It’s been a little over two years since the release of Captain Fantastic, but Viggo Mortensen is already back in the Oscar conversation for Green Book. He leads the film as Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer living in the Bronx with his family in the 1960s. When the Copacabana shuts down for some remodeling, Tony reluctantly opts to take an unlikely new gig and hits the road with piano virtuoso, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), for a tour from Manhattan to the Deep South. What begins as a story about two people with very different lifestyles and seemingly no hope of getting along turns into a road trip (and friendship) powered by genuine understanding, respect and love.
With Green Book hitting theaters nationwide on November 21st, I got the opportunity to sit down with Mortensen to run through his experience making Green Book, why the production felt a bit like a play, the big risks taken making this movie that paid off big time, his reaction to Green Book‘s Oscar buzz and loads more. You can catch the full conversation below and, in case you missed it, click here for my interview with director Peter Farrelly and here for more from Mortensen alongside Ali.
What was your initial reaction when you first heard that this project was coming your way? I read a little bit about some apprehension you had taking this role and now having seen the movie, I can’t picture anyone else in the part.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: Well, that’s great. Thank you. Pete Farrelly sent it to me with an email. He said, ‘This is a little different for me; you’ll see. And I want you to play this guy Tony.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘It’s a true story. This really happened and stuff,’ so I started reading the script, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s kind of a drama really with some funny stuff in it.’ Although I have to say, it was funnier the way it turned out. On the page it was like you chuckle and some of it’s funny, but a lot of it has to do with I guess the chemistry with Mahershala, just the rhythm that we got into together, and the way we listened to each other. It’s like the reactions from him, and then my reaction to him. Like, the incomprehensible oil and water dynamic, and that really helped make it laugh-out-loud funny sometimes. But it’s always organic. It’s always based on the contrast between them, which is good. So in that sense it’s somewhat different than Pete’s other stuff, even in the humor. And then there’s some profound stuff in it too. It’s like, I mean, if you want to take it in, there’s a civics lesson, there’s a history lesson, there’s I guess a cautionary tale in some ways.
A pure message about being a kind human being, too.
MORTENSEN: Right, and getting past your first impressions. I mean, first impressions are always limited, and getting past your ignorance, doing something about it. Just because you have three doctorates and speak eight languages like Don Shirley, you can be ignorant about certain kinds of people, certain kinds of ways of expressing yourself. And obviously Tony, my character, is really ignorant about Mahershala and, why is he so closed off? I mean, when the road trip starts, obviously, they’re both thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is gonna be a really long two months.’ I’m thinking it’s gonna be really boring because this guy’s a stick in the mud, and he doesn’t like to talk, he doesn’t like to do anything, he’s not funny. And he’s thinking, I’m a lout. I’m just crude and noisy, and kind of really offensive, really. And I’m sure that if he didn’t need me on the tour down south, physically need me to be there, he would’ve called it off within five minutes. Before we even crossed the George Washington Bridge, he would’ve said, ‘All right, turn around. That’s it.’ And I’m thinking, ‘If I didn’t need the money, I wouldn’t want to go with this guy. He’s boring. He’s emotionally closed off.’ Well, later I learn why. He has very good reasons to be cautious.
I heard that Nick Vallelonga, when he talked to Don Shirley, because he not only interviewed his dad preparing this – I think he’s been working on this story for like 25 years, and Don Shirley said, ‘Yeah, it’s true. All these things that Tony Lip says happened. That’s the way it was, and I’ll add some more,’ and he gave him some more info. He said, ‘You have my blessing to make this movie, but please don’t do it until after I’ve passed away,’ because he was a very discrete person, and when you see the movie, you see why he maybe wasn’t comfortable.