Though it’s been almost a year since Captain Fantastic premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Matt Ross’s film — about an anti-establishment father raising his six kids off the grid in the woods of the Pacific Northwest — has seen an impressive uptick in awards buzz for its star Viggo Mortensen, who recently earned both Critics Choice and Indie Spirit nominations for his portrayal of a man torn between his kids’ needs and his own rejection of mainstream culture. In November, Mortensen met with Vulture in front of a live audience at SAG-AFTRA in Los Angeles as part of its Foundation’s “Conversations” series, to discuss the film, his breakout role in Peter Weir’s Witness, and how the “long-lasting” fame afforded by the Lord of the Rings trilogy has allowed him the freedom to pursue smaller passion projects.
How, if at all, is Captain Fantastic emblematic of the type of film you’re most interested in making at this stage in your career?
I’ve been around long enough to know to know that this was one of the best things I’d read in a long time. But I have to say, when I met Matt Ross, I said, “This is a great script, a near perfect blueprint for a movie story, but I don’t know how you can make a movie as good as this script unless you find six genius kids.” He said, “Well, we will try!” I was nervous. Fortunately, he included me in the process of the final auditions for each of the kids’ roles and they were all so talented. Then I got a little more nervous. Now I’m going to have to be up to their level. But it’s good to have that fear. It’s rare that a movie turns out as well as the script. But, to answer the question, this role combined many things I look for: There’s an emotional journey and many transitions, some of them subtle, some of them less so. In this case, the character has to change or he is not going to be the father or person he wants to be.
What are the distinct differences you see in being directed by someone who is also an actor? Are there things Matt did as a director that made your job easier?
You don’t have to be a great actor to be a good director of actors. But I haven’t seen anybody do a better job than Matt did of going the extra mile every day to make sure everybody was comfortable, and not just the kids. This was only his second full-length film. It was very ambitious. We’re talking about an indie movie where we are changing locations almost every day, you have a lot of child actors who have limited working hours legally, and you are shooting outdoors a lot of the time. That would be challenging for any director, even a seasoned one. But he was great at creating the illusion that we had plenty of time. That’s how good an actor he is: Inside, he was probably ready to curl up and die. [Laughs.]
Much of the film takes place in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, which I’m sure posed many challenges. Was there a scene or sequence that was particularly difficult to shoot logistically?
On a superficial level, the rock-climbing sequence was not something I was looking forward to. Otherwise, much of the movie involves scenes with several characters, which is always a challenge for a director. But Matt was always up for the challenge, and remained calm and focused at all times.
Were all of you, including the kids, actually up there on those rocks?
Yeah, they were there swinging around like monkeys, totally fearless. I look at rock climbing as something I admire. It’s aesthetically beautiful, but I was not looking forward to it. I stayed up there basically. They all climbed down to have lunch, and I said, “I’m good!” [Laughs.] They said, “We can send you a sandwich up on a rope!” I’m just really glad the weather held and there wasn’t anything we had to reshoot.
You’re now three decades into your acting career. What or who first inspired you to pursue the craft ?
It was probably subconsciously my mother, from a very early age, who inspired me. She used to take me to the movies a lot, grown-up movies when I was very little— 3, 4, and 5 years old — movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Mutiny on the Bounty, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. She was so into it and then in the intermission we would talk — this was back when some of those long movies had intermissions. Now that I look back at it, she was always talking about the people in the story and the relationships of the characters.
But it didn’t occur to me to try acting it until I was, for an actor, relatively pretty old — 22 or 23. I was working selling tickets and popcorn in a revival movie theater and I was seeing movies from the ‘30s to the ‘80s and taking note of certain performances. I started to wonder, What was their trick? How do they affect me so strongly, transport me to places far from the movie house? I wanted to try it.
The first teacher I had was a man named Warren Robertson in New York City. He ran scene-study and exercise classes. I didn’t really know anything; I hadn’t had any kind of acting training so I didn’t even know what I was doing. I actually looked in the yellow pages and thought I would try out for a play. I found a listing that said Actors Repertory Theater — yeah, okay they must do lots of plays with actors! So I called them and I said “I want to try out. What’s the story you’re doing, should I prepare?” They said, “Just come in Monday at 8 o’clock and bring two pieces.” I go, “Two pieces of what?” It’s a miracle they even let me come in. I cobbled together dialogue of a character from a story by Karen Blixen, the Danish writer Meryl Streep played in Out of Africa. And also, for some reason I prepared the lyrics to an Irish song. I performed those two texts and they said, “We will get back to you.” Then, a couple of days later they called and said, “Okay, you are accepted.” It turned out to be an audition for an acting school, not a play. So that’s how I got started.
Witness was the first film I saw you in. How did you get that role? Did you audition directly for Peter Weir?
I didn’t meet with him at first. I think I’d previously met the casting director for something else. The part as actually written to be just a day’s work: It was the funeral scene at the beginning of the movie where there are some Amish men and boys walking through a cornfield, down to the farm where Kelly McGillis’s character’ family lives. It was a funeral for her husband. I think I had one word in German and that was it. It’s funny, the same day that I was offered the Witness job in Pennsylvania — I was living in New York at the time — I was also offered a part in a production of Shakespeare in the Park for that summer. That was the thing to do obviously, I thought, but my rep, Bill Treusch, said, “Not so fast. It’s not often that you have someone like Peter Weir coming through town and casting a movie. You can do a play anytime. Trust me, just go down and do this thing.”
So I took the train down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, did the day’s work and at lunch Peter Weir came over to the table where I was sitting with some of the other actors and asked, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I felt like maybe I said the thing in German wrong! He looked very serious. He says, “What are you doing the next six weeks?” I said, “I don’t know, nothing?” He said, “I was looking at [co-star] Alexander Godunov and I think I will make you be his brother if you are willing to hang around. Wherever he is, especially when he’s interacting with Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford, you are sort of the audience’s eyes watching and seeing their relationship develop, and your brother get jealous. I can’t tell you what you will be doing, but we will figure it out as we go along.” I worked once or twice a week at most, mostly just background. That movie gave me the absolute wrong idea of what filmmaking is like because the director was polite and there was no yelling, and everything ran smoothly and professionally.. [Laughs.] Work always finished on time or a little before. It was like, “Wow, what a great business!” Then it took me another 20 years to have another experience like that.
Did that movie help get you noticed in Hollywood?
The movie came out in 1985, but it took me a long time to get going after that. I eventually moved out to California in 1986, and in 1989 or so and I got a role in Young Guns II. I was getting jobs here and there. I worked a little in TV, small parts in movies. I did a lead in a horror movie set in a prison in Wyoming. Somebody had seen me in a play here in Los Angeles in 1987, Martin Sherman’s Bent, then Sean Penn cast me in his 1991 film The Indian Runner and that helped to some degree, but not immediately. Then [Captain Fantastic casting director] Jeanne McCarthy was involved in Crimson Tide, the Tony Scott movie with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, and cast me in that. It was all bit by bit, slow but steady progress.
Was there a trend in the types roles you were being offered? Romantic roles? Bad-guy parts?
I actually couldn’t get auditions for those. Bad guys were the ones I wanted; they seem more fun and more of a challenge. But because of the way I looked, and what they had seen me do in Witness and other projects, it wasn’t going to happen. Every part I was offered was sort of “a nice young man.” But you still learn a lot, just in the doing, with any role. Making Crimson Tide, for example, watching Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman spar was great, and seeing how Tony Scott worked with those actors. All those experiences added up and helped give me a shorthand on how to be useful to a story and a director. I’ve always stuck to a similar approach with each job. Show up on time and prepared, and pay attention.
Did you have any sense of how giant The Lord of the Rings would be when you were filming the trilogy?
It was kind of a messy process to some degree. It was a very ambitious production — never been done quite like anything like that before or since. It was over a year straight shooting the bones of all three stories, and then we kept going back. In the six months before each movie came out, we actors would go in shifts back to New Zealand to reshoot new stuff. In terms of the ratio of footage shot to footage onscreen, we probably broke a record. [Laughs.] But it was a great experience. It felt like the spirit of Tolkien was really captured. I remember they showed 20 minutes of footage at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival with various fighting scenes, Rivendell and the caves of Moria and dwarves and elves running around and all of us in the Fellowship traveling through the mountains. I remember some of the producers were nervous about how the movie would play in Asia. They said, “They don’t have a history of reading Tolkien there, it’s not in their bookstores.” I said, “I wouldn’t worry about it. The value of this story is that it’s universal. Just take the elves for example — they’re a very Samurai culture.” But I think anyone who’d tell you they knew it was going to be a cultural milestone and box-office success is doing some rewriting of history. I don’t think anybody knew.
Did you find those films dramatically shifted fame and notoriety for you?
Certainly like everybody else involved, I suddenly got a huge amount of attention.
Attention from nerds too, which is the strongest kind of attention.
Yeah, and the longest lasting. [Laughs.] It does take some getting used to. But it was wonderful experience working for Peter Jackson and with all those people, that huge family, which is what we became. And it did give me more options. Without The Lord of the Rings, I wouldn’t have been able to do the first movie with David Cronenberg [A History of Violence]. You have to do something with your good luck, be prepared for it, make good choices and continue to be ready if something happens. With Captain Fantastic, they said, “If Viggo plays the father, yeah, we will finance that.” And that’s probably a residual effect from LOTR and that’s great. I can only be grateful. Acting is the most fulfilling, greatest, inspiring job there is. When it doesn’t work, it’s the worst, most embarrassing, humiliating, it’s just terrible and you just want to die. [Laughs.] But when everything is clicking and you’re connecting with everyone, it’s wonderful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.