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The last time I interviewed Viggo Mortensen, we got thrown out of a bar. That was more than a decade ago, when he was promoting a mediocre movie and I was writing for a mediocre magazine. Viggo got on the wrong side of an aging bartender (the only other person in the Sunset Boulevard joint) by asking if he could turn down the volume on the soap opera blaring from a TV in the corner. The guy flipped out, told us to leave, and threatened to call the cops. Since I lived a block away from the bar, we got a couple of beers from my refrigerator and finished the interview on my front porch.
Now he’s promoting a good movie, “The Road,” an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s devastating novel about a father and son trudging through the remains of a world that has been almost destroyed by an unnamed cataclysm. And this time he’s in the hunt for a best actor Oscar nomination, after a stretch of terrific work that has found him following the commercial breakthrough of the “Lord of the Rings” movies not by taking parts in potential blockbusters, but by doing some of his best work in small, serious films, such as “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”
The voice you use for the narration in “The Road” is very different from your voice in the rest of the movie — it’s flat, unemotional, calm. How did you hit upon that tone?
Well, I wanted it to be somewhat neutral, mostly out of respect for Cormac McCarthy. They wanted to do even more voiceover, which I didn’t think was necessary. And they wanted to do variations on what he wrote, and I thought, no, let’s just use exactly what’s in the book.
I love the last one, the sort of coda, which has to do with acceptance. It starts with, “If I were God, I would make the world just so, and no different.” I think that’s beautiful. I really liked the words, and I think that they carry the weight. And you don’t want to impose a performance on them.
For most of the movie, the character is fighting, not looking for acceptance.
There’s so much emotion. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it bubbles to the surface, but it’s always there. There’s lot of tension, and you can hear that in our voices.
But the voice that you hear in the voiceover is obviously the voice in the guy’s head. So even if I’m so weak that I can barely talk, or if I’m upset, it isn’t a real voice. So I thought, well, it’s not a real voice – so how does it sound? It’s just matter-of-fact. It’s really just what McCarthy wrote.
Did you feel a responsibility to the book?
Sure. I always do. I think this movie, out of any adaptation I’ve done, and I include “Lord of the Rings,” is the most faithful adaptation in spirit and in letter. A lot of times when that happens, it falls flat because it’s too slavishly respectful to the source material. But not in this case, because we concentrated on the emotional journey. It’s about the unspoken things.
All the beautiful prose descriptions in McCarthy’s book of landscape, and of the inner life going on in the characters’ heads, we had to do that somehow. I had to take that leap of faith with Kodi [Smit-McPhee], the boy who plays my son, and we had to find something real. Which was also the scary thing.
What were the unique challenges of this role?
I’ve never been in a movie where the character was dealing with this much sadness and dread all the way through. There are scary moments and entertaining moments, but still, inside he’s carrying a burden emotionally. How do you do that realistically, as an actor, and get it across so that it’s as real as the open wound of nature around us? That was a measuring stick. We couldn’t be any less real than what we were traveling through, these dead or dying landscapes.
How do you do that successfully, and how do you do that in a way that it doesn’t become dull? You don’t want the audience to say, “All right, enough suffering.”
I think we made it work because the relationship between the man and the boy worked, and there’s an evolution to it. It’s about the evolution of this relationship, the growth of the friendship, what they learn about each other and about themselves — and in the end, the boy reminds the father of the things he taught the boy. He calls him on his bad behavior, and the boy becomes a man, the child becomes a teacher. And that’s beautiful.
As a father, did it resonate with you?
It’s something that any parent would recognize. Just as this movie, in a way, is any halfway responsible parent’s worst nightmare. It’s not just, if I’m gone this kid won’t have enough money to go to college or buy a new car. He’d have nothing. No safety, no shelter, no food, no hope.
And on another level, it’s universal that any parent in any culture can understand, there’s always a natural transition in a parent-child relationship. I went through it with my son. We have a great relationship, always have. But nevertheless, at some point in the pre-adolescent years, or in adolescence, it’s almost a natural thing where a child realizes that his dad, or his mom, is not God.
And then maybe they overdo it in their criticism, but you gotta take it like a man when your kid does that, and try to be patient. And then when the child becomes an adult, they might go through their own realization that maybe they aren’t gods, either, and maybe they don’t have the right to just take someone completely down.
Unfortunately, in this story, we don’t know if the child is going to get to that point.
Before the AFI screening of “The Road,” you were talking about going to movies with your mom when you were a kid, and then later going with your son. My son is around the same age as yours, and for me what reinforced the continuity of life was playing catch with him in the backyard, the way my dad and I used to do. For you, did movies serve that purpose?
Yeah. I didn’t think of it consciously at first, but it became a bonding thing. Sometimes it was just entertainment, but other times there were life lessons in there that were a lot easier to see than if it was me just lecturing him.
It was just instinctively what I did, but as time went by I realized … I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “How are you doing?” “Oh, fine.” “What have you guys been doing?” “Well, Henry and I watched all three ‘Godfather’ films. He didn’t care for the third one, but he liked the first two.” And she’d say, “Isn’t he a little young for that?” “No, he can handle it. He’s seen some other stuff too, and he’s seen some crazy Japanese movies, too … ”
(Laughs) I mean, he speaks Japanese now, and the desire to do that came from watching Japanese movies. He’s like a film school obsessive about it, in a way. If he watches one Kurosawa movie, he’s got to watch all of them. If he watches one "Godzilla" movie, he’s gotta watch all of them. One movie from the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, the American golden age, and he’s got to watch them all. It’s been a great adventure. You know what I mean?
The other thing is, even when Henry was 9 or 10, we would go to every opening of the big movies, too. It was just the ritual of going to the theater, standing in line, going in, sitting up close, watching the thing, then talking about it later.
Did he understand what he was seeing?
It was interesting, his comments were so simple and yet so smart. He could be a great movie critic if he wanted to, because he gets right to the heart of the matter. And he relates it to his own life, and what’s going on in the world, all the time.
I’ve seen movies that I thought I knew what they were about, movies that I saw before he was born, and I completely changed my mind about them watching them with him. So it’s not just an education for him, it’s been a re-education for me. A reminder of things that maybe I sort of knew, or maybe things that never occurred to me.