By Sam Adams
November 18, 2009
John Hillcoat needed a face. To carry the lead in "The Road," his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son roaming the charred remains of what was once America, would require an actor capable of sustaining an intimate two-hander in which the bulk of his scenes would be played opposite a young boy. The lead actor would also need the drawing power to support the movie's $25-million budget. But it was the face that concerned him most.
"I was really looking for the everyman from the book," Hillcoat recalled before the movie's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "There was this thing of trying to find someone that you could really buy as being totally credible in going as far as he did through that kind of journey. There was this incredible emotional range that would be needed, but it was really that everyman thing that kept sticking in my head. I was actually looking at photographs by Dorothea Lange, because the book reminds me of Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' The face of Viggo really fits into that world."
With American and Dutch parentage, raised in Argentina, Copenhagen and upstate New York, and talents that include poetry, painting, photography and music -- not to mention his former marriage to punk singer Exene Cervenka -- Viggo Mortensen is hardly an everyman. But his face has the creased experience of Lange's Depression-era subjects, an etched, weather-beaten look that has all but vanished from the screen. (It doesn't hurt that he is simultaneously easy on the eyes.)
For Mortensen, at least, acting is hard work. His intensive, even obsessive, preparation is the stuff of legend: a trip to Ukraine to scout gang tattoos for "Eastern Promises," or the time he had a tooth knocked out during a "Lord of the Rings" sword fight and offered to Super Glue it back in. But how do you prepare for the end of the world?
"You don't," Mortensen said, slouched down in a hotel easy chair, his intensity undiminished by his relaxed posture. "You just have to do it. There's a leap of faith involved. You can prepare and rehearse, which we did. But then you have to just go for it, and it doesn't matter who makes the first move, as soon as that person does, the other person has to jump right in there and have your back."
That's not quite the whole story. While he was on a tour doing publicity for another movie, Mortensen would sneak off and talk to homeless people, whose survival-oriented existence paralleled that of his character. "Every major city around the world, there are people that live outside, and they have the same concerns as our characters," he said. "How am I going to get food? How am I going to stay dry? How am I going to keep people from stealing my stuff or hurting me? You can't get any more basic than that."
In the stark terrain of "The Road," there is only one human relationship that remains intact: the one between Mortensen's character and his son, played by then-11-year-old Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee. (In the movie as in the novel, the characters are unnamed.) Although fleeting encounters bring them into contact with an old man ( Robert Duvall) and a cannibal thug (Garret Dillahunt), and flashbacks bring the mother ( Charlize Theron) into the picture, for most of the movie, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are the only figures on screen.
"As an acting exercise, if you look at it from a technical standpoint, you've got nothing really to rely on except the other actor most of the time," Mortensen said. "There aren't a lot of props. It's just us and this devastated landscape."
Mortensen and Hillcoat knew that the success of the film would be largely dependent on finding the right actor to fill the demanding role of the boy, and Mortensen lavishes praise on his juvenile costar. "I've never had a better acting partner, someone I knew had my back, and he knew I had his," Mortensen said. "His ethics as a performer and as a worker, as a craftsman, really, are much more grounded in decency and professionalism than many adult performers I've worked with."
The bond between costars was cemented early in the shoot, during a scene in which Mortensen washes the brains of a recently dispatched adversary out of his son's hair. Having sought out inhospitable climes, including post-Katrina New Orleans, to stand in for the story's barren wastes, the production was filmed in frigid western Pennsylvania, where the river water was so intensely cold that Smit-McPhee began to cry for real.
"That was a milestone, unexpected," Mortensen said. "It was a tough scene anyway, but it became much richer emotionally than we expected it to. It's roughly what the scene needed to be, but it's much more intense because he really was in pain and he was freezing cold, and I was ready at any second to go, 'OK, let's get him away. Let's get him warmed up.' But he was looking at me in a way that he was telling me with his eyes, even though he was really suffering, that he wanted to continue. He stayed in character, but it was very real what he was feeling, and it was very real what I was feeling in response. The foundation of any good acting is good reaction, and he gave that to me. And I gave it to him. When he saw that I realized this was real right now, we went to another level and we never looked back, really."
"When we looked at each other, it was like that father and that son, and me and him connected on another level," Smit-McPhee recalled. "We knew each other a bit more."
"It was an intensely moving moment," Hillcoat said. "After calling cut, they kept their embrace, and to the credit of Andy McPhee, who is Kodi's father, he did the most extraordinary thing. He was going to go in and take his son. Even though Viggo was holding Kodi, [Viggo] was looking to his father, ready to hand him over, but Andy stepped back. He said it was an agonizing decision for him afterward, but he knew that it was also critical to the bonding between them. I think that changed the dynamic. Really, it deepened it, from that day on."
It's fitting that a moment of adversity would knit the actors closer together, because "The Road" deals with the way difficult circumstances either strengthen the bonds between people or destroy them. Mortensen, who studied films by the austere Russian directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov to prepare, said the extremity of apocalyptic scenarios throws the moral issues into stark relief. "They're tests," he said. "How do you behave when everything's gone to hell? When you have nothing except each other, and each others' beating hearts, you're tested. You don't always get along when you're around someone all the time, period. And in these circumstances of fear and hunger and paranoia, it's even more of a test of character. Not just courage but of basic human decency. When everything's taken away, what's left? Are you going to be a good guy or not?"