Viggo Mortensen met Lance Henriksen when he shot him dead. Mortensen, the star of The Lord of the Rings and a three-time Oscar nominee for best actor, took on the older actor, a veteran of more than 200 films, including Aliens and The Terminator, in the 2008 western Appaloosa.
“There were so many bullets flying; I don’t think anyone can take credit for killing me, ”smiles Henriksen, his voice honeyed but sweet. While we wait for Mortensen to join our video call, he says he’s on top today. “I turned 80. But I don’t feel 80.” Then abruptly changes the subject. “I can’t tell you how much my Falling life has changed,” he says.
Falling, Mortensen’s debut as a screenwriter and director, provides Henriksen with the most substantial role of his career. He plays Willis, an elderly farmer whose insanity doesn’t bring out the worst in him, but takes his lifelong rage to an unruly new level. The test for Willis’s son John (Mortensen), who has a husband and young daughter, is how to extend compassion to a man who has rarely expressed his own.
Henriksen’s distinctive features have haunted movie screens for almost half a century: that drawn face, those bulging eyes in their deep sockets, the high forehead, and the prim lips. His first paid gig was as a prison yard extra on The American, a 1960 television special with Lee Marvin. “I was also in jail at the time for loitering. They paid me $ 5 and I said to the guard, ‘I’m not a bum anymore!’ ”. He even asked Marvin to get him out of jail. “He looked at me, like, ‘Keep that thought,’ and he walked away. Hahaha!”
He has led an amazing life. When he was a young waiter in an oversized tuxedo, he once served John F Kennedy; he became friends with François Truffaut when they appeared together in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; In addition to Steven Spielberg, he has worked with such titans as Sidney Lumet, Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron and John Woo. But he’s never had a role like Willis. “I was wondering if I was good enough to pull it off. I didn’t want to get caught acting. “
At that moment, Mortensen appears on the screen from his home in Madrid – “Hey, there he is!” Henriksen cheerfully yells and delves into explaining why he chose this lead. “Lance’s presence can be quite intimidating,” says the 62-year-old in his cool, soothing tone. “If he’s not smiling, it’s like you’re looking at a wolf that might eat you. But he’s also really honest. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scene from a genre movie, it’s always believable. “
Henriksen chimes in: “I started out being a shitty actor,” he says. I tell him that I I disagree, brandishing as evidence my Blu-ray copy of Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet’s sweaty 1975 masterpiece of a failed bank robbery, in which he plays a vital role in the capture of the hapless Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale). “That was my first movie!” he says delightedly, as if greeting an old friend. Indeed. But why did he have to go kill poor Sal? “Ah, I expected it,” he laughs.
Says a lot of bad things in Falling. When asked if any of that made him stop, he admits that he felt rotten ripping the strips off his co-star Terry Chen, who plays his son-in-law. Mortensen also recalls that he was repeatedly unable to make eye contact with Laura Linney, who plays his daughter, during a scene of profane dialogue. Do you remember that, Lance? You looked like an embarrassed eight-year-old. Laura told you, ‘I’m a tough girl, I can take it.’
Then came the day that David Cronenberg, who directed Mortensen on A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method, stopped for a cameo as Willis’s colorectal surgeon. “I didn’t realize who it was,” says Henriksen. “What did you think of him as a proctologist?” Mortensen asks. “He really liked his job,” he replies. “Too much, maybe!” Months later, the penny fell. “I told Viggo: ‘I saw you in an interview with the proctologist!’ I wish I had known it was Cronenberg; I could have done shit to him. “The couple laugh happily together.
Although Mortensen’s late father had dementia, the film is not expressly a portrait of him. “He was a much better communicator than Willis and we had a better relationship. But there are enough traces of him in what Lance plays, snippets of conversations that we had, some difficult moments, that I was constantly moving to see him. “
He was determined to be honest about the disease. “Movies that deal with this topic usually show someone confused. My experience is that this is not the case, it is the watching the person who gets confused. Memory is subjective anyway. Why is their present less valid than yours? If your father is saying that he had breakfast with someone you know has been dead for 30 years, don’t say, ‘He died years ago,’ say, ‘What did you guys eat?’ On some ethical level, you think, ‘I’m lying, I’m lying.’ But you are giving something that makes them feel good. It’s not about you. “
This reminds Henriksen of the time he worked in a retirement home, where he took it upon himself to write to residents who never got a job. “He would put a letter in their mailbox to encourage them. You should have seen the difference! They were pacing the hall. It was good for an actor. “
“It was also a generous what to do, ”says Mortensen. Henriksen reflects on this. “The best decisions in my life were things that made other people happy,” he says.
I take you back to your earlier comment: what did you mean when you said you didn’t want to be “caught acting” while playing Willis? “I wanted to live it,” he says. “I knew I would have to come back with a lucid look at how my parents behaved with me. I had a very tough childhood. They beat me a lot. Different people, relatives. I remember every face of my childhood. My alcoholic uncles, whoever. I’m not having a pity party here; I am not Quasimodo. This is how it was. “
Mortensen learned of Henriksen’s childhood during the years when they expected funding for the film to join. “We worked on the script at his house and he would tell me these stories that were like the hardest parts of Dickens.” Once, Henriksen’s mother, an alcoholic who lived with her fourth or fifth husband, had pressed her birth certificate into her hand and said, “You will always know who you are.” Then he pushed him into the night; He was no more than seven years old at the time. “Lance, I told you it was amazing that you were so forgiving. And you said, ‘It took me a long time to get there. He’d been through that shit once before, so why would he want to be caught up in it? ‘”
Henriksen takes up the story. “When I was 12, I left home. I mean, Really left. I left them, had had enough, and started working to become a man. I rode freight trains, hitchhiked; I even worked in a mine operating a drill. At 12! Nobody gave a shit. But the fire of all the isolation, neglect, and hunger never really left me. “Acting gave her a belated sense of comfort and family.” I found all these people who were fighting for some form of authenticity, romance, adventure. Everything. That good shit healed me in so many ways. “ Facing Falling meant reopening old wounds. “I wanted to do it. But I knew that some days it would be difficult to sled.”
Mortensen has heard all of this before, but listens carefully. There is no indication that the two men are about to exhaust their fascination for each other; our allotted 40 minutes have been extended to almost double that length and they will be using Skype together once the interview is over. (“I have to get out first or the dog is going to pee on the floor!” Says Mortensen). Nor has the director tired of praising his actor. “You gave so much more than I could have hoped for, Lance.” Henriksen seems visibly moved. “We did it,” he gasps. “We won the damn Superbowl!”
Falling launches in the UK on December 4
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