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article imageViggo Mortensen's intense, Oscar-worthy journey along The Road Special

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By Earl Dittman     Nov 23, 2009 in Entertainment
In The Road, Viggo Mortensen delivers an award-winning performance as a father desperate to keep he and his son alive in a dying civilization. Viggo talks about preparing for his part, nudity, co-star Charlize Theron and rating his own survival skills.
For director John Hillcoat's long-awaited cinematic adaptation of Carmac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road, his bestselling tale of a father (The Man) and son (The Boy) trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where food is scarce, morals are few and what few other survivors that still exist have turned to cannibalism to live, the filmmaker assembled an impressive and stunning cast of actors that includeed Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron.
With a screenplay for Joe Penhall, and closely based on of the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy (who also penned No Country for Old Men), in The Road, Viggo Mortensen and (Aussie newcomer) Kodi Smit-McPhee play the father and his son who try to make their way through one burning metropolis after another and walk through miles of freezing wasteland and dying wilderness as they head for “the coast” – where rumored food, shelter and other civilized survivors of the unknown, cataclysmic event have gathered to start a new society. As they travel through the barren landscapes, the the father and son meet others also hoping for a chance to survive. A stunning, poignant and stirring motion picture, Mortensen gives the performance of his career (it would be a crime if he doesn't take home an Oscar) in The Road) and Smit-McPhee is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor.
During a recent Los Angeles press outing to discuss The Road, the intense, charismatic and soft-spoken Academy Award-nominated actor (Eastern Promises) talked about how he prepared for the role, why he studied members of the homeless, how he felt about doing the nude ocean scene, what he thought about Charlize Theron's character in the film and confesses how he would rate his own survival skills.
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
The Weinstein Company/Sony
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What were some of the things you did to emotionally and physically understand your character better? "I tried to do things that I thought would be helpful, like listening to certain kinds of music, watching certain kinds of music keeping in mind what I thought they were headed for visually. Read certain things, just leaned on certain things that might be helpful or get me in a certain state to where I could go to those places that the character demanded emotionally. I always do that to some degree but really, in the end, there wasn't really anything I could do. I had to be very different from any role in that sense, how much I had to just throw away. Because really, it's about being naked emotionally and just being honest about it. In subtle ways and then in ways that are more obvious, but it had to be very real, very organic -- which was the most daunting thing. Not so much the physical journey that we were gonna make if this was gonna be done properly, but what I would have to expose from here, you know, I was like, 'I'm gonna need some help, especially from the boy, I hope they find a great boy,' and I read with the last four, and then there was one boy who came in, he was the last one, Kodi (Smit-McPhee), and there was something about him. At least he understood the story in a way that maybe the other kids didn't, and there was something in his eyes -- he's a joyful, well-adjusted kid. But there was something in his eyes when he was playing the scenes in the audition that was sad and knowing. And I felt this could work, because I was really worried cause if you don't have a great kid, it doesn't matter what I do.”
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
The Weinstein Company/Sony
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Is it true you studied a lot of homeless people as part of your research? “Well, I always am aware of them. I travel a lot. I did actually speak, that was another thing I did, I did speak to them just to ask them how they got that way and how they felt about it. Not all of them would want to talk, which is fine, like anybody in life. Very rarely, but some were living that way by choice -- but very rarely. Usually, it was lost their job and there was a descent, some it was drugs. Mostly it was just financial hardship, there's no other thing I can do. And how they felt about it and how they kept alive and what things they were worried about, like us. You go to sleep, you got to figure out where you're going to sleep where somebody can't do you any harm or steal your stuff.”
Was this in Oregon? “Yeah, and it just happened to be really blowing. The air temperature was insane, it was like forty-one, forty-two, both the water and the air. But because it was howling wind it was practically frozen. I think it was probably freezing in the air. It was so extreme that they have like an ambulance and they all these heaters on and I sat in there with a bathrobe and I just said, 'Just tell me when you're rolling and I'm just gonna run out and go.'
With all the cold water and wind, it sounds like you didn't have to do a lot of acting. “Yeah, it was a chamber of horrors. (laughs) But I was on the journey together with Kodi.”
How difficult was it jumping into the ocean naked? Did you do the scene in one take?
“It was cold. I asked for another one, but they were terrified. They didn't want me to, cause they had like ambulances, the water I think was forty-one degrees Fahrenheit.”
Charlize Theron in The Road
Charlize Theron in The Road
The Weinstein Company
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How would you describe Charlize Theron's role in the film? How should we feel about her? Is she the good maternal parent or the bad mom for not going on the journey with them?
“What I think about her and I commend her for, is that she and the director of course, but the way she played the character and maybe partly because also it's a visual medium rather than just the book. But somehow, I cared more about her character and it wasn't expanded it's the same character from the book. But when you read the book, and I've read it several times, it's easy to sort of dismiss her. To say she's weak, she's wrong, whatever, moving on, I'm with these guys. And yeah, he remembers her, he's constantly tormented remembering her, he can't sleep thinking about her, well of course it's his wife, whatever. But in the movie, you not only understand her point of view and it seemed legitimate, it's probably more reasonable than mine. Because when she says, 'How you gonna survive out there? Why?' I don't want to just survive. I don't know. I learn why, love, kindness, all that stuff we've talked about, by the end. But I don't know how, I do come to accept in the end that you can't know what tomorrow's gonna bring. Which is cool, most movies don't do that in an honest way, you don't get that. And I thought you got that from her, her point of view was valid, we agreed to disagree there was a respect there. And you could see the affection between them, in other words you understand why she was so sorely missed. Why there is that burden he carries. It's not just this world that's gone, it's her that he's thinking about all the time and trying to keep that from his son. He says to him 'You gotta stop thinking about her, we both do.' And he says, 'How do we do that?' And he doesn't have an answer for that. And he tries, but he never really does, which is beautiful in the same sense that he might throw her picture away. He can't quite put her ring away and then in the end he comes to accept the fact that it's okay now to let go if it's in a certain way. In other words, accepting, like he says – when he remembers that beautiful image of her waking up in the convertible by the sea and he says, 'If I were God, I would make the world just so, no different.' And so I have you, in memory. And he sees the boy and he is her, and that's really well done I think, in a movie. And those are the sorts of things that McCarthy takes pages to do beautifully, but how do you do that in a movie? Which is why a lot of people said, 'Can't be done.' You can't make an engaging, entertaining, beautiful, poetic story as a movie of this book. Can't be done. And they were wrong.”
How would you rate your own survival skills? “Not bad, I go camping a lot. I don't know if I would have the courage to keep going when it looked impossible. I like to think I would and I'm actually better with a gun than he is, I'm more comfortable. He's not necessarily, he's learned to be and that was important that it seemed that way. If it's just like an action guy, it's like 'uh.' It's not the same thing as it being a difficult thing. And that he's constantly reminding himself and the kid of what to do and it's like that's disturbing and it needed to be that way. I like the outdoors, I like camping.”
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
The Weinstein Company/Sony
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The Road opens nationwide on Wednesday, November 25.
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