How a cool cat teen created a real-life bond with his onscreen father in a film about the end of the world
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee became fast friends at the end of the world.
The American journeyman actor and the Australian newcomer play a drifter father and son in The Road, a postapocalyptic drama opening Friday that's based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Their unnamed characters are travelling almost entirely alone in a world destroyed by some sort of major calamity.
You really have to get along with your fellow actor to pull something like this off, and long-haired Mortensen, 51, has way more film experience than short-haired Smit-McPhee, 13.
The interview banter between this odd couple, who were still working together off-screen at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, tells just how well they bonded. If this were reality TV, you'd call it The Viggo and Kodi Show. They even have similar blue eyes.
"He carried me!" Mortensen says of his pint-sized co-star.
Smit-McPhee refuses to fall for the flattery or feign modesty.
"He's terrible!" he says of Mortensen, smiling mischievously.
"He's so annoying, isn't he?"
The two first met at an audition arranged by director John Hillcoat. There were four preteen lads vying to play Mortensen's son: one Canadian from Ontario, two Americans and the Aussie Smit-McPhee, who came last but made the biggest impression.
"He just did a great audition," Mortensen says.
"John afterwards said, `What do you think?' And I said, `They're all great, I don't know how these kids did it.' Because they had to do very emotional scenes. `But I think the last boy was really something.'
"And John said, `Yeah, that's the one I want.'"
You might think that Smit-McPhee would have tried to suck up to Mortensen, by telling him how much he liked him in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Not this cool cat.
"I told him, `No offence, but I'm not really a fan of that stuff,'" Smit-McPhee says.
"He's more of a Mel Brooks fan," Mortensen chips in.
They do share a contrarian spirit. Mortensen is a fan of McCarthy's many novels, and he'd read every one except The Road. He'd always intended to, but people kept bugging him about it.
"When someone says to me, `You've got to see this movie right away, it's awesome,' or `You've got to read this book,' I tend to stubbornly say, `Okay, okay, I'll get around to it! Don't tell me about Cormac McCarthy books!'"
When Mortensen finally did get around to The Road, first the screenplay and then the book itself, he was pleased by how faithful the adaptation was and how much humanity was in this story of utter devastation. It's a tale about finding your soul at a time when the world seems bereft of meaning.
But how would anyone prepare for the last days of Earth as we know it?
"Well, you can't," Mortensen says. "Any more than the character can. But I got a little skinnier. Kodi was already skinny.
"What I liked about the challenge was that on paper it was a pretty bare-bones thing. You take everything away, you make the world dead and you've just got these people. It's about making that work.
"In other words, if we believe the emotional journey that we're on, then maybe the audience will. That was the purpose. There was no hiding behind anything. It was just us."
Smit-McPhee offers his own view: To make it work, it first has to be about "me" before it is about "us."
"We did a bit of work together, but our acting style, I think, had to be our own kind of person. And then it kind of worked together."
That's pretty sophisticated thinking for a kid whose previous work has been mostly for Aussie TV. He's one special talent, though. He's so convincing playing a starving lad in The Road, when people at TIFF saw him scarfing down plates of food at the post-premiere reception, they felt relieved.
Mortensen is generous with his praise.
"He was amazing. It was cold and wet and there were some tough scenes early on. It wasn't just that he had an emotional availability, he was smart. If something happened that was unexpected or I might say the wrong line, he would just go with it. That told me that he was in the moment. It wasn't just like a lot of kids do, which is like a robot ... he prepared thoroughly. When you show up on the set and they say action, all bets are off. He knows how to do it. There are a lot of adult actors who never figure that out."
Smit-McPhee had some insider knowledge to help him. His dad, Andy McPhee, is a well-known Aussie actor and he was on set to help coach his son. McPhee also had a bit part in the film as a rough gang member.
Mortensen had some extra assistance, too. In real life, he's a dad to a 21-year-old son, who is now in university.
"It helped me get into the story," he says.
"Like most parents, this offered a more immediate way into it. But I don't think it's that necessary. You don't have to be a parent to understand the situation. These two people alone, an adult trying to take care of his child. Nature is dead and they're in trouble all the time. It's like someone living on the street that has a kid. They're always thinking they've got to get some food, how do they keep from stealing our stuff and hurting us. How do you stay dry and relatively warm? That's all you think about."
Would these two work together again? They both agree they'd do it in a heartbeat, but hopefully in better working conditions next time.