Anyone not living under a rock has probably seen previews for the big-screen version of Cormac McCarthy's postapocalyptic novel The Road, which hits theaters November 25. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as a nameless father struggling for survival alongside his boy, played by 13-year-old Australian TV actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. (Mortensen's real-life son—Henry, 21—is the product of his now-defunct marriage to Exene Cervenka, front woman of seminal Los Angeles punk band X.)
The word "actor" only begins to describe the many talents of 51-year-old Mortensen, who made his Hollywood debut as an Amish farmer in the 1985 Harrison Ford flick Witness. It would be another 16 years before his portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy catapulted him to international stardom (and job security), but Mortensen has never had trouble keeping busy. Born to a Danish father and raised in South America, he's fluent in four languages (not counting the Elvish tongues) and conversational in others. He's a published poet, painter, fine arts photographer, and dabbler in musical projects—including Intelligence Failure, a collaboration with weirdo-guitarist Buckethead. He's also founder and editor of Perceval Press, a boutique publishing house that puts out mostly high-end art books.
To that résumé, you can add another title: political activist. An outspoken foe of the Iraq War, Mortensen actively campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during the 2008 primaries. He's also featured alongside Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, and others in The People Speak, a new documentary based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which debuts December 13 on the History Channel. As chance would have it, I caught up with Mortensen the morning that President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize.
Mother Jones: What do you make of this morning's news about Obama?
Viggo Mortensen: There's a certain irony. He says he's committed to keeping his campaign promise of getting us out of Iraq as soon as it's possible—I don't know exactly what that means anymore. He's gone back on what he said about Guantánamo. He's gone back on what he said about the torture photographs. And he's quite hawkish on Afghanistan. I agree with Obama when he said this morning that he didn't deserve it. But I do like the fact that it seems to be, which he acknowledged, an award that carries with it a certain degree of expectation.
MJ: In the 2008 movie Good, you played a German professor who gets co-opted by the Nazis. Has it been alarming for you, seeing people comparing Obama to Hitler?
VM: Well, that's just a cover for out-and-out racism, basically. It is alarming, the amount of vitriol that's being piled on him.
MJ: It's not all that unexpected.
VM: No. But it's pretty amazing. It's amazing to me that Glenn Beck can be on the cover of Time, and there can be a whole article about him basically saying, "Well, you know, he's controversial." It's like, No, he's a dangerous idiot who needs the help of a good psychiatrist! But these are also guys who make money and they like the attention. Rush Limbaugh, for example, knows he's lying his ass off, but he doesn't mind making $50 million a year.
MJ: We had an in-house debate about how to cover these guys: The upshot was that you don't follow their antics, but you've still got to cover them.
VM: You gotta do it honestly. It doesn't mean you have to start swearing and using their tactics, but I think you have to call them on it. If you let them go with it they'll go and go and go. They are bullies. But like all bullies, if you stand up to them they're not so strong.
MJ: Men's Journal called you "man of no compromise." And that's silly. But campaigning for Kucinich was pretty uncompromising. Some might say futile.
VM: What am I going to do? Look back when I'm 80 [with regret]? Obama's best material during the campaign was cherry-picked from the things Kucinich had been talking about for a long time. And Kucinich continues to be really the people's congressman. He is the one with the most conscience regarding health care, the banking issue, the bailout. He's the guy who said we should not go into Iraq, and was called a traitor for it. He was a guy who said, "This Patriot Act is not a good thing, we should not vote for it." Even people in his own party were saying, "Why do you say that?" And he says, "Because I read it," and there was silence. 'Cause none of them had read it. They just voted yes because they were told to. Same with health care stuff.
MJ: I don't have much hope for Congress.
VM: I know, but what do you do? You either quit or you keep trying. I'm optimistic. Same with The Road. You know, it's uplifting to me. I am hopeful about the world. I am hopeful about people in general. It's not over till its over, that's my feeling.
MJ: I just saw The Road. It was kind of a shock to step out onto a crowded street afterward. It really succeeds in delivering you into this postapocalyptic mindset.
VM: Did you read the book?
MJ: I did. Are you happy with the way the movie turned out?
VM: It's a different medium, so you can't avail yourself of all that beautiful McCarthy prose, but I think that in what you feel from it, the emotional weight of the story, it's a really good adaptation.
MJ: I thought so, too.
(Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next question if you haven't read the book or seen the film.)
VM: I felt similar in the end, where you feel a deep, deep sadness, but there's also a strange uplifting quality. Yeah, we got to the coast, and yeah, it's not any better here—it's not any warmer, there's not any food, there's not any sun, the water's not blue, there's no sustenance. But we realize we had what we were looking for: It was us.
MJ: A decade ago, when your son Henry was about 11, you took an epic road trip with him. Did that come up in your preparation for this role?
VM: Reading the book and the script and working with Kodi, I was reminded many times of my son at that age. You can give all the advice you want to your kid. You can put them on the right path, but the final forming of their character is in their hands. That's true in The Road and it's been true with my own son. In fact, before we started shooting, I spoke to Cormac McCarthy on the phone and that was all we talked about: his kid, my kid, being dads. We didn't really talk about the book at all. The preparation for this role was mostly internal: I had to go all the way emotionally and be very exposed, so I was concerned that we find a really great actor for that boy—a unique person who could handle this.
MJ: I thought Kodi was quite good.
VM: He was amazing. There was something about him: He was relaxed, he was in the moment, he had a certain gravity, and his emotional range was amazing—and he could repeat it. There wasn't much time to mess around because of the limited budget and time to shoot, and winter and short days. There was a lot of pressure there, and he was more than up to the task. Without what he did, there's no way I could have gotten to some of the places I did.
MJ: How did you guys bond on set?
VM: Once his dad realized that I was okay, he allowed us to hang out and do things together: walk around Pittsburgh and go to museums and talk about stuff and find stores that sold bugs that you could eat—which ended up in the movie. We went into this Mexican grocery store and bought every insect they had. There's boxes of them, all different colors and flavors. Maggots, worms, crickets, some kind of cockroach. And then we had a little picnic—we spread them all out on the floor.
MJ: Did you snack off-camera?
VM: We had to save them. We got a certain amount of boxes and gave them to the prop department, and they didn't really want us to take any more, because you never know when you're going to need them. But I would tease Kodi. I would try to get him to eat ones that were crawling around, and he didn't want any of that.