Image Javier Aquirresarobe.
© Dimension Films/2929 Productions.
"If I were God, I would have made the world just so, and no different."
The line is said by the Man in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's best-selling and Pulitzer Prize?winning novel The Road.
In the story, an unnamed apocalypse has laid waste to the earth and most of humanity, leaving a few lost souls?including people driven to cannibalism?wandering a scarred landscape. This includes the Man, played in the film by Viggo Mortensen, and his son, known only as the Boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. For Mortensen, the line is key to understanding the theme of the story: that the Man embraces this desolate world because he has his son with him.
Beautiful in its bleakness, The Road isn't an easy sell, a fact Mortensen is well aware of. A fan of McCarthy, the actor had read most of the author's novels (including No Country for Old Men) but hadn't yet read The Road when he received the script. "I liked the script and wondered how close it was to the book," Mortensen recalls. "So I went and got the book and read it in the same day. It's the most faithful adaptation I've ever seen, not just in spirit but in letter." That includes even the Lord of the Rings books, a series Mortensen knows well, having leapt to fame as Aragorn in the film adaptations.
From the beginning, Mortensen was the only choice of director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) to play the role; indeed, screenwriter Joe Penhall wrote the script with the actor in mind. "It's always flattering for an actor to hear that," Mortensen says. "Unless it's a terrible role in a terrible movie!" He laughs before adding, "But in this case, it's very flattering. So I was happy to get it but terrified at the prospect of
messing it up. I had to take a leap of faith."
Planning for the End
To prepare for the role, Mortensen spent time talking with and studying the homeless?something the soft-spoken and private actor appears a bit reticent to speak about. "I haven't been blind to the fact there are homeless people, and I've interacted with them before, but looking at them and thinking about the person I'm playing, he's pretty much living that same kind of existence," Mortensen admits. "The parallels are obvious. They too are trying to find a place to sleep each night. They too are trying to find food. They too want to find a place where they can rest or sleep and stay warm and not have people attack them." He says he spoke with those who would speak to him, and found many individuals to be intelligent and hopeful about the future.
He also spoke with McCarthy on the phone before shooting, though the conversation didn't go as the actor expected. "I didn't even ask the 5,000 questions I had written down; we just ended up talking about being dads and our sons," Mortensen recalls. At one point during filming, McCarthy visited the set with his son, whom the book is dedicated to. "It was interesting to see their dynamic," the actor notes. "There were very few words between them, but obviously a lot of affection. His son called him 'Papa,' just like in the book."
Mortensen also knew the film wouldn't work without the right actor playing the Boy, and he flew in from the set of another film to read with the final four actors up for the role: "I had said from the beginning, 'If we don't find a really special young actor, we can only go so far as far as living up to the book. It doesn't matter how well we all do our job; the kid has to be a genius actor and a special person.' " Mortensen instantly hit it off with Smit-McPhee. "The final four were all great, but there was something special about Kodi, and you see it in the movie," Mortensen says. "It's a presence, an intelligence; it's something special. On set he was very joyful and just happy to be there. The moment we were shooting, he would transform into this character."
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee also discussed their characters' backstories. "I always make up what happened between birth and page one," Mortensen notes. "Even though my character is never named, I know what his name is. And I know Kodi's character's name, and Kodi knows that too."
Preparing to Lose
But after all this careful preparation, he had to be willing to forget it all, Mortensen says. "In the end, more than any other movie I've been in, I had to throw it all away. You have to let it go and trust that it's there, whether it be work on a dialect or a physicality or knowing what the scene's about. It's nice to have the parachute of preparation, but you kind of have to throw parachutes away and jump when they say 'Action' and hope you fly."
Mortensen admits the shoot could be emotionally grueling at times. "I did kind of get into a place and stay there for most of the time," he says. "It made me think so much about my own life and family, and it's not something I can just brush off." He credits Smit-McPhee with helping him maintain some levity on set: "Kids have less regret and less memory accumulated than adults, so they can be more accepting of the present. Adults tend to live more in the past and more in the future, worrying about what's going to happen next." The message of living in the now is what Mortensen took away from the experience. "The Boy accepts this is the way it is," he says, "but the Man doesn't at first, because he still remembers what it was like before."
It's because the Man learns to appreciate the present that Mortensen finds the film ultimately uplifting: "I have to say that in reading this and then in doing and watching it, I really find it hopeful. There's no question we have to go to some dark places to earn what is ultimately a simple conclusion. No matter how badly things are going, the first thing you have to do is accept where you are. Even if you could change your life and the world, which you can't, any story that makes you value life a little more makes you want to call someone in your family or a friend. There's not very many movies that make you do that. And that alone is worth the price of admission."