work." I was really worried. I was like, "If we don't have a great kid, it doesn't matter what I do."

Did you really watch homeless people?

Viggo: I'm always aware of them. I travel a lot. I did actually speak to them, just to ask them how they got that way and how they felt about it. Not all of them wanted to talk, which was fine. Very rarely, but some were living that way by choice. Usually, it was because they had lost their job and for some it was drugs, but for most people it was just financial hardship. There was nothing else they could do.

I asked how they felt about it, how they kept alive, what things they were worried about. It's like us. They have to figure out where they're going to sleep, where somebody can't do them harm and steal their stuff.

Did they know who you were?

Viggo: I don't think any of them did.

Were you a hands-on dad, when your son was that age?

Viggo: Yeah, always.

Did you go back in your head to that age at all?

Viggo: Initially, when I started to do the movie, I thought about my son quite a bit, and that transition that he also made in his pre-adolescence, way before adolescence. He reminded me of Kodi a lot, and the character in the movie, in that he was wise beyond his years. That transition that you see in the story, where the kid is calling the dad on his strength and the things he'd been teaching the son, and I remembered that phase and how, sometimes, I didn't like it, but eventually accepted it when he was right.

That's something that's universal. Any parent that has a relatively consistent relationship with their kids, no matter how good or bad it is, there is a point in pre-adolescence or adolescence where they suddenly look at their dad or mom, or both parents, and realize that they're not gods, and they rip them sometimes. It's such a shock. You want your dad to be that, and then, when they're not, it can be massively disappointing, but it's natural that that happens.

Sometimes even really good kids can be really brutal about tearing that adult off the pedestal that they had thought they were on, and it can be hard to take, as an adult. But, you have to just find a way to take it, eventually. I remember being that way toward my dad. And then, as you get older, you start to realize, "Well, I'm not a god either," but that takes awhile. If you're tearing someone off a pedestal, it means you're putting yourself above them, in some way, but you don't realize it. It's instinctive to do. I think that's handled really well, in the story.

What was it like to work with Kodi? Were you very protective of him, during this process?

Viggo: They were hard scenes, emotionally. As much as he didn't like it and I didn't like it, the fact that it was so cold, and we were wet and tired all the time, it actually helped. The cold was particularly hard for him because he's from Southern Australia, not that you would know it from listening to him in the movie, and he'd never seen snow. The first day, it was snowing and it was very cold, and he couldn't believe how cold it was. It wore him out very quickly, and it pushed his emotions and mine closer to the surface. It made me more protective of him. I was trying to get him through the day, and then the next day. It was like the story.

Let's say it had been not a relatively low-budget movie, and it had been shot with green screen and a lot of post, it just wouldn't have been the same. Yes, he's a really good actor, and together we would have made it seem like we were cold, but it just wouldn't have been the same because it forced us to places, emotionally. It actually helped me, also. There were times where I was just too tired and annoyed and kind of depressed, and that did help. After I realized, "Okay, we can do this. This boy is great, and we can do this together," the emotional thing was still hard, but I could see that it could work.

And then, you can't put something in there that isn't in the story, just to distract people. You can, but then it's not done the right way. A concern that I had, initially, was, "How does it keep from being flat? Enough with the suffering already." But, you trust the story and there's so many things that are learned along the way, in the interactions with other people, the environment and each other. You just have to trust what Cormac McCarthy wrote. Because the script was a very faithful adaptation, you just had to trust that book and that story. There are inherently dramatic situations and emotions. When the overall predicament is stripped away, what do you do? How do you behave? How do you treat others? Do you even care anymore about being alive? Do you know why you want to stay alive? Do you find out a reason to stay alive, by the end? I think, yes, you do. And, that was interesting.

How was it to jump in the ocean?

Viggo: It was very cold. I asked for another take, but they were terrified. They didn't want me to. They had ambulances. The water was 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was just really blowing. The air temperature was the same, but because there was howling wind, I was practically frozen. I think the air was probably freezing. It was so extreme. They had an ambulance and they had all these heaters on, and I just sat in there with a bathrobe and said, "Just tell me when you're rolling. I'm just going to run out and go."

So there wasn't a lot of acting for you in this film then?

Viggo: No, it was a chamber of horrors. But, I was on the journey together with Kodi.

After living in this post-apocalyptic world, how has it made you appreciate your life? Do you worry about that happening?

Viggo: Yeah, sure, I do. Even though it's not explained, because it isn't in the book, it does make you think about it. Because you believe the emotional journey and you visually believe the landscape, you believe it's real. We shot in real places that had been devastated by nature and by man. Of course, you're going to think about it. The landscape, and the relationship and what I felt in telling the story with Kodi, made me think more about my son and my family, and just about how fleeting life is and that it is worth making that effort to see more or learn more, and to appreciate it.

It's a very simple idea. No matter what the excuse to not be kind, it's always better to be kind. That's simple, but if you make this journey honestly, as a spectator or as filmmakers, you earn the right to come to that simple conclusion and you understand it in a profound way. It really is best to be nice, always. That did make me appreciate things.

Somehow the ending that we earn is strangely uplifting, and that's exactly how I felt, in telling this story and watching it. Even though I know the movie, backwards and forwards, having shot it, when I saw it the first time, it still affected me so viscerally that I needed to see it again because I wanted to then see the construction and the little subtleties of behavior. When you first finish seeing it, you say, "Well, I don't think I can watch that again." But, after a couple of days, it stays with you and you want to see certain things again.

Why did it take you some time to read the script? Did you have any hesitation about doing the project?

Viggo: It didn't take me that long, but it did take me a few days because I was traveling. I was promoting movies and I was shooting another one. I was pretty busy. But, the moment I read it, I went out the same day and bought the book, which I hadn't read, even though I'd read all of McCarthy's other books. As usual, it had a great landscape. It had a very evocative description of landscape, interior life of the character and it was a very faithful adaptation.

I was reluctant, and maybe that's what (director) John Hillcoat is referring to. I initially said, "I don't think so." I said to my agent, "I'm really worn out. I won't be focused." And then, I looked at the story and thought, "Being worn out works." But, not so much, really. It does and it doesn't. It's hard to focus when you're tired, obviously, and you need to really find a way to be very relaxed, any time I want to do a good job as an actor, but particularly with something like this where you have to really be honest, emotionally. You can't manipulate it, bring some research to bear on it, or force anything. You have to really be honest about how you feel.

It was a different challenge than I've ever had, as an actor. And, because it was so difficult, for both of us, at the end, Kodi and I have not only remained really close friends, but there was a sense of satisfaction of having gotten through it, somehow. And then, if the movie turns out well, fine, but the actual experience was intense.

What did you draw from talking to Cormac McCarthy?

Viggo: I just talked to him one long time before shooting, on the phone. We had a relatively long conversation. He just talked about his kid and my kid, and being dads. I had tons of notes ready to ask him about and a pen, and I was ready to really pick his brain. At the end of the conversation, he asked me, "Well, do you have any specifics about the book?" He hadn't read the script and he didn't want to read the script, which was unusual for a writer. He just said, "It's a different medium. You guys do your thing. But, if you want to talk about the book, is there anything you want to ask? Do you have any questions?"

I looked and I had 50,000 post-it notes in the book, and not one but two pens, in case it ran out of ink. I was ready. And I said, "No, I don't, really," 'cause I realized that conversation we had was all I needed to get going. There was something universal about this adult and this child that anybody can understand. I think that's why this book has had such a reach, more than any other, even No Country For Old Men, with its Oscar success. Because this book is so heartfelt and so free of any gimmickry, it just transcends cultures and languages.

It's a very successful book, and a lot of people around the world are looking forward to seeing the movie, which makes me hopeful, even though it's a daunting, difficult film. It needs to be handled well, in how they release it. But, I do think it does have a built-in audience of people who are anxious to see what was done with their beloved book.

With all of the talk of Oscar nominations for this film, what does that mean to you?

Viggo: It's not an easy thing. If you see it, then you're there. Being described, you're like, "I don't know if I want to see that." But, once you see it, I find that people tend to say, "No, you've gotta see it." So, it's very much a word-of-mouth movie, and there's no better word-of-mouth than reading in the newspaper, "Nominated for Best Picture, or Best Director, or Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor." It would help this movie get seen, I know that. It helps any movie, but especially a movie like this. So, that's great.

As far as the likelihood or not, of that happening, I don't know. I was sure that David Cronenberg would be nominated for Best Director for A History of Violence and it would be nominated for Best Picture, but it didn't get that for anyone. So, you never know. And then, with Eastern Promises, I ended up being nominated for every ceremony. I was like, "Well, how did that happen?" I don't know how they make those choices, but I know that, with a movie like this, it would be really helpful.

How are your own survival skills?

Viggo: Not bad. I go camping a lot.

Would you do okay in this scenario?

Viggo: I don't know. I don't know if I would have the courage to keep going, when it looked impossible. I'd like to think I would. I'm actually better with a gun than he is, and more comfortable. He's not necessarily. He's learned to be, and it was important that it seemed that way. If it's just an action guy, it's not the same thing as it being a difficult thing. He's constantly reminding himself and the kid of what to do. But, I like the outdoors and camping.

Can you talk about working with Charlize Theron?

Viggo: What I think about her, and I commend her for, and the director of course, is that the way she played the character, somehow I cared more about her character [in the film than I did in the book]. And, it wasn't expanded. It's the same character from the book. But, when you read the book, and I've read it several times, it's easy to dismiss her and say, "She's weak. She's wrong." And, yeah, he remembers her. He's constantly tormented, remembering her. He can't sleep, thinking about her. Well, of course, it's his wife. But, in the movie, you not only understand her point of view, and it seems legitimate, it's probably more reasonable than mine. When she says, "How are you going to survive? Why? I don't want to just survive," he's like, "I don't know." I learn why -- love, kindness and all that stuff -- by the end, but I don't know how.

I do come to accept, in the end, that you can't know what tomorrow's going to bring, which is cool. Most movies don't do that, in an honest way. You don't get that. And, I thought you got that from her. Her point of view was valid. We agreed to disagree. There was a respect there. And, you could see the affection between them. You understand why she was so sorely missed and why that is the burden that he carries. It's not just this world that's gone. It's her that he's thinking about, all the time, and trying to keep that from his son. He says, "You've got to stop thinking about her. We both do." The kid says, "How do we do that?," and he doesn't have an answer for that. He tries, but he never really does, which is beautiful. He might throw her picture away, but he can't quite put her ring away.

And then, in the end, he comes to accept the fact that it's okay not to let go, if it's in a certain way. That's really well done, in the movie. Those are the sorts of things that McCarthy takes pages to do, beautifully, but how do you do that in a movie? That's why a lot of people said, "It can't be done. You can't make an engaging, entertaining, beautiful, poetic story as a movie from this book. It can't be done." They were wrong.
Last edited: 10 November 2009 14:31:24