With multiple Oscar nominations, millions in the bank and his Hollywood legacy assured, Viggo Mortensen has pretty much completed acting. So, two decades after The Lord Of The Rings, and following global hit Green Book, he decided it was time to give directing a go as well.
The resulting film, Falling, is about a bigoted, bitter old man in the early stages of dementia. As the illness gets worse, he’s forced to move from his rural farm in upstate New York and live with his gay son’s family in California. Mortensen stars opposite a standout Lance Henriksen, who plays on-screen dad Willis with a simmering resentment. It’s a thoughtful drama, steeped in sadness, and John (Mortensen) spends most scenes struggling to ignore his dad’s homophobic or racist comments.
For the most part, it’s a confident and moving directorial debut. So we caught up with Viggo to find out why he’s taken so long to step behind the camera – and ask about his time in Middle-earth too.
How did the idea to make ‘Falling’ come to you?
“It was right after my mother’s funeral. I was writing down some of the things I’d heard from old family friends before I forgot them. It made me think how subjective memory is – different people told me the same story, but in different ways. I thought that could be an interesting thing to write about.”
You wrote it as a novella first, right?
“Yeah. Then I turned it into a screenplay. Many of the things in the story seemed quite visual to me. Then I tried to get it made into a movie for about a year and a half, but like so many of my projects that I’ve wanted to direct it fell apart.”
Why did it fall apart then?
“I’d started working with Lance Henriksen [who plays Willis] on the script and then we lost some funding. So I went back to doing another movie. Then two years went by, and two more years before I decided to just make it happen. Lance hesitated because it was going to be a big challenge. He said: ‘To do an honest job of it I’m going to have to go back and remember certain things about my childhood and the parenting I got and didn’t get.’ Lance’s childhood was just a series of horror stories, it makes Dickens sound like Winnie The Pooh.”
You’ve said that the decision to make your character John gay was secondary to the plot – did that become more important over time?
“I suppose… It made sense. It just seemed to work to me. I wanted [John’s family] to be completely unremarkable – and that in itself was something that Willis or anybody who [has homophobic views] like Willis that might be watching the movies goes: ‘Well, they seem like a normal family, almost boringly normal’. It wasn’t the central issue of the movie that they be two men raising a daughter that are married.”
In a flashback, we see how young John gets the scar on his lip that you have – how did that happen in real life?
“I had just turned 18 and it was Halloween. I went to a party and I got quite drunk. I don’t know why, I was just crazy, but I stole a case of beer and a deerskin rug and ran out the back door of this house. I was running through some back gardens and the owners of the beer wanted their things back, so they chased me, then punched me and I ended up falling into a barbed wire fence and cut my lip open.”
Did that put you off Halloween for life?
“No! But I must have looked quite the picture because I had dressed up as Ziggy Stardust. I had the blue-red lightning bolt, all the make-up, the hair, everything. I looked like David Bowie on the cover of ‘Aladdin Sane’. But I ended up with a split lip and blood all over myself and my clothes. I wish I had a photograph…”
Would you ever play a musician in a biopic?
“The one musician I wanted to make a movie about was Chet Baker. I tried to get the rights to his life story but some other actor, I think it was Leonardo DiCaprio, had the rights so I just moved on. As you probably know, [Baker] died falling out of a window in Amsterdam. He was probably doped up and passed out. I wanted to make a movie that started with him falling out the window and then the whole movie would happen as he was falling and it would end with him hitting the ground.”
You could have called it… ‘Falling’!
[Laughs] “Yeah maybe! I saw the recent film that Ethan Hawke did [about Chet Baker] and I thought he did a really good job.”
Peter Jackson recently remastered ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ in 4K – was there any part of Aragorn’s story that you would have liked to explore a bit more?
“There was a scene that we shot as a sort of memory flashback. It was from the courtship days when he first met Arwen – and we shot it just before we were taking a break so I was clean-shaven and prettied up. They’d tried to make me look as young as possible. I had different hair and I was dressed like an elf. It was a scene from the book where they’re walking in this flowery meadow. It was a beautiful sequence but obviously it wasn’t needed for the movie. I’ve never seen it but I enjoyed shooting that scene. It’d be nice to see it actually, it’s not in the extended editions either.”
You bought your horse from the films, didn’t you?
“There were actually three horses that I bought. They were up for sale once the movies were done. There were the two I’d ridden – a chestnut and then the big bay that Aragorn rides – but I also bought the white horse that Arwen rides in The Fellowship Of The Ring when she’s being chased through the forest by the Black Riders. The person who did that spectacular bit of riding was a stuntwoman who I ended up becoming friends with. I knew how much she liked that horse, so I bought it for her. That one is still around, but the other two have passed away. They were of a certain age already when we shooting and that’s 20 years ago now.”
Have you heard about the new Amazon Prime Video series – some fans are worried it might be too adult…
“That they would try to be like Game Of Thrones and have a certain level of arbitrary violence and stuff like that? I dunno. I know it’s J.A. Bayona, who is a Spanish director who’s very talented. They are doing it in New Zealand, so I would imagine they would have the benefit of Peter Jackson’s advice and maybe some of the crew members. I would think that they have every opportunity to do it right. They have a good example to follow.”
‘Green Book’, in which you play a chauffeur in segregated 1960s America, is your best-known film after ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ – has Black Lives Matter made you think differently about it?
“I feel it’s more timely than ever – a movie that will only grow in importance. The controversy [of telling a story about Black struggles through a white lens] that was created on the Internet by a very small minority of bloggers and some film critics was unjustified, I felt. It wasn’t made with the benefit of proper research. They tried to damage the reputation and, in some quarters, Green Book has almost become a pejorative adjective: ‘Is this movie going to be the Green Book of…’ as if it’s a bad thing to be in any way associated with that film. I felt at the time, and I still feel, that will fade away and the film is going to hold up for a long time as a classic movie.”
Do you look back fondly on filming it?
“I’m very proud of having been in it. Personally, it was one of the more challenging roles I’ve had. I had a lot of doubts going into it, but I enjoyed working with Mahershala [Ali] and [director] Peter Farrelly. I thought we were as faithful as we could possibly be to the true stories of these two men. We had a lot of documentation, a lot more than the people who tried to put the movie down. Most of them had not paid any attention to that unfortunately. I thought it was a beautifully told story, one that will last in memory and obviously that people around the world really really liked.”