Viggo Mortensen believes in “The Road.”
That’s why he’s sitting inside a Manhattan hotel restaurant talking up his new film, a post-apocalyptic based on the Cormac McCarthy bestseller.
Yes, it is part of his job, part of any actor’s job, to do the promotional rounds. It’s why talk shows exist and why publicists are usually so high-strung. But talking with Mortensen about “The Road” would give even the greatest cynic pause. He was so invested in the film, he even convinced a scared corporate giant to take a leap of faith (more on that later).
Wearing his hair shoulder length and sporting a jersey of his favorite team, Argentina’s San Lorenzo soccer club, the actor discusses over coffee what he says is one of the most rewarding experiences of a stunningly diverse career.
“A movie like ‘The Road,’ even though it’s only a movie, or the book of ‘The Road,’ it can change for awhile the way you see yourself and those around you,” Mortensen said. “Maybe it makes you appreciate life a little bit more.”
“You get to a point in a world like the one described in this movie where it would be easy to say...what’s the point of being kind or compassionate, or generous...there’s no point, not in this world. It’s every man for himself. And yet if you choose, out of your own free will, to be kind anyway, that’s incredibly noble and beautiful.”
“If someone says, what’s the movie about? It’s about realizing that it’s better to be kind, and to be grateful for life. That simple realization is incredibly profound.”
To call “The Road” a passion project for Mortensen may be an understatement. Not only did it involve the actor’s now-patented extreme preparation and dedication — he lost a tremendous amount of weight to realistically portray his character’s emaciation — but also the shoot itself was grueling.
How many film shoots have you ever heard of where the cast and crew prayed for rain?
Set in a near future when the entire planet has been devastated by an unknown calamity, Mortensen plays the nameless father of a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) born just after civilization ended. They wander across the charred American landscape, surviving on whatever scraps they can find, while avoiding the surrounding dangers.
The film is set against a familiar backdrop to genre movie fans: Earth in the future, a wasteland. But that’s where the similarities mostly end.
There are no sentient machines running things. And the fact that we don’t know what caused the disaster makes it even more powerful and realistic, according to director John Hillcoat.
“After the event, it’s irrelevant because it's so much about the here and now and day-to-day survival from that point on,” Hillcoat, who directed the western “The Proposition,” said. “The past is gone and that’s not where your focus is. The spectacle, I think, of the big event, also tends to diminish the human dimension.”
Mortensen adds that the post-apocalyptic setting is effective because “it’s inherently dramatic. When you put characters in...those are movies I’ve always liked my whole life, even as a kid, to see. Movies where the stakes are high, where characters are really up against it. Then you see what they’re made of. Is there grace under pressure, or do they crumble?
“Once there’s no Internet and no phone and no TV and no radio,” he adds, “your world is going to shrink. It’s going to be your town, then it’s going to be your block, then your house, and your campsite...”
In such a world, comfort is found in the smallest, most trivial discoveries, such as a long-forgotten soft drink. But Mortensen said that one of the most memorable scenes in McCarthy’s book — when the pair find a can of Coca-Cola — almost didn’t make it into the movie because of corporate concern.
“We were approaching the day we were going to shoot that scene, which I was looking forward to, and they said, ‘we’re not going to be able to use Coke. We’ll have to use...Brand X soda or something.’ I said that’s not the same thing. Coke is so iconic around the world. It’s a symbol, of America, of a certain way of life.
“But the Coca-Cola Company has a policy. ...that they have never allowed their product to be shown in an R-rated movie.”
Mortensen asked to be put in contact with the Coke executive in charge of the decision to allow the use of its product.
“And I said, ‘I know it’s probably not going work but I just have to tell you, if you don’t know this book...you’re going to get for free something that potentially is as good as having an ad in the Super Bowl,’” Mortensen said. “‘For free. When you’ve got nothing left, and there’s this can of Coke ... it’s in the book ... and I’ve got to say, if you have family members — he says ‘yeah’ — and if they know this book, and if they see this movie and that can of Coke is not in it and you’re working for Coca-Cola and making that decision, they’re going to ask, why is that can of Coke not in there? Think about it.’
“We got approval,” Mortensen said, laughing at the memory.
Many will see “The Road” as a bleak, often disturbing morality tale. To its lead actor, however, it is primarily a love story between a father and son, trying to survive, and hold on to hope, to ‘carry the fire.’
**CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD**
“There’s that transition where the Boy says, ‘you know Dad, all this time you’ve been telling me we’re the good guys and good guys do this and they don’t do that,” Mortensen says about one of the film’s key scenes, where the Boy and the Man encounter a Thief. “ ‘And you’re doing that now. Does that still make you a good guy? I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’ Basically the boy is saying that everything you taught me about being a good guy, you’re not doing that now. So I think that makes you a bad guy.
“And the Dad kind of starts to try and explain that he’s scared and he’s looking out for you, and then he just stops and realizes, the boy is right. The child becomes the teacher.”
While they remain nameless onscreen as they do in McCarthy’s book, the bond between the father and son is the glue that holds the story together. Mortensen gives much of the credit to young co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee. Calling him talented beyond his years, Mortensen says the then-11-year old’s maturity allowed them to do so much more than they thought they would be able to do with a child actor. He points to one of the most chilling moments in the film as an example.
“When we had the scene where I’m showing him how to use a gun in the event he has to shoot himself if he’s being attacked or something and I’m not there...those things are hardcore, and we were going to shoot around it. But once we realized Kodi and his dad were very mature, and he really understood the story and most important, understood the difference between reality and fiction, even though he’s such a young boy...then, that was such a relief. Ok, now we can shoot this for real. This boy can go anywhere.”
“To me, what [Kodi] does is astounding. And without his emotional commitment and his acting chops, frankly, I can only go so far. I am totally dependent on him like he is totally dependent on me. And the movie is only going to be as good an adaptation of this beautiful book...as this relationship.”
This is not, it must be said, the typical movie you find being released this time of year. But “The Road’s” journey from script to screen has run into several problems. Its release date, originally October 2008, was pushed back twice for various reasons. And recently, The Weinstein Company came under fire for releasing a misleading trailer featuring stock disaster footage that doesn’t appear in the movie.
Mortensen, a savvy actor who gets the workings of the business while not exactly embracing said tactics, understands his movie is a tough nut for the marketing team to crack. It doesn’t even have the doomsday movie market cornered this holiday season. Roland Emmerich’s end-of-the-world epic “2012” opened two weeks earlier, and comparisons between the two movies, given their subject matter, are inevitable. And pointless, according to Mortensen.
“They’re quite different, aren’t they? I mean they get put in the same category, but...one is a spectacle, I think,” the actor suggests. “ It’s just watching these amazing special effects. I don’t know if it’s something you’re going to wrestle with in the morning. Not on some philosophical or emotional level. The other one [“The Road”] is about the people.”
Another big difference between the two movies is the size of their promotional budget. There’s a good chance you won’t see many ads for “The Road” during the Thanksgiving NFL games.
“Ours is going to have to live and die by word-of-mouth. Fortunately, [that] seems to be very good,” Mortensen said. “People see it, and say, ‘wow, it’s a tough journey but it’s worthwhile, you learn something. You walk out of the theater feeling different. There aren't many movies that can do that to you.”
“But, we’ve got to get lucky. We don’t have a big promotional push, its not being released widely, yet. I’m concerned about it, to be honest, because I want people to see it in the theater.”
No doubt one of the reasons the studio decided on this release date was to try and capitalize on the award season, which is about to hit its stretch run. Mortensen is already earning talk of a second Oscar nomination for his work in “The Road,” but he calls that entire process “a crap shoot.”
“I mean, David Cronenberg (Mortensen’s director on “Eastern Promises” and “History of Violence”) should have been down that road many times...he’s never been [nominated]. So who knows what happens?”
“When you look at say, at the same age or so, Anna Paquin in ‘The Piano’, for which she won an Oscar (Paquin was 11 when she won in 1993), what Kodi ended up doing in this movie is no less an achievement than what she did in that movie.”
He also is quite aware of the potential box-office value an Oscar nomination could hold for his movie.
“Some movies don’t need to be nominated in order to do good business. But there’s no better word of mouth [for a film like “The Road”] than opening the paper or looking on the Internet and seeing a poster for the movie and seeing, ‘Nominated for Best Picture, or Best Supporting Actor’, or whatever,” he said. ‘This movie could seriously use that, so I pay attention to it. But does it improve my opinion of the movie if it gets nominated for Best Picture or does it lessen it [if it does not get nominated]? No, obviously not.”
While Mortensen is too tactful to toot his own horn, his director has no such problem. He knew that when the 51-year-old agreed to do the movie, he would be getting the same dedicated actor who spent weeks in Russia researching for his role as a cop posing as a gangster in “Eastern Promises,” and who did most of his own breakneck horse-riding scenes in “Hidalgo.”
“He gives 110 percent and there’s an incredible physicality...and expressiveness in his face,” Hillcoat says, comparing the theme of “The Road” to the mood of the dustbowl wanderers of the Great Depression. “There’s something about those faces about people struggling from that period...and Viggo’s face just fits right into that.”
A true-blue Renaissance man with interests in music, photography and poetry, Mortensen plans to keep busy. He has a new book of poems due out soon. He does not, however, have “The Hobbit” on his schedule as of yet. He would be interested in appearing in Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation, but there is nothing set in stone.
He also may be ready to step into the director’s chair for the first time. After being convinced that saying the name of the book wouldn’t jinx the project (let’s hope not), Mortensen revealed he’s obtained the rights to a 1950s coming-of-age book called “The Horsecatcher.”
“It’s a beautiful story, kind of a coming-of-age story, about resisting peer pressure and being your own person as an adolescent, particularly in regards to violence,” he said. “And if I can get someone to back me on it, it would be a modest budget, I would like to direct it and write the script for it.”
He also says that, contrary to what some may think, he doesn’t go out of his way to avoid more commercial studio fare. In fact, he says it may be the other way around.
“They [the studios] may avoid me, because they keep seeing me doing a play in Spain, or some little movie in Argentina, or doing “Good,” or even “The Road.” But it depends.”
“I prepare the same no matter what. I’m not against doing big, huge movies but, more often, the bigger the budget, the safer it is and the less challenges there are in it for the actors. But you can still make them. I’ve worked on big-budget movies and found ... layers in there that were interesting to me. I’m just looking for good stories. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small budget.”