During an Elvis Mitchell-moderated Q&A following a Film Independent Presents screening at the Arclight Hollywood on Wednesday of Peter Farrelly’s new film about an interracial friendship, Mortensen, seated beside costar Mahershala Ali and Farrelly, used the N-word while speaking about racial progress in America.
“For instance, no one says n— anymore,” Mortensen said during a long discourse about race in America, according to Film Independent member Dick Schulz, a Hollywood-based freelance director who was present and who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday night after his tweet about the comments began to go viral. Two other Twitter users, who claimed to have been at the Q&A, echoed Schulz’s assertions.
In a statement to THR, in which he apologized for using the word, Mortensen acknowledged, “In making the point that many people casually used the ‘N’ word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
Mortensen continued, “One of the reasons I accepted the challenge of working on Peter Farrelly’s movie Green Book was to expose ignorance and prejudice in the hope that our movie’s story might help in some way to change people’s views and feelings regarding racial issues. It is a beautiful, profound movie story that I am very proud to be a part of.”
“However well-intended or intellectual the conversation may have been, it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word,” Ali said in a statement of his own issued Friday in which he accepted Mortensen’s apology. “He has made it clear to me that he’s aware of this, and apologized profusely immediately following the Q&A with Elvis Mitchell. Knowing his intention was to express that removing the n-word from your vocabulary doesn’t necessarily disqualify a person as a racist or participating in actions or thoughts that are bigoted, I can accept and embrace his apology.”
Ali continued, “An excellent and poignant thought was unfortunately overshadowed by voicing the word in its fullness. Which for me, is always hurtful. The use of the word within the black community has long been debated, and its usage should continue to be examined within the black community. The use of the word by those who aren’t black, is not up for debate. The history of discrimination, slavery, pain, oppression and violence that the word has come to symbolize only causes harm to members of the black community and therefore needs to be left in the past.”
In describing the audience’s reaction to Mortensen’s use of the word, Schulz said, “It was all anyone was talking about when we left the theater. I was hearing everybody passing by me going up the stairs going, ‘That was crazy! Why did he say that? You cannot say that!’ And it’s sad because the movie is great.” He added, “The irony is confounding, to be honest — it’s really shocking, and it was really shocking in the moment.”
According to Schulz, the problematic part of the Q&A happened well after it had begun, when Mortensen chose to respond to a question that had been directed to one of the other panelists. “Viggo just started talking, and it got away from him quickly,” Schulz said. “He started talking about how, in this climate, the world today, progress isn’t going to happen quickly, it’s going to happen slowly, but the movie is going to mean a lot for a long time because we’re constantly coming up against racism and how racism is almost human nature and these things come in waves. And that’s when he went, ‘I’m gonna go off on a tangent here, but it’s important, and I don’t like saying the word, but, for instance, people don’t say’ — and then he said the N-word in its entirety — ‘anymore,’ and you could just feel the room immediately tense up. And the craziest thing was they had just talked about body language, so I felt like everyone was really attuned to body language, and everyone’s body language on the panel immediately tensed up.”
“I think that he immediately regretted it,” Schulz added. “He went on for I don’t know how long it was — it felt like an eternity after that, because everyone was waiting for the answer to end, but he was trying to steer the ship back to where he was trying to go.” According to Schulz, “A woman shouted back at him, ‘Don’t say that,’ immediately after he said it.”
Mortensen’s comment follows the high-profile firing of a Netflix executive for using the N-word during a company meeting in the context of explaining why it should not be said. In June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings terminated head of corporate communications Jonathan Friedland for “unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity.”
Mortensen, who has received two best actor Oscar nominations for his roles in Eastern Promises and Captain Fantastic, is known to be outspoken liberal activist who supported Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential election.
Nov. 9, 2018, 4 p.m.: Updated to include Mahershala Ali’s statement.