Viggo Mortensen is not the sort of actor you expect to be riddled with doubts.
He comes with a reputation as a serious method actor type, but the confidence he exudes on screen was rattled when he was first approached to play Sigmund Freud.
The 53-year-old admits he had major doubts about playing the father of psychoanalysis in A Dangerous Method, but director David Cronenberg’s, who he worked with on Eastern Promises and A History Of Violence, talked him round.
“I had some reservations that I wasn’t the best actor for the part, I thought it would be a bit of a leap,” he says, in his softly-spoken drawl. “If another director had asked me to play the part, I might not have, but I’m glad I did, I learned a lot about Freud and early 20th-century Vienna.”
The film tells the story of Freud’s friendship with psychologist Carl Jung, and its breakdown when Jung rejects his mentor’s theories.Mortensen’s approach to acting is all-consuming. For his role as a father in post-apocalyptic film The Road, he shed pounds and spent time with the homeless. To get under Freud’s skin, he hung out in Viennese antiques shops, leafing through the kind of books that would have been in his library, and learning all about cigars.
“He smoked at least 20 of those big cigars every day, from morning ’til night,” says Mortensen. “If you look at photographs and the very few bits of video there are of him, he’s almost never without one, whether he’s there with his child, or studying, reading, or writing – always his cigar is close at hand.
“I like to amass a whole bunch of research, because it gives you a feeling for the world you’re going to inhabit.”
It’s this depth of research that makes Mortensen such an appealing actor to director Cronenberg, who wanted no one else for Freud.
“I love Viggo for the way he prepares,” he says. It’s not method acting, he never brings that stuff on the set or makes people acknowledge it, it’s just the way he works. And I find it very congenial because it’s very similar to the way I work.
“We exchanged about 25 emails just about Freud’s cigars, which ones they would be, how many did he smoke a day, did he vary the kind they were, what shape were they, that sort of thing. But you don’t do an actor a favour by miscasting him, and as much as I love him, if I hadn’t thought he was the best guy to play Sigmund Freud at the age of 50, which is not the 80-year-old frail grandfatherly guy we think we know, I wouldn’t have cast him.”
A Dangerous Method revolves around three central characters, but is mostly told from the point of view of Carl Jung, some 20 years Freud’s junior. Jung befriended Freud in 1907, partly to discuss his young female patient Sabina Spielrein. On their first meeting, the pair talked constantly for 13 hours. For Mortensen it was a big change from his previous action roles.
“The characters speak so much and it’s not often you get to do that in one of David’s films. For once he couldn’t tell me to shut up, I had to speak,” he says.
As a counterpoint to all the talking, there are some eye-opening scenes in which Keira Knightley, playing the initially hysterical Sabina, who embarks on an impassioned love affair with the married Jung (played by Michael Fassbender, is whipped by Mortensen.
The true story of their relationship was originally written as a screenplay 17 years ago for Julia Roberts, subsequently turned into a play, The Talking Cure, starring Ralph Fiennes as Jung, and finally deemed ripe for adaptation by Cronenberg, whose first ever short film was about a psychiatrist and his patient.
“It wasn’t surprising he wanted to take on Jung and Freud,” says Mortensen. “Yes it was quite a different script for him to work with, but in a sense the ideas behind it, the personality disorders, the preoccupation with mind and body, you see in his previous movies. A lot of directors who are well-known and have a good reputation seem to take less chances to challenge themselves, and he’s the opposite. The more he learns, the more he evolves as a film-maker.
“Shortly after Freud’s death, the New York Times said that he was the most effective disturber of complacency of his time and I would say David’s right up there.”
Although Oscar-nominated for his role as a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, Mortensen is still best known for his 2001 breakthrough as warrior king Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings. Ten years on, he still approaches roles in much the same.
“People asked me if I felt a big responsibility playing Aragorn. No, I’m just playing this character, I’m trying to find out as much as I can about it, so I don’t make an ass of myself, basically, and the same goes for Freud.”
Rather than feeling daunted, the actor revelled in Freud’s intelligence and “wicked sense of humour”.
“Vienna was very straight-laced, the censorship laws were very strict and Freud appreciated wordplay and wit. His favourite writers were Viennese humorists who got around censorship laws by being clever, making jokes that people didn’t realise were jokes.”
Less of a challenge was seeing himself being aged into his sixties. “I think I obviously hopped right over the mid-life crisis,” laughs the actor, who has a 24-year-old son, Henry, with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka. “The night before my last birthday, a good friend called me and said ‘Congratulations’ and I said, ‘For what?’. I tend not to mark time that way so much.”
Acting is, he feels, about having fun. “It’s not an excuse to behave badly, but it’s basically similar to what we all do when we’re children – make believe. As an adult you can’t suddenly dress up like a pirate and go running down the street. Kids do that quite easily, they can imagine being many different kinds of people and that’s what you do as an actor ideally.
“No matter how serious the movie, it’s worthwhile remembering that it’s play.”
A Dangerous Method is on general release from February 10.
Freud and Jung: A meeting of minds
1906: Sigmund Freud, in Vienna, began writing to a young Zurich-based psychiatrist called Carl Gustav Jung.
1907: The pair finally met and talked for 13 hours. Over the next few years, Freud believed he’d found his longed-for successor.
1909: They travelled to the US to spread the news about psychoanalysis.
1912: Tensions between the two were mounting and Jung felt slighted when Freud visited another colleague in Zurich, but not him.
1913: They met for the last time in Munich at the Fourth International Psychoanalytical Congress.