Viggo Mortensen Will Hypnotize You With His Intensity As He Dissects What’s Wrong With Our Polarized Country

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On Friday, after a banquet thrown by publicist Peggy Siegal for the film Captain Fantastic at Manhattan’s Explorers’ Club, I was waiting to speak with director Matt Ross (who, yes, also plays Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley) who was finishing up with some pleasantries with guests. It was at this point I was asked, “While you’re waiting, do you want to talk to Viggo?”

This is a funny question for a couple of reasons. First: Who, in my situation, says, “No thanks, I don’t want to talk to Viggo Mortensen”? Second: I didn’t even bother asking if I could talk to Viggo Mortensen at the last minute like this because he’s a famous person who looked really busy. Anyway, of course I said yes, as I then had to come up with topics to discuss in about the five seconds it took for him to walk over to where I was standing.

In Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben, a father of six who is raising his family in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, off the grid. After his wife’s suicide, he brings his family back to civilization for the funeral. Captain Fantastic is a unique film and it’s obvious that Mortensen loves it.

Here’s the thing about Viggo Mortensen: I could listen to this man speak on just about any topic for hours. His voice is both passionate and hypnotic. It’s impossible not to be engaged when he’s speaking because he presents himself with, somehow, both a welcome calmness and a focused intensity at the exact same time. It might be magic. I suspect it is magic. And he has a lot to say, from his own decision making process when it comes to starring in movies, to this polarized electorate that is the United States today.

I keep wanting to say, “Oh, this movie’s fantastic,” then I feel like I’m doing a pun and then I feel bad.

I feel the same, and when I talk about the kids, I often go, “Oh, they’re so fan…” and then I think about it and I say, “They’re so gifted.”

[At this point a man approaches and tells Viggo Mortenson that he’s a fan of two of his lesser known films Hidalgo and A Walk on the Moon.]

It would have been funny if he said, “I love this little known movie of yours, it’s called Return of the King.

[Laughs.] “Have you heard of it?”

Speaking of, I feel like after those three The Lord of the Rings movies, you were set up to be an action star if you wanted it, and then I felt like you just wanted to go a different direction.

I wasn’t constantly trying to look for something or avoid anything. I mean, I don’t really think about the budget of a movie or even the genre of a movie, or the nationality.

But you always do interesting movies.

Well, more often than not independent movies are going to have a more original story, but it’s not that they’re better or worse. I mean, there’s a lot of great studio movies. And there have been studio movies, that were really good roles and good stories, that I’ve been offered, once in a while, when I was in the middle of doing something else. Because I do films that I like, then I want to go out like I’m doing now. I want to go out and talk about it. And the reason it’s not that hard to talk about them is because I liked them in the first place.

Have you’ve been in positions where you’ve had to talk about movies that you may not have liked as much as this one?

Not very often.

With your career, I can see that.

I try to pick things that I like. And what’s rare is a movie like this one, where it’s as good as the script. That doesn’t always happen, so I really appreciate it. It’s rare nowadays with the way the market is that an indie movie like this actually gets to be seen in a lot of movie theaters, and that four months later it’s still hanging around. If I said to Matt [Ross], “I got this offer. I’m not going to be available after Sundance,” it’s not going to have a chance. But I also think it’s part of the job. I accept it and I take it seriously, talking to you about it. And it’s a lot easier to talk to you about it if I like it, obviously. But that’s the way it’s gone. It’s not like that I’ve tried not to do a certain kind of movie. It’s just the way it’s worked out so far. And who knows? Maybe tomorrow if I’m lucky somebody offers me a role that’s a big production that you know lots of people are going to see.

Being a Sundance hit used to almost guarantee some sort of play later in the year…

But it’s changed now.

What’s happening with Captain Fantastic offers some hope though.

Yeah, it’s encouraging. And also it probably helped us that the movie was invited to Cannes, to compete in Cannes. I think it was the only one in Sundance, and that was surprising. It was a good piece of luck. But anyway, Matt said, “So what are you expecting?” And I said, “Well, it’s a completely different thing than Sundance. It’s international and there are going to be prickly journalists here. It’s a different vibe, and this is a very American story in a lot of ways, so who knows?” And then when I saw that we were screening at 10:45 p.m., I was like, Oh, man. He said, “Well, what’s wrong with that if people are into it and having fun?” I said, “Yeah, but the guys who have been reviewing movies have probably seen four of them already today.” And who knows?

I’ve been in that position. If that fifth movie is “something different,” it’s going to play well.

Well, that’s the other side of it, because the reaction there was as good or better. I mean, it couldn’t have been better than Sundance, but it was pretty positive. But it was the same kind of thing where everybody stood up and it was a long standing ovation. But it’s not just that, it’s that people come up after the movie and hang out, and they’re not just, “Oh, let’s get a picture, let’s do this,” they’re like, “Well, you know, my dad…” They’re like really passionate.

Any time you tap into childhood memories, there’s going to be some things very deep inside that people want to talk about.

Sometimes people bring up stuff and you go, [grimaces]. And it’s like, “Well, obviously, it’s about this, and you guys are saying this,” or, “Matt, obviously, you were thinking this.” And a lot of times, because he’s an honest guy, he goes, “No, it hadn’t occurred to me.” Anyway, so that’s great and it’s a good feeling. But it doesn’t happen all the time that people come up and honestly say, “I want to talk about the movie, and I’m relating to it.” It just doesn’t happen that often. And also, that’s the way the country is anymore. I mean, it’s very polarized. It’s not just the politicians: It’s they’re tapping into something, a disquiet, a polarization. People aren’t communicating well. You know, they’re getting lots of information with other devices to reinforce their existing position and prejudices, but they’re not reaching out to really interact with other people. It’s been a couple of decades since I’ve seen it this bad in this country and I think this movie, without dealing with that issue directly, speaks to the problem of not communicating, of not listening to others, of cutting yourself off.

That’s a very good point I hadn’t thought of.

The fears that we have of terrorism, all those things makes us even more polarized and isolate ourselves. I think it’s one of those movies that come along once in a while where years down the line, it’ll be a movie to mark this particular year, this period. Whatever people take from it now, I think it’s going to have a lasting impression. There are certain movies, not anything like this movie, but a movie like Taxi Driver or Network or…

All the President’s Men was on cable last night. I just watched it again. The paranoia…

Yeah, great to watch. I love that.

It’s very re-watchable.

I mean, any time I see it, I’ll stay up late and says I’m going to watch a little bit. And I end up watching the whole thing.

That happened to me last night.

And Network is one of those. Even Easy Rider is like that, obviously. But where it touches on something that’s going on if there’s some cultural differences and lack of communication. I mean, it’s one of those movies.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.