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The Road - Viggo Mortensen (DVD Interview)

The Road

Compiled by Jack Foley

VIGGO Mortensen is one of the few The Lord of the Rings stars to really prosper in the trilogy’s aftermath, earning an Oscar nomination for his role in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. He also worked with the director on A History of Violence.

Before cementing his reputation as Aragon in the Tolkein series, Mortensen appeared in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner; Carlito’s Way with Al Pacino; Crimson Tide, GI Jane; Daylight and A Walk on the Moon.

In his most recent film, director John Hillcoat’s apocalyptic adaptation of The Road, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, he stars as a traveller known simply as ‘The Man’. He talks about some of the challenges of making that film…

Q. How do you prepare for a role like The Road?
Viggo Mortensen: There’s only one character in the story who has a name and that’s Duvall’s character. For myself I tried to decide my character’s name, and whereabouts in the country he’s from, because as with England, there really is no such thing as ‘no accent’. But the main job for me was to be honest, emotionally. We had to be as real as the landscape that we were travelling through; we couldn’t be any less gritty, or less naturalistic, I suppose. That was the job, as I know what it means to be from the United States and I know what it means to be where I decided this character was from and the way he speaks. But that is not really what this book is about – it’s not really about the US, any more than A History of Violence is about violence or guns.

Q. Well they’re both stories about people and the choices they make, right?
Viggo Mortensen: Exactly. They’re stories about people, and with this, it is really just about the journey. What do you learn along the way, if anything, and what do you figure out about the questions ‘Why survive?’ and ‘How do you survive?’ A conclusion you can come to from the book – and what I think comes through in the movie – is that when everything has gone the thing you think you’re looking for (warmth shelter, food, nice people, sunshine), it’s not about that. It’s about what you have; what you are taking along with you, which is each other, and whatever is good inside you. It’s a choice you can make.

There are people you see in the story who just live to live, to do anything to survive. But then at a certain point, perhaps, you can realise that you can choose to be compassionate and kind, in spite of how dire everything is. And that’s quite beautiful; it’s like seeing a single flower growing in the middle of the desert where there’s no water or other flowers. It’s this that makes us different from other animals. Although I have seen animals behave with compassion, but as human beings we can chose compassion over fear and all the things that come from fear, like violence, cruelty and contempt, mistrust of others. That makes this very different from any other character I have played. The research here I think was more internal.

Q. Does that it make it a more difficult role?
Viggo Mortensen: For me this was so much about that. I play a character, the way I saw it, that lives in his mind and in the past. He regrets the world that has gone, the woman that has gone, and he fears for the future, as far as his son goes. If it wasn’t for the boy he wouldn’t be kept as much in the present. He wouldn’t live as long.

Q. He’s a lucky man, then, in that at least he has a reason to live, right? For some people in his situation, that’s a lot more than they have…
Viggo Mortensen: There are people that eat their children, which is something you see in the book; you don’t really see that in the film, although it is certainly implied. Any time there’s a catastrophe, and people are cut off from the world, or desperate, people do strange things. One thing that I think the story tells you is that not only can a child be taught to do good things or bad things, as people we are just as much capable of doing just as much harm as we are of doing good. And in the end it comes down to personal choice, and personal responsibility.

Q. But the way of the world turns more people to the negative path, wouldn’t you say?
Viggo Mortensen: Maybe. Some days it seems more true than other days. Everybody is capable of mistaking someone for being entirely bad when they’re not, like my character’s reaction to the thief: mistrust, revenge. There’s a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that says, ‘When will our consciences grow so tender that we act to prevent misery rather than avenge it.’ That’s one of the things of which the boy reminds the man of in the film, when he loses his way, and that’s one of the truly beautiful things about the movie. The boy becomes the moral compass by the end, bringing the father back to where he started.

At the end, the father can’t really answer one of the two questions we mentioned: “When it comes to survival, how?” You can never really know. But you can know why you’d want to stay alive and why you’d want the boy to stay alive in that terrible world. People have asked what happened to the world in this story but that doesn’t really matter in this story. You’re just finding a situation where everything is stripped away and you can put a spotlight on people’s actions, feelings and their choices.

Q. Do you see The Road as a spiritual story, or a secular one?
Viggo Mortensen: You can read all these spiritual themes into the book – the boy as a messenger, or whatever, and you can read pretty much any spiritual tradition into it – but I think that it’s pretty much a secular story, in the sense that it’s about the here and now, and that there’s a choice to be made. It’s not that some people are made good, or that some are made bad, but that it’s a choice – it’s not what God wants you to do – it’s ‘What are you going to do with the time that you have? And why do you care about survival?’ It’s easy to get bitter but you can choose to do something different. I think that any story where you can walk out at the end thinking that you are lucky you are alive, with friends, and world to walk around in, that’s got to be a good thing.

Q. Do you think that your interpretation of the story on film is more positive than the book? It’s less graphic for a start…
Viggo Mortensen: It may be the medium. People talk about the expanded role of the wife in the movie, but it’s really not that much. It’s more the fact that you see her, and you see how she feels, which is really very rational: people are going to rape us, kill us, and eat us, so there’s really no point in going on. And yet he wants to keep going and he can’t say why. In this, you see her on equal terms in the movie – they agree to disagree, respecting each other and giving the child option. In the book, I read it and disagreed with her; I thought that she was mistaken. I felt she was weaker, whereas in the movie I understood; I don’t agree, but I understand. Put yourself in her situation.

Q. John Hillcoat’s last film, The Proposition, felt like a Cormac McCarthy book, don’t you think?
Viggo Mortensen: I think he was inspired by Blood Meridian. I have read all McCarthy’s books, although this I read as script first.

Q. Do you think The Road is his most positive book?*
Viggo Mortensen: Maybe, you could be right. It’s strangely affecting. It’s not a gloss; it’s very grounded in reality, in a journey that has a lot of soul-searching and suffering. I think it’s clean as a story, as compared to most of his books, like Blood Meridian.

Q. How do you mean, ‘clean’?
Viggo Mortensen: There’s no strange twist or gimmick; it’s not genre, not self-conscious. It drives you on. You know where you are going but you can’t stop paying attention. It’s like someone has done something that really gets to you; it’s very real. It can’t possibly end that well! In fact, it does and it doesn’t. It’s a very honest story inspired by his relationship with his own son.

Q. McCarthy is a recluse, but you met him on set, right?
Viggo Mortensen: I spoke to him before we started shooting and we spoke about our sons and being dads. Apart from that I didn’t talk too much about the story with him, because I felt it was about what I had inside of me, whether I was a dad or not.

Q. But he wrote that story on the strength of his relationship with his own son, correct?
Viggo Mortensen: I know that his son is really important to him, and when he came to visit the set we were shooting the sequences by the sea, and he came with his son to watch us shoot. And when he saw what we were doing he said, ‘That’s just how I imagined it’. It was great to see his dynamic with his son, too. It reminded me of the book. They have a very streamlined way of speaking to one another and that’s a lot like the story. They’re clearly very close.

The Road is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, May 17, 2010.