The guest of honor appeared a phantom of sorts on the second floor of the Castro Theatre.
Image Brittany Hosea-Small.
© San Francisco Chronicle.
After a brief appearance on the red carpet Tuesday, Nov. 20, Viggo Mortensen stepped behind the backdrop, looking for a quieter space to speak with reporters, who, standing at the edge of the carpet, appeared to be talking to a nonexistent figure rather than the A-list star of the new film "Green Book."
Mortensen, chatty and thoughtful, eventually reappeared to answer on-camera questions, much to the relief of the confounded crowd of press and various staff.
The chaos preceded the SFFILM's tribute to Mortensen, who spoke onstage with Ben Fong-Torres before a screening of "Green Book," a new civil rights-era drama in which Mortensen plays opposite Oscar winner and Oakland native Mahershala Ali.
The tribute celebrated a career of more than 30 years, during which Mortensen has fashioned himself as a prolific leading man — while remaining elusive from connotations of that title — particularly following his role as Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"If Peter Jackson hadn't cast me in the trilogy and those movies hadn't become so popular, I would not have had the opportunity to work, for example, on 'A History of Violence' with David Cronenberg," Mortensen said onstage. "There's probably still a tailwind from that."
The sudden global fame that came with the role when Mortensen was 42, he said, indicated the arbitrary and "ephemeral" nature of success in the industry.
"The first 10-15 years it was hit and miss," he said of his early career. "I had odd jobs like most actors do — bartending, moving furniture, driving trucks for flower mills. Whatever weird jobs. Selling ice cream on the street — didn't do that very long."
Yet, in the years since his Aragorn role, Mortensen has tallied a string of critically acclaimed art-house roles, perhaps most notably in his trio of collaborations with Cronenberg, which included an Oscar-nominated turn as a Russian mobster in "Eastern Promises" and the portrayal of Sigmund Freud in "A Dangerous Method."
"I'm looking for something that scares me a little bit because it's unknown, and something that will teach me something," Mortensen said about choosing roles. "I always look at the story first."
The screenplay for "Green Book" was the best he had read in recent memory, but the Danish American Mortensen was hesitant to take on the role of Tony Lip, an Italian American from the Bronx. Yet "Green Book" may have been most demanding simply in the physical transformation, as Mortensen gained some 45 pounds to play Lip.
Based on true events, "Green Book," which took the audience award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and is Mortensen's first role since his Oscar-nominated part in 2016's "Captain Fantastic," sees the foul-mouthed, racist Lip serving as the driver for the celebrated pianist Don Shirley (Ali) during a tour through the deep South. The ill-matched pair are forced in many ways to confront their own ignorance of each other in the feel-good film, a dramatic turn from director Peter Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary").
It's a film that's relevant in any generation in its examination of discrimination, Mortensen said on the red carpet, but also one that is especially timely in a national moment of political division and racist rhetoric.
The film's proximity to the present became perhaps too close for comfort recently for Mortensen, who found himself in a minor firestorm earlier this month when the actor said the N-word in explaining the evolving nature of racism during a Q&A.
"I understand that, especially from a white person, that word is like throwing out like a bomb in the room," he said prior to the tribute. "For some people, they're not hearing the rest of it. I meant nothing. I was talking about it in an academic sense. Mahershala understood that, and others did. And in any case, I apologize for hurting. I meant no harm — I meant the opposite.
"But you learn," he added. "That taught me something."
The brief controversy, though, was forgotten this evening as the crowd gave Mortensen a standing ovation upon his return onstage following the screening — perhaps an early sign of Oscar buzz for the actor.
Mortensen was keen to stay late into the night, inviting more questions from the crowd and eventually signing posters.
"As many as you want," he told the crowd after being signaled for a final question.
Mortensen even held a trivia session about the film, offering prizes to winners, including a breathing mask he was gifted by Fong-Torres for the smoky San Francisco air.
"I'm from the Bronx," shouted out one lucky winner who was from Lip's hometown.
"From the Bronx?" Mortensen said. "Wow. I'm coming down for that."