A Good Father In A Dangerous World

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© Macall Polay/Dimension Films.
 
An admirer. That's how actor Viggo Mortensen describes his feelings about The Road author Cormac McCarthy. Some actors focus solely on their performances and let the filmmakers worry about script adaptations and whether original authors will be happy with the resulting films. Mortensen, an accomplished writer and photographer as well as an actor, is different. The 51-year-old New York City native wants director John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road and his lead performance in it to be something McCarthy will celebrate. For Mortensen, it's about one writer respecting the work of another.

"I had read everything Cormac had written including No Country for Old Men," Mortensen says, speaking earlier this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I put off The Road. I was just being stubborn. I knew I would get around to it and I was sure it would be good. When I got the script I went and got a copy. I thought the screenplay was a good adaptation and it became even better in the rehearsal process."

McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is one of the more challenging father/son stories in recent memory. Set in a post-apocalyptic, burnt-out America, The Road tells the story of a father, referred to in the novel and the film simply as "The Man" (Mortensen) and his young son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travel across the dangerous landscape in search of better lives on the coast.

Other McCarthy film adaptations include All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men but The Road is a different breed of story, more sci-fi horror than McCarthy-like Western.

Mortensen is in good spirits on this fall afternoon. He jokes about being searched on his recent drive across the Canadian border to attend the film festival and teases his young co-star Kodi about his gushing female fans at the Venice Film Festival.

Mortensen has a variety of excellent screen roles to his credit, from playing Gwyneth Paltrow's lover in A Perfect Murder to a sympathetic Nazi collaborator in the recent period drama Good. His first acting job was for Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo (It ended up being cut from the film) but he made an impact as an Amish farmer opposite Harrison Ford in Peter Weir's Witness.

Mortensen may be best known for his role as the heroic Aragorn in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After being raised in Venezuela and Argentina (his father managed chicken farms) and studying painting and working in bars in New York City, Mortensen admits that acting came late in life or at least much later when compared to his contemporaries.

"Compared to Kodi (13-years-old) I came to acting late," Mortensen says, sitting alongside his young co-star in a Toronto hotel room. "I always liked to go to movies. I wanted to learn more about movies as an art form. I started watching Carl Dreyer movies and Ozu and Bresson and Visconti. I was 23 years old and I wondered how they did it. Let's say you watch this movie and are moved by The Road.

Something Kodi's character does moves you. You are touched to a point maybe you cry and you ask yourself, why did I cry? Why did I believe it so much? I was like that. It was something I wanted to try and I went to a theater workshop in New York because New York is big and anonymous and I figure if it doesn't work who cares? I don't know these people. But I got encouragement from a teacher which you need."

Mortensen may have struggled for roles early in his career but his fortunes have turned completely around. His Lord of the Rings profile and recent acclaim for his work in edgier fare like David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and A History of Violence make him a sought-after leading man. Mortensen was the first actor cast for The Road and Hillcoat agreed that Mortensen was indispensable.

"I was trying to figure out how the hell you cast this and needed someone who could pass as an everyman has a range of emotion," Hillcoat concurred later in the day. The man covers such a wide terrain and is raw and naked. I was trying to get that overall range and the physicality and believability that the guy could go through this. When I go and see a film I like to be like an audience and be lost in the movie. I won't name the films but I'm sure you've seen films where certain actors take on a role - there is something not quite credible about it. I didn't want to run into that because it's an extraordinary ordeal he runs into. So there's the physicality of Viggo. Another influence was The Grapes of Wrath. I'm thinking about his road trip the man and his son take. It's this mini apocalypse with dust storms. I researched a lot of past natural disaster and saw how people coped in these extreme circumstances. I was looking at the photos of Dorothea Lange and you can take Viggo's face and put it into those photos. It's a perfect match."

Like The Grapes of Wrath, the journey of the man and his son in The Road is a battle against the world and all its hardships.

McCarthy has described his novel as a father/son tale where the son ends up teaching his father about the importance of goodness and believing in hope for a better life. The same can be said about Mortensen.

While making the movie, Mortensen became something of a father figure to the young Kodi. The experience reminded him of raising his 18-year-old son [sic] Henry (from his marriage to singer Exene Cervenka), also a poet. For Mortensen that's the point of the movie, the father and the son and their relationship together. It's also the source of hope that balances all the horrors they face on their journey.

"After seeing this move I'm just glad to be alive, you know what I mean?" Mortensen asks. "You have a bad day, now how bad can it be compared to this? Take away all the things about survival and finding food and you have a story about you and another person. They may not be the last on earth but they might as well be. Every morning you wake up and you check to see if you're alive and that's where you start. Then, on the last day, the son checks to see if I'm alive and I'm not."
Last edited: 9 September 2010 07:52:10
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