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Viggo Mortensen talks about being surprised by 'Captain Fantastic'

The Oscar nominee says acting helps keep him youthful and flexible.

Much has been made about Viggo Mortensen’s career post-“Lord of the Rings.” After Aragorn, the actor had the chance for the biggest roles in the biggest films. He turned most of them down, even “The Hobbit” movies.

Instead he’s worked with some of his favorite filmmakers (David Cronenberg, thrice) and hopped around the world, even doing the difficult and hypnotic art film “Jauja” in Argentina. “Captain Fantastic” finds Mortensen back home in America, but playing an even more quixotic character: Ben Cash, a loner who has raised his six kids in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. After his wife’s death, he struggles with the notion that his very free and open way of parenting may be as rigid as the strict social systems from which he’d escaped.

Americans tend not to be too open to alternative parenting or lifestyles. It’s useful to see a film that doesn’t portray what Ben does as negative — or as wholly positive.
What’s interesting is at the beginning of the film, you might think, "Oh, I see what this is. This is going to be some well-made movie with an ideological slant. It’s going to be about some liberal, left-wing, utopian fantasy. They’re going to be our heroes and they’re going to be up against their conservative foes and obstacles."

That’s one way to make a movie, and that could be good. But this isn’t that limited. As you get into the story you realize it’s not all perfect. Not everything is condoned, and not everything is condemned either. It’s very layered.

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We do tend to prefer things to be black and white.
The movie, without trying to be ideological, really puts its finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the country at the time. It speaks to the lack of communication, the polarization of society. We’re in a moment right now in the U.S. when people are not talking to each other. They’re not even arguing, at least in any kind of constructive way. They’re isolated. They’re in these little camps based on religion, based on race, based on political ideology, based on socioeconomic class. There’s a lot of dysfunctional behavior and lack of social interaction. I think this movie speaks to that — to the value of communicating and trying to find a new balance and way to speak to each other.

This had to be a very physically trying film, not just being in the woods for part of it but scaling rocks, being active.
I like being in the woods. I’m not Ben Cash, and I don’t live that way and wouldn’t live that way. But I wasn’t unfamiliar with being in a forest or working in a garden. I even knew the books he reads. Other things I had to learn, just as the kids had to learn certain skills. We had a boot camp where we had to do a lot of things together. That also helped us get to know each other.

By the time shooting came around, that really helped it look real and it helped us look like a real family. When you watch this movie you believe these are the children of Leslie [the late wife] and Ben, and that It looked like I really knew them, they knew me.

Ben is capable of being very smug and coarse, even with his kids, but there are times when he really does seem like an admirable father.
There is one thing he’s against, which is rigidity, authoritarianism. But he realizes he’s engaging in some of that himself, with good intentions. Maybe not authoritarianism. He’s not authoritarian. He does really try to run it like a democracy, with free speech and public discourse and respect for the ideas of others. He wants them to be willing to consider a completely different point of view. But in some ways he’s closed himself and the kids off.

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Being an actor is not entirely unlike living like this. You went to high school and college, but you’ve spent your adult years traveling the globe, doing a diversity of films, learning new things.
The job of an actor, the way I see it, is to find the best possible way to see the world from points of view different from my own — sometimes radically different. That’s the fun of it and that’s the job of it. In that sense it keeps you relatively childlike or youthful, because you’re constantly forcing yourself to look at things a different way.

As you get older you tend to not do that. People become, through the course of things, mentally and physically stiffer, less flexible. As an actor, my jobs is to remain flexible mentally as much as physically.

I’m jealous, to be honest.
But as a journalist you get to cover different stories. So that makes you flexible, right?

That’s the idea. But as an actor you get to travel more than I do. I spend most of my days at a desk or in a screening room.
You get to travel through your computer. [Laughs]

It’s not the same.
No, I agree.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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