Viggo Mortensen shrugs off release-date delays and mixed reviews for postapocalyptic drama The Road.
A minute after Viggo Mortensen and I end our call, the phone rings. It’s the publicist. “The word he was looking for was incubator,” she says, adding—I presume at Mortensen’s request—that the footage he was talking about while searching for that word was available online.
We had been discussing the run-up to the Persian Gulf War—specifically, a story told by a Kuwaiti nurse to Congress that helped tilt public opinion in favor of invasion—and Mortensen couldn’t think of the word for the units in which premature babies are held. He had the publicist call back because he wanted me to know.
Mortensen is nothing if not precise. A conversation with him tends to lead wherever he wants it to go. Try to ask a follow-up question or change the subject, and he’ll gently, politely raise his voice and continue talking over you.
In this case, we had touched on this subject because we were discussing a poem he had written, “Letter from Nebraska,” which has a postapocalyptic theme and was inspired by the Gulf War. I’d asked whether, between that and his performance as the father in the long-awaited film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (opening November 25), he had a career interest in dystopian material.
“It’s funny you should say that,” he says. “I’m doing a new book that’s all poems in Spanish. And then I decided to take some poems that I had written in English and translate them into Spanish…when I came across that [one], having shot The Road and seeing where the world continues to be going in some ways, it seemed pretty current in a way that was interesting.”
Mortensen may be unique among movie stars in publishing books of his own poetry, let alone in Spanish. (The American-born actor spent part of his childhood in Argentina.) On the website for his publishing company, Perceval Press, he shares poems and articles he likes by authors from around the globe. He’s also a photographer, editor and painter. For Mortensen, it’s all of a piece with acting: These are just different ways of expressing himself.
“You show up on time, you treat people with respect, and you use them, in a positive sense, to learn and do the best job that you can, and you hope that they’ll have the same approach as you do,” he says of acting in a film. “That’s no different than, for me, editing books, which I do, and trying to help someone come up with the best representation of what they want to say.… I’m trying to do it as honestly as I can and get the most out of that moment. ’Cause you think, Yeah, I kind of did a half-assed job, but I’ll get to do it again later. And you kind of don’t.”
It’s appropriate that he should raise the topic of getting only one chance—McCarthy’s bleak, uncompromising vision always seemed like a risky film project. The story follows a father and his young son as they trudge across a bombed-out America overrun by looters and murderers; the movie asks whether it’s possible to retain one’s humanity in a world where survival is all that matters.
When the release of The Road was delayed a year, websites erupted in protest. Was it possible that director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) had botched an adaptation of one of the most acclaimed books of recent years? The Road finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August before moving on to Toronto. Reviews have completely diverged, ranging from the rapturous to the dismissive. (“The road leads nowhere” was how Variety began its pan.)
Mortensen says apart from the Variety review, most of the reaction he’s heard has been overwhelmingly positive. He also sees the movie as faithful to the spirit of McCarthy’s book, despite charges of sentimentalizing. “Let’s take another book that was very popular,” Mortensen says. “And it was adapted. Yes, it was much more of a sprawling enterprise and a bigger challenge logistically, but Lord of the Rings captured the spirit of Tolkien…. I felt that [the adaptation of The Road] hewed much closer in some ways. …And it somehow avoided feeling…slavishly respectful of the source material. I felt like this was its own thing using all of the benefits of the medium.”
Mortensen is a medium-specific kind of guy. In a sense, you’d think his work as a painter and photographer would give him a special respect for the pictorial aspect of filmmaking. Some directors will encourage actors to go wherever their whims take them; others, Hitchcock perhaps most famously, are more concerned with capturing a specific look than with “motivation” or “spontaneity.”
“I’ve worked with those type of directors,” Mortensen says, not naming names. “I try to be sympathetic toward them, but it’s not a very effective way to do things. It shows a lack of courage and imagination, in my opinion. Even if Hitchcock is very smart, he would have made better movies if he would’ve allowed his actors a little more freedom. Who knows? They wouldn’t be the movies that they are.”
There’s a qualifier again. Mortensen takes what he says seriously. He thinks acting is not only an important business, but also a political one, regardless of a film’s subject matter. “By making a character as human as you can, you’re already doing something political,” he says.
That explains his penchant for bringing up politics in interviews. Even so, he sees a political element in The Road’s story—at least now, in light of the health-care debate.
“You take everything away—what are we paying taxes for?” Mortensen asks. “What’s the most important thing for a person, for a family, for a town, for a country? …In the sense that Maurice Sendak said, ‘There must be more to life than having everything.’ …And I do think that this movie, in some very indirect way, it does touch on that. When you strip everything away, you see what really matters: life itself.”
That goes back to the idea of not getting second chances.
“I agreed with that piece of narration where I say—this is right out of the book; every word is McCarthy’s—essentially what I say is, I wouldn’t trade this life for any other,” Mortensen says. “Not that I can. But anything that makes you appreciate the time you have on this earth, that makes you feel like reaching out and asking yourself questions—reaching in and reaching out after you see it—something’s working. And that’s no different for a poetry reading to ten people than it is to working on a character. And it can be Aragorn where it’s this giant crew and seven units shooting, or it can be a very small crew in the woods in Pennsylvania shooting a scene by a stream with a boy from Australia. Everything falls away when you’re in the right place as an artist.”
The Road opens November 25.