A Reader interview with Viggo Mortensen

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

They don’t make them like Viggo Mortensen anymore. The soft-spoken, notably un-Hollywood actor, photographer, poet and lover of North Idaho is just about as far from the typical “Hollywood star” as you can be.

When it was announced that Mortensen would host a screening of his latest film “Captain Fantastic,” at the Panida Theater—including a question-and-answer session afterward—it didn’t take long for tickets to sell out. The film is written and directed by Matt Ross.

The event, titled “A Movie and Evening with Viggo Mortensen” takes place on Jan. 13 and 14 at 7 p.m. Proceeds from both nights will benefit KRFY 88.5 FM Panhandle Community Radio and Team Autism 24/7.

Viggo Mortensen as “Ben Cash” in “Captain Fantastic.” Photo by Erik  Simkins  / Bleecker  Street.

Viggo Mortensen as “Ben Cash” in “Captain Fantastic.” Photo by Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street.

We were extremely honored to have Mortensen reply to our request for an interview. What follows is the interview, in which Mortensen talks about his character, Ben Cash, in “Captain Fantastic,” his love of North Idaho and the Panida Theater, as well as the importance of leaving a clean campsite.

Ben Olson: I think “Captain Fantastic” did a great job of helping the audience to see both sides of an important issue. While the activist/intellectual side of me agrees with [your character] Ben Cash raising his children in the wilderness away from all the bullshit of modern society, the practical side of me wanted to agree with his sister’s family, who were concerned with the children’s welfare being raised “in the woods.” When reading the script, did you identify with one side or another right off the bat?

Viggo Mortensen: Initially, there was much to admire in the way Ben tries to educate and raise his kids. But then things go off the rails. While I agree with the basic foundation of the Cash family model in “Captain Fantastic” (free and equal discourse, pursuit of intellectual curiosity, promotion of total honesty, among other methods and tenets), I do think that the choice of words and behavioral examples used in the intellectual and physical training of the children ought to be tempered and adjusted depending on the age of each child. Ben does go too far sometimes, is too extreme, puts his brood at physical and psychological risk. The beauty of the script Matt Ross wrote is that it does not elevate any of the characters in the story to the level of “hero” or “villain.” The characters are human, flawed, loving, and ultimately struggling to achieve a new balance in their lives and in the way they deal with others. The sister, played by Katherine Hahn, and her husband, played by Steve Zahn, make their valuable points, as do the grandparents, played by Ann Dowd and Frank Langella.

BO: Forgive me if I’m making an uninformed comparison, but it seems Ben Cash’s character is strikingly similar to the real Viggo Mortensen. From all I have read and heard about you, you’ve never struck me as one of the cliché pretentious Hollywood types. I mean, you have a home in North Idaho, right? This is about as unpretentious of a place as you can get.

VM: I was comfortable filming in the forest and helping Matt Ross and his production designer Russell Barnes create our home off the proverbial grid, but many of the activities you see me engage in in “Captain Fantastic” (rock climbing, martial arts, bagpipe and guitar playing, to name a few) and the way the character relates to his six kids were aspects of the character that I had to learn to impersonate. When people see an actor in different movies seeming to be at ease with certain skill sets or ideas, they can sometimes assume that all of it is natural and the fruit of previous first-hand personal experience. This is not usually the case. But it is flattering to have people believe that, to “buy” whatever you are doing on-screen as the character. That being said, as regards what people might generally regard as typical “Hollywood” behavior (seeking maximum attention and hob-knobbing with movie people at all times), I am not really drawn to that. I do not engage in conscious attention-seeking or socializing with movie business people unless I am filming or promoting a movie. From the acting work I do and the interaction I have with audiences at screenings and question-and-answer sessions, I get more than enough attention and social interaction. In my own time, I’m glad to mind my own business and, if possible, be out in nature as much as possible.

BO: What was it about North Idaho that appealed to you as a place you’d like to live?

VM: I like the outdoors, the North Idaho landscape, the isolation, the quiet, the seasons, the wildlife.

BO: Any favorite haunts around Sandpoint / Hope / Clark Fork that you’d like to share?

VM: There are many beautiful places in the area. I love the Cabinets, the Selkirks, Lake Pend Oreille, the creeks, the Clark Fork River. It’s all of a piece, a beautiful region. There are, also, some more or less secret places that I’m drawn to in the area, and will keep secret.

BO: The actors who portrayed your children in “Captain Fantastic” were so phenomenal. What was it like to work with such talented young people? I’ve heard some actors say never to work with children —they’ll either upstage you or tank you. Any truth to this, or is it just more hogwash?

VM: It does not apply to me, mainly because I enjoy surprises. They help me grow as I work on a movie character. I like to prepare as thoroughly as possible, and then leave the rest up to the director and the unexpected reactions and particular interpretations that other actors come up with. If, however, you are the sort of actor who tends to prepare meticulously and then expects people to adjust to your way of doing things, never altering what you have prepared in terms of gestures and ways of speaking your lines, you probably will be frustrated by younger actors who do not usually do things the same way twice, kids who tend to surprise you from take to take. That kind of actor is probably the one likely to come up with sayings like “never work with kids or animals.”

BO: You’ve worked with director David Cronenberg three times in the past, each portraying a wildly different role. I think it’s been some of your best work. Is there something about Cronenberg that speaks to you as an actor?

VM: He’s extremely intelligent, kind, generous, and has a great sense of irony. He really knows how to cast the right groups of actors for his movies, and is able to work with all kinds of different performers. He gets the most of the people he works with. I have really enjoyed working with because I trust and respect him as an artist and as a person.

Viggo Mortensen. Courtesy of YouTube.

Viggo Mortensen. Courtesy of YouTube.

BO: Are you just lucky, or is there some kind of system to choosing the roles you’ve taken over the past 10 or 12 years? It seems that after the “Lord of the Rings” fame, you could’ve broken into the mainstream roles with ease, but you chose to remain at the edges, challenging yourself and your audiences. Looking back, do you have any regrets?

VM: No, I don’t. Whether a movie turns out well or not is not solely dependent on the quality of the script, but it does help a great deal to work with a great blueprint. I simply look for stories that I would like to see on-screen, whether I end up being in them or not. Even if a movie I participate in does not turn out as well as I might have hoped, it will still have been worthwhile, will still have been a great idea for a movie. That’s about all I can control, or want to control. The rest depends on how good an overall creative compromise the director and his team end up making, how well everyone collaborates to tell any particular story.

BO: Tell me about your history with the Panida Theater. It has been bandied around that you acted on the main stage early in your career. Any fond memories about the Panida?

VM: I auditioned for and got a part in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” there a long time ago, almost 30 years ago, but ended up getting a movie job that prevented me from doing the play. I’ve always loved seeing movies and concerts at the Panida. It is a great performance space, and one of Sandpoint’s true historical gems. I’m glad that its programming is of such a high standard, and that it continues to receive such strong support from the community.

BO: KRFY 88.5 FM Panhandle Community Radio probably wouldn’t be in existence without the assistance you provided for their start up. Why do you think projects like community radio are so important?

VM: There is a need everywhere, not just in North Idaho, for a range of voices, creative perspectives, political points of view, and genuine local interest stories. KRFY helps to enrich the mix of media available to Panhandle residents, and stimulates good, healthy discussions that are not dictated by outside corporate interests. This is crucial to any society that strives to be democratic.

BO: One of the other local organization benefiting from your Panida Theater showing coming up is Team Autism 24/7. Have you ever had any experience with autism?

VM: I have interacted with various people who have suffered from autism over the years, and there is someone in our family that is afflicted with a form of it. It is a complicated disorder, often misunderstood. I’m glad to be able to help, in some small way, to help bring awareness to this problem.

BO: A few years back, you had an exhibition at the Hallans Gallery in Sandpoint showing your original photography. I remember thinking the images were very ethereal—lots of beautiful horses and dynamic rural themes. Honestly, I was moved by them. Do you plan to showcase your photography again in the future? What does photography do for you that acting doesn’t?

VM: I started working as a photographer long before I began acting professionally. It is something that I’m continually drawn to, and that I’ll probably always pursue. No plans at this time for any new exhibitions, but I am working on two new photo books.

BO: Are you working on anything new? Any plans to direct your own work in the future?

VM: As a matter of fact I am in the middle of trying to set up financing for one of the scripts I’ve written in recent years, and want to direct. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a movie from it in the second half of this year.

BO: Bonus question: If you could have a beer with anyone in the world, who would it be?

VM: Alive: Lionel Messi. Dead: Albert Camus.

BO: Let’s say you never made it as an actor. What would you see yourself doing for a career?

VM: Mostly what I do anyway: make photographs, draw, go to the movies, fish, travel, read, write, plant trees, cook, try to get along with people and animals, be careful with fire, learn from nature and leave my campsites in as good or better condition than I found them in.

BO: Amen. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Viggo.

Viggo Mortensen’s screening and question-and-answer event will take place on Jan. 13 and 14 at the Panida Theater at 7 p.m. Unfortunately, tickets are sold out for both nights, but check out “Captain Fantastic,” directed by Matt Ross.

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