Over a decades long career Viggo Mortensen has provided a consistent level of quality, bringing a unique level of quiet intensity to the screen in both arthouse and blockbuster cinema. From his titular role in the Oscar best picture winner Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Cannes award-winning films like Captain Fantastic, to an under-appreciated take in Peter Weir’s Witness opposite Harrison Ford in a superlative role, he has achieved a level of stardom that still accommodates his independent spirit.
Crimes of the Future is his latest collaboration with David Cronenberg, following A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. The latest film relies heavily on Viggo’s subtle charisma and ability to generate empathy from audiences, his writhing yet seductive performance a key aspect of the film’s narrative and tone.
In this exclusive conversation held at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival we spoke at length about his love of cinema, of working with Cronenberg, and how all of this has shaped his own filmmaking process.
Welcome back to Cannes.
Welcome back to working with David.
What specifically about him and his work draws you in as deeply as it does?
He’s more intelligent than most directors, and more secure as a person and as an artist than a lot of directors. He knows what he wants to accomplish but he’s very open to what we bring as actors. In other words, he’s very careful about the casting of his movies and then he trusts his own judgment in that regard. He really doesn’t storyboard and he doesn’t rehearse at all, which is difficult sometimes for the production designer because we don’t what direction we are going to shoot. He arrives on the day and he sees what we do, how we move around and he quickly makes these are the shots. He’s very confident, very secure, everything he’s learned allows him to very quickly figure out what to do. No wasted effort.
If I’m doing the math correctly, this is the first film you’ve done with him since you directed. Did your direction change from working with someone like David, and now that you are making your own films? Do you have more moments on set where you’re thinking, hm, this is interesting, he’s doing this, because it’s absolutely not the way I’d do it.
No, the way he worked on this movie was similar. There was a little bit more mystery to the story, there were certain things that you just had to trust, but it was very similar to all of the other ones. His way of approaching crews and storytelling, it helped me with Falling, the first movie I directed and the only one so far. I said to my crew on the first day something I’ve learned from the best of my directors is that a good idea can come from anybody. So don’t be shy, don’t tell me tomorrow the good idea about today’s scene because it will be too late. Bring it on, and if I can’t use it, I won’t use it, but if I can, I will. We have one shot to make the movie, let’s make the most of it. And that’s David’s approach.
I think I’ve been doing it long enough with enough people, but certainly especially with David, that I knew what the deal was. Our shorthand has developed to such a point that I just made a few comments early on, to check with him about the script, and he said, well, what do you think of it? I said I think it’s a film noir story, and he said yeah, that makes sense. And the reason he’s doing this, why is it, because of this? And he said yeah, that makes sense, and that’s all you need for now. Then I knew what he wanted to do, shots wise, and how he wanted the thing to go on the day, each day, so we didn’t have to talk much about that. We talked about other things, you know? I knew that he wouldn’t say anything to me and that wouldn’t bother me as an actor.
I remember Léa asking, is he OK, is he happy? I said yeah, if he doesn’t come and say much to you after a take, it means he loved what you’re doing. If you have a question, you want to try something else, don’t be shy.
It’s a film where it’s important to get the tone right, not only the sense of menace but also the sense of sensuality. And I think especially North American audiences are much more accustomed to violence.
Yeah, it’s easier.
It’s easier narratively, but it’s also easier on a set, frankly. Can you talk about getting that right? Threading that needle on a performance basis, obviously you’re doing fewer takes perhaps than other films.
Yeah, and even less on this one because, he always does not very many. But on this we had a limited budget, limited schedule, it was tight, so we didn’t have much time to waste at all. I mean, it is true, it’s a subtle story, there’s a lot of readings of it that you can have. Yes, it’s a film noir story, yes, it deals with the body in a particular way, but it’s also a very tender, unexpected maybe, or unusual love story that’s at the heart of it. This relationship of mutual respect and true deeply felt affection between Léa’s character and mine. It’s very beautiful, and David told that very well as a director. I really liked working with Léa, she completely got it, she really enjoyed working with him I think and it was fun. I like the relationship that those two characters have.
I don’t want to get too technical, but it seems to me that shooting a love scene isn’t dissimilar to you being in that machine that’s central to the story. Outside, it’s very mechanical, things are moving, the cameras are moving, and while the end result may be something that we are drawn to, affected by emotionally, aroused for lack of a better word, but the actual mechanism of it is what’s at play.
Sure, because you have a director, you’re working on this, no, I can’t see your face here, move here, watch your shoulder, positioning, etc. But David’s pretty permissive, and he just explained basically what was going on in certain scenes. There’s one in particular where I’m really not feeling well, I can’t even be in the bed anymore. Léa comes over and she’s had this nightmare, and he said this is basically what we want to try and we just did it. David liked the way we ended up, the positions, it just worked out that way. Maybe on the first take not so much, but we did a few of that one and it just sort of came together in a way. But that’s also because we felt comfortable with him, she felt as comfortable as I did, and she was committed. She’s the right performer for him. So’s Kirsten, so’s Scott, so are the others. But in particular, Léa, brave and not self-conscious, she’s willing to dive in there for you as a director. So it worked out.
One of your more remarkable stories in your career is that you basically had a weekend to decide to move to New Zealand for two years. Do you ever wonder what would have happened to your career if you would have said no?
I probably wouldn’t have been able to do History of Violence. I might not ever have met David Cronenberg, for one thing, things just happened that way. If I hadn’t been in Lord of the Rings, which was made by New Line, which was also making History of Violence, just the fact that he wanted me to be in the movie, I don’t think that I would have even been approached or that he would have been allowed to cast me, so who knows? From there, I did other things. Obviously, if I hadn’t done A History of Violence, I probably wouldn’t have done Eastern Promises and so forth.
And yet, is there a burden for having been in one of the most successful films of all time?
Not at all, no. I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve been asked that question in lots of different ways, but it’s the same question always, like is it a pain in the ass, or is it a burden. I mean, how could I say that? I have good friends from it, it’s a long period, but I have never felt pigeon-holed by that role in any way. I really have great memories about it. Like any movie that you look at and think, oh, I could have done better with this. But the overall experience is sort an intensive course in studying everything to do with Tolkien and everything to do with his source material, whether it be Irish mythology and history, Scandinavian, Welsh, Nordic mythology and history, all of that stuff was great, and I loved that. I mean, everything that went behind it and the friendships, and just New Zealand itself as a place, an extraordinary place, so yeah. And it’s opened so many doors, so how could I possibly blame it?
What was the first film you saw when you thought, this is what I want to do, and what was the first film you saw that you thought this is what I could do?
There was a period, I was living in Denmark and then in England, and for the first time I was going to reliable, specialty movie theatres where they show two different movies each night, usually a newer independent film or European film, and then an older one. I started seeing Bresson, Dreyer films, lots of older Ingmar Bergman movies, English movies, Italian, French, Spanish, all kinds of stuff. I’d seen some of them, but I hadn’t paid attention, and now I was thinking in the context of other movies, and educating myself. That was at a certain point in my life, pretty late, I was probably 21 or 22. I thought, why is it that I’m so moved? I remember Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter, for example, I remember the first time seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc, I felt the same way about Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s work. Why am I transported in this way? There were several movies that I just sort of connected to and it was different.
I mean, I always went to the movies, from when I was very young. My mother was the one who got me into it when I was three. I saw Lawrence of Arabia with her, and all kinds of movies. Long movies, they’d break in the middle. And she’d talk about the story, why do you think that happened. We don’t trust the English, you know, do you think they’re going to help him? I’m like a little kid and I’m like, oh, he’s pretty good with the camels and he’s a lot better at riding camels than the English, they’ll probably figure it out and the Arabs like him. But we were talking story, not movie stars, although she was crazy about Omar Sharif. I remember Dr. Zhivago, she was like, ahhh! But we would see these movies and I was in the habit of talking about stories always with my mom and then, so I was always looking at the story. But then all of a sudden when I saw some of these movies, like I say for some reason Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter and some of the other performances too, European movies, I suddenly wondered not just about the entertainment but why is it that I walk out and I’m surprised that I’m in Copenhagen or something and it’s summer and it’s not winter, or it’s not raining and I’m not in a forest. I was feeling that sort of disconcerting sense that I’ve been transported. I was really crying during that film, why am I crying? This is just a story on a screen. How do they do that? What’s the trick?
I always thought it was the actors, so I wanted to try that. That’s how it started. And then as I went along, I was nosy because I was a writer and a photographer before I decided to try that and I was always curious about how the cinematographer does their job and questioned them. Why do they do that? Why do they choose that colour of sweater or something, what’s going on there? And then you tie it together, you ask questions, you start learning about the filmmaking. I’ve never been an actor who stays in his trailer or his dressing room, I just want to see what’s going on. How do they do it? What’s the trick was always the question. I realized very quickly, oh, it’s not just the actors, it’s where they put the camera, it’s what the director asks them to do, it’s what the other actors do that either help or hurt the other actor, there’s so many factors involved. And then the editing really changes it, ah, ok, so as I was on sets I was learning more and more and more.
When I met David, I saw someone who was expert at paying attention to all of those things, and staying calm throughout. Because he didn’t feel threatened by anybody’s ideas or suggestions. He just thought well, if I can use it, I can use it. If I can’t, fuck it. It’s OK, but I’ll be polite to everyone. It’s not a bad approach: No yelling, no time wasting. So when it came time to direct, it didn’t feel that different. The only difference was that instead of me asking 50 thousand questions of people in the crew, the crew was asking me. That’s the job of the director, to answer a lot of questions and not lose their cool, you know? [laughs] Which I welcome, because the questions can help you if you really listen to them.
Crimes of the Future debuts in theatres June 3.
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