Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs Address Good and Wax Philosophical about the Nazis
by Brad Balfour
Originally posted on January 12, 2009.
During a snappy roundtable with a few journalists, actors Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs double-teamed to express their thoughts about their disturbing new film, Good, based on the acclaimed British play by CP Taylor. Set during the Nazi era — like several other movies this season — this feature describes a relatively banal man’s acceptance into pre-war Nazi society of the 1930s. As he rises in status, we see how the seductive power of fascism can compromise someone slowly until they are in so deep it’s too late to repudiate it.
German literature professor John Halder has written a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia. When the book is unexpectedly read by Hitler and his key advisers, Halder is enlisted to make an argument for managed euthanasia which is ultimately used as a rationale for the Final Solution. The meek professor suddenly has a new career as an honorary S.S. officer.
With Halder’s change in fortune, his seemingly inconsequential life is imbued with an allure and power he hadn’t experienced before, leading him to leave his wife for a beautiful, status-hungry grad student (Jodie Whittaker) and ultimately betray his Jewish friend, the charismatic Jewish psychiatrist Maurice (Jason Isaacs), who ends up in a concentration camp.
There’s no better actor than Mortensen to express this transformation from an apolitical professor living within his world of words to someone who enjoys the prestige and power of the Nazis initially, only to be appalled at the consequences of his tacit support of their methods. Ever since he made his mark with A Walk On The Moon, Mortensen has wrestled with some complicated characters in two David Cronenberg films (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), Appaloosa and played the heroic and enduring Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As a foil to Mortensen’s character, Veteran British actor Isaacs (he’s in the Harry Potter series) provided his character Maurice with the trajectory of a man once on top of his world declining precipitously as he is destroyed by the pernicious system around him. Both bonded through Vicente Amorim’s sympathetic direction (who popped in at the end of the interview and is picture here with Viggo and Jason).
This movie has two distinct character arcs that intersect. The challenge, to get those things in sync — as if they’re happening simultaneously — is tough; can you explain the dynamic of getting those rhythms right?
Viggo Mortensen: It’s true. We do cross and take on different roles as Halder builds up this new persona for himself. He was always the one who was like “Let’s go have a beer,” then all of a sudden the roles change. They don’t exactly swap, but they’re different.
Jason Isaacs: The power dynamic shifts enormously. For me that was one of the great and interesting things about this story — that it wasn’t about governments or armies or Nazi generals. It was about two ordinary guys who are best friends, and a friendship that I recognize: someone who’s much larger than life, someone with a great big hunger — a womanizer, a drinker, just kind of an eater of life — who has this friend with a rather dull marriage who basks in his shadow.
Then these outside circumstances so change their lives that in many ways the power dynamic is reversed. Playing Maurice as he gradually deflates was, I thought, very interesting and a very human journey, to see someone stripped of all their dignity like that.
Conversely, Viggo, you play this character whose ego is built up, and then given responsibilities that he doesn’t want to shoulder as a result. But then you do shoulder them and you feel regret. There’s this back-and-forth process that you have to get right.
Viggo Mortensen: Well, some people have said to me, “This is a very passive role compared to others you’ve played recently.” My answer is: it’s active in a different way. He’s passive to a point, but then he starts building up this persona and buying into it. He’s in a lot of denial. Then he’s actively accepting and even pursuing this new sexual life, being part of some sort of subsection of the elite of the country he lives, and he’s liking a lot of it.
Whether he’s being completely honest with himself a lot of the time or not, he’s accepting it and saying, “Yes, I like it, I’m doing it. And in fact, I think I won’t go see Maurice tonight for a beer because I don’t want to deal with him looking at me and having to think about it.”
Jason Isaacs: You think he believes that argument that you made to me, that if more good decent people like us joined the [Nazi] party we can dissolve the lunatic fringe?
Viggo Mortensen: I think he’s told himself that. He believes it, but he’s forcing himself to believe that. If we were to stop and think everything we’re doing wrong, then these personalities we construct — and we all do it to varying degrees — are dependent on who we meet, what the circumstances are, and what the climate is. We present ourselves in slightly different ways [according to the circumstances].
My character has really gone to great lengths to create this [persona] who no longer stutters, who looks people in the eye, who is a person of importance now. He knows he doesn’t belong there, what the fuck is he doing there? Excuse my language…
He knows if he were to go and have a drink with Maurice now — like the scene when they sit on the bench and are talking — it [would be] difficult.
Jason Isaacs: It’s like when I was saw Bono and [Bob] Geldof talking about working with [George] Bush in Africa. They said, “You know, he is in power and he does have the money and I can make him do good.”
Viggo Mortensen: I can see the argument. I think that’s the strength of the movie. You can look at this person and see he’s intelligent and thoughtful. When [the Nazi professor says to Halder] “We don’t teach Proust,” he’s sarcastic about it.
For the record, [my character is] saying “I don’t like it.” But he goes along with it. He wants to keep his job, so he goes along with it: “Yeah, fine.” I think people identify and understand the idea of if you’re in the system; you can make changes to it. But if you’re out of it, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines.
Each person knows themselves. How far have I gone? Have I arrived at the point where I know I’m really doing the wrong thing? You really know that yourself, if you force yourself or are forced to examine it. To some degree, that’s what this story is about.
Jason Isaacs: For me, it wasn’t about whether he was doing the wrong thing. It was, “How would you do the right thing?” In the last eight years, we’ve been saying we don’t agree with torture. But have we done anything about it? Are you ultimately powerless, [so] you get on with your life and the people who love you, and your work? I personally found it very hard to point the finger [at anyone in this movie].
Viggo Mortensen: The fact that there are no easy answers doesn’t mean you don’t do something, even if it’s going to fail.
Jason Isaacs: That’s the message you get at the end of the story. There was a line: it’s the easiest thing to do, to say there is no line. You’re powerless and there’s nothing you can do, other than vote once every four years. But there must be some action you can take, no matter how hard and complicated it is to find.