Interviews 2005

Viggo Mortensen on 'A History of Violence'


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Viggo Mortensen on What Sets A History of Violence Director David Cronenberg Apart:

"He's got a good sense of humor, at least a sense of humor I relate to. Sometimes it's a little dark, but it's based in enjoying observing people and constantly being - noticing how strange we are. You know what I mean? And in all his movies - and this one as much as any - as normal as it seems at first, it is about, on some level, peeling away that surface layer, that very thin layer, really, of civility; of how we get along with each other.

As soon as you look under the hood, you look under there [and it's] complicated and messy. And so as well thought out and structured as his movies are, they always feel on some level kind of awkward.

They're uncomfortable to watch because people in reality are not neat and tidy and orderly and always predictable and always the same. He's a great observer of human nature and on that level, you know, I do feel like we're kindred spirits. But that's probably not unique to me. I really think that any actor that worked with him probably felt a connection with him. He's very good at communicating how he wants to tell a story and how you can help him do that."

Viggo Mortensen Explains His Attraction to A History of Violence:

"Well, what made me curious initially was more him than the script. I read the script and thought it was interesting and that it could be good. It could be a very layered and thought-provoking story like it became. Maybe not as good as it became, but you never know, but good. It just depended who was directing it.
I thought that this is a story that could very easily, and most likely, be a lot more superficial; a lot more of an exploitation movie that would please some people, be for people that like just out-and-out violence or strong emotional material. That might be immediately gratifying but it wouldn't leave you thinking much afterwards. Not a lot, not for very long, and not in any profound way. Even good directors would have made that mistake, would have just gone to town on the violence and just missed a lot of the subtlety.

When I heard [Cronenberg] was doing it and wanted to meet me, I thought that would be interesting to see what he thinks. The way the script was then and it became leaner and leaner as we approached shooting, there were things in the back of my mind, questions about it. But anything I asked him, any doubt or reservation I had, he also had the same ones. That's what I mean by being in step with him. We right away were in agreement and we were like real partners. Then each other person that came aboard, I think, was helped to feel the same - that we were all on the same page. It sounds simple but it doesn't happen very often. So the first day of shooting, everybody knew what we were doing. The structure was, and the intention was, very clear. But within that skeleton, that structure, we had room to do anything.

There was no limit to what we could try, and how subtle you could try to be, also. A lot of directors, they don't even look for it or appreciate it. They might see a movie that has that and think, "Oh that's interesting. I'll make a movie like that.' But they can't because they don't have the interest or the knack or the understanding of human behavior in the same way, and they don't take the time. You see in this movie, you know it moves along and it's very tightly wound - if you look at it carefully, there are a lot of scenes that are quite long and he trusts the audience to be smart. To accept it and embrace it, really, that things take their time.

He has a great sense of rhythm. It's like a musical score. There's a prelude and it starts and you're like, "What is this? I'm not sure.' And then all of a sudden your questions vanish because you become absorbed. It picks up momentum and never lets up. And yet within that tightly-paced story, there are moments where people are allowed real time to react and change and you can see it. You can see, say between my son and I, between many characters that the time is taken to really see how people feel. There's a lot of directors who don't have the patience for it, and don't understand that that doesn't mean that the movie dies or slows down. It actually means that you're more involved as an audience. It takes you along. When it's done well it looks simple.

A movie like this on some level- on the surface - it looks simple but it's not. It's like when you go and you listen to a piece of music or you see a classical play performed and the time just goes. And you're thinking, "Wow, that seemed effortless.' But you would never think, "Well, I can just go up there and play the violin like that.' It just looks like it's easy. He just makes it look effortless because he's such a great artist, storyteller."

Viggo Mortensen Feels Connected to A History of Violence:

"I've been in probably 40 movies maybe, I think, small parts, big parts, and in terms of the process of preparing it, making it, communicating with the director and how the storytelling works on screen - it's probably the one that I feel the best about. The most satisfied with. I think it's with no disrespect to other directors, I've worked with a lot of talented ones - but this was the best experience I had in terms of telling a story easily.

The last two jobs I had I've been lucky - him and a Spanish director I just worked with - very similar. Very secure as people, not just technically but as men. And so they're not threatened by real collaboration with people.

They're not the kind of people who say, "No, I don't do it that way,' or, "I collaborate.' And then you get to the set and the pressure's on and they're kind of like, "No, just shut up and just do it.' Very open because they know they're in charge. It's their story and they can only benefit from using you however they want, what people have to give."

Viggo Mortensen on His Approach to the Sex Scenes in A History of Violence:

Mortensen confirmed they did not use body doubles in any of the scenes.

"It's your job, you've gotta do it. It's in the script. As far as the doing of it and how do you get through the day or the days, you know, it can be a very difficult or it can be sort of difficult. It's gonna be awkward on some level, and it should be for the audience to feel something.

David, as I said, he's very good at communicating and he's helpful and he also creates a safe and sort of humorous atmosphere on set, so you don't take yourself too seriously for one thing. You feel supported in a nice way. And then if your partner is someone like Maria Bello who is obviously a good actress, obviously talented and good looking and all of that and is also courageous - you know, she is brave. She didn't play it safe and she was willing to go there together and try these things that were difficult emotionally, more than anything. That makes my job a lot easier. It was a weird day, and a difficult day on some levels, but it was exhilarating."

Viggo Mortensen on Which is Harder to Tackle - Sex or Violence:

"I don't think I can separate them. I think there is sex in violence and there is violence in sex. On some level you could say, I suppose, and this, again, in Cronenberg's hands you get that. You get that violence isn't just one thing. It's not just overt physical aggression. It's also in how you treat people: your wife, your son, strangers on the street. Do you really listen to them or not? Do you respect them or not? Do you feel that they respect and listen to you? Do you feel dismissed? What do you feel? How do you get along? There's always some jockeying for position in any relationship - one on one or family or community. Community of nations, people have feelings and they're complicated. I mean, just life itself. Being born is a violent happening. Maturing, growing up, adolescence, relationships, disappointments, aging, dying, suffering, seeing others die. Life is difficult and complicated, I think Cronenberg seems to say. It's also pretty damn funny sometimes. And as weird as it is, it's worthwhile. It's worth going through all that, I suppose.

I think that the times when you see a movie like this, it's one of those rare movies where you do come out of it having gone through the ringer a little bit. It's kind of a roller coaster emotionally and you come out really thinking about things. Not just the story, I mean, you sort of for a moment or a while you're probably going to think about yourself and your relationships and your place in society and your family - whatever - in a different way. Or at least you're going to think more profoundly for a little bit. It's the rare movie that does that these days and also entertains you."

Viggo Mortensen on Spending Time to Prepare for This Role:

"I spent a decent amount. I guess a couple of months - three months. But luckily I was able to speak with [Cronenberg] as much as I wanted and we talked. He's in Toronto and I was in California or other places - I wasn't there but we spoke constantly on the phone and prepared things and wrote to each other. We really got to a place where, by the time we started shooting, we had a real shorthand. We could do it almost without talking about it sometimes."

Viggo Mortensen on Finding the Inspiration for This Character:

"Well, like any character, whatever I could find in myself. I think that we all have the capability to feel anything. And if you can feel it, if you can imagine good and bad things, you can do good and bad things. You can act on those impulses. So it's a question of finding it.

In principle I think an actor, whether he looks right or would convince someone, should be capable of playing any character. In other words, I think all people have all feelings and have all ingredients, and it depends on circumstances, upbringing, stress, physical, mental state, how those ingredients combine to present what you think is your personality."

Viggo Mortensen on the Showdown Scene and the Emotional Changes His Character Goes Through:

"I know that there's things that happen in that sequence, which I think is a really clever sequence for a director.

There's seven characters in that sequence - the two kids, the parents, and Ed Harris and his two guys - and it seems simple but it's pretty complicated because you see that scene in some way from the point of view of all of these seven characters. Even from the little girl in the window and so forth, from what the mother doesn't want her to see. It's a complicated sequence and you can see in that sequence sort of an evolution. It's not that it suddenly happens there - especially if you see the movie a second time you see that that's been going on gradually.

It's true that in that sequence, the shift speeds up. Everything starts to, because of circumstances, there's no other escape - that's what's gonna be needed - and that's what's gonna happen. But it was a subtle thing in that it wasn't really with words. It was a question of having to trust it happening in an unspoken way. It was a testament to that adage that if you are thinking real thoughts, you're feeling real things, and as an actor the camera's gonna see it. But you can only do that, that kind of subtle work, if a director helps you get there and appreciates it and looks for it and encourages it. Otherwise it's not going to be there. And he did that for everybody."

Viggo Mortensen on Fleshing Out His Character By Using Props:

Mortensen brought onto the set items he'd discovered that reminded him of his character and explained that this something he does for many of his roles.

"Well, it's always things that - and it's not necessarily with a mind toward that I'm being used or accepted or understood - it's just sort of like part of your point of view. For me, it makes me comfortable. And if they don't use them on the set, I'll probably keep them in my trailer or in my hotel room as tokens or reminders. Whether it's bits of clothing that I find that seem right or props or decorations, things that would be in the house, objects mostly. Things that are good luck or right or comfortable. And in this case there were a lot of things. Probably because I think we'd done so much communicating before we started, that I was on the right wavelength with him and his crew so they did use a couple of articles of clothing, and some of the decorations in the diner and in the house - little bits and pieces."

Viggo Mortensen on the Script to A History of Violence:

"The same as for all the characters in the story, I think there's a lot more layers, but I think that's David's way of working. He takes a script - I think the first version was a little over a 100 pages then it became 85, then 80 and the final shooting script was 70 pages or less. I think he likes to have a framework that's very lean that he can then fill in and allow the actors to fill in.

There isn't a lot of unnecessary material - words - that a) get in the way and b) that in the end won't be used. It gives him the luxury of letting certain scenes play out longer, because time isn't necessarily linear in that sense. Your sense of it depends on what's going on. It's that thing where you can go see a movie that's three hours long and it feels like that. And you can go watch a movie that's 80-minutes long and it can be like, "Oh God, when's this going to end?' It's a question of having a good sense of rhythm, which he does.

It was a lot more layered that then became filled in as my character interacted with the others. For example, the scene with William Hurt became a lot more layered and nuanced but that was, in large part, because he arrived and then he and I found things that were unwritten. There was a lot of behavior in that sequence between those two characters that's really interesting, I think to watch, that's not written. And that's David saying, "Yeah, this is what it is but let's see what happens from that.' That's a springboard."

Viggo Mortensen on the Graphic Novel That Inspired the Film:

"I didn't even know it existed, but at some point in the shoot somebody showed it to me. I looked at it - it's a different genre - it's neither better nor worse.

My taste, obviously, I liked the movie more because I think it's less predictable and less - not so much an exploitation movie. The movie, I think, cleverly embraces a lot of the language and the symbolism of exploitation storytelling and Westerns and a lot of seemingly familiar ways of telling stories, particularly in American movies. But it turns them all on their head, you know? It subverts all kinds of genres. This movie is a very unique and original piece of work. Cronenberg gets all the credit in the world for it."
Last edited: 27 September 2005 12:48:26