Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic
Since playing an Amish farmer in the 1985 movie Witness, Viggo Mortensen has portrayed a wide variety of characters on the big screen, including the swordsman Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the cowboy Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo in 2004, the supposed Russian mobster Nikolai in Eastern Promises in 2007 (for which he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe), the post-Apocalyptic “Man” in The Road in 2009, Dr. Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method in 2011 (for which he was also nominated for a Golden Globe), and Old Bull Lee, a character based on William S. Burroughs in the 2012 adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
But the character this versatile actor most closely resembles offscreen is the title role in his latest film, Captain Fantastic, a.k.a. Ben Cash, who pursues an alternative lifestyle with his children deep in the woods of Washington State. Mortensen shares some philosophies and literary preferences with Cash, who instead of celebrating Christmas pays tribute to America’s top dissident thinker with “Noam Chomsky Day.”
Another writer the Cash family holds in high esteem is the people’s historian Howard Zinn. Mortensen read aloud from Zinn’s work at a 2014 New York event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Voices of a People’s History of the United States, based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History, which has sold over a million copies. He also appears with other performers in a documentary version of the readings—drawn from letters, diaries, and speeches—entitled The People Speak, which aired in 2009 on cable TV’s History Channel.
The child of an American mother and a Danish father, Mortensen grew up all over the world, living in Venezuela, Denmark, and Argentina before attending high school in New York. He has been active in progressive political causes, and his favorite reading material includes The Progressive magazine. “I read it all the time,” he said during our interview at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Relaxed and dressed casually, he offered to share his lunch with me.
A poet, photographer, and publisher (he founded a small publishing house called Perceval Press), as well as an acclaimed actor, Mortensen is something of a Renaissance man. We discussed a range of topics, from his childhood to his latest film, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, America’s electoral system, and his hope for a progressive future.
Q: What was it like living in Argentina as a young child? Does your international background inform your politics?
Viggo Mortensen: Speaking more than one language and living in a multicultural family and environment did not seem like anything but what it was: the world I lived in. I now realize that I was very fortunate to have grown up in many different places, surrounded by all kinds of people, all kinds of points of view. Perhaps the itinerant upbringing my brothers and I had has something to do with my continued interest in perspectives different from my own.
My job as an artist, as I see it, is to understand and in some cases to take on various ways of thinking about people and the world that are different from my own, sometimes radically different.
Q: Can you describe how you got to know Cindy Sheehan, and your early anti-Iraq War activism?
Mortensen: I met Cindy near Crawford, Texas. I went out to personally thank her for waiting patiently by the road in front of George and Laura Bush’s ranch for an answer from her President as to why and for what her son and others had been sacrificed in the unlawful invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Q: People criticized you for speaking out against the war when you were making The Lord of the Rings. What do you think about the debate over politics and whether it has any place in Tolkien? What about the way some rightwingers see it as a mythic story about Western/white supremacy?
Mortensen: Even the implication that The Lord of the Rings is a mythic story about Western, white supremacy—regardless of the political leanings of anyone who tries to make that case—is a load of self-justifying, destructive horseshit. As Tolkien himself said, the story is not allegorical. He said so when people tried to make analogies to World War II and the fight against Hitler and his fascist coalition.
In December of 2002, the late Richard Corliss, a respected movie critic with a long and illustrious career, wrote an embarrassing letter of support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the guise of a Time magazine review of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. I wrote a letter to the magazine pointing out that Corliss’s comparison of Christopher Lee’s Saruman to Osama Bin Laden, and the vastly outnumbered defenders of Helm’s Deep united against the Orcs to the “Coalition of the Willing” fighting the good fight against Muslim hordes, displayed the simplistic, xenophobic, and arrogant worldview that makes the government of the United States feared and mistrusted around the world.
The editors claimed they had no space to print my brief letter, which I felt was dishonest and cowardly.
Q: I really loved Captain Fantastic. What appealed to you about making this film?
Mortensen: Well, it’s a great story. It’s one of the better scripts I’ve read, ever, as far as being great from beginning to end. It handles a variety of characters. You have six children who all stand on their own, they’re all individuals. And it touches on a very real issue, which is the lack of cohesion and communication in America right now.
I think we’re on the wrong path in this country and have been for a while. People are in their camps divided by region, economic situation, race, religion, ideology. And there’s a lot of just staying in your camp using technology to bolster your case without actually debating with other people, without discussing.
Captain Fantastic touches on that. You meet this family that lives off the grid in the woods and you go, “Oh, it’s some kind of liberal utopian fantasy. The enemy is gonna be all these conservative types that they’ll probably run into, and that’s going to be the story.” But Ben, the father, the role I play, his ideas are not necessarily all condoned. There’s a point at which he feels he’s gone too far. He’s put his children at risk, he’s deprived them in some way. Ben realizes that the very rigidity and authoritarianism he’s always strived against he’s exercising inadvertently.
Q: Tell us about Perceval Press.
Mortensen: It’s a publishing house I founded in 2002 and it’s still going strong. Strong for us means not so many books per year, but each one we very carefully design and print. It’s something I enjoy doing, being an editor and helping other authors get their ideas across in the best possible way.
One of the most recent things we did is a reissue of a fantastic documentary about Russian prison tattoo culture by Alix Lambert called The Mark of Cain. We’ve done books from Twilight of Empire, that actually has forewords by Howard Zinn and Dennis Kucinich and others, to books of poetry, photography, painting—all kinds of books.
Q: What’s your relationship with Kucinich, the former U.S. Congressman?
Mortensen: I campaigned for Kucinich in 2008. I continue to be in touch with him and I really admire him. I think he’s very brave and honest—unusually so for a U.S. politician. I have to say that I think Bernie Sanders is the first politician since Dennis Kucinich that I’ve been truly inspired by. Where you actually are truly speaking truth to power, in a legitimate way and in an unpretentious and very straightforward way.
Q: Will you support Hillary Clinton?
Mortensen: Um. I suppose. I don’t know. I have to see. I want to see what the Green Party looks like. I think if people don’t start voting what they feel, if that’s something other than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, then nothing’s going to change. You need more political parties that actually have a chance.
Q: How do you size up the choice in this election?
Mortensen: In 2016 we are faced with a particularly bizarre and unappetizing choice as regards the two main political parties’ presidential candidates, in my opinion. That is to say, Hillary Clinton is not, in my mind, a satisfying or calming alternative to Donald Trump. I trust her about as far as I could throw him. As regards her foreign policy actions and the powerful vested interests she seems gleefully beholden to, including all the biggest players in the military-industrial complex, I feel that she would be no better an actor on the world stage than Trump and whatever coalition of managers he might cobble together.
Q: Do you foresee the possibility of a more sustainable, progressive future for America?
Mortensen: Yeah. I always do. If you’re not optimistic on some level, then you’ve given up. It’s easy to get depressed and think, “Well, what’s the point?” But it’s the same as, “Well, we’re all going to die, so what’s the point in brushing my teeth or even saying hello to anyone or obeying traffic lights.” You can do that, but that’s certainly not going to take you anywhere.
To strive for something better—at least there’s a chance. Here’s where we are, this is what’s happening. So do something, or get out of the kitchen.
Q: Do you have hope for the global peace movement?
Mortensen: As Aragorn said at Helm’s Deep, “There is always hope.” Bernie Sanders has inspired millions of people in this country. The Black Lives Matter movement, the various Occupy movements in Spain and the rest of Europe, in this country, and elsewhere serve as an example of what can be done, and how strong the voices for positive change and truly democratic progress can be.
The efforts of Black Lives Matter to bring attention to the all-too-frequent instances of unjustified violence being used by policemen may not be paying off as quickly as some might hope. But it is important to keep protesting, to keep forcing a conversation in the public arena. In any case, when you know what the right thing to do is, or that something must be said, it can be immoral and dangerous not to act. As Martin Luther King said, “Passively to participate in an unjust system is to accept that system and to participate in its evil.”
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell writes frequently for The Progressive and is author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.