Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Mortensen finds plenty to learn in 'The Road'

Charles Ealy
The Weinstein Co. As they struggle to survive in the debris of civilization, both the father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) have things to teach each other along 'The Road.'

Viggo Mortensen has been a longtime admirer of novelist Cormac McCarthy, so when he received the script for the movie adaptation of McCarthy's "The Road," he says he jumped at the chance to play the character known only as the Man.

"I talked to McCarthy on the phone before we started filming," Mortensen says in a recent telephone interview, discussing his role as a father who sets out on a journey with his son in a post-apocalyptic world. "We talked about how the book is really about being a dad. And he came to the set in Oregon for the filming of the scene where I swim out to sea, headed for a boat, in search of food."

After meeting the author, Mortensen says, he came away with the impression that McCarthy is "quite thoughtful, although he plays his cards close to the vest. He's a realist, and his books have an interesting balance of scientific knowledge and meticulous description, while still being very much poetic."

Mortensen says it was interesting "to see him interact with his son," whom McCarthy brought to the set. "The boy called him 'papa,' just like in the book."

The vast majority of the new movie, which opened Wednesday, centers on the bond between a father and a son (a character simply known as the Boy), played by Australian newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee.

"There's no shortcut for establishing the bond between the father and son on screen," Mortensen says. But the actor says he and Smit-McPhee established an early rapport. It came when the Man dips the Boy's head into a near-freezing stream, trying to wash away the gore that splattered onto his head during the shooting of a roving cannibal.

"That scene turned out to be a milestone," Mortensen says. "We filmed it early on. Kodi is from Southern Australia and had never even seen snow. And when I dipped his head into that cold water, his raw emotion came out. It was very real, and I felt more protective than usual.

"Even though he started to cry from the shock of the cold, I could see in his eyes that he was still in character and that he was willing to continue. \u2026 So he hugged me tight as I washed his head, and the director didn't interfere. The scene turned out to unexpectedly push us closer together."

Mortensen says that the filming of the movie brought back memories of his own son, Henry, who was born in the 1980s while Mortensen was married to the singer and actress Exene Cervenka.

"When you have a son, you have this feeling of affection and commitment, and that's a beautiful thing," Mortensen says. "But then the child approaches adolescence. And all parents experience the moment where the child realizes that the parent isn't God, that they're flawed, that they don't always walk the talk."

That's what happens in "The Road" as well. The Boy begins to understand that the Man has become hardened by all the horrors along their journey. The father might refer to himself and his son as the "good guys," but his reactions to strangers along the journey raise questions about just how "good" he is.

"I guess you could say the father has lost his way," Mortensen says. "And when the Boy realizes that, he doesn't become sad. He becomes righteous. He reaches a milestone, and when the father wonders aloud if there is any hope, the boy comes into his own and said, "I am the one.' "

In the end, Mortensen says he thinks his character "comes to an acceptance, just accepts that he doesn't know what life has in store. But he begins to understand from his son that it has to do with how you behave in life. The compassion, the kindness."

One of the lessons Mortensen says he took from "The Road" was this: "You can always afford to be nice. There's a quote I really like from Eleanor Roosevelt. And it's really a question. 'When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?' "

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931