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Viggo Mortensen – Acclaimed Actor Gets Oscar Nom Leading Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortenson promoting "Captain Fantastic" in New York. Photo by Brad Balfour.

Viggo Mortenson promoting “Captain Fantastic” in New York. Photo by Brad Balfour.

Viggo Mortensen

Acclaimed Actor Gets Oscar Nom Leading Captain Fantastic

by Brad Balfour

If anyone could relate to the character of Ben Cash – the focus of filmmaker Matt Ross’s feature Captain Fantastic – it’s Viggo Mortensen. The New York-born actor isn’t far removed, practically and philosophically, from his lead character’s situation as a bohemian renegade who pulls his family out of the mainstream world and re-locates them deep in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

After all, this 58-year-old stands worlds apart from high-profile parties and the celebrity-driven world of Academy Awards – yet now he’s enjoying his second Best Actor Oscar nomination, playing an even more complex role than the one he played in 2007 as a Russian mobster in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.

Oh, this Danish-American has had his moment in the high-intensity spotlight, playing Aragorn, the high profile lead in Peter Jackson’s cinematic epic the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But as an actor, Mortensen generally prefers playing difficult characters that distinctly separate him from the remainder of Hollywood, in such films as A Walk on the Moon or A Dangerous Method (directed again by Cronenberg; his performance as Sigmund Freud garnered him a Golden Globe nom). He is an actor who can be selective about the roles he takes because he avoids a high octane celebrity lifestyle. Besides his acting career, he has been both an author with an ample bibliography and publisher, having launched the Perceval Press. He’s also a visual artist and musician with a substantial discography as well.

As Cash in Captain Fantastic, Mortensen oscillates between being a reliable father figure and an unpredictable outcast throughout the film’s plot-twisting two-hours. In the wild, his six kids – three boys and three girls – endure a hard-nosed survivalist course on a daily basis. They hunt and shoot as well as read endless books and do countless science projects. Yet they have no grasp of normal American life. So when his borderline bi-polar wife Leslie dies, he has to venture back to civilization for his kids’ sake, and much to his chagrin, re-engages with the world. In the process, he realizes that not all of his theories about the way the world is are correct when put into practice.

When it debuted at Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, the film got all kinds of praise. But it wasn’t until Mortensen was nominated for a Best Acting Golden Globe that anyone thought that it would accrue Oscar glitter.

In person, the mate-drinking Mortensen has a quiet composure of a man more likely to go for a walk to the local deli to buy a paper and read about the news rather than be a newsmaker. That’s exactly how he appeared when we shared a quiet conversation at an East Village restaurant while he and director Ross attended a reception in anticipation of his Oscar nom; he presented the same composure when he attended a Mamarrazi screening and Q&A earlier this year. This Q&A is excerpted from both.

Viggo Mortensen promating his new movie The Two Faces of January in New York. RW/MediaPunch

Viggo Mortensen promating his new movie The Two Faces of January in New York. RW/MediaPunch

An uncanny choice, playing such a difficult character who seems both villain and hero, one at ease with the anti-Trump movement but also a man who can handle his guns and knives…

I read the script and liked the first few pages. I thought, “This is great.” I was wrong that I thought this must be some kind of liberal left wing utopian fantasy. I guess these are the heroes. They are perfect in their own way, and the obstacles are going to be conservative people and ideas – some ideological kind of movie. It turned out not to be that at all. The father took things too far sometimes. Not everything was perfect. There was a real commitment on days in that family for the kids and [that was] admirable, really. Maybe it will make it cool for kids to be intellectually engaged.

Hey, those kids knew the Bill of Rights.

I realized, “No it’s not that and it is not entirely condoned or condemned, and there are other ideas for raising kids.” It was a very passionate story. Sometimes I’d just stop and go, “Wow.” Sometimes I would stop and laugh and I was very moved. It is so good, halfway through that I was thinking, “When is it going to fall apart and do some predictable thing?” But it didn’t. I had no doubts that it could be a good movie.

You are a dad of your own as a 28-year-old man (with singer Exene Cervenka of the band X). Were there moments when you thought, “He’s onto something here” or did you think Cash was completely…?

As a father, or the character?

Viggo Mortensen in "Captain Fantastic."

Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.”

Anyone would think, “Could I do this to my children? Could I remove them from what is a normal life?” Did you ever think this is something you could have done with your own son, besides just going camping?

We did go camping and we lived in the woods in northern Idaho with very little [resources]. I think it is aspirational. It is imperfect, but it is impossible to be an ideal mother or father – the perfect parent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s aspirational that this guy, Ben Cash, devotes literally 100% of his time and energy to his kids, to the exception of all else. He’s just there for them. It’s a tall order. You can watch it as a parent and think, “Nice idea but how do you do that?” But It’s not really about living in the woods or any type of family model, it’s about being present and being flexible, which I was surprised to find [out] when I read it. Eventually, he realizes he has gone too far and he has the courage or common sense to try and make an adjustment.

It’s not an ideological or political movie, but when I watch this film it makes me think about our country now, and the problem with communication. There are people who are polarized. Obviously with the Presidential candidates, things are very divisive. “You follow me and I will make sure that the [other] group doesn’t have a voice.” Police issues are very divisive. People are split into their [respective] camps and not engaging [each other] at all in a lot of cases. Based on race, religion, region, socio-economic class, there’s a lot of that going on. It’s not just the media or the campaign fueling it because it sells. It’s something going on in society, more so than ever before. In the ’90s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, there was a sort of cultural war, but not since the mid ’70s has the country has been this unable to speak to each other. There’s a lot of yelling but not face to face enough. Even if you’re yelling, at least you’re engaging. Lots of people [are just] not engaging. “I’ll go to my blogs, go to my source of information, I’ll align with the people that think like I do and I won’t even talk to the others.” That’s the problem.

In the movie, you see how not communicating and isolating has its downside too. Yes, you want to protect your community’s model, your family’s model, or your race’s model, [but] these are things that divides and [are] polarizers. Eventually, you are going to have to understand if you want to have any greater community or government that functions, you are going to have to get involved and make compromises. It can’t all be your way.

Viggo Mortensen in "Captain Fantastic."

Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.”

Yeah, Viggo for president! You sound just as brilliant as your character is, and it makes you think. That scene with the video games, it makes you think that there is a different way. You may not ever take your kids to live in the woods, but you can do things differently.

There is a difference between being a parent that says, “No because I said so” or, [the one who takes the time to explain] which takes a lot more time and energy but it’s worth it. “Well I don’t think so and let me explain why, and then you can state your case if you have a counter-argument.”

It’s about communication.

No matter how crazy or radical the family seems, even if you are interested in their ideas and agree with them politically or socially, it’s still sometimes extreme and seems radical. But underneath it, the foundation is of constant curiosity, mutual respect, and total commitment to improving yourself intellectually and physically. I can watch it and think that those of us who aren’t as committed to being energetic and in shape and read and talk to our kids, it can be daunting. You can dismiss it and think, “Oh come on,” but there are moments where you can think, “I can do a little of that.”

At the end that’s what Ben does. He learns that their grandparents [played by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd] aren’t completely nuts and have a point about things, [as does the sister] and so forth. There’s flexibility and willingness to listen. The thing he was so against, rigidity and authoritarian structures, he engages in that [himself] by being so thoroughly paranoid. By not wanting his kids to be affected by it, he’s turning to it himself.

This man is so arrogant that he almost commits child abuse, and yet he’s brilliant too. And he’s a little nuts. But is it paranoia or arrogance? 

People aren’t any one thing. Even the person that you know what they’re like, even the most secluded nun, has a rich interior life and is capable of being annoyed or changing her mind. Everybody is complicated. I like stories about complicated people, because we all are each in our own way. We have our secret fears.

How was your exchange with the kids who played your children? Were they able to quote the Constitution?

They were pretty sharp, and they were willing to learn. After reading the script and meeting with writer and director Matt Ross, I said it was one of the best scripts I read in years. It’s layered, well defined, even for the characters that don’t appear very much. There’s a lot going on. It’s a successfully written, ambitious script. For a great script to be a great movie in this case, though, we had to find six geniuses that are Olympic athletes who can sing, and most importantly, express ideas complex even for an adult about literature, science.

You have to get lucky and work very hard. Matt was optimistic. He said we’ll find them. If you find two out of six, you’ll have a good movie, but not a great movie. You need six out of six, and that’s what we had. Everyone came having practice the things they had to do, and then we had two weeks of extensive boot camp, doing all the things together, the martial arts, the rock climbing, building your own shelter and fire. But we we’re incredibly and all of these kids deserve enormous credit. I had experience and could handle all the rigors that were involved. But they were amazing and not enough has been said about how all of them could handle their parts.

Viggo Mortensen and Samantha Isler in "Captain Fantastic."

Viggo Mortensen and Samantha Isler in “Captain Fantastic.”

Were you enjoying that time in the Washington State forest or were you looking for a Four Seasons?

I liked it [laughs]. I thought it was important that what you see first, their life in the woods, that you believe this is possible. This could be real. It could be a movie where you’d take a leap of faith and say, “How are they getting dressed? Where does that food come from?” and so forth. It’s not justified, but you just say, “It’s a movie.” But we thought it was important that you totally believe it. I got to look at the terrain where it would be and said this would be a good spot to have a garden and grow vegetables. You can’t have giant cornfields, but you can have a certain amount of food. Matt said we should have some solar paneling. It was fun. I spent about two weeks in rehearsal beforehand out there just working on the garden and stuff.

So you can really do that?

It was fun.

Are you going to do that again?

Uhhh… in my life? I always play in gardens.

Did Matt explain to you the basis for the script and whether it’s based on true events?

You have to talk to Matt. I wouldn’t say they’re hippies because it was the 1980s, but in Oregon and Northern California, his mom established these communities for alternative living that were quite removed. He went to a regular public high school, but he had to go ten miles down a dirt road to get to an asphalt road. It took an hour plus to get to school every day, so he felt a little like a slave [to those conditions]. I think he identified the most with the oldest kid, who felt isolated and was yearning to get out. In the summer they slept in a teepee. I know those are the things he drew from. I think his main reason for writing this was the aspirational aspect to it. How would it be if I dropped everything? How best can I be a dad? There’s no best answer for being a parent or raising a child, but what do they read? How much technology and when?

Every parent has to figure out their own way. As a dad, that was his inspiration. It’s a case of extreme conscientious parenting. How can I do better? There are moments in life when you say to yourself “Oh God, everything I’m doing in life is wrong.” I think that’s healthy as long as you don’t let that get the better of you. Just back up and say what can I learn from this? I see Ben doing that. Ben thinking: what can I take from what my sister or grandparents say?

Viggo Mortensen and the cast of "Captain Fantastic."

Viggo Mortensen and the cast of “Captain Fantastic.”

Is there anything in this film would make you do things differently as a dad if you could?

It’s a silly thing, but for example, my son had this thing – he’s much taller than I am – and right into high school his thing since the time he could crawl was, “Dad, let’s wrestle.” It could be dinner and he’d say, “Let’s wrestle.” Most of the time I’d drop whatever I was doing and we’d roll around. Then by the time he was 13 or 14, he was beating my ass, and I had to really think about it. Got to stretch a little more. I should have said yes every time, but there were times I said let me finish this phone call. Most parents say, “I should have spent more time with them.” This is generally. If you lose your child, it stays with you forever. I should have called every day. You feel that in watching the movie.

How long until you met the mother character Leslie [played by Trin Miller]? Have you found other mothers who feel the way your character does?

At Cannes there was a great ovation, which was a relief because we weren’t in the US. It was a diverse group of critics, and not only were they moved by it, but afterwards outside the theater people were talking toys and a lot of them were moms. It struck a chord because the whole story is kicked off by the absence of the mom. That’s what it’s all about. It’s really about the mom, even though we don’t see her a lot. We were lucky that Trin played that part. As written, she just comes to him once in that dream, but there weren’t even words. Matt, who’s very good at making actors feel comfortable and making you feel like you have all the time in the world — when you don’t because it’s an independent movie on a schedule and you’re working with kids, he’d said, “Relax, have fun.”

So she started talking – she knew the script well – and it was very moving improvisation. I said we’ve got to see her again. You see the girls the way they are, the way they look. She’s key even though she’s unseen. But I said, “Let’s see her afterwards on the bus,” which wasn’t originally in the script. It was just going to be the coffin. That’s what I like about the movie. It might be a little crazy, but they have a healthy relationship with death.

Viggo Mortensen with cast and director Matt Ross making "Captain Fantastic."

Viggo Mortensen with cast and director Matt Ross making “Captain Fantastic.”

They’re blunt about it.

Brutally honesty, constant curiosity, and open. There were some moms, and people mention the stress and serious postpartum problems and they identify with the dad. There are lots of different things moms and daughters said to me.

It’s was quite painful but felt very real and touching.

You think she’s been gone not so long, and they have this rigorous way of life, but he might have stepped things up even more and said, “I better not get this wrong.” He might have been overcompensating and pushing them really hard.

Okay but before you go we can’t dodge the matter of the frontal nudity in this? That was very brave acting. 

That’s one of those scenes where you read it and I said to Matt that the only reason to use this is if it helps the movie. Does it move the story along, and is it funny? It comes after a scene that’s bittersweet and kind of sad. After that is another sad moment. So it’s a punch line. It’s a funny moment. It works.

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: February 20, 2017.

Photos 1 © 2016 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photo 2 © 2016 Roger Wong. All rights reserved.

Photos 3-7 © 2016. Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media. All rights reserved.

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