David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" has been met with a somewhat mixed reception as it's done the rounds at Venice, Telluride and Toronto: some admire the uncompromisingly brainy nature of it, others find it stiff and mannered (we landed somewhere in between when we saw it on the Lido). But if there's one thing the critics can agree on, it's that Viggo Mortensen, in his third film on the trot with the Canadian maverick, gives another brilliant turn as Sigmund Freud. Buried beneath a prosthetic nose and playing older than he's usually allowed to, he's easily the highlight of the film, giving a beguiling turn worlds away from the professional killers he played for Cronenberg in "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises."
We caught up with Mortensen in Toronto to talk about the project and found all kinds of insight from arguably the most unconventional, maverick A-list actor around, a polymath as happy dabbling in photography, poetry and painting as he is on the big screen. Below are five highlights from our conversation.
1. The biggest discovery about Sigmund Freud was how warm and witty he was.
Like most of us, Mortensen came to Freud with certain preconceptions, but swiftly found that they weren't necessarily true. "When you start to read about him and learn about him," the actor said, "you learn that at the age that I play him, early fifties, he was very robust and healthy, and described as being magnetic and handsome and personable. Socially engaging, a great conversationalist with a piercing gaze, who had a melodious strong voice, and was eloquent and humorous, you know?"
2. Freud's wit is mirrored in "A Dangerous Method" director David Cronenberg, a man seemingly much funnier than his reputation might suggest.
Considering the ultraviolence, perversion and vaginas-in-unusual-places that make up his films, you could be mistaken for thinking that David Cronenberg would be a tortured soul. But after three films together Mortensen has learned that the helmer is, like Freud, a warmer person than you might imagine. "[Freud's sense of humor is] not unlike David’s sense of humor actually. I sort of had a model there to help me anytime I had any doubts about the approach. David has that wit, and you know I think it’s healthy on a set to have a director to whom nothing really is sacred, but is always done in a general way. Sort of making fun of everything including himself, is very healthy and relaxes people and makes for a good work environment.
The calm, relaxed working environment also helped for a film that could have become a staid period piece. "When he shoots there’s a time constraint, but he’s so well prepared that he makes it seem effortless," Mortensen says. "This kind of dialogue, this kind of period piece, these kinds of people, these historical personalities, a director could easily get lost living in the forest for the trees and feel like they have to show off all the time to the camera and make for lots of complicated sequences visually. David was so comfortable with the knowledge he had about the period and so well-prepared that you realized that the perfect contrast was to shoot it as simply as possible." Shooting with Cronenberg was such a good experience that Mortensen is sure that the two will continue to work together, possibly even on the promised "Eastern Promises" sequel. When we asked the actor about that film, he responded "I think that’s still a possibility, but we’ll definitely do something [together] I’m sure and I’m looking forward to it already, whatever it is."
3. Despite having mostly shied away from studio pictures in recent times (including allegedly turning down the role of General Zod in "Man of Steel"), Mortensen isn't against them in principle.
The actor hasn't made a film with a major studio since 2008's "Appaloosa," and has only made a handful since breaking through with "Lord of the Rings" a decade ago. But that doesn't mean he's necessarily averse to them. Mortensen told us "I just look for good stories, generally you don’t find them [there]. It’s unusual, it’s a relief to go see a big studio movie and actually walk out thinking that was a great movie, really thought-provoking. It doesn’t usually happen, it’s just not the nature of the beast because so much money’s at stake that it’s understandable they want to fall back on tried and true formulas and often that’s something you see. To find a good story, you’re generally going to find it in independent or lower-budget movies. That’s probably why. I wouldn’t mind doing a big-budget movie if it had a great story."
4. There are more than a few parallels between Freud in "A Dangerous Method" and Mortensen's next role, Old Bull Lee, the fictionalized version of William Burroughs, in Walter Salles' "On the Road."
When Mortensen was offered the role in Salles' long-awaited beat generation adaptation, it, like that of Freud, initially gave him pause. "If someone else had offered me Freud I might not have taken the plunge, but David, I trusted him, Walter I didn’t know Walter, so I thought really?" But actually, a kinship between the two characters enabled him to find his way into the part. "Both Freud and Burroughs were mentors in a sense. [People] went to visit Burroughs and he would share his books with them and they loved to pick his brain when he was down in Louisiana. They all came down to have a good time but also because they knew they could ask lots of questions and sort of glean a few pearls of wisdom from this crazy old guy. He seemed like an old guy to them, he wasn’t that old at the time, he was 10, 15 years older. Just like Freud was older than Jung."
5. Mortensen consulted Cronenberg on the best way to approach playing twins.
The star's taking another venture into Spanish-language cinema, after being approached by a first-time filmmaker for "Everyone Has a Plan," set in Argentina. "I had never shot a movie in Argentina and I thought, well, it will probably be like many of the scripts I read that are maybe well-intentioned but not that good, and I read it and thought this is an amazing script, a really tight, well-written film noir and I thought sure, let’s try and get it done. It took almost four years to get financing and it’s a great low budget movie." But it came with its own set of challenges; Mortensen plays twins in the film, one of whom impersonates the other. But who better to go to for advice than Cronenberg, the man behind one of the great twin movies. "I actually called David to ask him about 'Dead Ringers,' just from a technical thing, you know in terms of the scenes where you see the two brothers together," Mortensen said. "It was a great shoot, it was a hard shoot. Winter, outdoors in Argentina, great character, very ambitious for a first time director [Ana Piterbarg], but I think she pulled it off. She has a great future as a director.
"A Dangerous Method" is in theaters now.