Viggo Mortensen bares all to play a father bringing up his kids off the grid in the brilliant new movie Captain Fantastic. Kate Whiting catches up with the actor to talk about parenting, creative projects and stripping off on camera
For an A-lister with a slew of hit films and an Oscar nomination to his name, Viggo Mortensen isn’t very starry.
Yes, he looks the part, in a stylish slate grey suit, salt and pepper stubble matching his cropped hair and emphasising the dimple in his chin, and those chiselled cheekbones, of course.
But, tie discarded after a long day talking to the press about his new film Captain Fantastic, he seems tired, gazing downwards a lot, his languorous voice low. Less A-lister, more just someone’s dad after an arduous day.
But it’s exactly these low-key, everyman credentials that make him so believable in the roles he carefully chooses.
In Captain Fantastic (not in any way part of the never-ending Marvel oeuvre), he plays father-of-six Ben Cash who has taken his family ‘off the grid’, building a wooden house deep in the forest, where he trains the children in survival skills. When their mother gets sick, Ben and the kids set off on a road trip through America.
With long, sandy hair and a shaggy beard, Mortensen’s transformed in the role. And so good is he at rock climbing, skinning animals and playing guitar, it’s as though you’re watching it all for real. So were those skills he already possessed?
“My life experience is in there. Some aspects I have a leg-up on, I didn’t have to study being comfortable in that environment. But other things, like playing guitar or rock climbing, I didn’t know much about,” says the 57-year-old, best known for playing Aragorn in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and for teaming up with director David Cronenberg on gritty titles like A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises (the movie for which Mortensen landed his Oscar nod).
“Every character is different,” he adds. “I’ve never had six kids and lived exactly in that way. Some audience members, because they’ve seen me doing certain things in movies, probably assume that’s who I am and, if that’s true, then everything is working. It’s credible. It doesn’t mean I am that way.”
It’s his first film role for two years, as he’s been focusing his energies on his other loves: family, books and music. He lives in Madrid with Spanish actress Ariadna Gil, and has a 28-year-old son, Henry, with his ex-wife, musician Exene Cervenka.
“I make sure there’s time for family and other interests. I have a publishing house [Perceval Press] and publish a lot of books, but I try to be hands-on with each project and I’ve been writing more and composing music and doing things that take time. And I’m happy to.
“You could do two or three movies a year, but I think it’s better to do each job as best you can. I tend to scatter myself and do lots of things at once, but I try to do them one by one - more so these days than I used to, because I find that I am more relaxed and I do a better job.
“There was a great New Zealand saying when I was shooting on Lord Of The Rings, which was, ‘One job at a time and each job a success’.”
There’s little doubt Captain Fantastic, directed by Matt Ross, will be a success. It was billed as one of the year’s ‘buzz films’ at Sundance and has already garnered praise for its critique of consumerist culture and exploration of what it means to be a good parent. By isolating his children from the rest of the world, Ben thinks he’s giving them the best chance in life, but is he?
“There’s no such thing as a perfect parent,” says Mortensen. “No matter how hard you try, everyone makes mistakes. And whenever you do try, you’re increasing the likelihood of making mistakes. But I think it’s important for kids to see their parents are just human beings and they’re not always right. When they do make mistakes and own up to it, they set a good example in how they handle themselves on bad days.”
Mortensen had a rather unusual upbringing. Born in New York to American mother Grace and Danish father Viggo, who met in Norway, he grew up mostly in Argentina, where his dad managed a poultry farm, returning to New York with his mother aged 11, when his parents divorced.
“They were pretty traditional in that my father was at work and you would see him at the end of the day, maybe before you went to bed, maybe not. At weekends, you would see him more. Mother was the most present... The classic Western nuclear family unit.”
He was much more hands-on with his own son.
“When my generation came to be parents, it was much more acceptable for men to be involved with the changing of diapers, being around, babysitting, cleaning the house and cooking - it certainly wasn’t so unusual.”
In Captain Fantastic, Ben doesn’t shield his children from the truth - with a brilliant scene where he keeps a straight face in the rear-view mirror of the family camper van, while explaining sex to his youngest child behind him.
One morning, he steps out of the van completely naked, much to the surprise of some passing elderly campers.
Mortensen’s too much of a sage to be flustered by such a scene.
“It’s a little more acceptable now for men - not quite as much as it is to see women - that way. I still ask myself, ‘Is this going to take the audience out of the movie?’”
He was satisfied it was a justified inclusion, however.
“It was clear from speaking to the director that it followed. In context, it is humorous and works on many levels. I didn’t really question it,” he says.
Nor was he bothered when his Lord Of The Rings co-star, Orlando Bloom, was photographed paddle boarding naked with girlfriend Katy Perry, recently.
“Yeah, one of my friends sent me the video and said, ‘Have you seen Orlando?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. I don’t know why... It seems like a silly thing to go take pictures of, but obviously it sells.”
For someone who shuns celebrity status, does Mortensen find the trappings of fame and Hollywood superficial?
“I tend to be optimistic. There are a lot of good things about movies, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept doing it all this time. You don’t have to be part of the things that one might think are superficial,” Mortensen concludes.
“You just do your job and then go home.”
:: Captain Fantastic is released in cinemas on Friday, September 9