Viggo Mortensen’s Apocalyptic Road

Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road makes strange fodder for a blockbuster film released over Thanksgiving weekend. But actor Viggo Mortensen, who portrays the Man in the movie about a desperate father struggling to survive with his son in a world lain to waste, says The Road‘s bleak vision of an utterly stripped future is closer than we think.

“Further devastation of the air, land and sea is obviously a very real possibility,” Mortensen told me.

Perhaps we should be giving thanks instead of cheerleading the end times with disaster porn like Roland Emmerich’s 2012.

The Road, which opens Wednesday, looks squarely at a humanity on its last legs. But beyond the popcorn appeal of catastrophe — see 2012 for more on that — Mortensen is hoping that the R-rated film, directed by John Hillcoat, shows off the triumph of the human will over dehumanization.

Mortensen’s wide-ranging work in film, photography and music similarly skirts the razor’s edge. His last two movies with David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, were destabilizing but accessible fables about living with personal and political annihilation. In Peter Jackson’s world-beating cinematic adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen played Aragorn, a doubt-ridden king who helped save Middle-Earth from falling into madness and chaos.

In music, he’s collaborated with guitar wizard Buckethead and other musicians to create a series of estranged sonic atmospheres. He sells the music mostly online through indie publisher Perceval Press, which also offers books of Mortensen’s evocative and distorted photography, as well as the work of other artists that he publishes.

I talked with Mortensen about The Road and its stark message — as well as David Lynch, The Hobbit, McCarthy’s speculative mastery and much more — in an in-depth interview before the movie’s release.

Viggo Mortensen The Road

Apocalypse cinema is all around us, but The Road seems less about spectacle and more about surviving dehumanization with your humanity, and family, intact.

Viggo Mortensen: One can certainly focus on the physical aspects of the movie story, and ask all kinds of questions about how and why the landscape became so devastated, how almost all living things have perished. However, the road and all of the obstacles encountered on it can, I feel, be seen metaphorically as a sort of mythological pathway that clarifies the relationship between a father and son, an adult and a child.

In that sense, it does not matter so much how or why the world looks the way it does. What matters is what these people, having practically nothing but each other and their beating hearts, do and say, how they behave with each other and with others they encounter. How do they treat each other? What do they, and we, learn from this journey?

Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) is an adept when it comes to Westerns and speculative fiction, while The Road‘s director John Hillcoat made one of the coolest Westerns in recent memory with The Proposition. Do you see a convergence between the genres in The Road?

Mortensen: For me, The Road is sort of the opposite of a Western in a way. Strictly speaking, Westerns are movie stories that occur in North America between the U.S. Civil War and the beginning of the 1890s, although some who are less purist in their views expand the genre’s lifespan to being from roughly the Mexican-American war up to the 1920s, when the frontier was declared closed with the complete appropriation of most of the land by European settlers, the connecting of East and West coasts by railroad, and the final subjugation of the indigenous populations.

A lot of the drama derives from the tension between the consequent arrival and imposition of civilization — property rights, law enforcement, courts, telegraph communication and governmental institutions firmly connected and answerable to federal authorities in Washington, D.C. — and the so-called Wild West and its cast of unruly characters, from outlaws to mountain men, prospectors to rapacious capitalist land-grabbers, defiant indigenous populations and murderous imperialist armies. The Road, on the contrary, is a story that derives its dramatic tension largely from the fact that it involves people adapting to the disappearance of all such civilization.

Do you think the film capably adheres to the book for the literary purists?

Mortensen: The movie very much follows the book’s storyline and is easily as faithful in spirit to McCarthy’s work as, say, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s was in making The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, neither Hillcoat nor the producers succumbed to whatever temptation there might have been to make an effects-driven, sensational post-apocalyptic movie, or irresponsibly sugarcoat the emotionally complex aspects of the story. The very moving and ultimately strangely uplifting conclusion of the story is thus preserved.

Given that some licenses have to be taken in adaptation, especially to the screen, do you think that Hillcoat’s flashbacks and expansion of the Wife’s role, played by Charlize Theron, add needed weight to the film? Is it even possible to be a purist about these things?

Mortensen: I really do not think that the role of the Wife has been so much expanded as it has been made understandable, largely by virtue of being able to actually see her. In other words, it is both due to the difference in medium — a movie as opposed to a book — and partly due to Charlize Theron’s abilities and emotional engagement as an actress. We understand that her character’s point-of-view is valid, and that her suicide can perhaps be understood as sensible in hopelessly denuded and polluted landscapes largely populated by bands of roving killers, rapists and cannibals. It is one thing to read that she offs herself while her husband insists on trying to survive along with their son. It is another to actually be able to look into the woman’s eyes as she states her case, and to see into the man’s eyes as he falters when asked by her why and how he intends to survive.

Hillcoat chose locations similar to those used by David Lynch in Eraserhead: The devastated industrial wastelands of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. What did you think of them?

Mortensen: I would say that Hillcoat, while meticulously designing the backdrop of the story with the assistance of his creative team, including the brilliant cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, does not allow it to overwhelm the story in the end, which is about the relationship between the Man and the Boy. For Lynch, it is something else entirely, an art statement of its own, front and center, which often obliterates the human story and the emotional journey, at least for me. That is not to say one is superior to the other. They are simply different artistic approaches, suited to quite different stories.

The Road, like other recent apocalypse cinema, is coming out during a period of precarious economic and environmental situations. Are you worried about this?

Mortensen: Yes. Further devastation of the air, land and sea is obviously a very real possibility, unless the attitudes of politicians and all who irresponsibly exploit our natural resources change significantly in the very near future and all collaborate and sacrifice for the good of the planet. There really does not seem to be much room for further compromise out of economic self-interest on the part of individuals, corporations or nations.

You were nominated for an Oscar for your work in Cronenberg’s dark Eastern Promises, and The Road is generating similar buzz.

Mortensen: One can certainly make the case that the speculation and voting processes are largely influenced, if not driven, by public relations efforts. Therefore making the whole thing to some degree a chaotic and sometimes distracting game of chance based on the marketing of the ephemeral popularity of any given movie or individual. However, I freely admit that it was very flattering and that I felt a very real sense of satisfaction as an actor when I had the experience of being nominated for my work in Eastern Promises, because I knew that at least some of my peers had singled out Cronenberg’s movie and my efforts in it.

While I have no intention of temporarily leading any parades, selling any cars, delivering any eulogies or otherwise shamelessly using any cause or individual in an attempt to improve my chances of being nominated, I will continue to promote The Road in a responsible and truthful manner because I think the movie deserves to be seen. If my work or that of anyone else involved in its making is recognized, it will certainly be a very important honor.

Finally, any word from Guillermo Del Toro and Jackson on The Hobbit? It’s a stretch to involve Aragorn in the films at all, but Del Toro and Jackson like to stretch.

Mortensen: You probably know as much as I do about their plans to include my character or any of the others from The Lord of the Rings, apart from Gandalf and Bilbo, in any bridge story linking the trilogy to The Hobbit. But I’d be interested in playing Aragorn some more. Del Toro is a very creative and intelligent man.

This article appeared at WIRED

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