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INT: Viggo Mortensen

09.30.2005

Youíve gotta respect Viggo Mortensen. Few artists are as immune to the sirenís call of worldly success as Viggo. Whereas lesser actors might have cashed in on THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy by making a few vapid Michael Bay films, he chose to make HIDALGO , a movie about a manís relationship with his horse. For his latest project Viggo teams up with quirky filmmaker David Cronenberg for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, the story of small-town man whose life changes dramatically when he intervenes to stop a crime. It ainít exactly BAD BOYS 2. Viggo stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week to talk about A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. True to his love of fishing, he walked in wearing a fish-covered t-shirt signed by various members of the crew.

Viggo Mortensen

Are you a fisherman?

Yeah. And a fish-eater.

Is this the most complex character youíve played?

It was a character that the director allowed me to play it in the most complex way. I always try to give it everything. I always am interested in exploring things until itís done. You can always find things in layers of things going on because people are complicated, we all are. The more you do that, the more youíre going to give a semblance of a real person. Itís not simple to do, but that approach seems logical. Most directors donít have the patience for that. David is smart enough to realize thatís the best way to do it and no matter how methodical and time consuming it seems to discuss the work, that youíre not going to waste time because youíre going to get a lot more material than you can use.

All of a sudden, you realized you cracked it. Youíve got all this good stuff already and then itís a luxury. Then you can try a few extras and try to do other things and those can work too. A lot of sequences were that way. I canít really pick out one thatís a favorite. There are so many sequences where, especially on second viewing, itís so complicated in terms of the interactions. But it takes someone in charge to really appreciate that and encourage the actors to do that. Itís probably as satisfying Ė or more satisfying Ė than anything Iíve played before, but itís because I was working for someone who appreciated it.

Did you spend a lot of time exploring this characterís backstory?

I did what I always do which is beyond and prior to whatís in the script, story-wise. I try to make up for myself a realistic and clear idea of where the person was born, how he was raised, who he knew, how his life was, before my first scene, which involved doing a lot of things like going to places like the places that the character inhabits in the movie, that he inhabited in his childhood. Also, since he was open to it, having a lot of discussions and conversations with David Cronenberg in the months before shooting. By the time we started shooting I felt we were so in-synch and I felt really grateful for that because there was a shorthand there where we saved tons of time and energy on the set and used all of that exclusively for exploring further and finding all those layers and subtleties that most directors not only donít look for, appreciate and use in their final cut, but most of them donít seem to be aware of the fact those things can be effective and you can tell a story in a simple way, even in a roller coaster movie that picks up speed like this, you can take time.

In the middle of a frenetic scene, two people can look at each other for quite a while and a lot of things can happen and you can be patient with that. But that takes a director who has a great sense of rhythm, almost a great musical understanding in terms of movie storytelling from the way it begins, with the first notes, the first signs of something, thatís normal but thereís something brewing, and all of sudden you see shocking things. Itís like a certain instrument comes in and, boom, thereís another movement and another one. Itís like a great thoroughly satisfying and complex piece of music to me, this movie.

You want to be careful of where youíre at. We worked carefully on one thing: it became like an exercise, it was unusual for me anyway because when Iím working I donít think about the audience that much. Itís not that I donít respect them. I respect them enough to do my best to tell the story in the most honest way and if Iím satisfied and I feel Iíve satisfied the director and the other actors, thereís a good chance they will embrace it on its own terms. Cronenberg doesnít believe you have to pound some message or be really obviously about things or flashy. Just be a real person and maybe people will be absorbed in the story if youíre lucky. We did in this gradual, visible transformation. I believe that people have all the ingredients inside them to behave an infinite number of ways and Tom Stallís no different.

So you canít fix it exactly. Thereís a point where it accelerates and you go, ďWhoa.Ē But itís not fixed and itís not one thing only. In that sense, we were careful in the early parts of the story where we would do a take and try some look or gesture and say something like I donít think I would. On the second take you might go, ďOh, ok.Ē It was sort of fun exercise just imagining, at least ourselves, as an audience, but normally I donít. It was like a gamble, but very subtle. You can only do that stuff if you have a director whoís there with you, and believes that an actor is feeling real things youíre going to see it on camera. Then linear time goes out the window. What works for one particular scene might not work for another. Just like a movie. There are movies that can be 3-4 hours long that can move like that (snaps fingers), then there are movies that are 75-90 minutes long, and theyíre like endless. Itís whether the person telling the story and putting it together has a sense of rhythm really. (He) has a sense of timing.

David mentioned that you actually do some of your own set-dressing, buying props that you think would suit the character. How does that help you prepare for a role?

Itís things that came out of discussion or exploration or inventing for myself a life for this person, but I do that with every movie. Itís like a point of view. Those are tangible in some ways obvious parts of that point of view that I bring to the table, when I show up to do the job. None of them are meant to be accepted or embraced. Most of those things that I might find Ė and it depends on the movie what they are Ė or some movies, it might be pieces of writing that I find and paste on the wall of my dressing room or hotel Ė (are) little reminders, tokens that I can refer to as Iím going along because like most shoots, itís a disjointed thing.

Youíre not shooting in sequence. So you want to keep certain things in mind. You might have had a good idea two months ago and then youíre doing something else, so you wonít lose sight of it as easily if you have a reminder of that day. Likewise, an object, pieces of clothing, set dressing, you bring it to whatever head of that department and say, ďWhat do you think?Ē They might say, ďI donít know if that works but itís interesting.Ē Then it stimulates a conversation. Thatís all it is really. In this case, I guess itís because we worked so much before the start of the movie, I think we were pretty much in synch so a lot of those things did get used because they were appropriate for the story, the set dressing, whatever.

With a film as intense as this, is it difficult to avoid taking part of that character home with you?

Iím always going to take something (home) because everybody has a possibility in them. So the first place Iím going to look is inside to find something Ė at least itís one of the places. Iím not leaving it completely behind. Iím not someone whoís going to go to a bar and kill somebody because I just want to keep it fresh. (laughs)

When a film is finished, is it difficult to leave a character behind?

Iím not in a hurry to. Iíve read and I appreciate those that say it was difficult to shed the skin of this character. I donít know what the hurry isÖas far as Iím concerned, I donít see that it ruins my life to have gotten involved with the character Iím playing. Our memories are finite and they decrease in their efficiency over time as we get older, so whatís the hurry to forget something you learned, something you explored in an interesting way. Iím never in a hurry to shed it. I donít see it as a problem. I have enough self-control. There are certain things that trouble you and provoke a lot of thoughtÖbut sometimes you have no choice.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Maria Bello said she was covered with bruises after the love scene on the stairs.

I was too.

How difficult was it to do that scene?

I knew the process of working on it with her is going to be awkward Ė especially if we did it right Ė was going to be an awkward thing to perform, if it was going to work and be uncomfortable and unpredictable and unusual and original for an audience to watch. She didnít play it safe and was willing, as difficult as it was to go for it, to risk making a fool of herself, and I was also willing to make a fool of myself, and David Cronenberg was more than happy to see us make fools of ourselves, and was more than happy to make us see how silly we were, I mean in a good way. He was always looking for the absurd. Heíd make some inappropriate joke at just the wrong moment, which was just the right thing to do, because we didnít take ourselves too seriously and we got through those days more easily than we might have, just because he was in charge and because that set felt safe in a way, and because she was brave, basically.

He did something there that was interesting too, not only in the cut of the sequence of that scene, it goes on for longer than you would normally see, certainly in an American movie, its comfortably. The power position shifts and the jockeying for position is interesting emotionally, as well as the physical aspect. It goes on for a while, and it did when we shot it. We knew what we wanted to do and what was happening and it was like, letís just see what happens. ďAction.Ē And youíre sort of waiting once it gets into a certain area to hear ďCut.Ē Thatís sort of your safety net. There was nothing (laughs) so what are you going to do? Weíre professional and weíre just going, and then it becomes weird and invention happens, and things happen Ė all those back and forth things that are so interesting. Itís almost like a small movie, that sequence. Itís like a microcosm of one area of our relationship thatís really good. That was something he intentionally didÖand Iím grateful for the fact that Maria was as gutsy as she was.

(End of Minor spoilers)

Do you consider this to be a particularly American story, or is it something that could play anywhere?

Anywhere. I think itís universal and I think itís a case of the artist, the storyteller Ė David Ė being extremely specific, because thatís the best way to make something feel or be relevant universally. Violence, the struggle against violence, the consequences of both those things, are universally understood and accessible for anybody anywhere in the world. Itís wise that he was as specific as he was. We all were in terms of our behavior, and regionalisms or whatever. Iíve heard people talk about it, and certainly itís entered my mind, where the story is set. Yeah, there are a lot of guns in America. But every country has a history of violence. Itís not a particularly American thing. There are people who have that bent, that want to make politics of everything. Iíve heard a few people say, ďItís obviously an indictment of U.S. foreign policy.Ē Really! Thatís heavy. I can see that but I donít think thatís what we were trying to do. Iím not saying thatís wrong.

When you have a great story, whether itís a short story or novel or movie or song Ė painting, photograph Ė you can be Japanese or American or Danish or whatever. It doesnít matter where youíre from and you can get something out of it. The questions Iíve gotten from you and other journalists and other people whoíve seen this movie, what I thought on different viewings changes. Thatís the sign that itís a good story because letís face it, there arenít that many movies that you think much at all about afterwards. This is one you think about a lot. Itís potentially a movie that can shock, can move, can make you laugh, can make you quite uncomfortable, in some moments, but it also potentially can make you think about yourself. How do I fit into my community, my country? What am I? What do I know or not know about myself? Thatís great. Thatís positive.

If somebody is inclined to think about global politics and foreign relations, thatís great. But I also think itís also very personal and very intimate. Thatís one of Cronenbergís main gifts, as weird a reputation as he has. His observation and ability to express what he observes in terms of human behavior is unrivaled, I think, among living directors. Thatís why he is the best-reviewed director in the English language. Period, which I read somewhere recently. It doesnít surprise me because thereís something there. Even his weirdest movies, thereís something naturalistic, awkward, like we are. Thereís something well-studied, well-observed about humans. He peels away that layer of civility and wow, unmasked. And how funny, and sad, all those things. Heís like a scientific comedian.

Can you tell us about the film you shot in Spain, Alatriste?

I just finished it. Overall, in terms of process, those two projects Ė my last two that Iíve done Ė were the most satisfying in many ways because itís a different culture. Agustin Diaz Yanes is a director, who like David is very smart in communicating very clearly what they want to get done before you even start is a great thing. So you can be relaxed on the set and explore. They are both people who create a calm, can-do atmosphere on the set and a jovial atmosphere. You feel involved and included, everybody. Thatís a completely different kind of story, but also very emotional and moving. I think itís going to be a really good movie.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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