Oscar 2005: Viggo Mortensen in Cronenberg’s ‘History of Violence’

“Viggo is like an ambassador of the production. He is incredibly generous, and has wonderful effect of involving everybody.”–Director David Cronenberg.

David Cronenberg initially met Viggo Mortensen at a party for “The Lord of the Rings,” at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where they both agreed that they should work together. Cronenberg thought that the script of A History of Violence would be really right for Viggo.

Subsequently, the two met in Los Angeles to discuss it in detail: the character, what changes Cronenberg wanted to make, and what worried Viggo or didn’t make sense to him.

“We found that we were very much in sync,” says Cronenberg. “Viggo does his homework and thinks about things a lot. He helped to create his character. I always go through a script after Ive brought in the cast to make it feel more natural for them. It’s very collaborative.”

And How Does Viggo Feel

On Cronenberg

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like I was on the same wavelength with a director as I am with David.

I like his way of telling a story. He not only shows a wholly original knack for entertaining audiences with a good psychological drama, but he also allows an audience to ask itself difficult questions about the nature of violence and confusion of identity.

David found more layers, or allowed us to find more layers, than I thought were there in the script. In this story, you really see the complicated effects an incidence of violence has on a lot of characters in this small community, and beyond it.

On his Role, Tom Stall

In this movie, things are not what they seem. We are not what we believe we are. The world is not necessarily what it seems to be on the surface. And when things start to go wrong, Tom Stall has to look inside himself, while those closest to him wonder who he is, as Tom changes from his normal, peaceful loving self in order to deal with the violence that he encounters. It’s also about Tom’s wife Edie, and another side of herself. It’s about their son Jack and another side of himself.

Attention to Detail

Viggo’s commitment translated to a collection of artifacts he purchased in the Midwest on his travels, which included ducks and a bank in the shape of a fish head that says fishin’ money’ on it and is set on the diner’s cash register, posters of Birds of North America, some landscapes, a small ceramic eagle and other animal sculptures for his daughter’s room which he thought Tom’s character would have in his home. Viggo has been very active in helping to create the surroundings that his character will emerge from. That is unique,” says Cronenberg.

About his On Screen Wife played by Maria Bello

What happens to Tom and the family changes Eddie. You know that whatever the outcome is, when these people intrude on this idyllic family setting in this small Midwestern town, that things will never be the same. From the moment that the first outsider walks into that diner, it’s over. You see Tom and Edie’s relationship suffering under that strain where Tom gradually finds himself unable to deal with the situation that he has been part of setting up, this family, which seems to be functioning so well.

About his Character’s Marriage

They will have to rebuild, retool, re-examine if they want to keep the marriage. They don’t have to, but it’s an option. In a sense David is saying, if you’re not open to re-examining or retooling any relationship, whether it’s a couple, a family, a town, or a country such as the United States, there will be consequences. You will eventually pay the price for not taking a good honest look at yourself. I think that’s what David’s doing without being obvious about it.

About the Sex Scenes

Tom’s act of violence provokes changes in Edie. There are some dark sexual scenes that required a particular kind of trust. The sex lives of your characters are important. To shy away from it can limit the depth of exploration of the character. I thought it was important to see Maria Bello responding to both the contrasting sex scenes before and after Tom discovers hidden depths of violence in himself.

About the Villain played by Ed Harris

In Ed’s hands, Fogarty is scary. He needed to be menacing. My son in the film, played by Ashton Holmes was a little taken aback at first. Fogarty is one of those guys who we are afraid to ever run across, but we see him in the flesh in Ed’s character. Ed was very helpful, not only to me, but to Ashton and the others. He’s that kind of actor who really tries to get you to do your best work as an actor. I also liked the fact that he brought a certain amount of humor to it, he was disturbingly funny, as was William Hurt.

On Violence

I think David shows the roots and the consequences of violence, but he doesn’t really dwell on the violence itself. He doesn’t linger on it or glamorize it in any way, which somehow makes it more disturbing. He’s saying that violence is never OK. But he’s not saying violence can be avoided completely. In that sense, he’s just showing you life as we humans make it on this planet.

David has not done a lot of fight sequences in his movies before. But, if anything, that was an advantage in telling this story. It’s disturbingly real because the physical action is abrupt and shocking and has ugly consequences.

The Movie’s Issues

The movie deals not only with violence and the confusion of identity in society within a nuclear family, but it also deals with problems of celebrity culture. You see Tom Stall having this situation thrust upon him, to which he reacts instinctively. Violence ensues, and he becomes a small town hero, congratulated for committing these acts of violence. His son thinks he should be on Larry King. In that sense, David is dealing with a universal problem that’s particularly prevalent in the U.S., where people are very excited by violence connected to celebrity.

David puts a magnifying glass on American society and culture, showing in subtle ways the universal themes of the nature of violence, the confusing aspects of the nuclear family and individual identity.

Collaborators on Viggo:

Viggo’s my kind of actor. I like to work with actors who are not just leading men, but also character actors. First of all they tend not to be afraid because they’re not trying to protect some image they see of themselves as traditional leading men, but also it gives them a much bigger palette to paint from because they have all kinds of edges. Viggo has a kind of eccentricity that is more typical of a character actor than a leading man, and yet still has a leading man presence and charisma.

Viggo was perfect. He is not only a charismatic leading man, but also the combination of other qualities made me feel he had the depth to play a very complex role. He is a maniac for detail, which I love. He is very focused and obsessed with details of how his character would move, speak, and dress. It’s really quite spectacular to watch him work and interact with him. After two weeks of working closely, we felt like brothers.
–David Cronenberg

Viggo is really bright, and he’s a renaissance man. He paints, writes poetry and takes photos and speaks at least three languages. He’s very generous and really was involved in this film. He likes to talk about it and make sure were on the same page. Ive enjoyed sharing time with him very much.”

Ed Haris

Viggo was very deliberate and thoughtful before he chose to do this movie. He met with Cronenberg a number of times. He really wanted to understand the script and the transformation his character undergoes. It was really about him falling in love with this character before he decided to do it.
–Producer Chris Bender

Viggo Mortensen’s Short Resume
Since his screen debut as a young Amish farmer in Witness, Viggo Mortensen’s career has been marked by a steady string of diverse performances. Most recently, he played long-distance racing cowboy ‘Frank Hopkins’ in Hidalgo. Critics have continually recognized his work in over 30 films, including The Lord of the Rings, A Walk on the Moon, Portrait of a Lady, Carlito’s Way, and The Indian Runner. He is currently filming Agustin Diaz Yanes’ 17th Century epic Alatriste in Spain.

Born in New York to American mother and a Danish father, Mortensen spent his childhood in Manhattan. His family traveled extensively, and he spent years in Venezuela, Argentina, and Denmark.

He began acting in New York, studying with Warren Robertson, and appeared in several plays and movies before moving to Los Angeles.

He is also an accomplished poet, photographer, and painter. In 2002, he founded Perceval Press, an independent publishing house specializing in art, poetry, and critical writing. Perceval’s mission is to publish texts, images, and recordings that might not otherwise be presented.

Mortensen exhibited the photographic series “Miyelo” at both the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles and the Addison Ripley Gallery in Washington, D.C. He has also shown his work at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York City, as well as in New Zealand, Denmark, and Cuba.

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