Viggo Mortensen, the Academy Award-nominated actor of Eastern Promises, most famous for his portrayal of Aragorn in the Lord of the Ring movies, stars in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Road. Directed by John Hillcoat, The Road is a post-apocalyptic story about a father and son trying to survive in the most dire conditions. Faithful to the novel that inspired it, the movie is bleak but hauntingly beautiful, anchored by Mortensen’s best performance to date.
Would you consider this to be your most challenging role? Yeah, it was. There was : a slightly masochistic element to it, meaning what you learn the most from are the things that you confront while being afraid of them. When I was offered this role, I realized that it’s a great role and a very important story and a big challenge, but I was afraid. Not whether the movie would do well or not or about people asking how you make a movie of this book, but I was just afraid as an actor that I wouldn’t be up to it in terms of my contribution, which was carrying this emotional load, sometimes in subtle ways, with this kind of frailty. But I liked that as much as I was afraid of it and knew I would learn something: I liked what I felt when I read the book and when I read the script-it’s heartbreaking, and it’s a tough journey, but, in the end, I felt strangely uplifted. I felt more aware and more focused on things, concerns about family, about the world, just a simple thing like being grateful to be alive. It sounds very, almost, trite, but that’s where the movie takes you, in a way. It says, “Why not be kind no matter what they’ve taken away from you?”
Why do you think people were so skeptical about the novel translating into a movie? I think because so much of it is in prose, and a description of landscape, the interior life of the characters-particularly the character of the man I play, who’s carrying this memory of the world that no longer is, and especially about his wife who is no longer with them. All of this is described so poetically by Cormac McCarthy. It’s difficult to do that in a movie without narrating the whole thing. Well, it’s a leap of faith, and it has to just be shown in a different way-those feelings have to just be shown in a different medium without words and that’s what we committed to. And the biggest immediate obstacle was, well, this is a two-hander: There are great actors that we meet along the way, but the burden rests on the boy and the man. And the boy, if you read the book, is who breaks your heart in the end, his situation and his reaction to the situation. “Where are they going to find a boy who can do that?” was my worry once I said yes. We were lucky because Kodi Smit-McPhee more than delivered. He’s a unique, intelligent, mature performer, and he’s a little boy, and I often forgot that. I would just be amazed at how he would commit to every take of every scene. After one day, I realized this wasn’t just a one-time thing, a lucky thing-he’s doing this every day, he’s kind of leading the way in some sense.
You have great scenes with Kodi, but one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is the one with Robert Duvall, who is unrecognizable. What was that like? He was amazing. It wasn’t just that they did this great make-up, but his physicality and how he improvised physically and verbally.
So the scene was improvised? Well there was something that happened. It was the very last take, and it was the scene by the campfire, and I knew that Duvall wasn’t satisfied. I knew that there was something, that magic little thing hadn’t happened yet. He said, “If we could do one more take : let’s just do one for ourselves,” and I go, “Yeah, whatever.” Then, suddenly, he says, “I had a boy once,” and the hair just went up on the back of my neck, and I was like, “Wow, that is so right.” I realized that, which happens once in a while, and you are just so happy that it happened. : It’s so simple and beautiful and obvious, and he said it with such feeling that, when we went back to the line from the scene, there was a little pause, so I asked, “What happened to your boy, your son?” And the rest was magic.
Did shooting in this environment that was so bleak and with a character so destitute take a toll on you? Yeah. [Laughs.] I’m laughing now since time has passed, but it was as hard, maybe a little harder, as it needed to be, which was good for us-just like it was good that we shot outdoors because of the relatively modest budget. We weren’t making 2012, which is a different kind of movie, you know, green screens, millions of dollars into effects. One of the first things I asked the director was, “When are we shooting this, and how?” because I’ve done green screen before, and it’s fine, but this is the kind of story where the landscape is a character as much as any other story, and where I felt it would be a measuring stick. It’s true that when you’re traveling through these suffering landscapes, these devastating landscapes, it’s so real, and it was definitely cold, and we were definitely wet. Everything was so real visually and physically for us that we could not be anywhere else other than at that level. We had to reach that somehow in terms of our emotions and our relationship. It had to be credible, and I think it was a great help to us.
And Kodi was able to cope with all this hardship? Well, yeah. He’s a gutsy performer.
The Road opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend.