When Viggo Mortensen worked with David Cronenberg on A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, he played secretive men who spoke only when they needed to. Things change in their third team-up, A Dangerous Method, where Mortensen gets positively chatty (and sometimes even a little catty) as Sigmund Freud, who mentors Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) but disapproves of Jung’s S&M affair with hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Mortensen rang up Vulture recently to discuss his unusual transformation into Freud, his recent career decisions, and his hopes that Cronenberg will eventually take home some Oscar hardware.
So let’s discuss A Dangerous Method.
I’m glad you’re writing about it. With David’s movies, sometimes people don’t see it until it’s on DVD, and then they say, “Wow, that had to have been one of the best movies of last year.” No matter how well-received critically they are at the time of release, they tend to become sort of invisible, I think. It’s astounding, after making three movies with him — not to mention all the other great movies he did before those three — that David’s never been nominated for an Oscar for directing. It’s incredible. So I’m glad you’re giving it attention.
You never know with Cronenberg. Sometimes there’s that instant acclaim, like with A History of Violence, and sometimes there are those hidden gems that people might not know about until they find them on DVD.
The critics sometimes, a year later, they’ll say, “Those movies I put on my top ten list? I guess I’d take seven or eight of them off now.” Unfortunately, though, that affects whether a director like Cronenberg takes a year or four years to get his next movie financed. It took him four years after Eastern Promises to put another movie out, which is sad. It’s a loss to filmgoers that he doesn’t have a movie out every year. Woody Allen is a great director, but I wouldn’t say that his track record over the last several years is as solid as David’s, in my opinion, and yet he gets to make a movie every year somehow. David’s the Academy’s invisible man. He’s the most talented invisible man in Hollywood, if you will. [Laughs.]
This is something I’ve asked Keira, and I wanted to get your take: Do you think Dangerous Method is funny? Because I was laughing throughout, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Me too, and I’m glad you said that. At first, what I had to do in the film seemed daunting, like even more of a stretch than Eastern Promises was as far as characterization, and there’s a lot of dialogue, which I’m practically never given in movies except for this role. Freud uses words as his weapon, as his offense and defense, and what you said about humor was crucial, because something I realized from the research is that he was very funny. He doesn’t crack jokes in an obvious way, but he found a way to slip that wit and that irony into things, and in some sense, I guess that character is the comic relief in the movie. The humor helped make Freud feel like not such an impossible task to play, and obviously, the superficial stuff helped too. Once we got a handle on how the character looked and figured out a way to transform the way I look into a good semblance of what Freud looked like at that time, that helped a lot.
In your last two films with David Cronenberg, you’ve had to stay in good shape and take your clothes off. It must have been kind of nice this time to walk around in a beard and layers and indulge in some craft services for once.
Oh yeah. [Laughs.] I bought cigars and ate as much food as I could. The way Freud looked at that age, he wasn’t that same sickly, white-haired man that he was in the last fifteen years of his life. He had an appetite, so I worked as hard as I could to have a bit of a paunch and resemble him more. It was fun.
There are so few adult dramas that really engage with sex these days, but now we’ve got both Dangerous Method and Shame, which also stars Michael Fassbender.
I do think that David is relatively rare among directors, as is the director of Shame, in that they don’t talk down to audiences. They respect audiences, and they ask more questions than they give answers. Frankly, I don’t think that David gives you any answers — he’s respectful enough of the audience to put this story out there and just ask these questions. That’s when you know you’re making something interesting and unique that’s not just trying to please. David’s definitely as interested in entertaining the audience as he is in entertaining himself, but he doesn’t kowtow, he doesn’t treat people like they’re stupid.
Is he like a psychoanalyst in that way, since he just keeps on asking questions and prodding you to come up with the answers yourself?
Maybe! He’s got a sense of humor that I share, a sense of the absurd, a sense that there’s nothing that is sacred. He treats every subject matter with curiosity and respect, but he’s very witty, the kind of guy who can say something very funny without even cracking a smile.
You’ve had stretches that last over a year where you turn down all your movie offers, and recently, Snow White and the Huntsman went after you to no avail. Is there a reason you’re hanging back?
I was offered that and I wanted to do it, and I wanted to do the script I was offered, but the script changed radically. It was no longer the movie I was gonna do, and it bore no resemblance to it, really. It was already very tight on another movie I was shooting and I would have had to do it back to back, and after it changed completely, it just wasn’t what I signed up for. Much as I would have liked to be in a big, interesting movie, the timing just wasn’t right. Also, over the past few years, I’ve had other reasons to step away — not just because of work, but because of family health problems. In fact, the first time David offered me the role of Freud, I couldn’t do it because of personal reasons — I just wasn’t available to do that or any other movie. But then when Christoph Waltz left the movie quite late in preproduction because he decided to do a big studio movie, David contacted me again and asked me if things had changed, if I could find a window to do it. I think if another director had asked me to do this role, I might have hesitated more, because it just seemed like a big stretch. But I’m certainly glad I did it; I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.
Any movement on the sequel to Eastern Promises?
It’s funny you should ask, because we’ve been talking a lot about that recently. It takes David a while to get his movies financed — except now, for the first time he’s got back-to-back movies with Cosmopolis coming out next year, and we won’t have to wait several years for another Cronenberg gem — but one of the projects he’s considering is a sequel to Eastern Promises. Usually, sequels aren’t as interesting as the original, and though there are exceptions like The Godfather Part II, if anyone could make a good sequel, it’d be David Cronenberg. There’s a lot to explore with that character, and a script is being worked on for that, and it looks promising.