Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, co-stars of “A History of Violence,” show up for an interview at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo looking like, well, if not an item, close enough friends that they could be mistaken for one. (They even finish each other’s sentences.)
Mortensen, of course, is best known for his role as Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but he is no typical action star. He’s a photograher, painter, poet; was formerly married to West Coast punk icon Exene Cervenka; and is perhaps the only star I’ve ever seen take a timely political stand at a press conference (just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)
Bello is best known for her work on “E.R.” and for playing opposite Johnny Depp in “Secret Window” (and for surviving “Coyote Ugly.”) Her star will be rising soon, though, when Oliver Stone’s new film, the first to deal with the events of 9/11, is released.
A lot of people call this one of Cronenberg’s “straighter” flicks, but there’s definitely a psychological undercurrent. Is this something that was in the script from the beginning, or something the director brought to it?
Viggo Mortensen: I think it wasn’t in the first script so much, but [David Cronenberg] worked on it. Even though the credit is for Josh Olson, who did a great job. And he’s nominated for an Oscar for that, but David should be as well, honestly. I don’t know what the rules are, or if David’s just being polite, but he had a lot to do with the refined, final version of it. If another director had done it, it would have been a more generic thriller. David’s smart that way. He added all those layers and strange things that leave you thinking and troubled afterward.
But usually he’s more up front about that, hitting you with disturbing imagery. This time it’s a lot more subtle.
VM: I think his last few movies have gone more in that direction. But I think he’s still doing what he’s always done, which is basically opening people up and showing what’s inside, but now he does it more figuratively, more psychologically. But who knows? Maybe his next movie will be heads flying. He’s someone who’s not bound by convention. A lot of directors, especially if they’ve had critically successful careers, fall into that trap of repeating themselves; that doesn’t seem to happen to him.
Tell me how you approach your work. Do you go into scenes with very fixed ideas of how you’re going to play them, or do you try and stay more open to the moment? Or does it depend on the director?
Maria Bello: David has an idea about the sort of people who would work well together. So, when he brought us together, he knew we had a similar vibe. We went over the script, every single scene, we got into our characters’ relationship, and the intricacies of the power struggle in their relationship. And then, he gave us room to play with that. So it’s not like we came to set every day and we knew exactly what we were gonna do. We had a structure, but there was an openness in there to play with it and see what it became. And that also has to do with trusting the other actor to take you to a place you hadn’t thought of.
Viggo’s character in the film has a kind of identity crisis, wondering who he really is. As actors, do you ever experience that? Is it easy to turn off your character once you’re off set?
MB: I used to think that there was nothing “method” about my process, but now I realize it’s totally “method.” I tend to go into a character that I’m playing way too much.
VM: I’ve heard actors say, “I really had a hard time shedding the skin,” or “It took me months to get over the experience and to be myself.” That’s never really bothered me. I know that sometimes you can get depressed or in kind of a weird mood, and you realize it has something to do with your character. Because you are investing part of yourself in it, so it’s normal. But I’ve never had a regret or a concern that I want to get that behind me. Life is short. Why forget something that you’re potentially learning from? I’ve never played a person who punches people or slaps people around and then gone and actually done that. I know some people who do. They get carried away in a scene and really punch somebody. I’ve heard stuntmen complain about actors who do that. And there’s no excuse for that, really, because it’s just lazy and unprofessional.
Well, you should go check your bio on the Internet Movie Database, because it describes you just like that, getting carried away in scenes on “Lord of the Rings” so much so that the stuntmen were wary of getting in scenes with you.
VM: (Laughs.) Were they saying I was hurting them?
MB: They were just saying you were bad-ass! (Laughs.)
VM: Well, that’s flattering, from a stuntman, I suppose. . . . I mean, accidents will happen, but there are actors who will just smack you!
You get smacked in this film — by Maria — and it looked pretty hard.
MB: I remember that staircase scene. You weren’t so gentle when you were bashing me up against the wall!
VM: Well, neither of us were, in that scene.
MB: Uh-uh, we were not gentle. We did go for it. I mean, we were black and blue the next day. I was covered in bruises.
VM: But it’s like cold water: You just gotta jump in. That’s the only way it’s gonna work. It would have been a really long day if we’d just been dipping in our toes.
I hope you didn’t have to shoot too many takes of that scene . . .
VM: There were different shots, but as far as the crucial part, on the stairs, there were only really two long takes.
MB: But those were painful.
VM: And David, it wasn’t like a dirty trick, but . . . you know, in a scene like that, you know that you have a safety net — they’re gonna say, “Cut!”
MB: And he never did! (Laughs.)
VM: No, he didn’t! It just kept going! But what happened is we evolved this back and forth that wasn’t in the script. She gives up control, then she takes control, and in the end, she’s in charge. That scene is the one scene that tells you everything about that relationship.
The film offers no clear opinion on whether violence is justified or not. What are your own beliefs?
MB: I thought I was a total pacifist until I had a child. Now I know I would kill anyone who tried to hurt my kid. I would. So I have to face that violence in myself, try to live with it. It’s quite complicated trying to resolve that with my worldview these days.
VM: I don’t think this movie justifies violence. In fact, the character I play is someone who’s trying, not successfully all the time, to get out from under the shadow of that. There’s an effort to reject violence. He goes home [at the end], and his relationship [with Edie] will or won’t work, but in the final stages of a relationship, you’re more honest with that person than you’ve ever been. You may not end up staying together, but there’s something you’ve come clean about.