Viggo Mortensen (or, as he was once called, “Morganstern,” more on that in a bit) has reteamed with David Cronenberg for their fourth collaboration, Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg is very much one of these directors where actors seem to come back for more time and time again. This is Léa Seydoux’s first time working with Cronenberg and she didn’t know what to expect.
Mortensen and Seydoux play Saul and Caprice, a couple who put on underground art shows in which Caprice operates on Saul, removing unwanted organs from his body that grow from a condition that, if not removed, they will kill him. So Saul’s disease is literally turned into a sensual art performance. As the film goes on, the couple are faced with a situation where they have to decide what’s going too far in the sake of art in a way that only Cronenberg can really explore quite like this. There are, let’s say, unpleasant scenes in Crimes of the Future, but they are all there to drive the plot, not to shock. Considering the subject matter, it’s funny to hear from Mortensen and Seydoux what a fun shoot this was and there were real moments of laughter on set. It’s no wonder people keep wanting to work with Cronenberg.
Mortensen had this whole career before he became incredibly famous from the Lord of the Rings movies, which means you can be watching almost anything from the mid-80s until the late 90s (Witness, Young Guns II, Daylight, to name a few) and Mortenson just might pop up. I mention this to Seydoux, which leads Mortenson to tell a very detailed story about how he was cut out of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, to which Seydoux even seemed shocked by this. And the way Mortensen tells it, he still seems just a little pissed about it.
But, first, I had to ask about the new Crimes of the Future board game.
Did you see the Crimes of the Future board game tweet?
Viggo Mortensen: Yes.
What do you think of that?
Viggo Mortensen: Well, we saw the game actually.
Viggo Mortensen: Someone showed it to us. It looks real. It was a game with a doll. Yeah, there was some buzzers and things.
So it’s like Operation?
Viggo Mortensen: Yeah. At least part.
That would be a very unusual game to own.
Viggo Mortensen: We should steal it. It would be worth the money.
You should definitely steal it.
Viggo Mortensen: We’ll try to steal an extra one for you.
That would make my day. It’s one thing if I just had it. If you stole it for me, that’s a much better story.
Viggo Mortensen: Good story. We’ll see.
Are you happy with the reaction to this movie? Because David Cronenberg predicted people would walk out at Cannes.
Viggo Mortensen: I think he was joking.
Oh, he was joking? Because people printed that as he was serious.
Viggo Mortensen: Well, they take him literally a lot.
Léa Seydoux: People will walk out? He said that?
Viggo Mortensen: Yeah. I think he has fun. People don’t realize how funny he is, actually.
I think if you’ve seen his movies, you know he’s really funny.
Viggo Mortensen: Absolutely.
Have you always wanted to be in one of his Videodrome-type movies?
Viggo Mortensen: I never thought about it. Each story that he tells is quite different. Even the ones of the so-called body horror, or whatever people label it as. I don’t think he labels it that way. But each one is quite different, what it’s dealing with.
And I’m not insinuating this movie’s anything like Videodrome. It is extremely different.
Viggo Mortensen: But it harkens back, imagery-wise, to certain movies that he made 20, 30 years ago. But he’s changed as a filmmaker. He’s leaner, more precise. He’s evolved and learned from his own experience. And so working with him, even the first one, A History of Violence, to now, he’s become more specific and precise about the amount of shots, the amount of takes. He knows what he needs. He knows when he has it. He’s already editing the movie in his head. So it’s been great to watch him do that.
Léa hadn’t worked with him before, so what are your expectations going in?
Léa Seydoux: For me, it’s the first time. So no, I didn’t know really what to expect. And I like that. Sometimes you have the script and you get the story immediately, you understand everything. I mean, everything. It’s like, it’s clear. And sometimes you read something and you’re like, Oh my God, how am I going to do this? How is this going to work?
There had to be a lot of moments in this script where you’re thinking that. “How would this even work?”
Léa Seydoux: Yeah, exactly. But I like that feeling as well. I think that I like the challenge. So I was like, how am I going to fit in this world? But then I met David and he was so kind and nice and I really loved him as a person. I thought he was, first, extremely funny. Very intelligent. And we got along immediately. There was this tacit connection, when you feel that you speak the same language, in a way, that it was like we didn’t need words. It was just… and yeah.
People seem to keep wanting to do movies with him after they do one. There’s a lot of history of people coming back. Anyway, it seems like it works that way, but I don’t know if it’s that easy.
Viggo Mortensen: Well, yes. Sometimes you’re in movies that turn out well and they’re interesting, but maybe the experience of making it was really difficult. But then the final thing, you’re like, Okay, yeah, it was worth it. With him, every time I worked with him, it’s enjoyable. It’s not only an adventure, but it’s a fun adventure. You do laugh. You make friendships. He makes something that’s very complex. But there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. He’s very precise about his work. But it’s relaxed, and you feel like almost anything could happen and it would be okay to try anything. In other words, there’s a trust that he inspires.
What’s an example that?
Viggo Mortensen: When we’re in the sock together, for example. We didn’t really talk about it with him. It was like, Okay, we see what’s on the page, but how are we going to do it? Or when she’s operating on me and how do these remote controls work? If we have any questions, he’ll explain in detail whatever we want. But if there are no questions, then we’re in it together. We’re just trying. And you would think, because he’s so precise, that he does storyboards and lots of rehearsing. No rehearsing. No storyboards. He’s not one of these directors who’s insecure and he needs everybody to realize that he knows everything and it’s all controlled and it’s all my plan. He trusts people. And when you feel like you’re trusted as an artist or as a technician, you want to do a good job for that person because you are encouraged and your contribution is respected. Not all directors have this ability to inspire good work in that way.
Do you feel that way, too? You’ve obviously been in a lot of big movies. Was this a unique experience?
Léa Seydoux: Yeah. It was a unique experience and it’s not always the… One can be very different from another. But first, David doesn’t work for somebody. He works for himself.
He seems maybe one of the few directors of that stature that is in that situation.
Léa Seydoux: Exactly. Yeah. It’s his ideas and it really comes from his mind, which makes a huge difference. And what I loved about the working with him is that I love the meaning that lies underneath. I find this extremely interesting and it’s not made to entertain, in a way. It’s not made to feed you with images.
Viggo Mortensen: Or shock you or anything.
Léa Seydoux: Yeah. To shock you. It’s really just a way to… a reflection.
Viggo Mortensen: There are some artists in the story who are superficial. Sort of sent up. But it made me think about, yeah, there are movies that are shocking and have a lot of surface provocation and then there’s not much substance underneath it. And those movies, even if you liked it the first time, the second and third time, you maybe see less. They’re less interesting. You might fast forward through it. Whereas his movies, each time you watch them, you see something more. And as time goes by, they become strangely relevant later on. And this script he wrote 24 years ago, 1998, it’s really relevant now. Not that he’s trying to be a prophet. He just happens to be thinking outside the box and extrapolating, Okay, well, maybe this could happen. I can create this world that’s very particular because I’m thinking about this subject matter in my own life, about where we might be headed as creatures.
When I spoke to you for Falling I mentioned this and it happened again. Léa have you ever noticed with him, you can be watching some older movie, he just pops up in it. It’s like, “What’s Viggo Mortensen doing in Young Guns II?”
Viggo Mortensen: I’m ancient!
I watched Witness recently. What are you doing in Witness? How are you in all these movies?
Viggo Mortensen: That was very early. That was the first movie I was in where I wasn’t cut out of the movie.
What were you cut out of?
Viggo Mortensen: The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Léa Seydoux: Yeah? Really?
Viggo Mortensen: Yeah. And Swing Shift. I really liked the part in Purple Rose of Cairo, too. It was a funny story. But it was Woody Allen. I went to this audition. They said, “We want to meet you for this thing.” I said, “Can I see the script?” “No, no, no. You can’t see it you’re just going to meet him and he’s going to decide if you’re in the movie.” I said okay. And then when I got to the office of the casting person, they said, “Now, don’t be surprised if this goes very quickly and if he doesn’t talk to you.” I said, “Okay. Am I going into a room in which he is in?” “He will be there. It’ll just be the two of you.”
So I walk in and he’s sitting in a chair behind a table and he’s looking at me. And I’m standing there and I see there’s a chair. And I look at the chair and he looks at the chair like, “What’s he going to do? What’s this actor going to do with the chair?” So I sit down, looking at him, and he’s looking at me. And then after a long time, he says, “Hello.” And I said, “Hello.” It seemed like about 10 minutes, but maybe another minute goes by, and he’s just sort of looking at me. And he goes, “Thank you.” And I’m like, “Oh, I guess that means I’m done.” So I stood up and I walked out, and I’m going, “What the fuck?”
So I said to my agent, “That was really bizarre, and I don’t think it went very well.” And she said, “No, no, you’ve got the part.” I go, “What is the part?” And she said, “I don’t know. I know it’s something that takes place in the 1920s or the ’30s, silent movie era, and you’re just in the scene as some kind of Hollywood party.” So I got a ride in, I don’t know, a van out to Long Island. This is the middle of winter and in this big mansion. I go in and there are hundreds of actors and actresses, all in these costumes, like wow. I had no experience, really. Short films. So this is amazing.
And then I go in and there’s this row of makeup, hair. And I had really long hair down to here then, so they were like, “We’re going to cut your hair a little bit, okay?” And I said, “Well, just a little bit.” And they go, ”Well, you have to fit the period.” Whoosh! And then it’s slicked back and parted and I don’t know what. And this nice suit, like a tuxedo. And then they said, “Well, sit down and wait here,” in this hallway with all these other actors, waiting hours. I’m like, “What are we doing? Can I see the scene so I can prepare?” “No, you’ll be told what to do.” So then finally I go. They finally say, “Da da da da, Morganstern!” “It’s Mortensen.”
Viggo Mortensen: And then off I go with all these other actors into this room and there’s this fabulous cupola kind of dome. It was a very nice mansion — living room and marble floors and an orchestra, I think. And lots of cocktails. And they said, “Here, this is yours,” and it’s like a martini but it was water. And Woody Allen’s standing there by the camera and he’s talking to an actor, he’s whispering in his ear, this other actor about my age. But he had darker hair and maybe a mustache or something.
And then he says, “Okay, let’s do one.” And I say, “Mr. Allen, what do you want me to do?” He says, “You react to him.” And action. And then he comes over. I have no fucking idea. And he says, “So how was it like, working in the new DeMille picture?” Cecil B. DeMille, right? And I’m thinking, and the camera’s rolling, and I’m like, “Um.” So then I made up this story. I decided, well, I feel like a really stupid actor, so that’s what I’m going to play. So I told him how my arms got really tired because I was standing and it was like this tree with another big log, and I was just wearing these diapers and I had all these thorns in my head, and fake blood, and I also had to have my arms up this whole time and I was really exhausted. And then this Roman guy was poking at me with a stick and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Like, I was such a stupid actor I didn’t even know I was playing Jesus Christ. And so that was the thing.
And then Woody Allen was chuckling. He loved that. And he said, “That’s really good. Let’s do it one more time.” I go, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “Do the same thing.” So I did it again. And then I heard from my agent, they called to say he loved it. He loved the Jesus improv and great, great, great. And then I told my mother, a year later, when it was coming out. “Friday, it’s coming out!” And then I see that I’m not in it. I’m not in the credits. And this happened to me twice. Then Swing Shift also.
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