'Green Book' Star Viggo Mortensen on Prepping His Directorial Debut With 'Falling'

Austin Hargrave

The three-time Oscar nominee also reveals audiences believe he actually has Italian ancestry after seeing him play Tony Lip in Peter Farrelly's film: "[It's] the highest compliment I could receive for my work."

In bringing Tony Lip to life in Peter Farrelly's Green Book, Viggo Mortensen, 60, has had audiences wondering whether he has Italian ancestry himself. "I have had quite a few Italian-Americans ask me, 'Are you sure you're not Italian?'— which is the highest compliment I could receive for my work," he says. Nominated for his third Oscar, Mortensen is in the midst of prepping for his feature directorial debut, Falling, in Toronto.

Do you remember first meeting Mahershala Ali?

It was at the 2017 Film Independent Awards brunch in Los Angeles. We had a good conversation, probably a good half-hour. That is quite a long time to have a one-on-one, relaxed conversation with someone in the thick of a room packed with movie-business people.

How did you two foster such chemistry for the film?

We communicated with each other and with Peter Farrelly quite a bit via email and phone in the months prior to heading down to Louisiana for the shoot. In New Orleans we got together with Pete for a couple of days to carefully go over every aspect of the script to make sure we were all comfortable with the story and the way our characters were represented. I think the reason we connected so well from the first day of shooting was that we were both open to what the other actor was doing and saying, leaving room for each other's work to inform our individual behavior from the start.

How did Mahershala's performance inform your own?

Mahershala is a subtle and meticulous actor, an artist whose approach mirrors the way I like to tackle the work of constructing and manifesting a character. We are both, each in our way, perfectionists, wanting to get the most out of every shared moment. It was a joyful and rewarding challenge to play scenes with him.

As the script is co-written by Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, what was the key piece of advice he gave you that made you tune into the character? Was it surreal bringing him to life onscreen via the words of his son?

Nick is the one that brought the story of Don Shirley and Tony Lip on the road to Pete Farrelly and Brian Currie. He provided us with audio tapes and some video footage of both Tony and Don, as well as his personal recollections of the two men’s interactions. He also introduced me and Linda Cardellini, who plays Tony’s wife, Dolores, to the rest of the Vallelonga family. The Vallelongas were extremely generous, sharing their memories, photographs, and feelings about the people we were going to play. I was able to spend time with family members in New York and New Jersey, which helped me a great deal with my preparation.

What has been the most rewarding reaction you’ve received about your performance?

I have had quite a few Italian-Americans ask me, "Are you sure you're not Italian?" — which is the highest compliment I could receive for my work in Green Book. All of us involved in the production have had many people from all across the country tell us that they were very moved by the story and its characters. People also liked Captain Fantastic, the previous movie I worked on, a great deal, but I can't recall a more uniformly passionate reaction to a movie I was involved in since the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released.

Was there a scene from the film that you wish you could relive, that you really enjoyed performing?

There are so many scenes that I loved playing in — it would be difficult to select just one! I’m very happy with the way Pete and his editor, Patrick J. Don Vito, put the story together in the end. It is a beautifully constructed and paced movie, one that grows stronger and more layered with each passing scene. It is very difficult to achieve the right combination of engaging drama and classic comedy the way Peter Farrelly did. In my opinion, he has, with Green Book, turned upside-down our preconceived ideas as to his artistic potential, instantly putting himself in the same league as Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder.

What movies did you enjoy this season?

This has been a remarkable year for movies. Among the many fine stories I have seen, some that stand out for me are The Rider, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Guilty, Cold War, Capernaum and Boots Riley's thoroughly original Sorry to Bother You.

What are you looking forward to at this year's Oscars?

I fervently hope to see Peter Farrelly onstage giving an acceptance speech.

You're prepping your directorial debut. When did you become interested in directing?

It is something I've been thinking about since the mid-'90s, when I nearly got a movie project I hoped to direct partially financed. Once I began working more steadily as an actor, however — and also in other fields such as writing, publishing, painting and photography — directing was a dream I put on the back burner. In the past few years I've written a couple of other scripts and tried steadily to raise the money to make them into movies. Falling is a story that I've been able to raise just enough money to shoot and is one that feels urgent and personal.

Will you be starring in Falling as well?

I will be playing one of the principal roles, yes.

A version of this story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.