Viggo Mortensen is a true Renaissance man, but he approaches all the areas of his creative expression with deliberateness and commitment. He writes poetry—good poetry, not just a few free-associated thoughts slapped together. He is a photographer—not just a shutterbug whose work hangs in galleries because he’s famous, but a photographer you can actually see thinking through the aperture of his instrument. He publishes books—not just one or two every now and again, but consistently, through an actual publishing house he founded 15 years ago and continues to run. He’s a musician, but not in the way many actors dabble in music—he’s released 17 albums, including some collaborations with some outstanding musicians.
And, of course, that same deliberateness and commitment has led to a truly extraordinary film career. The Danish-Canadian-American actor speaks at least four languages and occasionally picks up more, usually for an acting role (for a recent movie he’s enthusiastic about, Far From Men, he offhandedly mentions, “I had to pick up Arabic for that”). He’s famously one of the most dedicated actors around to preparing for his roles and going to great lengths to uncover the performance the film requires. And his selection of projects and roles are motivated by a curatorial sense that is uncanny. He’s one of those actors whose presence alone can make you interested in a movie you wouldn’t otherwise think twice about. He’s that good, that smart, that discerning.
The actor—who brought life to Lalin in Carlito’s Way, to Caspar Goodwood in Portrait of a Lady, and to lead characters in three consecutive David Cronenberg films, and who may have been the only actor alive with enough weary gravitas to play Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy—stars in Matt Ross’ new film, Captain Fantastic, which was one of our favorite films from Sundance and opens this weekend. In it he plays Ben, a recent widower who raises his six children in the woods, off the grid, on a steady diet of Noam Chomsky and survival skills. You wouldn’t want anyone else in the world playing the part, especially once the film gets a bit more complicated and Ben realizes his little utopia might not be what’s actually best for the kids. Paste spoke with Mortensen recently about the role.
: This is such a striking film, and your striking performance is right at the center of it. But I was also so impressed with Matt Ross’ script. I spoke with him recently, and he’s a pretty intriguing personality.
Viggo Mortensen: He’s such a thoughtful and generous person, not like some of his most well-known characters he’s played recently [laughs]. Not at all. I think he’s done an extraordinary job. Not just with the script, which was one of the best ones I’d ever read, in terms of being layered, juggling lots of different characters, and having a role in Ben that was that maddening and thought-provoking and inspiring. And all the things that I felt reading the script, I now feel watching the movie. I was intensely relieved when I got to know the kids he’d found, in our final readings and in our boot camp for the movie, because I’d been concerned. And I’m sure he was too. We’ve got this great script, now let’s find six extraordinary young actors capable of speaking that dialogue and doing the things that they have to do in the movie. Without that piece, you can only make a good movie, you can’t make a great one. But he went out and found six geniuses. And we have a really fine movie that people seem to really like. So I’m relieved, and happy, and proud of the movie.
: One of the words you used to describe him—thoughtful—really rings true to me based on the conversation I had with him. He seems to be someone who approaches his art very carefully.
: That’s certainly something that those of us who are fans of yours have appreciated about you for a long time. There’s a real care and deliberateness about the way you approach your work.
Mortensen: Directors—and I suppose actors too—can sometimes be very meticulous and thoughtful and actually be very hard to work with, if they’re too intense, and if it’s all got to be a certain way. Matt balances it really well, though. He’s very thoughtful, as you say, very deliberate and detailed in his approach, but he doesn’t try to impose his ideas on others.
Mortensen: Yeah, it’s an opening gambit; he’s open to what other people have to offer. But he’s supremely well-prepared as a director. When he arrives on set, he’s turned over every stone possible, so when someone comes to him with an idea, he’s able to incorporate it or not, based on what he’s aiming for. So he has a really good balance of being extremely meticulous and well-prepared, and also open to new ideas.
: Someone gave me an analogy once, that when they did the first moonshot, they knew for a fact that their calculations were way off in some direction, and they would have to adjust en route. But that didn’t make it less important to try to get it as close as possible in advance; it made it more important.
Mortensen: Right. That makes sense. This story, in some sense, is about conscious parenting. And I think as the story goes on, you realize, or you’re reminded, that it’s impossible to be a perfect parent, or have a perfect family, or raise a perfect child. Or to make a perfect movie! A perfect democracy, a perfect marriage. These things are impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, you know? It’s in the effort to make a perfect movie, or to be the perfectly engaged and conscious parent, it’s in that effort that you become as good a parent as you can be. And part of that involves—and we see it in a beautiful way in this story—realizing when you’ve gone too far, or not far enough. When you’ve become derailed in your efforts to be a good parent to be conscious enough, aware enough, thoughtful enough, and actually brave enough, to realize it and do something about it. That’s something you see happening in the story that makes it surprisingly complex, in the end. It’s not the story you start out thinking you’re going to see, which I suppose is a more liberal-minded utopian fantasy with maybe some comic moments, where this family lives off the grid and encounters conservative foes and they’ll be our heroes throughout. It’s not that way at all. There are a lot of mistakes made a long the way. But you do make mistakes, when you try hard. It’s inevitable.
: It’s especially poignant that Ben starts to see that as well, and his grappling with it is a really nice journey to take us on.
Mortensen: Yeah. And I think Matt does it in an incredible way in the story, when that happens. A moving way. And organically—it’s not “hey, we need this moment of realization.” It just kind of follows. It makes sense. I think you’re drawn in by it, as an audience member, inspired. And saddened, perhaps. Sometimes it’s bittersweet, sometimes it’s downright funny, the errors and extremes to which Ben goes as a parent. But yeah, as you say, he has to bring it around and make some changes. He has to engage in some self-reflection.
: Knowing the story was at least inspired by some autobiographical elements of Matt’s life, did you feel any kind of special responsibility to be playing that part?
Mortensen: No, I didn’t know that much about it. I had asked him about it a little bit. He had told me that in part of his adolescence he was raised, not exactly all the way off the grid like this family, but in rural Oregon and Northern California. His mom had constructed some alternative living communities that were off the grid a bit. In the summers they lived in a teepee by a pond, that kind of thing. He felt very isolated. But I also realized that the character Bodovin, the eldest of my children in the story, has come to a point in his life as a young man where he wants to explore the world. He doesn’t want to just learn from books and philosophical discourse within his own family. He wants to see the world on his own, and meet kids his own age. I think Matt yearned for that when he was living in more isolated circumstances with his family.
Mortensen: But I didn’t feel like I needed to get that right, because the story we’re telling isn’t exactly his. It’s like, let’s say I take on the role of Hamlet, which has been played thousands of times. Hundreds of thousands of times. And every Hamlet is going to be different. Every show is going to be different. You never know. You just have to make it your own. I’m sure I did things as Ben, and certainly the kids probably did, that Matt didn’t expect. I guess you’d have to ask him.
: I would have liked to have seen you as Hamlet. Did you ever play Hamlet?
Mortensen: I only did it in workshop situations, you know, when I was starting out in New York. I figured I’d end up doing it at some point, but I never actually did.
: You certainly appear younger than you are, but that may be too much of a stretch at this point, even for you.
Mortensen: It may be! Maybe if it’s a big theater where I’m far enough away from the audience, people could make a leap of faith.
: Something that struck me in watching this movie again was, being a father of two myself, and I know you’re a father as well, it would have been a compelling scenario even if he only had one or two children. But six kids!
Mortensen: All six.
: Raising six children with a partner and a housekeeper and everything else would be difficult. But out alone in the woods, my goodness.
Mortensen: By yourself, and also in the wake of the recent departure of the mother. I think, you know, it’s an unspoken thing, it’s not something that comes up in the story, but I’m sure that Ben felt extra pressure to push his kids and to make sure everything was done right, to teach them. I’m sure he pushed even harder in the absence of the mother when the story starts. He does go to extremes at times. And he does realize it in the end, which is gratifying. And awkward, but moving, this incredible transition he has to make.
: We don’t get to see his life when the wife was around.
Mortensen: I think it must have been more balanced, but maybe based on her bipolarity, the problems she’s had that we hear about, maybe it was very difficult. But nonetheless, in her good moments, I’m sure being two parents collaborating on raising six kids is a lot easier than being on your own. I’m sure it’s daunting for Ben to have to make that transition. I agree with you, I have one kid, and sometimes when kids have sleepovers or are around family kids, when you have a handful, it can be really hard to deal with on your own.
Mortensen: You know, but fortunately these kids are super smart and they’ve learned to be resourceful. I think, in a way, this movie could go a ways toward making kids who are intellectually curious, and engaged philosophically and with nature and with each other, cool. Not just you’re nerdy or you’re an outsider, different, a strange kid. These six kids are just extraordinary, and I think it shows it as being cool to be smart and engaged with what’s going on in the world.
: From your lips to God’s ears, my friend.
Mortensen: Yeah. [laughs]
: I know you’ve talked about parts of yourself that you brought to the character, and certainly it seems very hand in glove. In retrospect, you seem like the only actor who could’ve played Ben. With a character like this who’s such a strong presence, how has living in his skin for that period of time affected you since then? Have you noticed?
Mortensen: I think I’m going back to reading more!
: I can’t imagine not.
Mortensen: Yeah, I always read quite a bit because I have a publishing house, but I’m a little more aware of time passing and needing to get the most out of life. I tend to be that way anyway, which is probably why I’m engaged in some kind of creative pursuits most of the time. But I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m getting older as well, and have had family members who have passed away, and friends, but it’s trying to seize the moment more. But playing this character, I find him very inspirational. And scary. [laughs] He’s really extreme. He made me feel lazy sometimes, his approach. But I guess the positive takeaway is to be engaged as much as possible. And listen. I think listening is really important. It’s underrated. Pay attention, listen, and then give voice to your thoughts based on what you’ve understood.