In Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, Viggo Mortensen plays Anthony Vallelonga, better known as Tony Lip, a tough New York City bouncer (with a yuge New York City accent) who is looking for work. Tony takes a meeting with Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained pianist who is touring the segregated South of 1962 for the first time and is looking to hire some streetwise muscle as his driver. More than anything, what makes Green Book work – a movie about the horrors of racism, yet still maintains a “feel good” aura – is the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. If those two aren’t on the same page, fuggedaboutit (sorry).
Ahead, we spoke to Viggo Mortensen about why he didn’t even want to play this role at first (mostly because he’s not of Italian descent), why he gets along so well with his co-star, Mahershala Ali, and why he thinks Green Book is the best screenplay of 2018. Also, on the day this interview took place, it was the day before the midterm elections, and Mortensen made sure I was voting.
This is one of those kind of movies where you walk out feeling good, which is a rare feeling these days.
I’ve heard that a lot and I’ve done a lot of screenings with audiences where we answer questions afterwards and they’re really passionate everywhere. We’ve been traveling a lot with it, England and places where they warned us, “Well, it won’t be like Toronto. It won’t be like New York. The audiences here are a little more subdued.” And they were on their feet and cheering and clapping and laughing and crying. It was crazy! It’s been really great that people feel better, basically, after the movie than when they went in the movie theater. That’s a great thing that they’re more hopeful, in some way, and in the times we’re living where people are arguing so much. It’s great to have a movie that brings people together like that.
To be clear, there are some tough scenes in this movie.
Well, yeah, there are some ugly things that happen in Green Book. I mean, I saw that in the script when I first read it. I said, “Wow, this is amazing.” It’s very hard to tell a story that makes you laugh out loud, that moves you, that might make you cry, and that leaves you with something to think about. Something profound when you walk out. To balance all of those things: to entertain, make you think about stuff, serious stuff, race and people, differences in education, all kinds of stuff and culture, but without preaching. It’s not a movie, it’s like a movie that invites you to feel and think. But it doesn’t tell you to do that. It doesn’t divide. It doesn’t preach. It’s not a movie made for just one part of society. It’s the kind of story that you could take anybody to I think.
I do wonder, what were you thinking when this movie came you and it’s a movie about race relations in the South directed by Peter Farrelly?
Like, “okay, this is new.”
I think that’s what happened when people saw it in Toronto where the world first saw the movie at the film festival. I guess they probably had some preconceived ideas about it. Wow, it’s a Pete Farrelly movie! It’s going to be kind of slapstick or something! Let’s see. Yeah, it is funny at times, but it’s a different kind of funny. It’s an organic funny. It’s about the contrast between these two guys. You know, this very cultured black musician who speaks a bunch of languages and has doctorates, and a guy who has a sixth-grade education and, as Pete likes to say, didn’t pay much attention after third grade.
That’s why it’s funny, but it’s also incredibly moving and thought-provoking. I think people were just blown away that Pete Farrelly could do this. I guess they didn’t expect it. And I think, maybe, it’s going to be like that for audiences. They’re going to be pleasantly surprised. I’d rather someone go in and hear that it’s good and then feel it’s really good rather than you hear something’s good and you go and then you say, “Eh, it’s okay. It was good.” I think in this case I think people are just going to feel like the movie gets stronger as it goes along.
[The sounds of sirens come blasting over the phone from Mortensen’s end.]
Do you hear that?
They’re coming to get me. They’re coming to take me away. All the sirens, I’m sorry.
Why are there sirens? Where are you at?
I’m in a hotel room in Los Angeles. I don’t know what that was, but they weren’t coming to get me. Not yet. They couldn’t find my room.
Don’t let them get you.
No, no, no. Not until we finish our interview. By the way, are you voting tomorrow?
Of course I’m voting!
Or did you already vote?
They don’t allow that in New York.
Are you going to vote twice?
Okay, well I hope you vote at least once. You know, if you don’t vote, you have no room to complain later about how the country is being run. Who’s your Congressperson?