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Viggo Mortensen isn't your average Hollywood leading man. He speaks no fewer than five languages, writes poetry, paints, plays music and was once a truck driver in Denmark. And since his star-making turn as the heroic Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - a role which he would have turned down had his son not begged him to do it - he's pretty much steered clear of Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, he's opted to tackle grittier fare such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the latter of which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination and hordes of female fans, thanks in part to a savage all-nude knife fight that's become the stuff of movie legend.
Incidentally, Mortensen is also the kind of guy who'd rather do a post-apocalyptic epic on a shoestring budget with an indie director like John Hillcoat than do a $200-million-budgeted special-effects extravaganza with Roland Emmerich (no offense to Emmerich, whose films seem to do pretty well regardless of who's in them). Hence, this Thanksgiving, moviegoers won't see Viggo in 2012, but rather in the haunting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, in select theaters Nov. 25.
Light on the one-liners and F/X and heavy on the drama and breathtaking cinematography, The Road tells the tale of a man and his son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) - simply named "the Man" and "the Boy," respectively - who, in the wake of an unspecified global catastrophe, traverse the barren, cannibal-roamed ruins of America with just one goal: survival. It's grim stuff to be sure, but also ultimately uplifting in its depiction of the simple love between father and son. And it's earning tremendously positive notices from critics and some Oscar buzz for Mr. Mortensen and his young co-star.
Moviefone caught up with Viggo in New York last week over breakfast, and Mortensen talked passionately about his hope that The Road connects with audiences, dished on teaming up with David Cronenberg for a sequel to Eastern Promises ... and revealed whether Aragorn, aka the king, will return in Guillermo del Toro's Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit.
Was this role something you lobbied for, or were you offered the part?
I was offered the role by the director John Hillcoat, and I had long been a fan of Cormac McCarthy's writing. I had not read The Road. I had read everything up until then. I had always loved in particular his prose description of landscape and the inner thoughts and emotional kind of lives of his characters. The way he describes things - his prose feels like poetry. There are so many gems in that, and all his books - even books that are just barbaric like Blood Meridian, which may be my favorite one. I mean it's different; it's like two sides of the same coin.
This one was kind of a departure for McCarthy. It's savage, but also very tender at times.
Yeah ... it's a tough journey and there is a lot of barbaric behavior in it, but in the end it's about a testament to humanity, to the triumph of kindness in a war situation, whereas Blood Meridian is about the triumph of inhumanity. And yet they both have these beautiful poetic passages. So when I read the script, [I was like], "Wow, this is amazing, this is very beautiful. I wonder if it's as good as the book." I read the book and I realized it was a very faithful adaptation that they selected really well and I thought, wow, this could be great. And I've heard a lot of actors are trying to get this role, which I understand, and I'm honored to be offered it.
Was there any hesitation at all in accepting it?
Yeah, there was. First of all, just because I was shooting a movie at the time and promoting another one, you know. I'm leaving for days off, I was kind of stretched pretty thin. But when I read the story, I thought, well, being kind of tired, that's not wrong for the character [laughs]. But no, it was mainly just because I would regret not taking on the challenge. But once I said "Yes, thank you very much," then I was terrified. Not because of the physical ordeal, but more because it just has to be done right. And the director said we're going to shoot in real locations, and I said, "Great, it will be hard, but it needs to be to feel gritty, not to just be another post-apocalyptic special effects movie." And he goes, "Well, we don't have that kind of budget anyways, so that's great. It will be good, it will be gritty and real and has a chance to match the book for emotion." But then as soon as you say yes, then it's like, "Well, they all think that I can do it; they wouldn't offer me the role if they didn't. [But] I don't know that I can do it." You have to come to grips with that. It took me a while because I'm very dependent on the person I play the story with. Every single scene pretty much I'm with this boy. And I said to John, "I am worried - I don't know about you - about the boy." And he goes, "Yeah, I'm really worried." He said, "We can only go so far in matching the book as far as the look of it, the design, the locations." Even if I do my very, very best and everybody gets lucky each day and does a great job. If the boy isn't close to being a genius actor and really understands this story and is mature beyond his years somehow - if you don't find that kind of boy, we're limited, we can only reach a certain level as far as matching the intensity of the book. But they did find him. [Kodi] is so good and he is such a beautiful person, and I became very fond of him - and he of me I think. That connection, that strong connection we made even before shooting started, only got intensified, became more intense as a result of the difficult emotional things we had to do in the first week or so. It was just, OK, we can do anything. Once I got to know him and realized that, I thought, OK, we've got a chance now. But then you never know how they are going to put the movie together.
There were certain aspects of the film that were slightly altered or beefed up - the role of the Wife, for instance.
In the book, you read it and you kind of go, "Well, OK, I see your point of view [that there's no reason to live]. It's sort of logical. I understand." But you kind of dismiss her. You go, "Well of course he loves her, but we don't think much of her. She quit, we're with the guys on the road." In the movie, it's not that [her role] is expanded so much; it's just that you see her. It's a different medium, it's a movie. And when you have a really good actress like Charlize Theron playing the role - and with that emotion - then you have a legitimate difference of opinion. Her point is valid. You may not agree, but it's just like my character says, "Well, no, if you've got to do this you've got to do it." And she respects mine and she respects my desire to let the boy decide when it's time to not quit. So understanding that adds more emotion because the character I'm playing is so much of the time day and night thinking about her and thinking about the world in which they used to live - where there were flowers, where there were horses, where there were blue skies, sunshine, where nature was alive and there was hope and you just took for granted - as we do. Fall, spring, summer - all these things that we take for granted that aren't necessarily givens: climate, war, who knows what kind of illness.
Yeah, at its core the movie is about facing our own mortality.
Exactly. Everybody has to deal with their own mortality and that of their parents and so forth and so on. We don't often think about it. This movie takes you there. You can't avoid thinking about it, which sounds grim. And it is hard, but it takes you to a place by accepting that by taking everything away from these characters you are not distracted by anything. And by making a leap of faith emotionally, these two characters are connecting in an intense way, and suffering on this road that they are on. By the end, they just appreciate what they have, which is a lot - it's life itself. If you take away your houses and your cars and your phones and whatever, what matters? It's never over 'til it's over. The Man didn't know at first why he wants to keep going, and the wife says, "Why? How are you going to do that?" He doesn't really know, but by the end he knows: because life is precious. Any story that does that in a profound way - where you walk out feeling little different than when you went in - that's doing something, for me.
You're known for your intense preparation for roles - how did you get primed for this movie?
Well, I didn't have plates of bacon [laughs].
Yeah, you lost a lot of weight, huh?
Well, that was part of it, I had to be there. We had good makeup and all that, but because it was such a tough journey physically and emotionally, as I gradually got closer to [the character], I literally was getting weaker and weaker and it took more energy to just focus - which was right. So it was this gradual decline into character that in some part was real. I mean, I was pretty beat by the end, and so was Kodi. And it shows. There were things that are on screen that are beyond whatever we prepared. When I go to movies, I want to see something that is mysterious that I can't explain technically no matter how much I know about the process of making movies. There were movies made in the '30s or '20s, movies that have been made in the last few years, where every once in a while, there is scene, a moment, a close-up, a wide shot, a composition, a look on someone's face, the way they say a word, an interaction, that you go, "How the hell did they do that?" And they could probably never do it again. It was just that moment where these characters, these actors, committed, and everything was lit right, and that stays in your head. It's burned into your memory. Most movies are lucky to have one moment, one shot that you look at and you always remember that moment and that scene. This movie, I think, has many moments like that. Duvall has moments like that, Charlize has moments like that, Kodi and I have several I think, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams. I think it's a movie that has an emotional force, it kind of has some wallop to it, and leaves you at the end going "Wow!" You are kind of spent. And you think right after, "Oh, I can't watch this again," but it stays with you.
Have you talked to people who have seen the movie to get their reactions?
Yeah, I've found that people have said to me that had a chance to see another screening, and they say, "You know, in a few days, I needed to see it again." And when you see it, you are still moved, but you can then see the beauty of how it is constructed - the layering, the interactions. It's a pretty tight movie, and I think it's one that will last, that will be studied, that will be appreciated in years to come. I really believe that. I obviously am speaking to you because I want people to see the movie. And I am worried. We've been promoting it a lot. I think word of mouth is going to be good. We've seen Q&A audiences reacting, and I've been speaking to them after screenings. But I don't see this huge push. I'm a little worried. Thankgiving Day is our release day. It was supposed to come out in wide release, and they've just recently in the last few days decided that, no, they are going to platform it. It's only going to come out in 100 or 200 theaters. Maybe they're smart about stuff like that, maybe it can work, but it's a bit of a gamble. It's not why I thought we were doing 3 months of press.
To you what's the difference between The Road and other post-apocalyptic movies?
You don't want to put it in the same place as 2012 and movies like that. More often than not, those kinds of movies, end of the world scenarios, are much more a spectacle, a spectator sport where you just sit back. You are not emotionally invested in it, you are just amazed by the pyrotechnics, the spectacle of the world crumbling, well-known monuments, iconography of the cities. "Oh, that's Manhattan falling into the sea!" or whatever. Fine, that can be done well and entertaining, but it is rarely about the human story; it's not so much intimate, it's not good dialogue, it's not poetry, it's not about emotion, really. The audience isn't put in the story, you're not emotionally invested. I think this story is the opposite. It's about the human beings - and I think in part it's due to the budget, but also because the director had that kind of integrity in terms of his design of it. We shot in real places in the winter and we froze our asses off - and it shows. You can't replace that. If we shot a green screen and special effects, it wouldn't have been the same. We wouldn't have gotten to these places where we were so frail emotionally that you never know what's going to happen.
Was there a particular scene or aspect of filming that was the most grueling?
I felt as the character very protective of this boy, so for me - perhaps not physically, but emotionally - it kind of tore my heart out sometimes to see him go through what he was going through. And it impressed me, I admired him for being so tough. There were times when I could tell the tears were pretty real, and he was just tired and cold, and I would look at him and say, "Do you want a quilt?" And he was like "No." He was a tough little guy. I so admired that and appreciated it, his professionalism - I mean, beyond his years. And his knowledge - he would say, "This is difficult, but it is helping me even though I don't like it." I said, "That is true, and it is very mature of you to say that." He'd say, "Well, it's easier to be really cold than to pretend to be." I go, "That's true." And he goes, "You know, I've got enough stuff to worry about." And I'm like, "You certainly do, and you're doing great." But it was great. If I would do a scene where I had to really let it all hang out, he would come over and just pat me on the shoulder and he'd go, [aping McPhee's Aussie accent] "Nice one, V!" He was a prankster. He was fun. It's incredible that he, on the one hand, had the joy of this well-adjusted kid who doesn't have his parents interfering. He has a very stable family life, very grounded. So he was happy and running around yelling, "It's snowing! It's falling from the sky." And I would say, "What do you think - it grows out of the ground?" And he'd punch me really hard and go, "SHUT UP, V!" So he would keep laughing and having fun, like a boy does. But then they'd say "action," and he would transform and be so real emotionally that sometimes it was alarming. It was beautiful. That's just a testament not only to his abilities as an actor but also to his humanity. He was never not himself, but he had the integrity that a lot of adult actors don't have.
There have been rumblings about an Eastern Promises sequel. Have you talked to David Cronenberg about that?
He says they're writing it. I mean, it's interesting. It's sort of like The Godfather in the way it ends - it could go in many directions. He could go further toward good or to evil. He could go to Russia, which would be an interesting thing. I don't know. There's part of me that likes the fact that it's left open-ended. I like those kind of movies. I like A History of Violence for that reason. What's going to happen tomorrow? How long is this marriage going to hold together? How is it going to affect the kids? I like movies that are that way. But [Eastern Promises 2] could happen. David's a great director. And we're friends. And I think that we'll do something else. I really enjoy working with him.
Is there any chance that Aragorn will pop up in either of The Hobbit movies?
I have no idea. You probably know more about it than I do [laughs]. I think that first they're going to make The Hobbit, and then if they make a connecting movie I suppose there's a chance that I and some of the others from the trilogy could be there. That would be legitimate. It would be fun.
Anything else in the pipeline?
I'm doing a play that opens Feb. 12 in Spain ... in Madrid. And then I think I might do toward the end of next year - like this time next year - a really small movie in Argentina. My agent's probably like, "What are you doing? You're doing a play in Spain and then some small movie in Argentina that'll probably never be seen. You're crazy." But, you know, I'm looking for good stories. It doesn't matter to me if it's a big budget or a little budget. I'm looking at being in good stories that challenge me ... that scare me, to be honest with you, the way that The Road has. If you just do something that's safe, you're not going to learn much. You might make some friendships, you might tell a good story, but personally, I like to be unsafe ... and find a way to get over it. It's in finding a way to overcome those fears that we're at our best. And [The Road] is about that - how people find a way to be at their best and do the right thing when circumstances are totally against that happening.