On one level, the durable career of Viggo Mortensen acts as a study in transitioning between extremes. From Peter Jackson’s colossal Lord of the Rings trilogy and the studio-made epic Hidalgo to an offbeat film-festival favorite like A History of Violence, Mortensen has demonstrated time and again that he’s comfortable bouncing from one position as an actor to its exact opposite.
But when sitting down with us to discuss his role as The Man, a survivor in a post-apocalyptic landscape struggling to protect his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from desperate thieves and cannibals in John Hillcoat’s (The Proposition) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, Mortensen reveals that he’s never quite experienced an extreme transition like the one that brought him from the rigorous preproduction process for The Road—which required Mortensen to lose an alarming amount of weight and work in the barren wilderness of Pennsylvania—to the opulence and glamour of the 2008 Academy Awards, which he attended as a Best Actor nominee for his role in Eastern Promises.
“The Oscars was, like, a day before our first day [of shooting],” the actor recalls. “So it was bizarre to go to this ceremony when we’ve been already preparing, and seeing this world, and thinking in that way. Suddenly I leave the winter in Pittsburgh in this weird area of town we were in and then I’m suddenly on the red carpet in Hollywood. It was really weird. I felt strangely calm, because I said, ‘well, how bad can it be? It’s fine. [This is] nothing compared to what I’m gonna be doing in the next couple months. I can handle these photographers. They’re not cannibals, as far as I could tell.”
And as strict as Mortensen was about depriving himself in order to embody The Man’s emaciated physicality, he did allow himself one Oscar-party indulgence. “There was a chocolate-shaped Oscar at the Governors Ball with gold wrapping, and I remember I ate the head off that thing,” he says.
Mortensen can’t be blamed for giving in to such gluttonous urges shortly before embarking on an unusually challenging film shoot, though the actor knew what he was in for as soon as he read both McCarthy’s book and Joe Penhall’s screenplay adaptation on the same day.
“I was worthless by the end of the day,” he admits, laughing. “I was at my mother’s house, actually, visiting her, and she said, ‘So what do you want to do for dinner?’ And I said, ‘Dinner? How can I eat now?!’”
Once Mortensen became familiar with the locations that were to stand in for McCarthy’s decaying, inhospitable terrain, which included sites in Louisiana and Oregon in addition to Pennsylvania, he began to feel an even stronger sense of responsibility when it came to bringing the book to life.
“I felt like I had a burden that I hadn’t had before on an emotional level,” he explains, “that [I needed to] constantly have this sort of turbulence under the surface, and regret, and all these things mixed together. How am I gonna do that believably? Because once I saw the landscapes, I thought, Well, if this is so raw and real, if you look at it as a measuring stick, we can’t [as actors] be any less real in our feelings and how we do things. So I was worried about that.”
Exacerbating that concern was the need to find a child actor to play The Man’s son, dubbed The Boy, who would be able to hold his own opposite Mortensen and go to the same despairing places that the elder actor was preparing to venture into.
“I said to the director, ‘If we don’t find a genius kid to do this part, we can only do so much,’” Mortensen asserts. “The movie can only reach a certain level. It doesn’t matter how well it’s done and how hard I work and am able to be honest emotionally and all that. We’re limited. It really has to work, that relationship. And we were lucky we found [Smit-McPhee], because he was able to give as good as he got.”
As Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, who previously acted opposite Eric Bana in Romulus, My Father, began to click, it lessened the considerable physical and emotional demands of the shoot.
“The fact that I was a lot thinner, that I had not much body fat at all, meant that I got tired more quickly in the cold weather,” Mortensen says, “just like Kodi, who’s naturally skinny. So that was just trying to stay focused and get through the day basically, but that wasn’t as hard as the emotional thing sometimes was, although that became easier as my relationship with him became stronger, because I trusted him more and he trusted me more. And by the end, we really felt like we could do anything together. It’s a great feeling to have an acting partner like that.”
What also made Smit-McPhee an invaluable asset on set was his ability as an 11-year-old boy to bring a much-needed sense of playfulness to the production. “We had fun,” Mortensen says. “I mean, one great thing about him is that he’s kind of a prankster. And he’s a kid, you know. He’s a well-adjusted kid, so as much as he can channel—I don’t know where from—this intense emotion and sadness and melancholy, he’s a goofball. He’s running around all the time, making fun of people and pulling pranks on people, and that helps us a lot.”
So if the experience of making The Road wasn’t all unbearable gloom and doom for Mortensen, one would hope that rumors of the performer taking an extended and maybe even permanent break from acting after shooting this film would prove to be untrue.
When asked if fans can look forward to any more great work from him, Mortensen first jokes, “Well, I don’t know. It’s always a crapshoot. I might be terrible next time.”
He then clarifies: “Somebody I think wrote that [I’m quitting] because they asked me, ‘What do you have lined up for your next movie?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have anything right now.’ And I could’ve said, ‘Well, there’s a bunch of things I’m not at liberty to discuss at this time,’ or something like that, like people say. But I told the truth, that I didn’t have anything lined up, and then it’s, ‘Ah, he’s quit!’”
So next up for the in-actuality-far-from-retirement Mortensen is a stage production of Purgatorio, a play from Death and the Maiden writer Ariel Dorfman that begins its run in February in Madrid. After that, the actor hopes to segue back into film work, where more Oscar nominations may lie in his future. Not to mention more beheaded chocolate Oscars.