'Green Book' Stars Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali Detail Meticulous Research Into Real-Life Counterparts
The actors explain why their characters' friendship evolves the way it does, while writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie and director Peter Farrelly discuss artistic license and finding "organic" funny moments in the film that tackles racism and tolerance.
[The following story contains mild spoilers from Green Book.]
Viggo Mortensen says "there's nothing off limits" when he gathers information to prepare for a part.
The same was true of his research to play the real-life Italian-American driver-turned-actor Tony "Lip" Vallelonga in Universal's Green Book, about the true friendship between Vallelonga and Dr. Don Shirley, the African-American musician he drove through the deep South on a concert tour in 1962.
Mortensen said his meticulous study incorporated "anything that somebody said about Vallelonga, anything they read about him, an image of him or a recording of him talking about Shirley, any word there, any reference to the music he listened to."
"I was just listening constantly to the music that Tony liked," he told The Hollywood Reporter at Green Book's New York City premiere earlier this month. "I immersed myself in documentation of the period with photographs, video, whatever I could find. I was fortunate to have his voice recorded talking about many things, including his trips with Doc Shirley — that was really helpful."
Mortensen also drew on Vallelonga's real-life son, Nick, who wrote the screenplay: "He was there on set and I would check with him: 'Would your dad do this? If he's eating and he's smoking, which you guys told me, he eats and smokes at the same time, in which hand or how does he hold his cigarette? Does he talk?' All these just little things that were helpful. In the end, you gotta just jump in the pool and swim, and Mahershala had to do the same thing."
Indeed, Mahershala Ali, who plays Shirley, did his own deep dive: "I had a documentary [Little Bohemia], where I saw him, that was about Carnegie Hall. From there I was able to pick up little bits and clues of information about his life and how he talked about certain things. But also I was able to pick up some of his mannerisms and get a clue into his attention to detail, his diction, his specificity, how articulate and eloquent he was. Those things were clues. His posture, gestures; I immersed myself in his music. I was kind of leaning on these stories, because there are these tapes that exist that are about 25 years old of Tony Vallelonga speaking at length. I just pulled and gathered whatever I could and also as always with any role, have to lean on my own instincts and intuition in terms of locking down the intention behind certain things. As well as piano — I had to take some piano lessons."
But while Shirley is portrayed as a virtuoso, Ali didn't have to get that good.
"I worked with [composer] Kris Bowers extensively, but it's a bit of a composite of he and I both, working on the piano," the actor explained. "My main thing with that was to be able to take those lessons and apply them to the character away from the piano and also give [director] Pete [Farrelly] as much as possible to use in the film that was purely of me and whenever he had to go to Kris, he could go to Kris, in terms of putting the film together, but the main thing with all of that is not to disrupt the experience of the film for the audience and let the music be a highlight of the film as well."
Mortensen and Ali also shared their thoughts about the evolution of Vallelonga and Shirley's friendship as shown in the film.
When the pair first embark on their journey, Ali said he is "confident that Don at first thinks Tony is a bit entertaining and almost looks at him as someone to study."
"It wasn't necessarily that he was in a situation where he had to hire this guy — he had other options," the actor explained. "It's just that Tony's personality, the way in which he pushed back to some degree, it was all very interesting to Don Shirley. So he was up for the experience of going on this journey with him."
As for when the two become friends, Mortensen said those turning-point moments come when Vallelonga is able to empathize with Shirley.
"Whenever you're able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, that's when you start to look at them differently and appreciate them in a different way," he told THR. "There's moments. There's a scene they have in a clothing store where Tony feels impotent. He can't do anything about it, but he feels like that's obviously wrong. And there's other moments along the way where they connect. They don't both arrive at exactly the same time but they arrive. And they both learn something, which is beautiful. He learns that ... 'I do have a code of ethics of a sort, and I have the ability to evolve.' And [Vallelonga realizes] that [Shirley] has very good reasons for being closed off emotionally and what looks to [him] like kind of a boring snob. … It's like anybody you spend time with. Anybody eventually understands something if your ears and eyes are open."
The film follows Vallelonga and Shirley on a two-month, fall road trip, which Green Book's writers quickly admit is an abbreviated look at how much time the pair spent on the road.
"The trip took a year," writer-producer Brian Currie told THR. "They went back on the road after Christmastime,"
But beyond that, both he and Nick Vallelonga insist that it's all true.
"Every single event in this movie actually happened, from Robert F. Kennedy making the call — everything was real," Currie said. "I've known Tony Lip for 25 years. I've heard the stories. They're all true. This is a true story."
Added Nick Vallelonga, "It all happened. We did move some things. We combined some things. The timetable was actually about a year and a half long, but we compressed it into this small time frame. The creative license that we took was really only to connect some dots."
Part of the truth that ended up on the big screen was some of the funny moments in the film directed by comedy veteran Farrelly, who tried to keep the humor real.
"I stuck to the Andy Griffith rules, from The Andy Griffith Show, which was don't ever go for the joke, no jokes, let all of the humor come out of the characters," Farrelly said. "Honestly, that's what we did. There were a lot of opportunities to just get jokey, and we did not do that. But there are still a ton of laughs in here because they're just organic, natural laughs of having these two guys in a car together."
Nick Vallelonga says the humorous scenes are a testament to Farrelly, Mortensen and Ali: "Some of it was in the script, right out of my father's mouth. But obviously, when you have a comedic genius like Peter Farrelly, combined with these amazing actors who were never known for their comedy, their chemistry was so amazing, so what they brought to it when Pete was directing — I think the humor helps. It helps to get through the hard truths of the racism and all that."