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David Cronenberg isn’t necessarily the first director you’d expect to make a movie about the war of wills between two trailblazing 19th-century psychoanalysts, although on further reflection the idea starts to make sense. Cronenberg’s movies have always featured plenty of disturbed individuals, so it stands to reason that he would not only know the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung but that he would ultimately become fascinated by the flaws and faults of the men themselves. The resulting film, ‘A Dangerous Method,’ out today in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics, asks what happens when two men committed to curing humanity of its mental diseases encounter destructive forces within themselves. Michael Fassbender plays Jung, the idealistic Austrian heir to Freud’s legacy, who slowly becomes acquainted with — and, at least temporarily, possessed by — his own dark side. Freud, portrayed with an air of ironic wit by erstwhile ‘Lord of the Rings’ swashbuckler Viggo Mortensen, is the vain, impatient mentor who evolves over time into a disapproving rival.
I spoke to Mortensen last week about his ongoing collaboration with Cronenberg (this is their third collaboration), his frustration with the Oscar “popularity contest,” and his initial reluctance to play a talkative old Jewish shrink.Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Were you surprised when Cronenberg called and said, “I want to make a movie about Sigmund Freud”?
It didn’t surprise me. What surprised me is that he thought I was the right actor for Freud. I had to seriously think about it. In a lot of ways, it was the biggest stretch I’ve had as an actor in movies. More of a stretch in some ways in ‘Eastern Promises.’ Doing the role, with David’s help, made me feel more confidant about playing characters who are a lot more verbose. Now I realize, I can do it. I accepted the challenge because I trusted David. The last thing he wants to do is miscast his movies, when it’s someone like me who’s his friend. He thought I could do it and didn’t let go of the idea, so I thought there must be something to it.
Had you heard from other people that this type of role wouldn’t be right for you? Or did you just kind of assume that wasn’t your thing?
I just hadn’t done anything quite like it. I hadn’t played a character who spoke that much. And on the surface, looking at the script, I think I had preconceived ideas about this apparently very serious, dry, elderly, white-haired Jewish scientist. I thought, “That’s not me.” Physically, I’m more of an Aryan type to start with. But once I understood more about his ironic tone and his wit, once I started finding out how much appetite for life he actually had, I started thinking, “Well, maybe there’s a way in.”
Do you have the sense that you and Michael Fassbender are working in a similar tradition? That he could in some ways be an heir to your style of acting?
As an actor? I don’t know, I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, we got along well. He’s got a really good sense of humor and he was easy to work with. He was well prepared. I think we have a little bit different approach, at least in this movie. His work is based on finding some kind of rhythm or music in the text. I think that the way Kiera works is a little more similar to mine — you know, doing a tremendous amount of research on all kinds of things you would think are quite peripheral.
Watch the trailer for ‘A Dangerous Method’
On a completely different side of the spectrum, do you ever think, “Oh man, I’d like to do another ‘Lord of the Rings’ style action franchise”?
No. I mean, I don’t really have a game plan. I’ve never really had one. Some people say, “Hollywood prefers this now,” and I always go, “What is Hollywood? I really don’t know what that is.” I don’t plan to do big or small movies. [For any movie to be successful,] you’ve got to be lucky. The director has to be good. They’ve got to know what they’re doing on the set and then they’ve got to know what they’re doing in the editing room, and then you need a distributor who’s not stupid. I’ve been in movies that I thought were quite good, that weren’t released properly, or just had bad luck. Whether it be ‘Appaloosa,’ [Ed] Harris’ movie, or ‘The Road’ —
‘The Road’ was one of my favorite movies of 2009.
I’ve heard that from so many people. Most of them had seen it after the fact, certainly North Americans, because Americans and Canadians didn’t really get a chance at all to see that movie in theaters. It wasn’t promoted very well, and we got the shaft. A lot of people looked forward to seeing that movie. But unless the distributor does a little leg work to generate some kind of buzz and keep that buzz through — say, in case of ‘The Road’ — the autumn, it might as well never have been released.
I’ve had that happen several times, where afterwards people are saying, “Shit, that was great, I saw it on DVD, I saw it on the airplane — why didn’t that get nominated for Best Movie? Why didn’t David Cronenberg get nominated for Best Director for ‘History of Violence’? Or ‘Eastern Promises’?” Tell you what: David Cronenberg has never been nominated for an Oscar, ever. Which is absurd when you think of, not only some of the people that get nominated every year, but some of the people who win for Best Director. Seriously, so many times, you see a movie, you see a win, and you go, “How many people are going to care to rent that thing a year from now?” In some cases, nobody.
And yet we’re still watching ‘A History of Violence’ and ‘The Fly.’
I have no explanation as to why he’s never been nominated as a director. I would’ve nominated him for all three movies I’ve done with him. No question. This one, I don’t know what the general feeling is out there about this movie — we’ll see when it comes out — but it already seems like other movies I’ve seen, that I know don’t hold a candle to this one, are already getting on those lists and it seems like David, once again, is disappearing. Maybe you can explain it me.
Well, I do think that they’re harder-edged than the usual Oscar fare.
People still classify him as a horror director, maybe. I have no idea why.
Yeah, that’s probably a part of it too. But let me ask you about Kiera Knightley —
I was just gonna say — I think that is a performance that will go down in history as one of the great performances, certainly of this year. But I don’t know if she’ll be able to break into that popularity contest or not. Certainly in Britain, it seems to be ingrained in critics that she can do no right. I don’t know what the hell that’s about.
All I can do is enjoy what I do. I always enjoy the research process. I can always count on that for a good time. Unless I’m working with Cronenberg, where I know the shoot’s going to be fun and enjoyable, a good learning experience, calm, professional, with some laughs along the way, and the movie’s going to turn out to be one I’m proud of — in other cases, it’s a crapshoot. Many times, the research is all I have, as far as what was really fun. You make friendships on the shoot if you want to, but a lot of shoots don’t turn out to be well managed, well thought out, well executed, or pleasant, and the end results can be almost unwatchable sometimes, you know? Despite the best efforts of everybody involved, it’s just the way it goes.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics.
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