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Q&A: Viggo Mortensen on ‘Captain Fantastic,’ acting with kids, and finding happiness in North Idaho

Jan. 13, 2017 Updated Fri., Jan. 13, 2017 at 9:32 a.m.

Viggo Mortensen, who plays Ben Cash” in the 2016 film “Captain Fantastic,” will be in Sandpoint this weekend hosting two benefit screenings of the film. Both shows at the Panida Theater are sold out. (Cathy Kanavy / Bleecker Street)
Viggo Mortensen, who plays Ben Cash” in the 2016 film “Captain Fantastic,” will be in Sandpoint this weekend hosting two benefit screenings of the film. Both shows at the Panida Theater are sold out. (Cathy Kanavy / Bleecker Street)
From staff reports

Sandpoint’s Panida Theater promises to be a popular place this weekend as Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen hosts two screenings of his most recent film, “Captain Fantastic.”

All seats for both the Friday and Saturday shows are sold out, which means the events’ beneficiaries KRFY FM and Team Autism are the ultimate winners.

“Captain Fantastic” stars Mortensen as Ben Cash, who has been raising his six children off the grid in the woods of Washington. A family crisis forces his family to emerge and reintegrate with the modern world. The film opened during the summer of 2016, after premiering last January at the Sundance Film Festival. The reviews were mostly positive. As Steven Rea noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It’s a rare movie that asks such big questions – about parenting, about family, about modern-day America – and comes up with answers that are moving and meaningful, that make you laugh and cry.”

While Mortensen will forever be associated with the role of Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in the years since he left Middle Earth, he’s continued to do interesting and acclaimed work in films such as “The Road,” “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method.” Mortensen’s performance in “Captain Fantastic,” has earned him nominations from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, the British Academy Film Awards (aka the BAFTA Awards) and the Screen Actors Guild. In an email interview with The Spokesman-Review, Mortensen talks about his work on the film, his affinity for Sandpoint, and what he’s up to next.

Q: What’s your process when preparing to embody a complex guy like Ben Cash?

A: With every job that I sign up for as an actor, my first question to myself is “What happened before page 1 of the script?” Going from the birth of the character as well as taking into account the circumstances leading to it and surrounding it, and continuing on through his or her life until we arrive at the script, there is an almost limitless amount of information that I can gather and/or invent for myself about the person I am to play. On a practical level, each character has a particular set of skills and a manner of communicating that I need to incorporate into my preparation. Specifically with Ben in “Captain Fantastic,” I had to get familiar with rock-climbing, Japanese ju-jitsu techniques, handling bagpipes, playing the guitar, to name some of the skills that I did not personally possess. There is always a long list of things to be learned to be able to play a role properly, to be of maximum use to a director, regardless of how close the character’s experience might initially seem to align with one’s own.

Q: Did your personal connections to the Northwest influence your performance in any significant ways?

A: Having lived in North Idaho and being familiar with many landscapes of the Northwest helped me specifically as regards feeling “at home” in the forests of Washington state where we filmed a significant part of “Captain Fantastic.” On a practical level, the fact that I have been putting in vegetable gardens in North Idaho for decades was useful when it came time to putting in one for our movie family’s compound. Being familiar beforehand with the kinds of people who live in the Northwest, and how they sound, was also helpful.

Q: The movie leaves us with mixed feelings about the ways Ben raises his kids. Looking at the film, what are your feelings about the character’s behavior? Is it wrong to try and diagnose him?

A: It is never wrong to pay attention and form an opinion about a story and its characters, to relate to them in any way one feels is natural. So, by all means, diagnose away! One of the strengths of Matt Ross’ script is that it is not about heroes and villains; it is about flawed human beings, no better or worse than you or I. Ben loves his children, and devotes himself completely to their physical, mental, and philosophical education. He is far from perfect, however. He is sometimes inconsistent, contradicts himself. He is initially inflexible in many ways and, in the course of the story, must find a way to achieve a new balance for himself and his family. In the course of attempting to change and evolve, he has some difficult emotional transitions to make. This aspect of the character was what I found most challenging and, eventually, rewarding about playing Ben.

Q: What was it like working with a large cast of young actors?

A: I like surprises, like being challenged and inspired by other actors. It helps me do a far better job than I would if I simply prepared my role and expected everyone to slavishly adapt to what I was determined to do in each scene, regardless of the input of my acting partners. Younger actors, especially the very youngest ones, tend to surprise you on a regular basis. They will not usually play a scene the same way twice. I like that. If I were less flexible and less willing to simply “play,” I suppose I might not be as comfortable working with your actors.

Q: Writer/director Matt Ross is also a successful character actor. Are there any specific benefits to working with a director who also has acting experience?

A: It can be beneficial to be directed by an actor, as was the case with Matt Ross, but the mere fact that your director is also an actor does not guarantee that he or she will be especially sensitive to your needs as a performer or be more able to guide you more efficiently than non-actor directors will. It goes back to what kind of actor you are. Actors who are accustomed to paying attention to other actors, and to adjusting their performance to what their fellow actors bring to the scene, tend to be very good at directing other actors, at finding just the right way to put them at ease and get the most out of their abilities. Actors who do not really show much interest in other actors, and are unlikely to adjust their performance according to what other actors contribute, are not likely to be that helpful when they are directing them.

Q: Have you done many audience Q&As for “Captain Fantastic”? Is there a question about the film you’re wishing someone would ask? Or a question that has completely surprised you?

A: I have done hundreds, literally, since last January, when we premiered the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I’ve done them in the U.S. and in other countries, mostly on my own but sometimes together with director Matt Ross, and occasionally with some of the other cast members. There is no question that I am afraid to be asked, and I do not have any particular question in mind that I would like asked. Anything goes, really. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll say so. But there is always something that audience members and I can agree on or relate to each other about. I look forward to answering questions at the Panida. It was great fun when I did so a few years ago after the benefit screenings of David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method.”

Q. You spent a long time in Middle Earth. When “The Lord of the Rings” ended you followed up with difficult roles in films like “Eastern Promises,” “A History of Violence” and “The Road.” What was it about these roles that drew your attention?

A: They were good, original stories that I thought could become good movies, or at least become movies that I would like to see.

Q: What do you want to do next?

A: Direct a movie. I am in the process of trying to raise money to make a movie from a script I wrote. Hopefully it will happen later this year.

Q: How long have you had your place near Sandpoint? What is it about the area that appeals to you?

A: Since the late 1980s. It is beautiful, truly wild in some places, and I have always felt happy in the area, regardless of the season or the weather. People also tend to generally respect each other’s privacy in North Idaho, which is something I greatly appreciate.

Q: And now a fun question: Who would win in a fight? Aragorn from “LOTR” or Tom Stall from “A History of Violence”?

A: Depends on the day and depends on the weapons available to each of them, I guess.

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