Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
"Early in the story, the wife says, in a flashback, 'Why do you want to survive in a world like this, when nature is dead and people are trying to kill you and this is totally without hope?' I didn't have an answer in that flashback," Viggo Mortensen says quietly, leaning back in an armchair in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire. "As the story goes along, the characters and hopefully the audience understand why you'd want to stay alive, even in a world where everything's taken away."
Long-haired, robust and hospitable, the actor offers cheese crisps from a hotel bag and savors not only the flavor but the irony of eating while discussing a story of severe privation. The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a father (Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to survive after a cataclysm has destroyed modern civilization, is a harrowing journey through a dying world. But despite the everyday horrors - starvation, the elements, cannibalism - the movie is about love.
"I knew it was a good story and a meaningful story, ultimately hopeful. But to earn that strangely uplifting ending, you had to go through some difficult things," he says. "I was just afraid of it: As an actor, am I going to be able to go to those places and be believable? Because if this was done properly, there was no way for me or the actor playing the boy to hide. The actors were really going to have to go there. And I was afraid I wasn't going to be up to it."
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) acknowledges that challenge: "I think the role would stretch any actor as far as they could go; it encompasses tenderness and love and fear and rage and despair. So that kind of limits the number of people who would be right for it. When I read the book, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath came to mind and the images of Dorothea Lange. There was something about Viggo's face, this iconic, rural everyman, that fit into that."
Both men are quick to cite young Smit-McPhee as one of the keys to the project. The now-13-year-old actor plays a boy with the stunted development and accelerated maturity of a traumatized child.
"I hoped that we'd find a kid who was a genius, really, and was able to somehow really be a kid," Mortensen says. "Not some precocious child actor, but a kid who can understand the story, really take it in, and get there, emotionally. We were very lucky we found Kodi."
"There was a scene where Viggo was washing Kodi's hair in a cold stream," Hillcoat says. "We shot that very early on. Kodi was cold, and he started to cry for real. I had that horrible moment of, 'Do I call cut?' And Viggo and Kodi answered that for me, because I heard Kodi saying the lines from the scene. They were so zoned in. But Viggo's response to the real tears was so heartbreaking, not only as the character, but as a genuine emotional response. I called, 'Cut,' and he kept holding Kodi and comforting him."
The movie was shot on sites of actual disasters, such as Mount St. Helens, New Orleans and "landscapes devastated by industry," Mortensen says of the gray vistas stabbed through with the black husks of cadaverous trees. "It was real. We didn't have to pretend. It was grim."
When the production moved to the Oregon coast, the weather obliged with unseasonable cold and overcast misery just in time for Mortensen's character to swim in near-freezing waters.
"But the next day, we were shooting some pickup shots in a hangar in this rural area, in the dark against a black backdrop," he says. "I went outside for the lunch break and sat out on the grass and it was blindingly green. I had been ignoring it to stay in that state of mind. It was very beautiful. The sky was so blue. It was like all my senses being turned on. 'Oh, a bird.' I saw these flowers, everything. It was a cliche, like an ad for soap or something. It suddenly dawned on me we were almost done. I was very moved.
"We had gone through the story in an honest way, visually and emotionally, and now I was just shocked at how beautiful the world was. You know, everybody has their bad days, and I get depressed or annoyed, dealing with certain things that aren't whatever the way I wish they were. And yet I'm essentially, I think, an optimistic person. Going through this movie and all the things that were difficult, I may be even more so. In other words, as the character says in the voice-over at one point (and I'm paraphrasing), I wouldn't trade this world for any other life."