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.
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?