Venice: Viggo Mortensen Talks Mastering New Languages
The 'Far From Men' star also shares his solution for world peace
Set during the Algerian war for independence, David Oelhoffen's Far From Men stars Viggo Mortensen as Daru, a schoolteacher who must transport a prisoner, Mohamed, played by Reda Kateb, to his trial. Daru, a former World War II captain, has done all he can to get away from the violence of war but is pulled right back into it with an assignment he can't escape. Daru and Mohamed seemingly have nothing in common, and Daru resents the job. But over the course of his mission, their relationship mirrors the larger war.
To play the role, Mortensen had to rework his French, a language that he originally learned as the Canadian variety to adapt to the Algerian dialect, as well as take on Arabic. The actor, who also speaks Danish, Spanish and Italian, is no stranger to new languages. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the actor after Far From Men's premiere in Venice about his perfectionism is studying accents, why the solution to conflict begins with two people and how he stays in tip-top shape, mentally and physically.
What's your secret for learning languages quickly?
Well, it helps if when you were a kid, you grew up with more than one. I grew up bilingual, in Spanish and English primarily, and also I would hear my father who was speaking Danish with his friends. So when I as a teenager, I made a conscious effort to learn Danish. Danish is a difficult language to learn, maybe more difficult than Arabic in a way.
How important is it for you to really master accents?
It's one thing that's got to be less distracting for the audience. It will help them believe in the story if you do it correctly. I always make an effort. It's the same thing as making sure that the clothes I'm wearing are right for the character, the books he is reading that I know what the books are, the objects I handle. The language is one more part of this person.
In this case it was, for Daru, it was important for him to speak French with an accent that would be particular to this guy from this part of Algeria and an Arabic that was correct. I worked hard on that. The French took a little longer just to make sure it was right.
How long did it take you to master the French and Arabic?
I think I worked a lot. I worked for months, and in Spain, where I live, I found someone who was from North Africa, and he helped me a lot. I looked at the whole script, and I made sure I could say it all in Arabic and made sure it was Arabic from that region.
Why does the film focus on the relationship between two men, when the world around them seems to be falling to pieces?
I think that people have been predicting the end of the world for as long as there have been people. I think it's easy to get overwhelmed especially with all the stuff you see in the news and to think, "Well, I can't do anything. What the hell, I'd just better protect my own things, my family, my possessions, my safety." Because you feel like you can do nothing, it's like, "The world is completely out of control. What can I do?"
But it really starts with a handshake or sharing a meal or listening to the other person. As you see in this movie, it's just focusing on two people. One is doing what he thinks he needs to do — I don't think he really wants to die, but he is doing what he thinks he should do — and the other guy resents having to be part of this person's death.
But you can't escape death, and you can't escape life. I mean, you can, you can slit your throat and it's over for you, although the consequences of your death will affect other people. But while you are alive, part of life is dealing with suffering and unpleasant surprises and sometimes really pleasant surprises, things that you wouldn't learn if you weren't in contact with other people, that you are not gonna learn by yourself. And I think that people will make those connections with what's going on in the world now, by virtue of seeing what happens with these two people.
The story is obviously very relevant today. What's the lesson it's teaching?
I thought many times when we were shooting, obviously I thought about Palestine, I thought about Iraq and other places. But I also thought about Argentina and Europeans coming and dispossessing and slaughtering the native population and about the United States and Australia but particularly the United States and Argentina, places I have lived in. I have friends in both countries that are descendants of native people.
On my mother's side, I am related to Buffalo Bill, William F. Cody, who was part of the Europeans that went like, "Let's take this land and make it ours, in our way." So it's not just Arab and European, it's colonizing influence, supposed civilizing influence. And the people who live there, before you came there, maybe they have a different idea of what's good for them.
But in the end, you are together, so you can't remain either what you were or what you want to be. It's gonna be something in between, and the sooner you meet in the middle, the sooner you'll be able to heal old wounds.
That's the problem; the difficult thing is for people to meet in the middle, especially for politicians, but also terrorist organizations or political activists, associations on the left or the right. When you change your firm stance, the language that you speak politically or the people you are associating with or shaking hands with, the minute you step outside of what you are supposed to stay in, your tribal area, then you are a traitor, a coward. You can't look at it that way. You have to reach out.
What's the most challenging thing about taking on a role like this?
I'm interested in movie storytelling in general. To do it well, you have to stay open. You have to be flexible, and you have to learn new ways of dealing with new problems, new obstacles. But in life I think it's natural for people as they get older, their muscles, their arteries, their thinking — everything shrinks, everything becomes more limited and you have to make a conscious effort as you get older, to get exercise, to try to stay more flexible.
But you have to do it. You can't just sit there and think you are gonna be like when you're a kid, when you're nine years old and you never get hurt. And you can remember things without writing them down. When you get older, you have to make more of an effort. It's harder to learn a new language, it's harder to learn a new physical skill, but you can do it. You just have to apply yourself.
Are you really regimented? Do you get up and exercise and study?
No, I watch a lot of football, very regularly. But I fortunately like to walk a lot, and I like to move around. I get a certain amount of exercise. But in terms of being disciplined about reading the books or working on languages or working physically on things, it's good to have a job that requires me to do it.
The movie I'm doing right now [Captain Fantastic], I'm shooting in the United States. It's one where I have to be in good shape physically. It's very active. So it made me focus on that, in a way that in normal life, I can be kind of lazy. I mean, I have lots of interests. I'll do this; I'll do that; I'll watch this movie; I'll read part of this book. I'm kind of all over the place. But with a movie like [Far From Men] it's like, OK, two hours a day you have to work on the Arabic or you're not going to be ready.
Having done both, do you have a preference for independent movies over Hollywood blockbusters?
Well, I'm not consciously doing that. I'm basically looking for stories — or I hope they find me — for something I'm interested in watching. That is a blueprint for a movie that I may want to watch when it's finished or, 20 years from now, that I won't be embarrassed about being in.