Since The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen has shied away from blockbusters, instead opting for complex indies like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, for which he received a lead actor Oscar nomination. Now he’s scored his second for Captain Fantastic, in which he plays a counterculture dad raising his six kids in the wilderness and resisting modern societal norms.
Ahead of the Academy Awards, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Mortensen to talk about how different he is from his unconventional character, why the film is more relevant than ever in light of the Trump administration and the story behind that Lord of the Rings reunion photo.
How is this nomination different than your first?
It was a new experience then, but I suppose each time is exciting. I was just as happy this time, especially because it was such a team effort. I certainly didn’t expect that to happen with Captain Fantastic, an independent movie that was fortunate to have great word-of-mouth.
How did this role come to you?
I didn’t know [writer-director] Matt Ross, but I’d seen his work as an actor and also his first movie. As I was reading the script, with each page I liked it more. When I finished, I knew this was one of the best original screenplays I’d ever read. And the role was one of the best challenges I’d been offered, so I didn’t have any doubt about wanting to do it. I was a little worried about how Matt was going to pull it off because it is an ambitious undertaking for an independent movie, with a limited shooting time and having so many young kids in it.
How did the director respond when you expressed those concerns to him?
He said, “I know, but we have to find them and we will somehow.” That was his attitude in general. If there was a motto for a movie in terms of what the story is about and how it was made and even that people would remember the movie a year after it was shown at Sundance, it’s really “yes we can.” That’s what we’re about. I think it’s healthy in terms of a way of working and a type of storytelling. We can listen to other people, we can change, we can be flexible, we can get along — even if we disagree. I wish there was a little more of that in the country right now.
More getting along as a nation, you mean?
Yeah. But it’s growing, I have to say. Part of the key is to try and look on the sunny side as much as you can even though it’s difficult sometimes. For example, with what’s going on with the country right now where a lot of people are in a state of shock and even depressed and feel defeated and hopeless with the present political climate. It’s like, “Oh my God, what’s happening? It’s out of control and I’m powerless.” I prefer to look at it as a really good thing because I find that there’s a lot of people who aren’t politically engaged and who are loath to say what they think about what’s going on in society — even politicians who don’t normally speak up — people who normally wouldn’t talk about race problems, anti-immigrant problems, homophobia, anti-Semitism, global warming, war-mongering, misogyny, et cetera, they’re not only thinking about it but they’re talking about it. They’re not keeping their thoughts to themselves, and I think that’s going to happen more and more. I think we will see in Congress and the Senate, not just Democrats but also Republicans, saying, “Wait a minute, this is not right. This is not what we want to do. We are a country that is inclusive and has a complex history of being a cultural melting pot. We are better than that. We are much more beautiful and varied than that.” I think that’s coming.
Is that not already happening in some circles?
Yeah, in fact, you’re already seeing it. The new president [being like], “Oh well that Saturday everybody was spontaneously gathered all over the country and all over the world to protest, ah what a bunch of bad losers. That’s a phase, that’ll pass.” I do not think that will pass, and I think it’s gradually going to keep growing. Unfortunately, I don’t think the new president and his advisors are going to change their tactics. They’re going to put themselves first before the law and before the Constitution. They’re going to continuously do that, and I don’t think U.S. citizens as a whole are going to put up with that — and that’s really positive because people are starting to think now. People are engaging in a way that they haven’t for a long time, and maybe never have for some people. I think that’s really good.
Did you have these sorts of conversations with the cast while you were shooting the film?
Matt and I talked about it as we were making the movie, and certainly as the movie was rolling out this past year over the political campaign. We talked a lot about how polarized society is, maybe more than it has been since the ‘70s. It’s incredible how polarized U.S. society is right now. Something has got to give. I think that’s what’s happening now. The situation is what it is. You can’t go back and un-elect Trump, if that’s what you think, or un-say the things that have been said. You can’t take them back. We are where we are. So what do you do with that? Well, let’s talk about them. So now people are talking about them in a way that they haven’t — unless in just their little camps — than before. I think there’s going to be a coming-together more and more, and I think our movie is about that on some small level. It’s a microcosm of that thing that’s happening, of opening up, of finding a new balance, taking on board ideas and points of views of others. It’s not easy to swallow your pride and open your mind a bit.
Your character is torn between his kids needs and his desire to reject mainstream culture. What did you find relatable about that struggle?
Well, I agree with a lot of it. I think there’s a lot to reject. But in the end, just rejecting isn’t enough. It’s like saying, “I don’t like that so and so got elected. I’m going to reject it. It’s illegitimate. I’m going to make a sign that says he’s not my president.” That will only get you so far. What are you going to do about it? If you’re honest and you didn’t vote, then admit you didn’t vote and you should have and vote next time in your local elections and in the next election two years from now. Get involved. You want to see the president impeached? Well, that means talking to people, that means writing letters or emails or getting on the phone. It means making an effort. If you don’t like the immigration policies that the new government is trying to put into place, you feel it’s against the rule of law and the Constitution and the best traditions of the United States of America, well then speak up and do something about it rather than sitting in your room and grumbling about it or sending off angry emails to your friends.
What do you think of the idea that Hollywood is just an echo chamber?
Well, Hollywood is a visible thing. So when someone gives a speech about politics at an awards show, millions of people see that. So people that work in the movie business get a lot of exposure — but they’re not all the same. It’s a grain of sand in terms of the wealth of the ideas that make up the citizenry of the United States. They have no more right and no less right to say what they think, to inform themselves, to shoot their mouth off than anyone else anywhere else in the country. I don’t think you need to stigmatize Hollywood and say, “Oh well, they’re a bunch of privileged …” And I also don’t think you need to say that their opinions should carry more weight than anyone else. I think there’s just as much, if not more, backlash to whatever an actor says no matter how well-informed and thought-provoking and intelligent it is just because they’re [the ones] saying it. I frankly think more people reject it than take it on board.
In what ways are you similar to your character in the movie?
I really like the basic principles of his child-rearing approach, which is to be honest with your kids at all times. When my son was 7, we spoke about anything, if something came up about sex or girls or death. I didn’t lie about any of it, but I chose my words a little differently with him when he was 7 and when he was 17. But my character doesn’t. He’ll speak to the 7-year-old about sex and rape and mental illness in the exact same way he does with a 17-year-old. There is a degree to which I’m not in accordance, but the basic idea of being honest — I like that. And I like the outdoors. I’m not a fan of rock climbing, though.
Did the fact that Ross is also an actor come through in his directing style?
Definitely, especially because he’s the kind of actor that looks forward to what surprises others. “What is everybody else going to bring to the table? Let’s play.” That’s his idea. There are actors who direct who aren’t necessarily going to help other actors to be good as actors. They prepare their work and they don’t come in welcoming suggestions or contributions or curve balls from other actors. They have their role prepared, and they know how they’re going to emote and what their gestures are going to be. Then you as an actor realize pretty quickly that your job is to adapt to whatever they do — but you’re in service. And we ideally should be in service to the other actor, but it’s a one-way street with them. If you’re that kind of actor, historically, when you go to direct other actors, you’re probably not going to be that helpful. Fortunately, Matt Ross is an actor who loves other actors and is very curious about what they have to say. You never know where a good idea might come from.
What’s up next for you?
I’ve written a couple of screenplays and I got one that I’m trying to set up so that I can direct it. It’s that arduous process of false starts and hit or miss and trying to find someone brave enough to take a chance. It’s one thing to be an actor who has been around for a while whom people know and some people like. It’s an entirely different thing for that actor to want to direct for the first time. It’s a new ballgame. It’s not like starting completely from scratch. I guess it’s assumed that I’ve learned something along the way about making movies, but I’ve never done it and I’ve never shown that I know how to do it, so I understand the reticence. But that’s what I’m trying to do, raise the money.
Some reunion photos of you and your Lord of the Rings co-stars recently made headlines. What’s the story behind the gathering?
As the cast of Captain Fantastic, we were all together [for the SAG Awards.] We were all hoping we’d win best ensemble so we could make fools of ourselves onstage. But then everybody was going to go their separate ways — some of the kids are from Oklahoma, Australia, England — so I invited them all out for dinner afterwards because I figured it was likely that we weren’t going to win and it was going to be sad to end that way. The youngest kids were big fans of Lord of the Rings so as surprise guests I invited the ones who were around and in town — Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom. Three hobbits and an elf showed up. You should have seen the look on the Captain Fantastic kids’ faces. It was really something. So it was a great gathering of two families that stayed in touch.
A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.