On Tuesday, Viggo Mortensen was nominated for his second Academy Award for Best Actor, nearly a decade after his first as a gangster in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. (You’ll remember that film for an infamous all-nude fight scene in a Russian bathhouse.) This time, his nomination comes for Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, where he plays Ben, the idealistic father of six children whom he’s raising away from modern society in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a sensitive performance that had them weeping in the aisles of Park City, Utah, where the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival around this time last year, and that Mortensen has doggedly promoted and campaigned for for throughout the year, an effort that culminated in the film’s only Academy Award nomination despite its critical acclaim and long-ago release date. (He was also nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe.) The success of his performance may rest in part to what Mortensen praises as an actor’s secret weapon, the cultivation of a more sensitive, or feminine, side.
So what was the first thing you auditioned for as an actor? The first thing I auditioned for as an actor was a theater workshop. I didn’t really know much. I’d had no experience in theater or movies or anything, but I suddenly made a transition from watching movies around when I was 22, 23—pretty late for an actor—and wondered what the trick was, how is it that they can make you feel things viscerally? So I, I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna try out for being an actor,’ so I looked in the Yellow Pages of the Manhattan phone book, and I saw something that said Actors Repertory Theater, and I called up, and I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ They go, ‘What do you mean, what are we doing?’ I said, ‘What’s, what’s the play?’ They go, ‘Well, you can come in and audition if you like…bring two pieces.’ And I said, ‘Two pieces of what?’ ‘Two monologues.’ I had no idea really what they were looking for, so I think I cobbled together something from an Isak Dinesen short story and then I sang an Irish song. Then I said, ‘So what’s the play?’ And they said, ‘There is no play, but you can come back, and you can go to class,’ so that’s how I started.
And what was the first movie that you did? I did a couple movies that I was cut out of. Swing Shift with Jonathan Demme. I had a scene with Goldie Hawn in a movie theater. I was a sailor home on leave from World War II, and she was pining after her husband, who was away at war, played by Kurt Russell. It was a scene where I’m sitting behind her, we’re watching the news reel before the movie starts, and I hit on her. I had a box of Good & Plenty, and I shook it in her ear, and she turns around, and I try to pick her up, and she runs out of the theater, crying, horrified, and [laughter] I’m sitting there in my sailor whites going, ‘Oh, well. Some, some you win, some you lose,’ but when I saw the movie, she was sitting by herself, so I guess they didn’t like it. Then another movie was The Purple Rose of Cairo. I played an actor. It was mysterious with Woody Allen. It’s normal for him not to give you the script, so I was cast as a young actor in Hollywood, 1920, so the scene was a big cocktail party. I get on the set and Woody Allen’s got his arm around the young actor that I’m supposed to play the scene with, and he’s whispering stuff in his ear, and the actor’s nodding and smiling. And then Woody goes, ‘Okay, let’s, um, let’s roll one. Let’s shoot,’ and I said, ‘Mr. Allen, I don’t, um—what do I do?’ He goes, ‘You just react.’ The actor comes strolling over to me with a big smile on his face, and he goes, ‘So what’s it like to work with for Cecil B. DeMille?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, it was a long day. It’s like you’re up on this sort of big post and you have your arms like that, and I had this itchy beard, and I was in this diaper, and these like Roman soldiers were poking me with a stick, and I don’t know what the hell I was doing, and anyway, it was a long day, but I guess it was all right.’ Like the actor’s so stupid, he doesn’t even know he’s playing Jesus. Woody laughed. He seemed to really like it. He told my agent the next day he really liked it, and so that, like the other movie, I told my family, ‘Yeah, the movie’s coming.’ And they all went, and of course, just like the other one, I wasn’t even in the credits, so…that was my start, and there were many, many experiences like that, many, many auditions that I got very close to getting the part, but didn’t. I learned by making mistakes, which is probably the best way.
Oscar Nominations 2017: Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Beautiful People of This Year’s Academy Awards
Emma Stone, Best Actress, La La Land
Isabelle Huppert, Best Actress, Elle
Ruth Negga, Best Actress, Loving
Natalie Portman, Best Actress, Jackie
Meryl Streep, Best Actress, Florence Foster Jenkins
Andrew Garfield, Best Actor, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, Best Actor, La La Land
Casey Affleck, Best Actor, Manchester by the Sea
Viggo Mortensen, Best Actor, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Best Actor, Fences
Michelle Williams, Best Supporting Actress, Manchester by the Sea
Nicole Kidman, Best Supporting Actress, Lion
Naomi Harris, Best Supporting Actress, Moonlight
Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress, Fences
Mahershala Ali, Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight
Lucas Hedges, Best Supporting Actor, Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Bridges, Best Supporting Actor, Hell or High Water
Dev Patel, Best Supporting Actor, Lion
Michael Shannon, Best Supporting Actor, Nocturnal Animals
Damien Chazelle, Best Director and Best Screenplay, La La Land
And then when did “The Indian Runner” happen? It was an auspicious debut for Sean [Penn]. It must have meant something in terms of actor to actor, no? Sure, it was a vote of confidence. I learned a lot, I think we all did. I think Sean did as well. It was his first time, so it’s kind of trial and error, but he obviously has good instincts.
And then how did you start to become close to David Cronenberg? I don’t think there’s anyone who’s done three movies with him. No, um, maybe not. A History of Violence is the first one I did with him and he just offered me the part and I really hit it off with him. I think we have a similar sense of humor and a similar way of researching a story that’s for the movies and we’re able to communicate with very few words, and that’s helpful.
How did “Captain Fantastic” that come to you? Matt Ross wrote the script without anybody in mind. He’s, he’s an actor, and he knows that you can’t always have the actor that you might want. Schedules sometimes don’t allow that, or maybe the actor that you’ve written a role for just doesn’t like the role. But once he had finished writing it, he told me that I was his first choice for the role of Ben, the father of the six children, so I’m glad. It’s one of the best roles I’ve ever read. I realized quickly it wasn’t a comic book movie. After a while, I saw it was obviously ironic as a title to the point where you could put a question mark after it, I think. Is he Captain Fantastic? Is he a great father or not, and if not, why, you know? It’s very difficult to write so many characters and have them all be individuals, especially, young children. So, my big concern was whether they’d find six young actors talented enough to play the kids, but fortunately we did find great young actors that everybody fell in love with and I think audiences have been falling in love with them too. In fact, they were so good that I thought, ‘Well, I better stop worrying about them and mind my own business and make sure I’m at, at their level,’ you know? And then before starting, we had a couple of weeks where we practiced all the things that we’d have to do as a team—rock climbing and martial arts, played a lot of music together, a lot of improvising and jamming musically, and I had to learn to play the bagpipes. It wasn’t just that we got to work on these things, but it was getting to know each other that really helped the most. By the first day of the shoot we were like a family, and in fact, the youngest kids were calling me, Summer Dad, which was a high honor.
Have you directed movies? No, but I’m trying to do that. I’ve written three screenplays and there’s two of them that I have out. There’s one that looks quite possible that it might get financed, so if that, if that works out, I’ll, I’ll do that next year. One of the scripts, I could be in. I’d rather not be. I think that directing, when I see people who do it well, like David Cronenberg or Matt Ross, is a full-on job. I’d like to try directing a movie. I’ve been a photographer for a long time, and a writer, and I like storytelling. That’s my main attraction to working in the movies, I’m looking for stories that I wanna see in a movie theater. If I’d read Captain Fantastic and for whatever reason had not been available, I still would’ve been anxious to see the movie. It’s a complete artistic universe, telling stories in the movies and I like actors. There’s a lot of directors that I think aren’t particularly interested in actors or their process, but I’m, I’m fascinated by the different ways that actors approach their work.
To that end, is there a particular actor that made you wanna be an actor? Movies that I saw when I started to consider being an actor that stood out for me where I guess female roles. There was a movie that I still love, the old silent movie called The Passion of Joan of Arc and there was an actress who only did that one movie. She was a theater actress from France named Maria Falconetti. Meryl Streep’s work in The Deer Hunter and then Sophie’s Choice. Autumn Sonata, with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann as mother and daughter. Just their acting, there was something so raw and moving.
Why do you think you were attracted to female performances? I don’t know. This is a generalization; there’s a lot of bad actresses out there just like there’s a lot bad of actors [laughter]—but I think women tend to be able to act, um, not that it comes easier. I think they’re just—I think life teaches them to be better at it, because women in life have had to act out of self protection in the world of men, or run by men. And they have to be very resourceful, and they have to play roles just to function and get ahead and get what they want traditionally. That’s changed a lot, but I think there’s something in women that’s more attuned to, to play-acting, in some sense, you know? And men who maybe are more comfortable with their feminine side or their more sensitive side. I’m thinking of great actors like Marlon Brando. For as masculine as he was, he had a feminine side that came out in most of his roles…He and Montgomery Clift. I think the best actors have that. Christopher Walken definitely has a sort of extraterrestrial feminine side. [Laughter] I think as an actor you’re gonna do better if you don’t go through life with a hand tied behind your back on any level, you know?
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
Stone wears Chloé tunic; Wolford leggings; her own rings. Beauty: Covergirl. Affleck wears Louis Vuitton jacket and shirt.
Portman wears Dior dress; Mish New York earrings. Beauty: Dior. Negga wears Carolina Herrera dress; Lalaounis earrings. Beauty: Laura Mercier.
Adams wears Prada shirt; Djula earrings. Beauty: Giorgio Armani. McConaughey wears Burberry shirt.
Driver wears AG T-shirt. Mortensen wears Alternative Apparel henley.
Williams wears Louis Vuitton dress and bodysuit. Beauty: Nars. Edgerton wears Burberry T-shirt; Rolex watch.
Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.
La La Land
“My real name is Emily Stone, but when I started acting, that name was already taken by another actress, so I had to come up with a different one. For a 16-year-old, picking a new name is an interesting prospect, and back then I said, ‘I’m now going to be Riley Stone!’ So, for about six months I was called Riley. I landed a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle, and one day they were calling, ‘Riley! Riley! Riley! We need you on set, Riley!’ and I had no idea who they were talking to. At that moment, I realized that I just couldn’t be Riley. So I became Emma. But I miss Emily. I would love to get her back.”
Sonia Rykiel sweater; Commando briefs.
“I was attracted to Gold because it reminded me of my dad. He loved shady deals. He’d much rather do a shady deal with fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight-asses. He invested in diamond mines in Ecuador, and there were no fucking diamonds there. It was a scam, but he loved that. That’s the spirit of my character, Kenny Wells. There’s a little poem we have in the movie—‘Bird With No Feet Sleeps in the Wind.’ And that’s it: If Kenny, or my dad, gets the money or not, does it really matter? Would he change? No. Not that guy. These are people who are going to con, finagle, and boot-scoot their way in the side door. They never had the front-door entrance to the American Dream.”
AG jacket; Current/Elliott T-shirt; Levi’s jeans; John Hardy bracelet (right); Ann Demeulemeester boots.
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals
“Tom Ford became my muse on Nocturnal Animals. My character, Susan, was very personal to Tom, and so I based my interpretation on him. Tom would ask on set, ‘Why is Amy using her hands like that?’ And I said, ‘I’m copying you, Tom!’ I used him. I used him up.”
Gucci shirt; Djula earrings.
“Playing Jackie Kennedy is scary. I was nervous at first, and I started by doing a lot of research. The biographies on her are all a little bit trashy, but the transcripts of her interviews with the historian Arthur Schlesinger were really helpful. He taped everything, and you can hear Jackie’s voice. Her intellect and her wit and what she’s bitter about are immediately apparent. At the same time, I was going to costume fittings and makeup tests. When I put on the Jackie wig, the physical and emotional sides came together. The hair itself is so iconic that once you have it right, you can start to see Jackie. I don’t really look like her, but I felt like I was in her skin.”
Paterson and Silence
“Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests on a journey from Macao to Japan in search of their mentor, a priest who may have renounced his faith. When Martin Scorsese asked me to come to his house to talk about the movie, I already knew that for 28 years it had been his passion project. We talked about Silence, but when Scorsese starts a sentence, ‘When we were shooting Raging Bull…’ you can’t help but say, ‘Yeah, okay, tell me everything.’ So we talked for a long time, and finally he asked me if I would be willing to lose weight for the role. It made sense: How can you play a 17th-century persecuted priest while eating great meals? So I lost around 51 pounds. The weight loss was only bad in that, you know, I’d try to figure out how to play a scene and I had no ideas, because I was so damn hungry. Then I’d have a scoop of peanut butter and suddenly everything turned on!”
Dior Homme jacket; Rag & Bone Standard Issue T-shirt and jeans; Rolex watch. On model: Wolford stockings.
Hell or High Water
What was your first audition? My parents were both actors. I had just graduated from college, and my father had gone in for an audition for Gilmore Girls. He told the casting directors, “My son is back in town. Will you have him in for a reading?” So it was nepotism at its best. I can’t remember the role—maybe a boyfriend to someone? I got my start playing boyfriends, husbands-to-be, and princes.
In Hell or High Water you play a kind of modern Western antihero. You don’t speak much. When I read the script, the image that came to mind was of a man on a porch squinting through harsh sunlight into the distance, but not talking. I have a lot of similar memories of my father, where we are sitting next to each other and not saying much. Westerns have a stoic silence I’ve always appreciated. These days, we have so many distractions. I have minor ADD, so if anything grabs me and keeps me from petting my dog or collaging or just daydreaming, I immediately pay attention.
Brunello Cucinelli sweater; Sandro trousers; Loewe shoes.
Michael Kors henley. Model wears Araks robe; Stella McCartney Lingerie bra; Fifi Chachnil briefs; Falke stockings; Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“When I auditioned for the part of Mildred Loving, I had to sort of disappear into her character. Usually, I don’t create a costume for an audition, but this time I wore a summer dress. I knew that coming in the door looking like this woman would have an impact. A year later, I learned I got the part. At the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I walked up the steps of the Palais in full makeup, and I walked down the steps with mascara dripping. It was such an emotional experience. All I could think was that I needed to blow my nose before it dripped all over my frock.”
Prada top and skirt; Fabiana Filippi top (underneath).
“I’m a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? Well, to play Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who figured out a way to get NASA astronauts into space, I had to be believable as a math expert—and I failed math in college. Precalculus looked like Chinese to me. Even with two tutors, I still failed. So God has an incredible sense of humor, because now I am playing a mathematician! Even on set, they would have a professor there to try and teach me. I said, ‘Show me what I have to write and I’ll memorize it, because I’m not gonna get it.’ Take that, math! I won: I became an actress.”
Monse shirt; La Perla bra; Forevermark by Natalie K earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Rules Don’t Apply
“I never knew Howard Hughes, so I’m able to take liberties, to allow my imagination to go to work. I like to quote Henry Ford, who said, ‘History is bunk.’ I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it myself.’ And, in Rules Don’t Apply, I quote Mr. Hughes himself. He said, ‘Never check an interesting fact.’ ”
Jeffrey Rüdes sweater.
Manchester by the Sea
“I used to love movies that made me cry, and now all movies seem to make me cry. I don’t like that so much. I have my own things to cry about. I remember being young and sitting on the floor in my father’s apartment watching The Elephant Man on his black and white TV. When the Elephant Man did his speech—‘I am not an animal’—I started sobbing. That’s a tearjerker. That film made a superstrong impression on me. It set a certain standard in my mind of what was possible.”
Louis Vuitton pants; Falke socks. On model: Alexander Wang sweater.
A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“Recently, I seem to be doing a lot of dying onscreen. Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie. I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
Giorgio Armani dress; Djula earrings; Tacori ring.
Allied, It’s Only the End of the World, and Assassin’s Creed
“It might sound weird, but I always cry at the end of Step Brothers. I’ve seen the movie 10 times, and it still touches me at the end, when Will Ferrell sings. You don’t expect to cry watching that type of comedy, but I always do.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Loro Piana sweater; Chopard earrings.
Hell or High Water
“I remember doing an interview years ago and being asked if I was one of those actors who takes the part home with me. I answered, ‘No. Not really.’ My wife happened to be in the room, and she started to laugh. Apparently, I had been playing a terrible person—a killer or someone who buries people alive or something—and she definitely noticed. I wasn’t fun to live with.”
Boss coat; A.P.C. jeans; the Frye Company boots.
“When I was cast in Slumdog Millionaire I was 17. At our first major screening, I walked the red carpet in my school shoes and a terrible suit I found on the high street, in London, with my mum. My costar, Freida Pinto, was very beautiful, very glamorous, and they said, ‘We can’t have this kid walking the red carpet with her! He’s spoiling the whole picture!’ So they gave me a new suit and fixed me up. It was a bit like Pretty Woman.”
Hermès sweater; Frame Denim jeans.
The Edge of Seventeen
Where was your first kiss? My first kiss was actually onscreen. I was in a graduate-thesis film called She’s a Fox, and I had to kiss two guys in it. I think I was 12. I was very nervous. One of the guys was shorter than me, and he had to stand on an apple box… Awkward! He told me, “I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my mom!” I was pretty sure that’s not the thing you say before you kiss a girl, so I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my dog!”
Where was your first real-life kiss, then? At my house, by my front door. Which kind of sucks, because every time I walk through my front door I think about it. The kiss was a little messy, and I looked at the guy and said, “No, no, you can do better.” That’s not what you’re supposed to say, but I said it anyway.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings.
The Witch and Split
You say you don’t like watching horror films—so what’s it like for you to act in them? I’m a real scaredy-cat. I’m not good at being frightened. But I do like acting in a horror movie, because I get to feel so intensely. You put yourself in these extreme emotional situations, and it wears you out in a great way. Afterward, I go home and get a good night’s sleep. The work chills me out: I’m a lot more stable since I’ve been in scary movies.
What frightens you? Revolving doors. I worry they’ll cut me in half. Strangers will see me tense up and hold my hand as I’m going through them. I’m constantly worried that I’m not going to make it through the door alive.
Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants.
Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Nocturnal Animals
“Doing a sex scene is just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure. The horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness of sex is all there to enjoy—but none of the happiness.”
Saint Laurent jacket, shirt, and tie; Tiffany & Co. watch.
Hacksaw Ridge and Silence
“The majority of my process in playing a priest in Silence was praying. I’d never really prayed before, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself—call it God, call it love, call it what you will. It became very natural to me, and I realized that we’re all praying all the time. There’s that human impulse to worship and to long for a connection to the divine. Unfortunately, in our culture we are driven to worship things that are false and empty. I had a year of exploring this idea of what we are truly longing for and how we actually go to the places that can feed that longing. We all get glimpses of eternity every day. It’s just a question of whether we’re looking up from our iPhones long enough to notice.”
Alexander McQueen jacket and pants; A.P.C. shirt.
Maggie’s Plan and 20th Century Women
What is your karaoke song? It’s the nerdiest one ever: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel. It’s one of those songs that if you were a certain kind of teenage girl—me!—you thought knowing all the words would help you get a boyfriend. And then, about 30 seconds too late, you realize that it won’t. But it remains my song. I had the same thought about “Modern Major General,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought guys were looking for a girl who could memorize a lot of names, but they didn’t care about that. They just cared about getting a hand job or something.
Do you have a cinematic crush? I would have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl—the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar. She’s all done up and she tells him, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”And young Harrison Ford…what a dreamboat! But it’s her I truly love. She’s so compelling and funny. She’s sexy without being plastic. I think a lot of people miss seeing women that way.
Proenza Schouler dress; Guidi boots.
Were you a dramatic child? Yes, I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. I would also try different accents. I was living in an imaginary world, usually with Michael Jackson. He was going to rescue me! I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and I would send them to his fan club. I would imagine Michael waiting for me at the gate of my school, eager to whisk me away to a happier world.
Why Michael Jackson? I imagined myself as a Peter Pan kind of character, and Michael represented that existence. He was my guy.
Miu Miu coat, sweater, shorts, and shoes.
Manchester by the Sea
“As a little kid, my first love was IMDB [the data bank for movies and television]. I would memorize the birthdays of child actors. I really wanted to be an actor, and I related to the kids in the industry. But now that I think about it, memorizing their birthdays is not cute at all—it’s a little serial killer–ish.”
Prada sweater; Brooks Brothers boxers.
What was your favorite birthday? When I turned 40, my husband, Keith [Urban], drove me up to the top of this small hill in Australia and sat me down. He had put together this huge fireworks display. It was just for the two of us! It was sexy.
What is your pet peeve? When people say they will do something and they don’t. And I know it’s terribly demanding, but I don’t like it when my husband doesn’t answer his phone. I have to keep calling and calling, and I get anxious. Does that make me high-maintenance?
What movie has made you cry? Last year I saw Room, and I was absolutely devastated by it. I’m raw as I get older. I have to be careful what I let in.
Where was your first kiss? This is crazy: We were playing hooky from school. I had my first kiss while watching The Shining. Is that not weird? And we did a few things other than kiss too! I didn’t see a lot of the movie.
Chanel sweater, dress, shorts, and shoes; Bulgari earrings.
Viggo Mortensen Doesn’t Usually Allow Himself to Be Pampered, But He Made an Exception on His Birthday