In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method Viggo Mortensen is nearly unrecognizable. Few actors today really dive into the research the way he does and it shows in each new incarnation Mortensen delivers. He is one of the most unpredictable actors because he never gives you what you expect, and he never repeats himself. He is a character actor, a shapeshifter, someone who has the perceptive tools of a painter, a poet and a musician.
The thing about his work here is that all of his research, all of his thoughtful examination of his character’s motivations and identity is on the screen. Somehow, it shows. You look into his characters — they, as David Byrne might say, have a view. The striations of experience reveal themselves so that there is never any question that you’re watching a character and not Mortensen, who all but disappears into them.
He functions a bit as Cronenberg’s muse. Much of this, according to the director, is Mortensen’s own enthusiasm for the work. Who wouldn’t want to work with an actor who is up late emailing back and forth various things he’s thinking about and uncovering about his character? He’s someone who could have skated by on his leading man status but instead he morphed in and out of the strangest, most compelling characters in film.
That he wasn’t nominated for The Road illuminates everything that is wrong with the Oscar race; if you’re not in the business of awarding that kind of acting how can you use the word “best” in all seriousness? He’s up to bat again playing Freud in the Cronenberg film this year, this time in Supporting.
I had an email exchange with Mortensen about Cronenberg and A Dangerous Method. The questions and answers after the cut.
1) Your collaboration with David Cronenberg is a subject you probably get asked about a lot. Some directors work well with a specific actor who works as their muse of sorts. Scorsese had De Niro, Woody Allen had Diane Keaton, Hitchcock had Grace Kelly and David Cronenberg has you. What is it about your working relationship that makes it such a good fit do you think?
First and foremost, we are friends who respect each other and share a similar sense of humour, of the absurd. Nothing is sacred, but everyone and every subject is treated with curiosity, courtesy and respect by him. I admire his natural good manners and modesty as much as I do his remarkable talents and track record. There is no yelling or panicking on his sets. He is as knowledgeable — probably more so — about the actor’s process and all technical aspects of filming as any director I have ever worked with. He understands how I prepare and how I like to work, and I believe he knows that I respect and understand the same things about him. His workplace is calm, efficient, and fun. No matter how serious the subject matter or the pressure involved for the performers, any given scene to be shot is handled in a professional, quietly confident manner by David. He inspires confidence. He helps you feel that you can meet any challenge because he is right there with you at all times, seeing everything, feeling everything. As always when working with him, I not only do the usual extensive research that I enjoy so much, but also share that process with him in a way that does not happen as much with other directors. He always seems like a first-time, extremely gifted young director. At times he even appears to be a like-minded actor, leaving no stone unturned with regard to the story at hand, its socio-historical context. He clearly likes his job, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Although I can always count on enjoying what I experience and learn during the period of preparation for any movie, it is not always the case that the shoot and the final results are as pleasant or satisfying. With David I know that the shoot will also be fun and inspirational, and that the eventual movie will be one that I can feel proud of having participated in.
2) According to Cronenberg, you do intensive research on every role you play and did much research for this film. Did you learn anything about psychology or about Freud that changed the way you think about yourself or the people around you? Or what was the most interesting thing about that research?
I learned a lot of things about Freud, Jung, Spielrein, Gross, et al. about psychoanalysis and the time and places that “A Dangerous Method” is set in. Whether the research I did and the experience of shooting this movie changed the way I think about myself or others, I do not know. I imagine that it had to have, but I cannot say exactly how at this point. Perhaps in time I will understand that better. Certainly I think that the psychoanalytic process pioneered by Freud and embraced by Jung, Spielrein and others is of great value. I felt prior to working on this project, and continue to feel, that the idea of “confession” without judgment to a knowledgeable and sensitive professional can be of great value. The period leading up to the Great War was also a fascinating one to explore. I strongly recommend Stefan Zweig’s THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, if you have not read it. Zweig was a sort of poetic “Zelig”, a fine writer and chronicler of his age who counted among his close friends an impressive list of artists, philosophers, poets, and scientists. He and Freud were Viennese contemporaries. There is no better-written or more informative and engaging documentation of late-19th century and early 20th century Vienna and Western Europe. Among the many research materials that David and I shared, this book was one we found quite useful.
Had another director asked me to take on the role of Freud at 50, I might not have accepted the offer. On the face of it, the role seemed a big stretch for me physically and in terms of speech patterns, among other things. Even more of a stretch than the Russian character I played for David in “Eastern Promises”. However, once I started to learn how colleagues and others saw Freud — how they remembered his authoritative presence and voice — and then gradually became comfortable with the amount of dialogue entrusted to me, I understood how fortunate I was to be part of this movie. One of the most interesting things I learned about Freud was how witty he was, what a good sense of humour he had. Although there are not really any out-and-out jokes in the movie, I did find, with David’s approval and assistance, a certain irony in the character’s tone and body language that is, I think, at times helpfully amusing in the movie. This also helped show the contrast between him and Jung, the difference in their backgrounds, their attitudes. As with Christopher Hampton’s excellent script in general, the depiction of Freud as a sociable man of great wit with an appetite for all kinds of knowledge is very much in keeping with the historical record. Apart from reading his work and Jung’s, as well as others’ descriptions of these men, I greatly enjoyed exploring and considering Freud’s personal library, which included Wilde, Twain, Ibsen, Goethe, Nestroy, Busch, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Darwin, all manner of classical scholarship, mythology, histories of medicine, just to name some of the reading that he did for both work and pleasure. He was, above all, a great humanist who wrote beautifully and was able to quote with seemingly effortless accuracy and a remarkable capacity for comparative analysis from humorists, philosophers, novelists, poets and other literary sources. Educating myself further about Freud and what interested him in order to participate effectively in “A Dangerous Method” was a great gift to me as an actor and a reader. One of my favourite Freud quotes is: “Wherever I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”
3) Your characters have been so wildly diverse, especially in your work with Cronenberg in your past three films together – you are, despite your good looks, a character actor at heart it appears. In A Dangerous Method you are nearly unrecognizable as Freud. Do you see your future as an actor as a shapeshifter? Or does Hollywood really want you still as a leading man?
I have no idea what “Hollywood” wants. Even if I assumed that there was such a thing as “Hollywood” and that it had one mind about what actors or directors ought to do in order to do good work and flourish, I’m not sure that I would want to try and conform to such hypothetical standards. There is no overall plan to my approach in terms of the work I end up doing in the movies. A lot has to do with good fortune. Had it not been for the box-office success of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for example, David would not have been able to cast me in “A History of Violence” in 2004, and I may not have ended up playing his ‘Freud’. One can prepare for luck, however, be as prepared as possible to seize a good chance when it comes along, do a thorough, professional job of facing the resulting challenges. It is impossible to know whether a movie will reach a large audience, receive critical respect or prizes. There is no point in trying to plan for those things. There are movies and performances that I have had a hand in — including my previous collaborations with David, Ed Harris, John Hillcoat, and Agustín Díaz Yanes, to name just a few directors I’ve lately been fortunate to work with — which in retrospect seem like they might have received more consideration, more attention at the time of their releases. As I have done up until now, I expect that I will continue to seek out unusual challenges, stories and characters that can teach me new things about life and about myself. With a little luck, those will continue to come my way, and I’ll do my best with each one regardless of how others may perceive my choices or career trajectory.