Viggo Mortensen Talks About 'The Road'

Viggo Mortensen star in The Road
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'The Road.'. © Dimension Films

I've always believed Viggo Mortensen is the man, and quite literally he is The Man in The Road. Cormac McCarthy never gave his characters names in the book, and the film adaptation of his work stays true to that, never mentioning any character by name. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Road tells the story of a father (Mortensen) who is left alone to care for his young son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) in a bleak world with few human survivors.

Those who have survived get by by traveling from place to place, scrounging for meager scraps of food, or by turning into cannibals. The Man must protect, teach, and comfort The Boy while preparing him for a time when he's no longer able to educate and guide him.

At the LA press day for the Weinstein Company film, Mortensen recalled his introduction to McCarthy's book. "I read it the same day that I read the script because I thought, 'This is a really good script, a tough story but beautiful, and strangely kind of uplifting at the end.' I went through a lot of things reading the script. I couldn't believe how much my emotion was condensed into it, and visually what it could be, you know? And so I ran out to the book store and I was happy to see that this was a very faithful adaptation of the book."

Joe Penhall's adaptation of McCarthy's novel could quite possibly be the most faithful adaptation of a book to screen in recent history, and Mortensen felt drained after reading both the book and script in the same day.

"Yeah, I was worthless that day," admitted Mortensen. "I was at my mother's house, actually, visiting her and she said, 'So, what do you want to do for dinner?' 'Dinner?' I said, 'How can I eat now?'"

The Skinny on Viggo Mortensen's Weight Loss

Mortensen had to lose weight in order to play a man who's existing on just a few scraps of food every couple of days.
Asked how he accomplished the weight loss, Mortensen replied, "It took a certain amount of discipline and fortunately I had enough time to get there. I don't know [how much time]. I mean you can always use more. It was as I was traveling and doing other things, promoting Eastern Promises, actually. It was that period. Even at the Oscar's for example, that was like a day before shooting our first day. It was bizarre to go to this ceremony when we'd been already preparing, seeing this world and thinking that way, and suddenly I leave the winter of Pittsburgh and this weird area of town that we're in and I'm suddenly on the red carpet in Hollywood. It was really weird, you know? I felt strangely calm because I said, 'How bad can it be? It's fine. It's nothing compared to what I'm going to be doing the next couple of months. I can handle these photographers. They're not cannibals, as far as I can tell.' Maybe they are..."

Since he had to stay as thin as possible, Mortensen couldn't really enjoy the Oscar parties. "I also had to leave. I had to be on a plane, so no," said Mortensen. "There was a chocolate shaped Oscar at the Governor's Ball with gold wrapping and I remember I ate the hat off of that."

There are flashbacks scenes in The Road that show Mortensen, Smit-McPhee and Charlize Theron (who plays Mortensen's wife and Smit-McPhee's mother) in slightly less dire times. Those scenes required Mortensen to look a little more fit, however there just wasn't time for Mortensen to really put on any weight. "The last few days of the shoot Charlize showed up to do all those flashback scenes, and I was saying, 'It would be great if I had a week where I could eat and gain some weight,' because I'm supposed to look healthier and then gradually less as you see the evolution of our relationship and her eventual disappearance. They said, 'I'm sorry...,' and so I started cheating. Like a couple days before I started [to cheat] - and I couldn't eat. My stomach didn't want that much food. But I started for a couple days before she showed up, and then the day she showed up I was just wolfing down huge amounts of food and really was like, 'Wow, that's what that is!' Not that I wasn't eating before, but I wasn't overeating."

His food of choice? "Lots of Italian food, sweets, lot of sweets. Most of the movie what I ate was dark chocolate and drank a lot of mate, but I indulged myself tremendously to the point where I had to lie down. My body couldn't take it. It did work. I see I can it in some of the scenes with her."

Bonding with His Young Co-Star

In addition to getting prepared physically for the role, Mortensen had to develop a relationship with the actor who played his son. The two are in nearly every single scene and if we don't buy their relationship the film does not work. Smit-McPhee may have very few acting credits to his name, but he now can list Mortensen as a fan.

"My first worry when I said yes, which is always what happens to some degree, you say yes when you're offered this role and then you think, 'Oh no, now I've got to do this. How am I going to do this?' And in this case more than usual because in talking to the director I knew that he was going to, in principle, do things right as far as the look, shooting in real places and not green screen," said Mortensen. "The places we were going to shoot in were going to look right. The people he hired, as far as other actors and crew, were all really good. So if we had some luck with the weather, we might have a chance to make this look right."

Page 2: Working with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Those Retirement Rumors

"I felt like I had a burden that I hadn't had before on an emotional level to constantly have this sort of turbulence under the surface, you know, and regret and all these things mixed together," explained The Road star Viggo Mortensen. How am I going to do that believably against the landscapes? I thought, 'Well, if this is so raw and so real, and you can look at it as a measuring stick, we can't be any less real in our feelings and how we do things.' So I was worried about that.

But then as worried, maybe even more worried because I was so dependent - going to be - on whoever played the boy. I said to the director, 'You know, if we don't find a genius kid to do this part, we can only do so much. The movie can only reach a certain level. It doesn't matter how well it's done, how well designed, or how hard I work or am able to be honest and emotional. We're limited.' It really has to work, that relationship, and we're lucky we found him because he was able to give as good as he got."

Mortensen added, "One great thing about him is that he's kind of a prankster. He's a kid. He's a well-adjusted kid so as much as he can channel, I don't know where from, this intense emotion and sadness and presence that he has, that melancholy, he's a goofball. He's running around all the time, making fun of people, pulling jokes on people, and that helped us a lot."

The film was both emotionally and physically challenging, but the relationship he developed with Smit-McPhee helped immensely.

"The fact that I was a lot thinner, you know, that I had not much body fat at all meant that I got tired more quickly in the cold weather, I guess, just like Kodi who's naturally skinny. So that was just trying to stay focused and get through the day, basically. But it wasn't as hard as the emotional thing sometimes was, although that became easier as my relationship with him became stronger, because I trusted him more and he trusted me more.

By the end we really felt like we could do anything together. It was a great feeling to have an acting partner like that."

If he had to face the same situation as his character in The Road Mortensen's not at all sure what he would do. "Well, you never know. That's what makes it dramatically interesting, a story like this. And what makes life interesting, you know? I think it's something that reaffirmed my belief in the preciousness of life and the value of making the most of life. And, I don't know. I just think the extra physical and emotional tests that our characters go through in this story forced us to, not just as characters but ourselves too in some cases, to come face to face with and acknowledge our personal weaknesses and strengths. And by the end of the story, I think, to recognize that potential that everybody has, no matter how dire the circumstances might be, to be loving. Just because it's the right thing, not because it's useful. When everything is taken away, which is why the wife says, 'What's the point?,' she's right," said Mortensen.

"But then it's a learning thing, this is what the movie teaches I think in a way, if anything, that it's worthwhile just for its own sake to treat other people and yourself kindly.

Sounds silly in a way if you hear that - not silly, it sounds like, 'Why, yeah, sure, it's a simple, nice idea, concept,' but you see the movie and you know what that means. It's something that's hard to do, to earn that journey, but when you get that at the end - that's why it's strangely uplifting, because you believe that potentially. Not saying you all do, but I did anyway. In a profound way you understand that no matter what, no matter what, it's always better to be nice. It just is. It's not always the easy thing and sometimes it's like, 'I've got a lot of reasons to be annoyed here,' but still it's better not to be if you can avoid it, or to recognize when you do things wrong. Which is also what it's about and what the kid teaches the man, which is done really well, I think."

About That "Viggo's Retiring From Acting" Story...

News24.com did an interview with Mortensen which made it seem as though Mortensen was throwing in the towel as far as acting was concerned. But, thankfully, that is not what Mortensen meant at all. "[...]Somebody wrote that because they asked me and I just gave them an honest answer. 'What do you have lined up for the next movie?' And I said, 'I don't. There isn't anything right now.' I could have said, 'Oh, there's a bunch of things I'm not at liberty to discuss at this time,' or something like that, like people say. But it was the truth. I didn't have something lined up. They're like, 'Awww, he's quit.' And, no, the next thing I'm going to do is a play which is as terrifying to do as The Road to me because I haven't done a play in over 20 years. And then I think I'm going to do a movie, a very small movie, in Spanish in Argentina about a year from now."

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The Road hits theaters on November 25, 2009 and is rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.