Viggo Mortensen remains one of the most interesting actors working today. It's just too bad he doesn't work more often, which is, I think, largely attributable to his picky taste in roles. This month, Aragorn -- er, I mean Viggo -- finally returns to the big screen in director John Hillcoat's The Road, an emotionally taxing but beautiful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Man (Mortensen) and a Boy (Kodi Smith-McPhee) trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I sat down with him recently to discuss the incredibly challenging role, as well as the odds of a certain king returning to cinemas in the near future.
Cole Haddon: I imagine this was one of the most physically demanding roles you've ever taken.
Viggo Mortensen: Well, you know, it was and it needed to be. If it hadn't been, and if we hadn't shot outside in the winter, I don't think it would be as good a movie because, no matter how well you fake it visually, the actors aren't going to feel the same. It's not the same. Kodi said it one day. He said, "It's a lot easier to be cold than to pretend to be cold. We have enough things to worry about." And I said, "Yeah, you're right." And it also affected our relationship because I felt naturally extra-protective of him, not just character to character, but just the boy himself. He's a skinny little kid from Southern Australia. He'd never even seen snow. I would tease him. He was saying to somebody, "That's really cool. The snow is falling from the sky." I go, "What do you think? You think it grows out of the ground?" [Viggo laughs]. He got really offended when I said that. He was very cold, and it would wear him out, quickly sometimes. I knew that he was making that much more of an effort, and accomplishing that much more by dealing with it, but it helped us as miserable as it was sometimes.
CH: What is it about the role of the Man and the themes of The Road that resonated with you as a man and as an actor?
VM: Well, I liked the idea of getting to a point where you stop making excuses for your behavior, justifying not doing the right thing. I liked that lesson; that, in a way, is what the movie is about -- that the Man learns from what happens to them, but mainly from the Boy in the end about forgiving oneself and forgiving others, and realizing that it doesn't matter how bad things are, something good could happen always, and that it doesn't matter how many excuses you have for behaving in an unkind manner towards others, that there's never any excuse for not being kind, and that it's always better to be kind even if it seems pointless. And that, in fact, is the highest wisdom: being kind. It sounds like a very noble, ethereal, simplistic idea, but it's true and, when you go through the movie ... when you go through this journey [the characters do], you do earn that conclusion. You do earn that strangely uplifting feeling that you get at the end, I think.
CH: On one level, The Road is a father-son story. About a Man doing whatever it takes to keep his Boy alive, to teach him the skills to survive in a terrible world. Did having a son of your own influence your performance at all?
VM: It helped, certainly in the beginning. Throughout the movie I did think many times, "Oh, my son did something like that once." Something that Kodi did, or it reminded me of myself, or my dad. But generally, it didn't matter after a while. It was my way in. When I was first preparing, I thought a lot about it, and then I kind of put it away because I think, just like someone who reads this book and is touched by it, they don't have to be a dad or a mom to relate to the predicament these people are in.
CH: How did you physically prepare for the shoot? Crash diet?
VM: No, I just ate a lot less, and that took me a while. I think the older you get, the harder it is to [lose weight] probably. Your metabolism slows down, whatever, but I'm a pretty active person, so I just became a little more active physically.
CH: And how much did you end up losing all together?
VM: I'm not sure exactly, but from the clothes that didn't fit, I think it was around maybe 30 pounds. I'm not sure about that. It could be more, it could be less.
CH: So it was a physically challenging role for you, but I imagine it was also incredibly challenging emotionally.
VM: Yeah. To be honest, that was the hardest part. It was harder than the physical part, for me. I mean, I've been in movies where I've had to do physical. You know, whether I was in extreme heat or cold, mountains, horse work, fights, all that -- I may have done things that I knew "Oh God, we've got weeks or months of this" -- and you just get through it. But it's a whole other thing to have to -- and I've been naked physically in movies, remember -- but it's a whole other thing to be naked emotionally in a way that's not just a distraction or a character. It had to be very sincere or it wouldn't work because just the landscape we're in is so real. It's so raw and, in a way, it's such an open wound that our feelings had to be on that level, which was kind of a measuring stick, I felt. And then, I've never been in a movie where the environment was so consistently a character. Even though it was dead or dying, it was very alive in its dying, in its death throes. It was so helpful.
CH: Were you ever, you know, shocked by the reality of the locations that you were working in? And how often were those barren, gray places enhanced by the production team?
VM: Sometimes they weren't. Some of that mining, the slag piles and things, that's just what's there. That strip mall where [our characters] were wandering around and [the Boy] sees that deer head, that was pretty much ... we didn't touch it. It was a part of New Orleans that just hasn't been cleaned up [since Katrina]. If you look at it closer -- I don't know if you can see it or not -- but what I was amazed at was that at about this height [he holds his hand up to chest level] in all these shops and on all the walls, the exterior walls, there was this slimy green line. That was where the water had been for a long time. That thing where [the Boy] looks at the deer head was a recruiting office, and there was still hanging slightly sidewise a picture of George Bush looking very young from his first presidential portrait -- you know, not so much gray and having that crazed smile [laughs] -- but then there was the [recruitment officer's] briefcase that was slightly open on the desk...[along with] his passport. It was bizarre. It was like it hasn't been touched, and people could've stolen that but they don't care.
So, that was unusual. The movie theater where [the Boy] kicks the can? That's a movie theater, and there's a concession stand and the marquee has all the titles of the movies that were playing that day, and there's a clock that stopped at that time. You know, all that sort of ... that was unusual. I mean, at first I thought, why would we be doing that? It seems we have a limited budget to go and take the crew, and go down there for a few days. We could've shot this in Pittsburgh, and you could have. You could've shot in the industrial areas where we were shooting, but there was something intangible about those ghosts that probably had something for sure. I mean, it felt unusual. Where I'm walking in the neighborhood where it's in my [character's] old house, they added some gray and some dirt and dust and stuff, but basically that's the way those houses look [today].
CH: Did Cormac McCarthy ever explain to you what the catastrophe was that had devastated the planet in The Road?
VM: No, [he] didn't, and the book doesn't either, and I think it's appropriate not to go into it. If you want to see that and get all those answers about that which is an external thing, you see another kind of movie. I haven't seen it, but I imagine 2012 probably deals with that kind of stuff, the spectacle of things coming undone. There's a beautiful line in the book. I wish I had it with me. "The counter spectacle of things ceasing to be." There's something beautiful in that. But anyway, if you want to see that, it's beside the point. Yes, it's interesting, but if you tell the story emotionally, in a truthful way, then you start naturally looking at the landscape and thinking, "Wow, we have to watch out." It's fine to think that, but really it's a device. Stripping everything away just leaves us with nothing but each other, and to learn how to appreciate that, that's what it's about. It makes extreme what any parent who is halfway responsible worries about. "Well, how's my kid going to be if I'm not around for a few hours ... or forever?"
CH: I have to ask about The Hobbit. Will you be involved at all? I know Aragorn doesn't actually appear in the original novel, but changes are being made.
VM: No, no, he's not. But if they ever make another ... I'm sure that if they think they can make something interesting, and make some money...
CH: Would doing The Hobbit, would returning to Middle Earth, be of interest to you?
VM: Well, I mean, I would rather finish playing the part if he's going to be in it than have someone else do it. The only way it would work is if they made a connective story between The Hobbit. There's about 60 years that go by between The Hobbit and the start of The Lord of the Rings, I think. Something like that, if I remember correctly. I mean, my character is not in that book, but he was alive. He was young. But because he ages so slowly, in a bridge story I could certainly do it, but I don't know if they intend to do it. I'm sure that fans would like to do it, and that those guys would be sure of making money if they knew that they could put some of the characters that people got to know, some of the actors that people got to know, in the trilogy. So I'd like to, but I haven't been contacted. I think they're having enough trouble just getting the first one made.