Flawed fa­ther role a test for Viggo Mortensen

The His­tory of Vi­o­lence ac­tor says part in Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic was his big­gest chal­lenge yet

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

Viggo Mortensen has cer­tainly played his fair share of char­ac­ters liv­ing on the edge.

Best known as the brood­ing Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings saga, the ac­tor also has played a small­town diner oper­a­tor hid­ing his gang­ster past from his fam­ily (“A His­tory of Vi­o­lence”) and a man nav­i­gat­ing a postapoc­a­lyp­tic waste­land with his son (“The Road”).

Yet the 57-year-old calls his lat­est role in “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic” — Ben Cash, a fa­ther liv­ing off the grid with six pre­co­cious chil­dren in the Pa­cific North­west woods — “prob­a­bly the most lay­ered, com­plex and chal­leng­ing” part he’s ever had. The role earned him an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for Best Ac­tor.

That doesn’t mean that the gen­tly comic drama, which won a di­rect­ing prize at Cannes for writer-di­rec­tor Matt Ross was as phys­i­cally ar­du­ous as the naked knife fight Mortensen filmed for East­ern Prom­ises. The de­mands, in this case, were largely “emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual,” ac­cord­ing to the ac­tor, who lives in Madrid with Span­ish ac­tress Ari­adna Gil.

“It’s sub­tle,” he says about the irony of a char­ac­ter who is try­ing to pre­pare his chil­dren to nav­i­gate a world from which he has, de­spite the best in­ten­tions, largely shut them off.

“There’s noth­ing like do­ing your hon­est best — work­ing re­ally, re­ally hard — and then com­ing to re­al­ize, ‘No, you’re on the wrong track.’ It’s dis­heart­en­ing. But I like movies that make you feel that some­thing you’re do­ing is wrong.”

Af­ter the death of the chil­dren’s mother, Ben and his brood load up the fam­ily ve­hi­cle — a re­fur­bished school bus — for a road trip to her fu­neral and a jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery when they clash with civ­i­liza­tion.

A fa­ther him­self (of 28-year-old ac­tor Henry Mortensen, with his ex-wife, singer Ex­ene Cer­venka of the band X), Mortensen ad­mits to shar­ing only a bit of Ben’s ec­cen­tric parenting phi­los­o­phy, which in­cludes Navy SEAL-style sur­vival skills, a tol­er­ant em­brace of a child who idol­izes Pol Pot and reg­u­lar So­cratic dis­cus­sions of lit­er­a­ture and pol­i­tics.

“The one way in which I am most like Ben,” he says, “is that I am not a no-be­cause-I-said-so dad.”

Be that as it may, Mortensen dove into the role head­first, scout­ing the shoot­ing lo­ca­tion in ru­ral Wash­ing­ton state be­fore film­ing had be­gun and vol­un­teer­ing to do ad­vance plant­ing of sea­sonal veg­eta­bles to es­tab­lish a gar­den of the sort the fam­ily might have.

He also vis­ited a home he owns in Sand­point, Idaho, six or seven hours away, load­ing up his pickup with per­sonal pos­ses­sions that could po­ten­tially be used as props.

Mortensen says he brought “sleep­ing bags, a ca­noe, bi­cy­cles, cloth­ing, blan­kets, books, pots and pans — all things that I knew these peo­ple would have. It looked like The Bev­erly Hill­bil­lies.”

Most of it made it into the film, in­clud­ing a loud pat­terned red shirt that the ac­tor had squir­relled away from his 1987 wed­ding.

Sim­i­larly, film­maker Ross, who is rais­ing a 13-year-old daugh­ter and a 9-year-old son in Berke­ley, Calif., de­scribes Ben as some­thing of a “fan­tasy ver­sion” of him­self.

Like Ben, the 46-year-old di­rec­tor (bet­ter known as an ac­tor on “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story” and “Sil­i­con Val­ley”) cel­e­brates “Noam Chom­sky Day” on Dec. 7 (the farleft pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual’s birth­day).

Ross also de­scribes his own freerange child­hood — “my mother was a ram­bler and a bit of 1980s hip­pie” — as in­clud­ing sum­mers sleep­ing in a teepee not un­like the one that Ben and his fam­ily use.

“When I was grow­ing up,” Ross says, “some of our homes had elec­tric­ity and plumb­ing, and some had nei­ther. I can re­mem­ber my brother and I just walk­ing on the land for hours and hours and hours. In one house, we were eight miles from a ce­ment road, 45 min­utes from a gen­eral store, an hour from a town of 1,000. But I also went to pub­lic schools. I played foot­ball.”

Ross said he never con­sid­ered any­one other than Mortensen for the role of Ben, putting the pro­duc­tion on hold for two years un­til the ac­tor’s sched­ule opened up.

The idea for “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic,” Ross says, arose not merely out of a ques­tion — how does one im­part one’s val­ues to the next gen­er­a­tion? — but also from an ex­am­i­na­tion of his own core parenting prin­ci­ples.

“I’m very con­scious of try­ing to cre­ate com­pas­sion­ate, car­ing, tol­er­ant global cit­i­zens who are em­pow­ered and benev­o­lent,” he says.

Mortensen says the film is much more than a mod­ern-day Mr. Mom.

“There is a real po­lar­iza­tion in so­ci­ety,” he says.

Like Ben, Mortensen says, too many peo­ple who mean well “have re­treated into their camps and they’re not com­mu­ni­cat­ing.”

Parenting is a lot like democ­racy, he adds, in which the ten­sion be­tween or­der and free­dom is in con­stant flux.

“You have to know when to put your foot down and when to al­low dis­course,” he says. “It’s a balanc­ing act. It’s im­por­tant to think be­fore you shoot your mouth off, even if it’s some­one you may not agree with, or whose val­ues you may dis­dain.”

Mortensen says “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic” is not a mes­sage film, yet he man­ages to find one any­way — one that, like the film, sounds very much of its time:

“Just be­cause it’s not pos­si­ble to be a per­fect dad or to be “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic,” that doesn’t mean it’s not worth try­ing.”

CATHY KANAVY, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Shree Crooks, left, Viggo Mortensen, Sa­man­tha Isler, Ni­cholas Hamil­ton, Annalise Basso, Ge­orge MacKay and Charlie Shotwell ap­pear in a scene from “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic.”

JOEL RYAN, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In “Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic,” Viggo Mortensen plays a dad rais­ing six chil­dren in the re­mote Pa­cific North­west. The role won him an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Best Ac­tor this year.

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