Multi-faceted actor honored by SBIFF for career ranging from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to ‘Green Book’
The first thing audiences learned about Viggo Mortensen on Saturday afternoon at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was that the man loves his soccer.
As Pete Hammond remembered, the last time the two talked, the actor brought out a laptop to watch an important match while sitting down for a chat. “He’s a good multi-tasker,” said Mr. Hammond.
The second thing they learned was the closed 101 won’t stop a man when he is being honored with the American Riviera Award. Mr. Mortensen, the star of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Hidalgo,” “The History of Violence,” and most recently “Green Book,” was stuck in Camarillo with occasional co-star (and award presenter) Ed Harris. The two caught a quick flight to Santa Barbara and got to the Arlington less than an hour later than planned. (Glenn Close, who was to be honored on Saturday night, wasn’t as lucky — her tribute was postponed to this afternoon.)
The soccer fandom turned out to be integral to understanding Mr. Mortensen’s acting interest.
“I like seeing how people behave when things go well, and when things go badly,” he said. “It’s like when I watch a movie, I get sucked in. If there’s an obstacle … how they are they going to handle it.”
That’s served him well, especially for a man who came to acting later than most, at age 21, after watching old classics of world cinema in a revival house in New York.
His first two major bit parts, one in Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” and in Jonathan Demme’s “Swing Shift,” were left on the cutting room floor. He laughed that after sending his parents to go see these films on opening night only to discover he wasn’t in them led them to believe he might be on drugs.
But no, the third time was a charm, with a bit role in the Harrison Ford film “Witness.” From big budgets to small, Mr. Mortensen soon learned to be a flexible actor, from improvising to nailing scenes in only one or two takes because the budget for film was small.
Before they got to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — where the actor told a funny story about getting a tooth fixed in downtownWellington on lunch break before returning to set — the other trilogy of films with David Cronenberg was discussed. Those three — “The History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method” — have been some of his favorites.
“I was in sync with him,” Mr. Mortensen said of the director, who works with a small budget and crew. “The shorthand I had with him, I didn’t really have to talk to him about what he wanted in a scene.”
He also offered praise for films that were unfairly dismissed. Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” in which he plays a drill sergeant, was panned for Demi Moore’s performance, but he thinks that was more for the kind of roles she had played before the film, not for what he thought was a strong performance.
Mr. Mortensen also expressed regret about the “producers who will remain nameless” who fumbled the release of “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic father-son tale that should have had a wide release — people love the book and were looking forward to the film, he said — but instead just went into 1,500 screens nationwide and sank without a trace. But he loved the role in an emotionally grueling film.
“I like characters that are tested,” he said.
A movie like “Green Book,” where many scenes are just him and Mahershala Ali, were what acting is all about for him: “listening and reacting.”
The two actors had such fun with the dialog, he said, that director Peter Farrelly had to remind himself that they were making a drama, not a comedy.
“I’ve had so many opportunities and been in so many good stories,” he said later about his 20-plus year career. “Sue me if I complain about anything.”