I've made a bold claim in general conversation and I'll make it again here: Viggo Mortensen (the LOTR trilogy, Eastern Promises) is one of the greatest actors we have working today. He's a chameleon—a committed performer who can slip into any role seamlessly while never failing to make exciting and unexpected choices. After speaking to him at length for his new movie A Dangerous Method, in which the actor inhabits the role of Sigmund Freud opposite Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley, I also have another bold claim: Viggo Mortensen is one of the nicest actors we have working today.
Read on to find out more about the actor's third collaboration with director David Cronenberg, preparing for a detail-heavy dramatic experience, earning his second Golden Globe nomination, and even a little on the 10th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings:
You’re currently in Spain performing a play right now. At the tail-end of the run?
Viggo Mortensen:Yeah. Well, actually, just finished Sunday. Purgatorio is a really challenging text. It’s like an hour and forty-five minutes, more or less. Two characters on stage the whole time. No break.
A physically demanding role for you.
VM: Yeah. Just having that much dialogue. Plus, I hadn’t done theater for over twenty years. I actually—during rehearsals—was asking myself what the hell I was thinking. I could have picked a one-scene part in a play, just to get my feet wet again. But it was a challenge. It was worth it. It was a good script. Challenging. I think I learned more doing that, these past few months, than I have the last ten or fifteen years making movies.
VM: In some ways. I mean, obviously not about cameras and technical things. They’re different sorts of challenges. I guess this year, having lots of dialogue in both David Cronenberg’s movie—more than I usually get as an actor in the movies—and then this play, it was just getting used to working with that.
That's an interesting connection to A Dangerous Method. This movie is, in part, based on a play, and like you said, it’s a very talky movie. Was your interest in the part, the movie, rooted in a desire to dive into the theatrics? Something more dialogue-driven?
VM: I suppose. The dialogue’s one way to get comfortable with playing Sigmund Freud, which, if you had asked me a couple years ago, I’d have said, “You’re crazy. It’s not a part for me.” Probably. Even if it was interesting to me. If another director other than David had asked me, I might not have taken the plunge.
Why is that?
VM: We’ve done two movies before. We get along really well. We’re good friends.
Why did you think Sigmund Freud wasn’t a part for you?
VM: Well, just physically, to start with. My idea of what he looked like and seemed like…I don’t know. It was never a character I had imagined playing. Once I started getting used to the idea by doing lots of research, and finding out more about him—it wasn’t just that he spoke a lot, but the way in which he spoke. Ironic tone, often. The fact that he was an entertaining conversationalist. An intelligent one, a generous one. He had a big appetite for life. All of those things guided me in terms of putting together the character. And then, as I said, just the fact of dealing with that much dialogue was a good challenge. Once I got used to it, I really enjoyed it. It probably helped me, in some way, be prepared for the play. A little bit.
I spoke to David about making the movie and working with you again. He mentioned that there was a lengthy email chain between you and him about Freud’s cigars.
VM: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
That’s what I’m curious about. It sounds like you’re a research-heavy guy. Is that where your characters begin for you?
VM: They always differ. It’s sort of like what any kid does. It’s just a little more sophisticated, a little more layered, but it’s the same idea: if you’re a little kid and you decide to make believe and you’re playing some character, most kids get right into it. Even if it seems very simple to an adult, to them it’s very complex. And they’re leaving no stone unturned. The way they move, the way they talk. If they look menacing, or if they’re scared, or if they’re a princess. Or whatever it is they’re doing. Cowboys, Indians. As a child, you don’t have to be told, ‘No, I don’t believe what you’re doing. You have to believe it yourself or the audience won’t believe it,’ etcetera. They totally believe it. They just do it naturally. And I think the actor needs to find a way to have that same childish sense of play. At least, that’s what works for me.
But a way to get there is to do the make-believe part, the construction of it, as much as possible. And just enjoy it, too. You learn things easier when you’re enjoying the subject. So, if I take on a part because there’s something about it that interests me, or, perhaps, as often happens, frightens me—and what frightens me is, I think what frightens most people: what we don’t know. More often than not, what we’re scared of is something we don’t know about. Ignorance causes fear, causes superstition, all kinds of things. So, those are the things I tend to gravitate towards because you’re going to learn something new. I enjoy that for the research, whether it’s with David or any other director. For any character, it starts with a question. I basically ask myself, 'what happened from the moment this character was born until page one of the script?' That can be an extensive job finding that out. And fun!
With Freud, obviously, it was easier because there is a lot of material about him. Not just his work. I had to find out, what did people think of him? What did he sound like when he talked? What kind of voice did he have? How did he move? What were his appetites, his interests? Other than about science and psychoanalysis, what did he read? And I shared that with David. The cigars were just one thing. I don’t know how many dozens of emails…thirty emails, more. Just to get it right. It was fun. Fortunately, he enjoys it just like I do. He’s like a kindred spirit in a way. Almost like a like-minded actor, I would say.
Is that why you continue to collaborate with David? Are you guys just on the same wavelength? What are his unique qualities as a director?
VM: I think so. We share a similar sense of humor, sense of curiosity about the world. I guess a sense—not in a panicky way—that life is short, and to get the most out of each day. That sort of attitude.
I think also, the fact that he seems to like actors, which is not what I’ve seen from a lot of…some directors seem, at the very least, quite a few directors seem to, at least, be very uncomfortable around actors. Don’t know how to deal with them. Even find them to be a bit of a nuisance and can’t wait to get in the editing room. They’re just tools, just like the cameras are, and crew members, to them. But directors like David are confident in their abilities, secure as people, about their own…sense of self-worth. He’s open to suggestion, he likes to collaborate with people. And he knows exactly what to do. He’s pretty resolute in getting there, and getting the result he needs. But he’s easy to work with. He’s fun. I enjoy the process of making a movie, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and you certainly don’t know how it’s going to be received.
With David, and with others, I’ve made movies that I thought were well-worth seeing, but because of bad luck with distribution, or what-have-you, they didn’t get out there. People eventually saw them, but on DVD or something, and then later said, ‘Oh, what a good movie! What happened to that?’ You’ve got to enjoy what is happening at the time. If you can do that, that’s a big step. And with him, I know that the set is going to be screaming-free, unless it’s the characters doing it, and that people are going to have a nice time and treat each other with respect, and get on with their business. And respect whatever other people have to do to contribute to the storytelling. It’s enjoyable.
I feel like we all have a picture of Freud, because of how he's been played or impersonated in the past. Often in an extravagant way.
VM: Caricatures, really.
But through your research…was there ever a fear of bringing someone to life in the wake of all of that caricature or impersonation?
VM: I have seen some Freuds. I’ve seen BBC stuff, I’ve seen some spoof stuff. John Huston’s kind of hard to find. The movie where Montgomery Clift played him without changing his eye color [Freud: The Secret Passion]. That was pretty intense, but a strange movie. Not an altogether successful portrait. Even though Montgomery Clift was a great actor—probably the founder, really, before Brando, of modern film acting. Realistic film acting, I suppose. I didn’t think that there had been a truly accurate, well-rounded portrait of him done in the movies. I didn’t think so, anyway. I haven’t seen…I was concerned with, as David was, getting it right. The reality of the times.
That’s why David and I, in this case, shared information about everything that had to do with the period. The politics in Europe at the time. The socio-political reality. The social mores. Literature, music. What was going on at the time in Vienna, Western Europe. Anything that could remotely have anything to do with it. I think Keira approached things that way also. But anyway, with David, as usual, we left no stone unturned so as to be able to arrive on the set and not waste time. He had a pretty good idea of what we were going to attempt, which allows you to relax and see what happens. You can welcome happy accidents, or twists and turns that happen with two actors or more.
Because it’s so reality based, was there still room for discovery?
VM: Something about Freud, in this portrait of him in his fifties—early fifties—I think you get the fact that he was witty. He had a sense of humor. There’s an ironic tone in some of the scenes, I think. At least that’s what we were going for, or I was going for with David’s help. And that has to do with something that I didn’t know until I did a lot of research on him. Contemporary accounts of his lectures, of the way he was as a family person, a friend. He was someone that had a large appetite for life, was robust, and quite a bit more gregarious than I'd thought. He had a really good sense of humor. He liked a good joke, a good prank.
VM: [Laughs] He loved cigars, wine, good food. He had lots of friends. And he was a pretty warmhearted person, and quite sociable. In a way I, like a lot of people, probably, pictured him as a very serious, very strict, maybe even humorless type of an old, frail, white haired man. Of course, that’s more representative physically of the way he was in the last fifteen to eighteen years of his life when he had cancer. But the period we’re dealing with is leading up to World War I—the first decade of the twentieth century. He was quite a bit more fit and had a lot more energy at the time. That was interesting to hear, and to read about. How he spoke, how he was engaging and generous as a conversationalist. That was something that we were able to put in there. Someone who was very curious about people and about life. You get that in the movie a little bit.
and David that there wasn’t a ton of rehearsals beforehand. An 'Everyone do your research, and we’re going to show up and do it' approach...
VM: No, David doesn’t really do that. He doesn’t like to do that. Which is fine. I mean, I like to rehearse, but I don’t mind not—especially with someone like him. As I said, on History of Violence, the first time around, by the time I showed up he and I had discussed so many things there wasn’t a need for it. Also, just personally, I feel like I’m on a similar wavelength with him. We get along well.
What’s your process like stepping onto a set with an actor you’ve never worked with, like Michael or Keira? How do you get going on that first day?
VM: Well, basically, whatever anybody does, in some sense...in acting I think there’s no such thing as doing it wrong. If you just let go of the idea that you’re going to fail, that’s a start right there. Whatever someone throws at me, whatever anyone does—how they say things, how they move—I just react to that. I may personally feel that maybe wasn’t as good a take as the previous one, but I don’t…you need a good moderator, a good director, like David, who doesn’t really step in and do a lot of directing unless it’s absolutely necessary. He just gently guides people whom he selects very carefully. He’s very meticulous. Very careful about the casting process. He knows how important it is. And I think he’s proved over the years that he’s quite good at it, and that he knows how to work with actors.
He’s worked with all kinds of different actors and actresses, and, generally speaking, actors tend to give—if not their best—some of their best performances when they work with him. That’s no accident. Look at Jeremy Irons, or Jeff Goldblum, or William Hurt, Ed Harris, Maria Bello, Keira, Michael. I think I’ve done some of my best things for David. Because he’s very attentive to even the minutest detail of behavior or intonation. He has a very good ear for casting and for directing actors. He understands them, and I think he likes them. He appreciates what they can do for him in terms of storytelling. How they can help him.
The not rehearsing doesn’t seem to matter with him, because you show up—you had your homework, or you assigned it to yourself, or you asked him questions and he’s given you some guidance—and you show up presumably ready. He’s very thorough in all departments. He knows it’s going to work. It’s not just the fact that he likes what he does, which is contagious. Unlike with some directors, it’s not just a task. He can’t wait to get in the editing room, and he hopes the movie is going to do well, and so forth. But he actually loves what he does. He gets the most out of each day. So you feel…you’re enthusiastic by contagion!
He also seems confident. If your director seems to know what he’s doing or she’s doing, and they give that off, they give that feeling of confidence, that inspires confidence, I find. When you have someone who is very nervous, or they’re shouting, or both, it’s not only distracting, but you worry, ‘God, are we making something terrible? What’s the point?’ I’ve certainly worked with unhinged individuals before. People who didn’t seem technically as prepared, or they were disorganized, or they were intolerant, or didn’t treat the crew right. You can still do a good job. It’s just not as much fun. As an actor, you’ve got to adapt to all kinds of personalities.
I owe you a bit of congratulations, because I know you were nominated for a Golden Globe for this role.
VM: Thank you. That was a very welcome surprise. I didn’t see it coming. In fact, since I was on my way to the theater, it wasn’t something I was paying attention to. I don’t think people pay as much attention here in Mardid as maybe they do back there. But, in any case…I say ‘surprised’ because our movie, unfortunately—although maybe that’s changing now—has not seemed…I mean, as usual with David, he gets respectable reviews, talked about, people mention him as one of our greatest living directors. And then he seems to vanish, and so do his movies. I mean, they do well. They come in on budget, or under budget. On time, or before time…the shoot. They make their money back. He goes on and makes another one. But it’s often a year later when someone sees it on DVD, or something, and they say, ‘God, that was great. Why didn’t I see that?’ I don’t know what it is. So the nomination was a bit of a surprise. It’ll be helpful to use, I hope, in the wider release.
Do awards and nominations…I assume that’s not the reason any actor takes a role—
VM: I think some people do. [Laughs] I honestly think that there are not only directors, but especially actors, who choose roles, stories, because they know that if they do a decent job with it, that’s the kind of thing that they mind get an award for. I definitely think that people do that. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to do a bad job. It’s just, well…to each his own.
Do these kinds of awards vindicate your work? Or make it feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, this was worth it. I did a good job.’
VM: It’s like someone gives you a present you didn’t expect to get. That’s basically it. Because whether David ever gets nominated for an Oscar for directing—which he should have been before, long before now—or not, doesn’t change my opinion of his movies, or having worked with him, or wanting to work with him again. It doesn’t really change anything. Obviously what it does is…it’s nice, because someone made a point of singling you out. I do appreciate that. Why wouldn’t it be pleasant? But I’m also aware of the fact that it’s a strange game, in a way. It’s a sort of satellite industry, really, this whole awards circuit, which seems to grow and grow. Every year. Maybe I’m wrong, but there seem to be more all the time. Oh, you heard so-and-so won the this-and-that, and they’re on the this-and-that list. And they’re things you’ve never heard of! But just because David’s movies have almost been invisible on those lists—except the odd, surprising mention here and there—doesn’t mean that I think more or less of them. It’s kind of a separate thing. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid. It’s great. And I also realize that at business level, that whether it’s me or Keira or Michael or David, those sort of ‘main awards,’—which I suppose are what? Best Picture, Director, Actors—those sorts of nominations help create interest, and help the distributor put the movie out there, and hopefully get people interested in going to see it. It’s a seal of approval, like from the American Dental Association!
‘It’s good! It must be good!’
VM: ‘Try that brand! At least once!’ And I’m not saying that to be cynical. I just think it’s part of our business. But it’s also nice to be mentioned or thought of, or to have someone appreciate your work in an outspoken way. It’s kind of nice.
People—we entertainment junkies—were abuzz a few days ago, because, amazingly, it was the tenth anniversary of when Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters. It was kind of blowing all of our minds.
VM: It has really gone by quickly.
For you, looking back, do you see those movies as a kind of a treasure? Or just a respectful part of your career? Or something you wish people like me would stop asking about?
VM: No, not at all! It was an important period of my life. Years, including all the reshoots, and all of that promotion. It was four years for all of us, really. The first, main shoot, which was like shooting one big, long movie—I don’t really think of them as three movies. I think of them as one long ten-hour movie, or eleven-hour, with all the extended versions—which I learned a lot on. I worked with any number of directors, not just Peter [Jackson]. I mostly worked with all kinds of assistant directors. We had so many sets working at the time, it was kind of like a giant, hugely expensive circus. It was very interesting. Talk about the idea of an actor needing to be flexible! Working with green screens, snow, rain, mud…
VM: You know, re-writes last minute, stunts, horses, poems, songs, mud, everything! Night, day, dawn, sunrise. It was like a workshop course in terms of working in the movies. We did just about everything. We tried just about everything as actors. Especially those actors who were working most of the time, like, say, Elijah [Wood] and myself. And so many others. It was a great period for us. Plus, I really enjoyed being in New Zealand. I like New Zealand. I owe a lot, that experience. Having been able to do, say, History of Violence and some other movies I did subsequently, has everything to do with the box office success we had. I can’t be anything but grateful to that. In many ways, I’m just fond of that time and what we went through—and the results of it—as maybe you are.
Are those big blockbuster movies something you’re interested in returning to?
VM: Sure. I have nothing against that at all. I was offered two very important big-budget roles this past year that I couldn’t do because I was already shooting a movie—an independent movie down in Argentina, which I was doing because I liked it. I thought it was a very interesting story, in which I played identical twins. And then I had this play to do. Once I give my word on something, I don’t like to go back on it…and that happens all the time in this business. You get a job—it’s either feast or famine—you get a job, and then suddenly something else comes along. ‘Oh, wow, that would have been fun.’ But you couldn’t do it.
VM: It was nice. Again, it’s like this thing of being nominated for an award. Even though I’ve been working a lot—here I am doing a very difficult play, an Ariel Dorfman play in Spain. But it’s in Spain! It’s not in LA or New York or London. It’s not in English. And working in Argentina on a movie—not in English. So I’ve been out of the loop, in a way. It’s not to still be thought of, whether it’s being offered an important part in a big studio production or being nominated for an award—I honestly don’t look at, when I’m reading a script—assuming someone’s interested in me—I really don’t look at what it is, budget-wise.
And one more, ridiculous question. The trailer for Peter’s Hobbit movie is now online. I have to ask if you have seen.
VM: No, I have to take a look at that immediately. I can’t wait to look at it! I’ll look at it as soon as we hang up.