Matt Ross’s film Captain Fantastic is a delightful, provocative tale of a father raising a group of polymath children in the woods, forced to come to town to deal with the loss of his wife. Equal parts comic and somber, it’s anchored by a sympathetic, rich performance by Viggo Mortensen.
Dork Shelf spoke to director and star from the Cannes Film festival just before its European debut, a showcase that resulted in a top director’s prize for Ross.
DS: Viggo, you’ve mentioned previously that this character has aspects very close to yourself
Viggo Mortensen: There were some things about the character that I immediately understood. Every character has something you have to learn, and if there are some things that you already know a little bit, that helps. Camping in the woods, or hunting and fishing were things that I did when I was a little kid. Yet there were things I had to learn to do. I’m not a big fan of high places and looking down, and so the rock climbing was… Good. When it came to lunchtime, all of the kids scrambled down like spider monkeys and then they called, “Viggo, you coming down?” “No, just send the sandwich up with a rope.” I stayed there.
DS: Did you have Viggo in mind when you crafted Ben’s character?
Matt Ross: When I wrote I had this idea of some kind of actor like Harrison Ford was in his 30s. There was something about him that was very masculine but also vulnerable. When it came time to cast it there was no other choice but Viggo. Indian Runner was the first thing I saw him in when I was a young man and I’ve watched his career. I didn’t know him until we made this movie, but I just was a great admirer of him – He’s a poet, a photographer, painter and a writer. He brings integrity to everything he does, and as a director, your lead actor is the face of the movie. He demonstrates the aspirations of the movie, what kind of movie are you hoping to make, and for me, I can have no better faith than in Viggo Mortensen.
DS: What Ford was doing in the 80s, and the films you were referencing, is after the giant blockbusters he started making some personal films and one thing they did.
VM: Yeah, I worked with him on Witness. He was a very workman like guy, he was very nice. And he actually was a hell of a carpenter. When we were building that barn, I was like, holy shit, he knows what he’s doing.
DS: With Witness or Mosquito Coast, many went out to see them in part because people have seen the blockbusters he was associated. The same sure must be the case thanks to your own mega franchise.
VM: I’ve heard the crude term “one for them and one for me”. I would rather just do them all for me. That doesn’t involve thinking what’s the budget, or what language is it being shot in. I’m just looking at stories, what I see. I don’t have a plan – Maybe I should, but I’m happy so far not.
DS: Please talk about playing a character that might be close to you politically, but maybe not quite the way you might or might not raise children?
VM: In a social sense, the idea of encouraging open dialogue for child to think for themselves is not unfamiliar. It’s something I believe in, it’s something I’ve done with my own son. There’s going to be surprising results, because once they think for themselves, they can turn around and say, well, you’re full of shit! It’s one of the things I loved about the script.
“Captain Fantastic”, it’s like saying he’s a perfect father or something. It’s not possible, it’s an aspiration, it’s a hope. It’s like saying democracy – We live in the closest thing you’ve been able to come up with so far to a democracy. Total democracy is impossible, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s a process, just like being a dad is a process.
DS: In the film you’re wearing a Jesse Jackson shirt, which is both about idealism and the sting of a losing campaign.
VM: Well, there you go! [Laughs] Nobody’s perfect in the movie and nobody’s a hero, nobody’s a villain really.
DS: As a younger artist you start as an idealist in your art, and then you’re confronted with the realities of how hard it is to sustain an idealism, in this film business especially.
VM: I think you have to reinvent yourself as a director, as an actor, as a person. I think every time you wake up in the morning you are rebuilding the engine, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
DS: Is it possible for you to get around unrecognized and observe people in order to get their mannerisms and pick something up for your own acting from them?
VM: I don’t have that much trouble with that, to be honest with you, In Eastern Russia or something like that, nobody would know who I was because they just don’t expect you to be there. But even in the US or in Europe, I think a lot of it is what you give off. We’re animals, people sense that you’re nervous, whether they realize they’re sensing it or not.
DS: Did you have the kids bond with Viggo to get a sense of familial ties?
MR: We had everyone come for about two weeks before we started shooting. They did rock climbing every day, some martial arts, there were some language courses, and the two teenage girls had a butchery class learning to butcher a sheep. It’s an opportunity for them to bond, an opportunity for them to fall in love with Viggo and to think of him as their father. Viggo built the garden in the movie so he could start to interact with the environment. He brought a lot of his own props, so he personalized the environment.
DS: They were a little disappointed he didn’t bring his sword and his chain mail?
VM: Charlie was disappointed.
MR: I wasn’t disappointed because it turns out we weren’t making Lord of the Rings, we were making a different movie.
DS: Where did the idea of Noam Chomsky day come from?
MR: Noam Chomsky is one of my heroes and I think his birthday is worth celebrating. We celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday in my house, December 7th, and I encourage you all to celebrate his birthday. We have a little cake and a little candle and you give someone a gift. It’s just like Christmas, but it’s Noam Chomsky day. It’s better.
VM: I’ve read all of his books, but we don’t have a Noam Chomsky day. But maybe we should, it’s December 7th?
MR: No one has a Noam Chomsky day except in my house, but I encourage you to have it.
DS: This is another film of yours with nudity, but in a very different context than some of your other roles.
VM: I asked Matt about it shortly before shooting. I said I’m not saying I don’t want to do it, I’m just asking, let’s just make sure, is this worth doing?
MR: Is it going to be distracting?
VM: If it is, then maybe we should do something else. We didn’t have that long, so let’s use the time properly. Is this an important scene? And the decision was yes. The reason it works in the script is the reason it works in the movie, because it’s part of the way this family lives.
MR: It’s character revelation. He has no compunction about being naked in front of his family, and also there’s a little bit of a payoff because he was chastising the child for showing up at the dinner table.
VM: In terms of comedic timing it’s like, 1,2,3, badaboom. Cothes on when we eat, no you, clothes on when we eat and then, it works.
MR: Practice what you preach.
VM: And it allows you to see once more, people outside of that family unit being shocked by something that to them is normal or boring.
DS: You were rocking a much friendlier penis than in Eastern Promises. That was an angry penis.
VM: No, in Eastern Promises, it was a frightened penis.