Getting Back Up With Viggo Mortensen

Since first making his feature debut in Peter Wier’s seminal 1985 thriller Witness, Viggo Mortensen has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, adding to his resume such notable modern classics as The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito’s Way (1993), The Road (2009), Captain Fantastic (2016) and Greenbook (2018) as well as appearing in more commercial fare such as Young Guns II (1990), the Sylvester Stallone starer Daylight (1996), Crimson Tide (1995) opposite Denzel Washington and the Sandra Bullock rom-com 28 Days (2000). Not to mention his brooding turn as the conflicted, hero-in-waiting Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. And while his reputation as a professional and committed performer with track record for delivering stella performances has seen the Danish-American actor work with such iconic directors as, John Hillcoat, Ed Harris, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Tony and Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Sean Penn and frequent collaborator David Cronenberg, Mortensen’s latest endeavor, the poignant family drama Falling, sees the acclaimed actor finally take the directors reigns, while headlining an exception cast, along with credits as the film’s writer, producer and composer.

“Falling wasn’t the first movie I’ve tried to direct.” Confesses Viggo as the newly minted director graciously takes a zoom call during one of 2021’s early lockdowns. “I’ve been trying to do it for a long time, since the early, maybe mid ’90s. 

“I’ve written a lot of scripts. Well, several. And so, I’ve also had to finance them myself. Sometimes I got some of the money, sometimes I didn’t get any, but I never got enough to actually shoot. 

“Then I started getting more busy over the past 15, 20 years as an actor. But I still was always trying to get one of them financed.”

In fact, Mortensen could be described as a pure creative in many regards, with the actor not only bringing a complexity and depth to some of cinema’s more memorable characters, but also having carved a respectably diverse repertoire which has seen him become a published poet, author, painter, photographer and musican. In 2002, Mortensen established his own publishing company, Perceval Press, as a way to support and distribute lesser-known artists whose works didn’t fit within current publishing models. 

In fact, you could argue that Mortensen’s depth of self-awareness and personal vulnerability, showcased across his many creative outlets, nurtured the perfect combination of emotional maturity and talent necessary to harness and reform a deeply personal loss into the artistic endeavors that became the catalyst for Falling.

“I was actually working on a different story, trying to get that one financed. I had some of the money at the time, but then my mum passed away” Mortensen reveals with a reflective tone. “Right after she died, I was just writing down a series of… well, if you’ve read the press notes, I was just writing down thoughts, just trying to remember things about her. 

“When someone dies that you care about their memory is quite fresh. Images of them and stories about them and so forth, your recollections. So I just wanted to write them all down.

“After, I was looking at this assortment of memories. And also memories from different points of view, like stories that other people had of her, and I thought, “Oh, it’s an interesting framework for a story, maybe one that goes back and forth in time. You get to know a family or a person, little by little, through the backstories… or at least the way they remember them, and others remember them.” 

“I thought, this is the start of something. And It’ll be about my mother. 

“And so essentially, the character that Hannah Gross plays, Gwen, became a lot like my mother was, but everything else about the story is made up.”

“I started writing it as a short story at first.’ Mortensen elaborates, expanding on the way he managed to navigate his grief. “I thought it felt easier somehow to write it as a fiction using feelings I had about my mom, my dad. She had had dementia…and so there was a lot of that in our family, on both sides. 

“I used that experience and then memories of the dynamic between my parents that I remember as a kid and things like that. 

“But everything else is made up. I’m one of three brothers. I don’t have a sister. My dad is from Denmark. He’s not an American. But that area of the country, near the Canadian border and the Northeast of the United States, I’m very familiar with. That’s where my mum was from. I remember very much what it looked like in the ’70s. So I was able to capture that with help of the production designer and the cinematographer. So that was a good experience, but it is a fiction.”

However, while Mortensen deferentially claims his directorial debut as mere fiction, there is an authenticity to Falling that feels both insightful and personal. Its narrative woven from tangible memories, both beautiful and ugly in their validity. An attribute that belies Mortensen’s inexperience behind the lens, but one that is supported by the films remarkable support cast, including the afore mentioned Hannah Gross (Mindhunter), Laura Linney (Nocturnal Animals), and newcomers Grady McKenzie and Ava Kozelj alongside the film’s co-leads Terry Chen (The Expanse) as John’s (Mortensen) life partner Eric and the illuminating Lance Henriksen as Willis, the family patriarch whose dementia cruelly unearths John’s traumatic childhood under his ailing fathers troubled upbringing.

“He was the guy I wanted.” Explains Mortensen without a moment of hesitation when asked about casting Lance Henriksen in the vital role “I thought that he would surprise people. 

“He’s someone that I’d worked with on Ed Harris’ Appaloosa movie. I guess it was the fall of 2007 in New Mexico, and I liked him.

“Obviously, I knew his work before that. He has a sort of iconic status as a cult actor, and in a way, a cult figure. He’s been in some mainstream movies for big directors like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Kathryn Bigelow, but he’s always playing supporting parts or playing leads in strange, horror, sci-fi, or indescribable kinds of stories. But the one thing that always is consistent, he’s always engaging because he commits fully to whatever he’s doing.

“So even if the movie is really strange or it doesn’t quite work he’s always interesting, because he does a good job. He’s a good actor. And I knew he could do something with this, something special. It would feel much more real than if another maybe better-known and easier-therefore-to-finance-the-movie-with actor played the part… that might not have been as surprising to what I was convinced Lance would do. 

“I also liked him when I met him. He’s a nice guy. He’s not at all like this character he plays. He’s generous, he’s funny, a good storyteller. He’s a very kind man.”

However, while Hendriksen was a no-brainer for Mortensen, the newly minted director offers a little insight into how the rest of his cast came to the project.

“I enjoyed the casting process a lot.” Reveals Mortensen. “I enlisted the help of Deirdre Bowen, who’s a great casting director. She’s probably Canada’s best. I knew her because among the many things she casts, she casts [David] Cronenberg’s movies. So I knew her well. 

“She found lots of people. Kids in particular. We wanted to get the right kids because it’s not only that they physically have to look like they would evolve to be my sister at various ages, or my character, from baby to 4, to 10, to 16, to me, but they also had to be good and believable. 

“We were very thorough, but also you have to be lucky, and trust your instincts, and hopefully that they’re on the right track, and I think they were.”

“One of the big gambles was the four-year-old boy. Obviously, we were looking at kids who were a little older, maybe seven or eight, to play a four-year-old. Kids who were slight, but older. But when this kid walked in, Grady McKenzie, who’d never done anything, it was like the sun came out. He was so flexible and playful and great. When he left the room, I said to the casting director, “Wow, we found him. He’s amazing.” She says, “Yeah, but he’s four years old. Think about what you have to do. He has very limited work hours. He might get distracted. It’s going to be cold. He has to jump in that freezing water. He has to shoot a gun, dead duck, et cetera, et cetera. Dialogue scenes,” you know?

“So I worked with Grady a little more. I talked to his mother, and she seemed to be game. She was a very un-staged mother, just easy going and very normal, and that worked out. 

“I’d already had Lance attached for several years while I was trying to raise the money, but the next character that was really important to me was Gwen. Even though she’s not in the movie all the time, to me, she’s kind of the conscience of the story. The sort of moral fulcrum or something. She’s what they argue about a lot, both my sister and my father, and me and my father. It was really crucial, that bit of casting, and we were lucky to find Hannah Gross. I think she’s extraordinary. 

“Obviously, Laura Linney was great to have. Then the other really key part was obviously finding someone who would be a match to who would seem like the younger Lance Henriksen, have that kind of presence and that kind of danger, even while just standing still. We were lucky to get Sverrir Gudnason (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) to play the part. He’s really great.”

At any other time, outside of a pandemic, Falling would have been a festival darling, primed to sweep any number of international awards for its production, direction and performances. It’s a film that draws you in and demands you sit with its more uncomfortable moments but pays-off without pretention or condescension. In short, it’s a beautifully realized film, consistent and relevant, cruel but hopeful. But while Mortensen is gracious with the praise directed his way, the actor’s more pressing concern lies with the what-should-have-been moment he so badly wished for his co-star and friend Lance Henriksen.

“One of the misfortunes, like for so many people, not just in the movie business but around the world, obviously with the pandemic, was that we finished the movie and had it already to go. I was told at the start of January, secretly as it were, that Cannes wanted to invite us to competition, which was an astounding bit of news. I was already happy with the movie and the way everything turned out, but I thought, “That’s fantastic.”

“I told Lance, “You’re going to have a great experience.” I was so looking forward to showing that movie at Cannes, at the Palais, but also going up the red carpet with Lance, because I thought that would be a great experience for a guy who’s 80 years old, who’s never had that experience, even though he’s done 280 movies or something, and he would just blow people away. 

“He did get good reviews at the places where the movie’s come out, but unfortunately the pandemic killed us. Cannes was canceled.

“So what happened is that Lance did not get his due. I think that if the movie had been shown at Cannes and I think that if we had a normal year where you could see this movie in theaters, I think he would have been… not that he cares and I don’t really care about it per se, other than I think he deserves it, is he would’ve probably been nominated for every major award as an actor. 

“Historically, I believe that Lance’s performance, and other aspects of the movie will probably hold up, but I would’ve liked to seen a guy his age with his long career get his due at that moment, not just retrospectively.

“But I’m very proud of Falling and I’m really happy for Lance, for the good work he did. And not just him. Everybody in it is great.”

Yet while the exercise in making the film marks a significant professional milestone for Mortensen, the ever-reflective actor also acknowledges that, in retrospect, its inception and completion, having originated from a deeply grief-strewn moment of the actors life, was also as emotionally cathartic as it was professionally gratifying.  

“Yes, I think so.” He explains as the discussion touches on his own understanding of his parent’s relationship. “Even though I started writing about my mom, it helped me understand and appreciate both my parents. And wish I’d been able to do even better with my dad than I did. 

“We ended up in a good place but… and I’m not saying my dad was like Willis, not really, but he’s a man of his generation. Men who were born during or shortly after the Depression, after World War II, self-made kind of people. 

“That was the classic role model of the man you’re supposed to be, not to show feelings too much, that you make final decisions within the typical-heterosexual-nuclear family. It’s the man who decides and everybody has to adapt to that person. 

“They’re not going to change and adapt to you, to their kids, or their spouse. You know what I mean? It’s just the way it was back then. Perfectly nice men bought into that because that was the models that you saw in movies and in books and in television and society. 

“So my dad was part of that, in a way, and he had this level of intolerance, but he wasn’t like Willis. 

“Nonetheless, there was a certain amount of friction between us at times. We ended up in a good place, but I look back at things, that at the time I felt were not right or unfair, and I have more of an understanding of why he had that position.”

“Maybe he had actually been right in some cases where I was just painting him with a wide brush and just saying, “No, I’m not open to that. I’m not open to that.” 

“If you close off communication because you don’t try, or you write someone off completely, then there’s no chance for improvement, I guess, is what the story says in a way. 

“But if you try, even though there’s no guarantee, you may not make any progress with someone who’s really stubborn. But there’s a chance. There’s at least a chance of some glimmer of connection could happen. But if you just give up on the person and walk away obviously nothing’s going to happen.”

This story originally appeared on Filmink.com.au December 15, 2021

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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