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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

September 22, 2005

Set against the rural backdrop of a small American town, director David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is a compelling character drama that examines themes of identity, human behavior, family, and past sins.

When nice guy Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) uses violent and deadly force to thwart a disastrous situation at his diner, he is celebrated by the national media, quickly attracting the attention of a dangerous mobster (Ed Harris) who is convinced they know each other. The intimidating criminal soon pays the local hero a visit, resurrecting all manner of shady elements from a past Tom has kept long buried, even from his wife of twenty years (Maria Bello) and their two children.

In this interview, Viggo Mortensen talks about the making of the movie and the theme of violence in our culture at large.

The Interview

MEDIA: Given his colorful past, would you say your character has multiple personalities?

VIGGO: I think that we're all multiple personalities. I think that's what's interesting and disturbing, especially seen through Cronenberg's eyes, which are kind of relentlessly looking for what's underneath a layer of civility that we all try to behave ourselves with, you know? I think that people are complicated. It's what's beautiful and also scary...that any person can think anything, can imagine anything--good and bad. No matter how sheltered their existence, how young they are, they are capable of beautiful, noble sentiments as much as they are of very dark and troubling thoughts--paranoid, angry, hostile, all kinds of things. And he's always been good at showing us that. It's like a car. It looks very nice, and then you open it and you look inside, and the engine's a little more complicated. And then you take parts of the engine apart, and you're like, "Wow, this is a mess." And that's what he's looking at when he looks at people. He's almost like a scientist. But like a comedic scientist. [laughs] Because I think as much as he's serious about this exploration of human behavior, he also has a very healthy sense of humor. He doesn't only show us how absurd we are, but he enjoys it. [laughs]

Do you find that audiences often confuse you with your own onscreen alter egos?

Whether I'm playing this role or Aragorn or Capitan Alatriste, or whatever I'm playing, I'm just following the needs of the story...So I don't really think so much about the audience. Not because I don't respect them. In fact, I think my way of respecting the audience is thinking people are intelligent, and if you are honest in the way you tell something, if you're really feeling and thinking things, real things, it's going to show. And if you don't try to make it a message or be very obvious for the sake of being very clear, people will appreciate that.

Do you have people coming up to you and calling you "Aragorn"?

Some people are crazy, sure. [laughs]

How does Maria compare to other leading ladies you've worked with?

Well, I think comparisons are odious, as the saying goes. I wouldn't want to put one person above another. Everybody has a different way of working. I would say that Maria Bello is every bit as brave, on some level, as Diane Lane. She is every bit as striking as any of the others. But I'm not going to relate her to anybody else. I think she has her own style. And I guess the best thing I could say about her, and the most true thing, is that I don't really imagine someone else playing her role in this movie. And if I could, I don't really feel like it, because I'm very happy to have done it with her. I think she did a great job. I think she obviously shows that she's a good actress. But beyond that, she's courageous. She's brave. I mean, some of the things we had to do emotionally and physically were uncomfortable. And they were going to be uncomfortable, and yet she didn't play it safe. She just went for it, which made my job easier, and obviously made the director's job easier.

Is working with Cronenberg something you've always wanted to do?

He's certainly one of those directors that you hope you would at least meet some time, and maybe get to work with. But you don't get everything you want. Every once in a while, everything comes together, like this did, you know? When I read the script, I thought it was interesting. But I figured that most directors, if not nearly all of them, even the best ones, wouldn't make much of this. In other words, they might make something that visually was interesting and on some graphic, violent, or strong emotional level be immediately gratifying, but wouldn't necessarily be very layered in terms of storytelling, because they wouldn't have the patience or inclination to tell it simply and in a real manner. But from the moment I met him to talk about it, any questions I had...He was already ahead of me. He was asking himself the same questions.

What approach was taken towards the shooting of the movie's fight scenes?

I've done stunts for years. And I like doing that. Obviously, if that's something your character does, and if you can do it, and you're allowed to do it, it creates an energy that's proper to you and to your way of playing the character. And also, obviously, the director can be in there close and can see you from any angle because it's you. So it's fun to do in that sense. Or, it's constructive to do. But I worked with David very closely and with the stunt coordinator, and we were all in agreement that this should be very straightforward, very believable. We looked at self-defense courses and tapes and talked with people. It is very matter-of-fact, very direct, and very efficient, just like the storytelling of the whole movie is. It's not a scene about showing off what you can do with the camera or of your moves as a fighter. There isn't a lot of wasted effort. It's about getting as close as you can to the person as quickly as possible, and hurting them as much as you can as quickly as possible. It's very simple in principle, and that's what we tried for.

Have you encountered your own history of violence? Perhaps as a school kid?

There's always kids that are mean you. But I wouldn't say that I am someone that looks for that. I mean, I would much rather avoid it, always. [laughs]

Do you think this film implies that violence is a particularly American quality?

Well, some people have brought that up. And you can certainly go there because it's a complex movie. I've been surprised at some of the things that people see in this movie. I even thought about it myself, because you can make a case for it. Obviously, the movie's set in America. And America is documented as being pretty much a gun-toting Wild West kind of place compared to a lot of countries. But it's not a particularly American thing--violence, or consequences of violence. And as much as people can go to extremes and say it's about American violence or it's about American foreign policy, or any number of things that you can say--if you want to, you can make a case for it--that's not the intent. Because it's too good a movie, and he's too good a director, and too smart. You can't limit it that way. You can, but I wouldn't. I think it's clearly a work of art that shows that it is true that the more specific you are, the more universal it can be. Certainly the themes of violence and struggle against violence and the consequences of all of that are universal. And the way it's told, the story [is] universally accessible, and I think people can apply it in their own cultures as much as any story.

Does the name of your character, Tom Stall, conjure any kind of imagery for you when you hear it?

Well, "Stall" obviously means there's something that's in limbo. So you can go crazy. I mean, there's film critics that always write things that way. They just go into all that. And it's valid. You can make a real philosophical study of this movie, which is great. But you don't have to have that bent or academic inclination to appreciate the movie. That's what's great about it. It's this super well-crafted, well-tooled machine, this piece of filmmaking. It's close to perfect, in terms of its functioning. It's supremely efficient as a piece of storytelling, but unlike other movies that approach being as technically well-made, it has a big heart and a messy heart. It's not cold, it's not reassuring. It's not easy to categorize. You can't really pin it down, I don't think. You can try, but there's always going to be something else that you can say, "But..." about.

Are you interested in a philosophical debate about this movie?

I don't mind it. I hope I'm not giving the impression that I'm against it. But I just think that it's only one way to look at it. Whether it's philosophy or just film history...Although you can, you don't have to talk about Point Blank, and you don't have to talk about High Noon, and you don't have to talk about any number of movies from all over the world. But you can. I just think you can also just talk about the people in the story and how it makes you feel.

Is that how you approach the story?

I've talked about it in all kinds of ways, partly because that's what's stimulated by questions from journalists. But also because I'm curious about life and literature and politics and what people do and don't do. So, sure. But really, those are all abstract things on some level. They're not helpful to telling the story anymore than it's helpful for me to think about the audience. "What's the audience going to think if I do this?" I don't do that because I respect the audience, actually, enough to not do that. And I think Cronenberg's that way, too. He's never been a message-oriented director. He just creates something, he opens the door, he allows you to ask yourself questions. But he doesn't tell you to, or even ask you to.

How did you prepare for the differing extremes in personality that your character exhibits?

Well, in a general sense, I was in sync with my director in the sense that we didn't want it to be an obvious, fixed-in-one-spot thing. There is a sequence, and you see something or feel something changing. Especially [if] you look at the movie a second time, you see little signs all along the way, and I think that speaks to the fact that both the director and I agree that you never are only one thing, and that we all are everything. It just depends what you want to show, or what circumstances force you to show. I mean, we have all the ingredients, all of us. And it's just a question of circumstance, upbringing, stress, who you're dealing with, how those ingredients are combined, how you present yourself as a person. And another director would have done more of a hack job, just showing a guy who's this and suddenly he's that. It might be a flashy thing on a surface level in terms of an actor doing that, but it wouldn't leave me with much to think about. I'd go, "What a crazy person" rather than "Hmmm...I can relate to that." [laughs] You know what I mean? That's a lot more interesting to me.

I see you're wearing a Red Cross logo today. How proud are you of Americans lately, in regard to the Hurricane Katrina situation?

I think Americans are good people, but I don't think they're better or worse than anybody else in the world. I am particularly proud of the fact that in spite of the pathetic performance of our government with relation to (and that's why I'm wearing this Red Cross thing) what happened, it didn't matter what the government did or didn't do, and how they wanted to hide or make excuses. People took care of business, and continue to. And I think people are essentially--not just in the United States, but everywhere--resilient. And people surprise us, for the good they can do and the compassion they can display. Humans are unique in that sense compared to other animals. Just like in this story, they can reason and say, "No, that's not the right way. It may be difficult, but I want to struggle against being that way." And they can reach out to help people that they don't even know for no particular reason other than that it's the right thing to do. And you see that happening right now. So, that always gives you hope for the future.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you. Good luck to you guys.

Related Material

A History of Violence interview with Maria Bello
A History of Violence interview with director David Cronenberg
Movie Coverage: A History of Violence


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