Smoke and mirrors

Viggo Mortensen may have cinema clout but it almost counted for nothing when it came to making his directorial debut

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A cloud of grey cigarette smoke is swirling around Viggo Mortensen’s face, making it difficult to see the Hollywood star during our video chat. The sunlight peeking through the curtains behind his head isn’t helping either. It’s dark here in Manchester but Mortensen’s at home in Madrid, and the late afternoon sun is doing its best to further obscure his face from view. For someone who’s spent most of his adult life lighting up cinemas, it sure feels like he’s trying hard to hide on my laptop.

“I wanted to explore what I felt about my parents and what I learned from them.”

Perhaps maintaining a certain mystique is important. That’s apparent in the actor, poet, artist, musician, author and now filmmaker’s directorial debut Falling. Blending aspects of his own childhood with impassioned threads of fiction, it sees the 62-year-old star as John, a gay man, husband and father whose family life is turned upside down when he’s forced to care for his archaic and deeply prejudiced father Willis (Lance Henriksen), who’s battling dementia. As these two worlds collide, neither cigarette smoke nor sunbeams can prevent audiences from peeking inside aspects of Mortensen’s personal life – yet when we speak to him about it, he’s still keen to keep things cryptic.

“I first tried to direct a movie about four years ago,” says Mortensen between drags, detailing his long road to the director’s chair. “I raised some of the money but not enough – and that happened repeatedly with different scripts, even Falling.”

Mortensen’s struggles getting his passion project off the ground illustrate just how laborious and unpredictable filmmaking can be. Despite becoming a household name as sword-wielding king Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, fame did little to catalyse his directing dreams. “I guess I’ve been wanting and trying to do this for at least a quarter of a century. Finally we were able to make this one and I’m really glad Lance could do it with me.”

In the years since he saved Middle Earth, Mortensen has cultivated a reputation as a very different kind of leading man. With his silver hair, sharp features and piercing blue eyes, the Manhattan-born star has delivered a range of challenging, unexpected and memorable performances with an array of top directors. Body-horror auteur David Cronenberg made us fear him in 2005’s crime tale A History of Violence and again in 2007’s mob story Eastern Promises, before showing us his intellectual side in 2011, casting him as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method.

In 2016, we saw him sensitively portray a troubled father struggling to raise his kids off grid in Matt Ross’s touching Captain Fantastic, and in 2018 he received his third Academy Award nod for his turn as Tony Lipp, the crass yet endearing chauffeur of musician Dr Donald Shirley in Peter Farrelly’s controversial best picture Oscar winner, Green Book.

By embodying mythic kings as easily as brutal killers, we’re never quite sure who – or what – we’ll meet whenever he appears on screen. This refusal to be pinned down could perhaps be traced back to his unusual childhood. Born in New York City to an American mother and Danish father, Mortensen spent his early years flitting between Venezuela, Denmark and Argentina before moving back to America when he was 11 following his parents’ divorce. As a result of this peripatetic period, he can fluently speak Danish, French, Spanish and English, and it may be why, unlike most Hollywood stars, he’s more at home living in Madrid, with Spanish actor wife Ariadna Gil, than Los Angeles.

“I suppose anything that happens to you, whether you travel or not, has an impact in your life, for better or for worse,” suggests Mortensen, reflecting on his childhood and how memories of his youth inspired the more personal elements of Falling. “After my mother had just passed away I was thinking a lot about my childhood – and about my mom especially. But also, when I thought about her I thought about my dad, their dynamic and my shared upbringing with my two brothers.

“The story quickly became fictional but its foundations – the feelings about real events, as far as I remember them – were real. The story is made up and Lance’s character is made up, but I wanted to explore what I felt and feel about my parents and what I learned from them.”

Asked whether such a deep dive into his past unearthed anything surprising, the actor’s quick to shift the narrative.

“I don’t know if it took me off guard because I’d made up a fictional story about a fictional family. For some reason that allowed me to go for it and not worry about if things were exact.”

Instead, Mortensen uses his first film to flip the question back at viewers, inviting them to project their own story onto his. It’s something that came easily to 80-year-old screen veteran Henriksen. As John’s surly and increasingly confused father Willis, his portrayal of a man viciously at odds with his son’s homosexual lifestyle causes tensions that may be all too relatable for some viewers.

“Lance was relating on a personal level based on experiences different from the story – but there was an emotional connection with his own past,” says Mortensen. “When we finally got to make the movie, we found to our pleasant surprise that the cast and crew kept telling us stories about their own families. That made us feel like we were on the right track and telling a story with universal relevance.”

As Willis’s memory worsens, we glimpse snippets of John’s childhood and the foundations of his now complicated relationship with his estranged father. Brutal and ambiguous, Mortensen’s take on a disease that affects countless families again had personal roots.

“Most stories about dementia or Alzheimer’s are from the outside – you’re observing someone who’s clearly confused. I hadn’t seen it done credibly from their point of view. I’ve had up-close caring experience with people with dementia: my parents, my grandfather and my stepfather – from beginning to end – and one thing I was aware of is that unless you bring it to their attention, they’re often not confused at all.

“I wanted to use image and sound to get inside Willis’s head to show that he’s seeing something very clearly – and sometimes it’s quite beautiful. I don’t like telling the audience what to see. I wanted to let them see and hear what they will.”

If early audience reaction is anything to go by, Mortensen’s attempt at making the personal core of his movie accessible to all has paid off. It’s particularly noticeable during the moments of unexpected humour connected to Willis’s confused deterioration.

“Story-wise, it’s a relief and I think it’s quite human,” he tells us, commenting on how a little levity can sometimes help us cope under extreme pressure. “I’ve shown the movie to audiences and we’ve done some Q&As here in Spain. It’s a different country with a different language and yet I get the same observations and questions from audience members who are personally relating it to their own families. There was something at stake for them when they were watching the story and making it their own – and I love that.”

Filmmaking aside, Mortensen has no shortage of creative endeavours. In addition to directing Falling, he also composed its music and when he’s not starring in major movie releases, you’re likely to find him painting or releasing written work through Perceval Press, the publishing house he founded back in 2002. Sharing a story this personal with the world may be one of the most emotionally affecting experiences of his career so far – “We went over Niagara falls together,” he says of his collaboration with Henriksen – but it’s not put him off. “I want to direct another movie,” he adds, although when quizzed on what his next project might be, he remains tight-lipped.

In the meantime, the new filmmaker remains at ease with his first feature arriving during one of the most chaotic years on record. “We’re much more conscious of the uncertainty of life, how ephemeral and unpredictable it is. We’re more conscious of older people and I think that the movie coming out at this time makes you look at Willis’s character in a different way.

“There’s so much polarisation and tension to do with race, class, ideology and religion and I think this movie comes at a time where you see this family as a reflection of what’s happening with the rest of society.”

Mortensen takes another drag on his cigarette and his face disappears once more into a cloud of smoke.

“I think on a lot of levels, Falling turns out to be quite pertinent to our times. I hope. I certainly see it that way.”

Falling is available to watch now on

Family ties

Screen veteran Lance Henriksen plays Willis, Viggo Mortensen’s estranged father, in Falling. We asked how his own past influenced his acting.

You left home at 12 and before getting into acting, you joined the Navy. Did your unique childhood affect the way you approached Willis?
Oh God, yes. There’s a great line in literature: “Tell me about your childhood but be quick or I’ll tell you about mine.” That’s the really amazing factor in acting – you brush up against things like Viggo’s script that are heaven and suddenly it’s quite personal. It’s the real deal. You’re not performing – you’re living it.

Willis is forced to reflect on his past. Could you relate to that?
One of the best parts of the movie is that it never betrays the reality of what we’re doing. It isn’t a cheap shot. It was really about how people make mistakes and then end up paying for them, all of them. After getting out of this character, which took about a year, I was a changed man – in the positive sense.

Was it easy to capture an authentic family dynamic?
We became a family as we worked, scene by scene. Viggo and I have a very intense scene towards the end of the movie and I walked out of that vibrating because it was so poignant. The whole crew was weeping.

Did sharing such an emotionally charged scene take its toll?
Something happened during that scene. I think I actually slapped him in the face and it shocked the shit out of me, because I wasn’t trying to do that. I remember sitting in a parking lot together smoking a cigarette and relaxing afterwards and I got the sense that maybe I didn’t want to act again after that scene. We were trying desperately to be as open hearted as we can. It’s not easy being human.

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