Viggo Mortensen is one of the greatest actors working today. Of that, I have no doubt. He stormed the screen as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’ epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, lead David Cronenberg’s outstanding crime thriller A History of Violence (which lead to a three-film collaboration between the two) and thinned down to a troubling frame in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and for all the variety Mortensen injects into his roles, the one consistent thread is his supreme dedication. So it will come as no surprise that when I got to sit down with the thespian behemoth for his newest feature Captain Fantastic, we had much to discuss.
Joined by director Matt Ross, we talk about film as a collaborative process between the director and performers, learning new skills – from knife fighting to playing the bagpipes – for film roles, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and how to manufacture “believability”. Finally, Viggo attempts to dispel the label of “method acting” (he doesn’t like the terminology) but I’m not convinced it’ll stick.
Captain Fantastic imagines this world in which the core characters are almost impossibly capable– they’re just so good at so many things. And that’s what your character has dedicated his life to: making his kids these immaculate creations almost. And then, we see through this extremist version of homeschooling, there’s also pratfalls and shortcomings when they’re exposed to the world at large. As we’re watching this kind of journey and seeing both the things they excel at and their shortcomings, we’re left to wonder: do the ends justify the means in a situation like this?
Matt Ross: That’s one of the central questions of the movie.
Viggo Mortensen: They’re immaculate creations.
MR: Well, they’re impossible creations in so far as, and I think the truth is, and I know some people like this, they’re extreme absolutely. I give you that. But if you grow up without a television or without any screens, and you’re reading everyday and playing music, you get quite skilled at those things. Every once in awhile, someone will send me an article about a homeschooled family, and I’m always amazed at how truth is stranger than fiction, you know? There is an article– I never sent this to you– but there’s a whole family of yogis, and they’re Americans. All of them from the littlest kid down are extraordinary at yoga. They’re like highly advanced yoga.
VM: Are they too much?
MR: Yeah, are they living in balance or out of balance? I think… I don’t know that I want to answer that, because the movie does have a viewpoint about it.
VM: One of the strengths that the movie shows you is that it is possible to come to the realization that maybe I need to adjust. And find a new balance in the way I’m living my life personally, and how I treat other people and so forth.
MR: I mean this reveals the end of the movie. For those who haven’t seen it, it shouldn’t be discussed, but I don’t think he gives up his values. For me, I think he’s made an adjustment. He’s had a realization over the course of the movie, many, but one of them is that his kids aren’t socialized. He’s realized that by not living in the world, I’ve done many wonderful things, but I’ve also removed them from one of the core bits of being a human being, which is community. They don’t have a community, and they don’t know how to respond to children their own age.
VM: There’s also no such thing as perfect.
VM: No such thing as a perfect life, a perfect father, a perfect kid. Perfectly happy, perfectly healthy, it changes from day to day– whether you’re happy or not, whether you’re healthy or not, whether you’re in a good mood and you’re able to impart information in a patient easily understood way, or whether you’re going too far. That changes all the time. There’s layers and layers of complexity to each individual having all those things be different. Dealing with others, having six kids to deal with… There’s a lot of things going on that you realize during the second viewing. Maybe some of the intensity of his striving towards excellence in all areas for his kids, which is referred to in the beginning, you know, in part. I guess that the absence of the mother, even if it’s not all conscious, makes him want to make a big effort always, but even more now that she’s gone.
I have to really crack the whip. I’ve got to really be after them. I’ve got to really… you know, do it. He’s also pushing himself in a way. That’s a part of the story too. There’s so many levels when a story is well told like this one. I think later in the story, it’s not only that he has to give these kids a break, but he has to give himself a break in some way. How do you find that out? At first when you feel like you’re trying so hard, you’re putting all your effort in, and you’ve given up maybe a lot of different interests than your own for these children. I think every parent can relate to this when they get frustrated. It’s like, “I’ve done this. I’m giving up.” I mean that comes out of ego and insecurity, but it’s a real feeling. I’m busting my ass, and I’m doing this, and parents come out and say this in different ways, but what do I have to show for it? I got you not listening or not doing a good job. All this frustration, right. And maybe it’s like you need to relax and try it again. Give that person a break. They don’t have to do every goddamn thing every day, you know?
I think these pressures of “I’m mom and dad, and I have to do it all,” I think there’s a lot of that there. What’s good is at first, you might feel, “Okay, this is an ideal super Robinson Crusoe times 100 situation and I see where this is going to go. Okay, at some point, they’re going to go out and run into people from towns and cities, and the shit is going to hit the fan.” But we’re going to be on their side, on their ride. In the world of this movie, they’re right and everyone else is wrong. It’s not quite that simple fortunately. It’s not that kind of story. Even before leaving the woods, they are tensions that later come to fruition or whatever you want to call it or the consequences of those tensions. Everything comes out in some way. It makes you not think anymore, “They’re perfect or they’re heroic.” If you happen to get duped into going to see this movie, you go, “What the fuck is this? What a bunch of fucking animals. What a bunch of poppycock. Jesus Christ. It’s all bullshit. Fucking hell. What time is it? My wife will kill me if I leave. I better just sit and tough it out with her. She’s crying.” And then all of sudden, you’re kind of like, “Oh, oh. He’s kind of admitting he’s an asshole. That’s interesting.” You know what I mean? There’s something there. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. It’s not an ideological movie. It’s not a story that’s saying this is a great way to do things or this is a terrible way to do this. It’s like what the characters end up doing: I can take some of that, I can also take some of that. Maybe that person over there that I have no regard for… maybe they have a point about one or two things. That’s life. It’s a society that works. That’s what happens.
So, you mentioned that a lot of these characters are striving to be the best version they can. Your character, Ben Cash, does it as well. You as an actor in the past, you’ve been known to adopt these kind of method approaches–
VM: What is a method? What do you mean by that? I’m going to call you on that because I think it’s a bullshit description. A method is a way of doing something, right? There’s as many ways to do something as there are actors. So, there is no such thing as method acting. I’d like to dispel you of that illusion. That’s my mission today.
So let’s say instead that you go above and beyond in terms of what a lot of actors will be willing to push themselves. You learn how to write in the same hand as Sigmund Freud. You spent the entirety of the shoot in your Aragorn costume, doing your own stunts, getting injured and dirty in Lord of the Rings. You literally starved yourself for The Road. These are things that a lot of actors don’t do. They don’t go to this extent. So then when you have a character like Ben Cash, who knows how to do everything pretty much – ee hunts, he gardens, he knife fights, he rock climbs – what’s the limit? How many of these skills did you feel that you had to acquire to comfortably work as him?
VM: I had to work on everything.
MR: Bagpipes, too, don’t forget that.
VM: That too. I had to learn how to play guitar. No, but I mean if you like your job, which I do generally, then that’s part of the fun. And sometimes, if the movie shoot isn’t as harmonious as ours was and if the final movie doesn’t turn out well, which is another whole world that has little to do with what you’re doing at the time, at least the preparation, the skills, the things you worked on, that was fun.
You can take that away.
VM: Yeah, I can take that away. Nobody can take that away from me.
VM: I had that experience, and it was good. In the case of this story, there were many things I had to work on. And just being someone with that mindset that would raise his kids that way… I mean you’ve said it was aspirational. You wish you could devote a 100% of your days and nights to your kids, but you know, you’ve got things you have to do to make a living and so forth.
MR: Things I want to do, yeah.
VM: On some level, any conscientious parent would like to devote as much of themselves to their kids as Ben does in this story. It’s not an easy thing to do. Like I say, when it turns out badly, it can be devastating. Because when you put all your chips on that number, you put all your eggs in that basket, however you want to describe it, if it turns out badly, it’s like, “Oh, man. I’m nothing.” Because that was my everything, and it didn’t work. Now, I’m shit.
MR: Part of it is process though. Every actor and every director– every person– has their own process. It’s really just knowing what your process is, and making room to have your process, and making sure–
VM: FInding where you’re comfortable.
MR: Yeah, yeah. In this case, it’s unrealistic to hope to play bagpipes in the time given. I actually have a friend who is someone I went to high school with who is the premier maker of bagpipes in the world. He’s been making bagpipes since he was a kid. That’s a lifelong skill that he’s acquired, but I do think you can learn to assemble it. You can’t learn to speak German in two weeks, but you could learn to say the words in the movie phonetically so that it sounds like you can speak German. That’s really the task at hand. Viggo, I think, and I can’t speak for you entirely, but likes to live in the world as much as possible, so it’s in his body. It’s a way of embodying the character I mean.
VM: I am comfortable. I do enjoy it. As far as the thing you said about the Freud thing, yeah. It made me feel like I was getting closer to him. I’m never going to be Sigmund Freud, I’m never going to be Ben Cash, but I like to get as close as I can. And to get as many distractions out of the way, and by distractions, I mean if I am comfortable with doing the things they’re supposed to do as much as I can until the moment they’re shooting the scene then it’s one less worry that I’ll have. So I can deal person to person with the other actors. I’ve got these things down, and I’m incorporating it, and if you throw in an improvised line, I’ve done enough work on my accent or whatever it is, then I will respond to you in an improvised line that will be in character. Because I’ve worked enough on that it’s there. I’m comfortable. That’s my way. There are other people that are very specific. They will practice every gesture. You’ve worked with these people, I’m sure, and they will guarantee on every take they will cry out of their right eye around 45 seconds in. That’s amazing. Sometimes, that works really well, and sometimes not. It depends how good that technical skill is. Sometimes, it’s seamless. I do think that when you do that degree of isolated preparation, I think that’s how the role is going to be. Personally, I just think that, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I think you miss out on the bit the actor can bring you.
Like a director does. Like Hitchcock, you know, you have to do it like that. I don’t want to hear your ideas. I don’t know, but Hitchcock’s world is so surreal. His movie, the good ones, wouldn’t be as good as they were if they didn’t have that artificial strange thing about them. I don’t know. I used to think about them, but I recently saw some of his movies again. I always used to think his great movies could have been greater if he had like actors and collaborated, but now, I don’t know. His movies have such a gesture and every move, every shot is so specific. If you unbalance that…it’s own kind of beast, you know.
So, speaking of the actor/director relationship, Matt, as an actor yourself, how does your background in acting influence you as a director? Does that translate to you being more collaborative and hands on or are you very much someone who stands back and lets your actors take over?
MR: I grew up making films at the same time I did theater. So, I’ve been doing them my whole life, both of them. I think that certainly being an actor influences the way I direct. I love acting, and I love actors. I firmly believe a person’s response to the film is really through the actors. Most great film moments are acting moments that are about human revelation. I said this before, but the things like the lighting and the great dolly shot that’s going through your face should really work on an unconscious level. If you say, “Wow, great camera movement,” then it’s not working. You should be feeling something. It’s emotional. So, I’m very conscientious of creating a happy space for art, for actors to explore, because I think also that the entire filmmaking process in every department is about that. I don’t think that our job is to prop up a dead object, but to come to set everyday and we’ve agree about the script and we’ve all agreed on this narrative and we’re all contributing to it. But it’s also a movie. It’s not a play, and it’s a not a novel. I did a film before this where we would shoot the scene as written, and we would shoot the scene completely improvised in many, many different ways. There’s a scene for instance and it’s about an affair. This woman is pregnant, she came into a scene, and as written, I think originally, she was pregnant with her husband’s baby. The scene was about how they can’t get together, I’m going to have my husband’s baby. We did it as written, and then the next time she came in, she told him she was pregnant but it was his baby. How did that change the dynamic?
VM: Did you know she was going to do that?
MR: No, no, I told her to, I told her to. Then, I told her to come in and say, “It’s your baby,” but that’s a lie. It’s actually her husband’s baby. See how that happens. We couldn’t do that with this movie. We shot the script largely, but I try to extrapolate that idea and really watch and observe and allow them to interpret the script, because we’re all interpretative artists. A director is an interpretative artists. I happened to write this, but they’re interpretative artists. I want to see, I’m curating in a way that I’ve casted them, but I want to see what they bring and then I want to reflect on that. I’m hoping– just as they’re hoping to be surprised by the other actors– for things I never thought of, and that’s true in every department. If all everyone does is show up and do what’s written, that’s all it’s ever going to be. I want some photographer to come up with ideas that are better than mine. A film is a collaborative medium. I cannot and am not doing everyone’s job.
VM: Not all directors look at it that way though. It would be better if they did, frankly.
MR: You want Stéphane the cinematographer to come in and say, “Well, that’s an okay idea, Matt, but what about this?” And be like, “Oh my god, yes, thank you!” We all do. We want that from every department and from the actors as well.
Viggo, you came onto the set with all these ideas about the story and actually had a hand in some of the music for the film as well as the set design – you showed up early to help make this community you were living in. Is that you going above and beyond or just what kind of commitment filmmakers expect of you?
MR: I’ll start and then you can take off. We had a conversation. We’re both very obsessed with the authenticity of the world, and so, some of our earliest conversations were about the compound and making sure that was real. As I said before, with the food source and the winter shelter and having fresh water–
VM: Could they move there in the winter for real? Is it believable?
MR: Yes, yes. We answered those questions. I have a friend, a production designer, we made sure it was all there. Then, you know, Viggo built the garden. He also came with a lot of props. The collaborative nature starts when he says he wants to do the movie with me. I honestly think, and I really believe this, that this is his life as well. It’s also his career. He is the face of the movie. In a way, casting Viggo is my statement of purpose, saying this is the kind of movie I want to make based on what I know about Viggo as an artist. It really comes down to this. The art we make is partially about who we chose to collaborate with. If you’re a painter and you paint by yourself, then you’re collaborating with yourself, but film is a collaborative art. It’s really about who you chose to collaborate with so I invite him to the process because I want to, you know?
VM: Early on, which was great, he invited me to be part of the final candidate auditions for the kids and stuff. That was a really good way to start rehearsing in a way. We were already rehearsing. We were already getting a feel for “How does this sound?” It was for him. We talked about doing a movie together, but he had never heard me playing Ben.
MR: That’s true, that’s true. I remember that moment.
VM: All of a sudden, George is on Skype, he’s on vacation with his family,–
MR: In Italy.
VM: And they went out to dinner and he stayed in the hotel room and said, “Okay, I have about a half hour here or whatever.” And so, we’re doing his final audition on Skype, and I was like, “This poor English kid. How is he going to do this?” He’s looking at us, and suddenly, he’s the character.
MR: We even improvised, too. We did improvisation too.
VM: But I was looking back and I was like, “This is me.” Not only as he sounds as a character, but how am I relating to George?
MR: I remember that moment very well.
VM: What did you think at that point?
MR: I was so happy I couldn’t believe it. Because I thought “This is going to work.” I just knew it was going to work. I mean the first time I heard you read it, I knew. Based on everything I knew about you, I had no fear, but then it’s realized. It’s not just my imagination of how Viggo might play this role. I’m seeing a preliminary rehearsal, a sketch, because that’s really what it is in the beginning.
VM: And it’s great for me.
MR: And you’re sketching. Maybe I’ll do this. I’ll try this.
VM: I like when we met up and they were still building the compound. It was to talk. It was like, “It’s this time of year.” Just simple things. If the ideas are there that might get triggered later without them getting said, without being obvious, we’ve done our job. But we’re sitting there at that time of year and going, “Okay, well when we’re shooting, it’s going to be this time of year. It could be a few weeks earlier.“ You never know with a movie. If you know anything about the woods, you’ve got a three week window. So, this is how big the vegetables would be, so we need to start them now or we need to get starters or something. Just simple things like that, which you only see for a second, but. If that’s real, you don’t question it. If it doesn’t work… let’s say we’re growing bananas. You’d be like, “What the fuck?” You know what I mean? That’s how stupid some of it is.
MR: He brought in the song, too, that he wrote. The campfire song, it was something different. He brought that piece in. George, who plays guitar, he and George did that, and that whole scene came out of rehearsal and improvisation.
VM: It became reflective of the family dynamic. Like what if the rebel fucks up the song. Or denies the song? As a family, what do we do? As a father, the kids are like is he going to get pissed off? Or is the music going to stop? Or is there another chance, a microcosm of what the whole movie’s about, I can still play my music, but I can change my music in order to be able to play music with this person. Obviously at this point, the state at which he’s at emotionally, we’re not going to play music together unless I play his music.
MR: That’s a great example by the way of the collaboration and why it’s always worth doing. Because as scripted, the scene was not that. The script was just that he looks around and sees that he’s maybe pushing the kids a little too fair and they have a moment where they all come together playing music. That scene they ended up doing, it still ends up happening, but it had so much more complexity because of what they brought as actors and really frankly as filmmakers to the process.