It's been a little over two years since the release of Captain Fantastic, but Viggo Mortensen is already back in the Oscar conversation for Green Book. He leads the film as Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer living in the Bronx with his family in the 1960s. When the Copacabana shuts down for some remodeling, Tony reluctantly opts to take an unlikely new gig and hits the road with piano virtuoso, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), for a tour from Manhattan to the Deep South. What begins as a story about two people with very different lifestyles and seemingly no hope of getting along turns into a road trip (and friendship) powered by genuine understanding, respect and love.
With Green Book hitting theaters nationwide on November 21st, I got the opportunity to sit down with Mortensen to run through his experience making Green Book, why the production felt a bit like a play, the big risks taken making this movie that paid off big time, his reaction to Green Book's Oscar buzz and loads more. You can catch the full conversation below:
What was your initial reaction when you first heard that this project was coming your way? I read a little bit about some apprehension you had taking this role and now having seen the movie, I can't picture anyone else in the part.
Well, that's great. Thank you. Pete Farrelly sent it to me with an email. He said, 'This is a little different for me; you'll see. And I want you to play this guy Tony.' And I said, 'Okay.' He said, 'It's a true story. This really happened and stuff,' so I started reading the script, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, it's kind of a drama really with some funny stuff in it.' Although I have to say, it was funnier the way it turned out. On the page it was like you chuckle and some of it's funny, but a lot of it has to do with I guess the chemistry with Mahershala, just the rhythm that we got into together, and the way we listened to each other. It's like the reactions from him, and then my reaction to him. Like, the incomprehensible oil and water dynamic, and that really helped make it laugh-out-loud funny sometimes. But it's always organic. It's always based on the contrast between them, which is good. So in that sense it's somewhat different than Pete's other stuff, even in the humor. And then there's some profound stuff in it too. It's like, I mean, if you want to take it in, there's a civics lesson, there's a history lesson, there's I guess a cautionary tale in some ways.
A pure message about being a kind human being, too.
Right, and getting past your first impressions. I mean, first impressions are always limited, and getting past your ignorance, doing something about it. Just because you have three doctorates and speak eight languages like Don Shirley, you can be ignorant about certain kinds of people, certain kinds of ways of expressing yourself. And obviously Tony, my character, is really ignorant about Mahershala and, why is he so closed off? I mean, when the road trip starts, obviously, they're both thinking, 'Oh my god. This is gonna be a really long two months.' I'm thinking it's gonna be really boring because this guy's a stick in the mud, and he doesn't like to talk, he doesn't like to do anything, he's not funny. And he's thinking, I'm a lout. I'm just crude and noisy, and kind of really offensive, really. And I'm sure that if he didn't need me on the tour down south, physically need me to be there, he would've called it off within five minutes. Before we even crossed the George Washington Bridge, he would've said, 'All right, turn around. That's it.' And I'm thinking, 'If I didn't need the money, I wouldn't want to go with this guy. He's boring. He's emotionally closed off.' Well, later I learn why. He has very good reasons to be cautious.
I heard that Nick Vallelonga, when he talked to Don Shirley, because he not only interviewed his dad preparing this – I think he's been working on this story for like 25 years, and Don Shirley said, 'Yeah, it's true. All these things that Tony Lip says happened. That's the way it was, and I'll add some more,' and he gave him some more info. He said, 'You have my blessing to make this movie, but please don't do it until after I've passed away,' because he was a very discrete person, and when you see the movie, you see why he maybe wasn't comfortable.
A lot of what you just said was making me think about one of my favorite parts of the movie, and it's that it's so relatable, or easy to connect to. Maybe I can't relate to the specifics of their individual journeys, but the general importance of acceptance and understanding. I'm hesitant to use the term "message movie" …
What's great about the movie I think – and this only matters if the movie's good. Let's face it, if it's entertaining and you enjoy yourself. It's a movie that invites you to feel, to laugh, but also to be very moved, and invites you to think. But it doesn't tell you to think. That's its strength. It doesn't preach to anyone. And it's not a movie that's made for one segment of society. It's kind of a story about – could be anywhere. We've been in Europe and different countries showing it, and they said, 'Well, we don't know if it's gonna work here. We don't know if they're gonna laugh. We don't know if they're gonna be …," and it's been the same, every screening in the US, London, Zurich, which is like this more Germanic kind of Swiss people who are very buttoned-down. They were like laughing their ass off, and at the end they were all standing on their feet, and some of them with tears in their eyes and laughing at the same time. And people would rush forward not so much to say, 'Oh, Pete, Viggo, can you sign this picture?' They were rushing forward to tell us what the movie was about, which is funny, since we made it. But they're like, 'It's about this, and it's about that.' So they related. So it obviously has a universal value, an appeal, because it's about getting past your first impressions, which are always limited, and working on your ignorance. You can be ignorant even if you're super educated too, just like I said.
Speaking of first impressions, I've seen many headlines about this movie focusing on Peter doing a completely different kind of movie. Knowing his body of work, did you go into this with any first impressions, and then have him surprise you?
He wrote a novel I think around the time that Something About Mary came out called The Comedy Writer, that I think Faber & Faber put out. I don't know if it came out – yeah, it came out in this country, too. It's a really good novel. It's funny, but it's serious. And he's also written some short stories that are really good. So I knew he had that in him, and just talking to him. He's a very intelligent, thoughtful person, but he's hilarious. He can't help but just say crazy stuff sometimes. So I wasn't totally shocked by his wanting to do this. But who knows how it's going to turn out? It hasn't been his thing as a movie director. But from the first day his approach was great. He got the whole crew and cast, and he goes, 'Hey, guys, I don't pretend to know everything. I don't know a lot of stuff, and who knows where a good idea can come from, so please, we got one shot to make this movie, just bring it. Whether it comes from craft service or from the camera department or one of the actors, if somebody has a really good idea or a criticism of anything, please let me know. And if it's a stupid idea, I'll tell you.'
Did anyone take him up on that?
Yeah, the crew was mingling, and people were like – one practical result of that was that as actors you're used to doing your work, and then if you're sort of distracted you realize that there's all these people behind the camera, and they're eating, and they're looking at their phones, or whatever they're doing. In this case, everybody was into the story. It felt like you were doing a play. And so, even though you can't see that on the screen, for us, we felt supported by our team, like we were in it together because they were so into the story. And as we did each scene, and it was a little funnier when it was supposed to be funny, and it was a little more profound when it was supposed to be profound, we just kept piecing together this thing. So halfway through the shoot people were like really psyched, and it turned out great. I mean, you can have a really good story, and it doesn't turn out as well as it's written. That often happens. It's very rare to find something this well written, and when you do, you just hope it's halfway as good as that. And this is as good or better than what they wrote, I think, just because the way everybody collaborated. Great, great experience.
I don't want to get too ahead of the game, but I'm curious to get your perspective on this. At what point do you start to feel that this isn't just a movie that's gonna come out and do well, but it's gonna go the distance for awards season? Is that something you have to be prepared for from the beginning, does it come to mind when that magic happens on set?
I don't know from the beginning, but since Toronto, and since all these screenings, people have said, 'Oh, this movie could get nominated for awards,' you know? I mean, I'd love to see Pete Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie up on – it would be very funny too – accepting a screenwriting award, because it's like, I dare you to name a better original screenplay this year. I mean, they should at least be nominated. I'd love to see them win. But the fact that people are talking about that possibility for the movie, that it could do well, and that it could be recognized in that way, it just means people that have seen it like it a lot. That's all it means to me. The rest, who knows? I mean, there's always gonna be more than five great performances, great screenplays every year, and people get left out all the time, and people are upset about it. It's like, whatever. I won't say I don't care. It would be nice, but it's not gonna change my opinion of the movie. I know it's a really good movie, and what I also am convinced of is that those who see it are generally gonna like it a lot, and they're probably gonna see it more than once. It's one of those kinds of movies. That doesn't happen so much. And, I always look at movies and I try to imagine, 'Okay, five years from now, 10 years from now, I know that people will watch this movie on TV, or whatever platform. This is a movie that people will see more than once, years from now even.'
See it more than once, and it's also a movie that I suspect will never feel dated to me. It's like this wonderful time capsule with messages that extend to every generation.
It never gets old to try to get along with people who seem different. I mean, that doesn't get old, and when you can make a movie where audiences come out, generally speaking, feeling better than they walked into the theater, maybe with a renewed faith in their personal ability to effect some change in society. Meaning by just being nicer, just like being more open to having a conversation with someone that they normally wouldn't. Just little things like that, or just saying sorry if you bump into someone walking down the street who looks different than you do. Just those little things are what makes society better. It's not a president behaving himself. That's not gonna matter. What matters is what people do every day in their lives.
It's the little things that add up and sparks long-term change.
Right. It has to come from the bottom. I mean, you could wait forever for those who should be behaving like adults to do so. You need to do it.
I know you like to prepare a lot when it comes to taking on a new role so out of curiosity, let's say you got the role of a lifetime but you had to hop on set tomorrow. Would you do it, or would that hold you back?
I guess it depends on the role. It depends how much I think I could wing it at first and learn as I went along. I've been in that situation a few times. It's not comfortable. You can deal with it. Lord of the Rings was a case where I replaced an actor and they were already filming – not only filming, but they'd been rehearsing for months and learning all these skills they had to have for those movies – language skills, invented the Elvish, and swordplay, and horse riding, all this stuff. And I was kind of freaked out because I said yeah and I'm on the plane, on this 13 hour plane flight, and I'm looking at the book, which I had never read. But as I started looking at it, I was like, 'Well, there's something.' There's always something that you can draw on. I had read or been read to as a kid, stories about Vikings and Nordic sagas and stuff, and there was something there that was familiar, but it was still – you know, fortunately when I started doing that shoot it was physical stuff, not dialogue. So it was like sword fighting, so I could get my feet wet with that before I actually had to start speaking.
It's not ideal, but it seemed – my son was really into me doing it, and he was 11 at the time, and that kind of pushed me over the edge to say, 'Yeah, okay.' And obviously I'm glad I did it. It opened a lot of doors for me, and we had a lot of fun making those three movies. But it's not ideal. I sometimes have said no because I'm not gonna be able to do justice to it. In the case of this movie, Green Book, I was gonna have time, but I was nervous about – I didn't want to get it wrong. I didn't want to do a caricature of an Italian American person. As I said to Pete, 'There's a lot of good Italian American actors out there, and there's obviously a lot of good Italian American characters we've seen on TV and in movies in recent years and in the last decade. Why would you want to put me in that role?' He says, 'Because I know you can do it. I have this strong feeling about it, and I just don't want to do the expected thing with that, or with Doc Shirley.' By casting Mahershala, that was a little bit unusual too. And the family, like, my family in the movie, half of it is Vallelonga family members. They're non actors. And so, I said to Pete, 'You're insane. You're like a total Vegas gambler guy. I mean, you know, you're doing your first drama, and you're putting non actors, and you're putting me …' He said, 'It'll work out. It'll be fine.' And sure enough, I got to meet the Vallelonga family, and they shared all their sort of secrets about Tony and they were very generous. And we had a ball. We had a great time, and he was right, but it was a gamble. It worked.
As you were saying before, all this stuff that was going on behind the scenes, we can't see it on screen but I think you really feel it in a movie like this. The two of you are fantastic as the leads, but every single thing is on a certain level here and you can feel the passion there.
I mean every character is right, from the guy in the shop, the clothing store. He's like so nice and you kind of understand his position. It's like, 'Well, if I let him try on the suit, that guy sees it, then the word gets around. I lose my business.' It's like, oh, it's a lot more complex. There's a lot of nice white people, but for them to take a step outside and say, 'That's wrong and I won't do it anymore,' you gotta have some guts, and most people don't have that kind of guts unfortunately. It takes one person doing it and another person going, 'Yeah, and I'm gonna not do that either and I'm gonna sell to them, and I'm gonna …' But it's a very difficult thing to get started, you know? In each town, it takes one person taking the risk of being ostracized and losing their business maybe, and losing their friends. It's a tough thing. Peer pressure, social pressure is a big deal.
I have to wrap up soon, but I did have one question about the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series.
Who's making that?
Amazon, I believe.
Given your response to the prep question, what advice would you give whoever is cast as young Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings series?
Well, I haven't seen the scripts. I would say, not only read the book, you know, very thoroughly, that giant book of Lord of the Rings, but you could read some of the Nordic sagas. You'll get some clues there as to where Tolkien got his information. Like, Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and the Volsunga saga. Read that.