The Reel Breakdown

Viggo Mortensen Reveals How He Became Freud in ‘A Dangerous Method’

The Reel Breakdown

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Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen in 'A Dangerous Method' (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Fresh from his Golden Globe supporting actor nomination for playing the proud papa of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, "A Dangerous Method" star Viggo Mortensen, 53, talked exclusively to Yahoo! Movies about brilliant thinkers — Freud, Carl Jung and director David Cronenberg — and his A-list co-stars Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley.

Thelma Adams: At the movie's core is a mentor/pupil, father/son relationship between Freud and Jung. You've now made three movies with Cronenberg — "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" and, now, "A Dangerous Method." Is there a parallel?

Viggo Mortensen: To some degree it's similar in the sense that, to start with, Jung and Freud had a great deal of affection for each other. With David, our friendship is first and foremost: respecting and liking, and a similar sense of humor. I've learned a lot and stretched with him. In "Eastern Promises," he asked a lot of me and I asked a lot of myself.

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TA: And with Freud, is there more scrutiny because it's a historical character whose reputation precedes him?

VG: Freud was even more of a stretch. And, as for my friendship with David, at least so far we haven't had the oedipal thing that was played out by Jung and Freud. We get along and hopefully we'll continue to do so.

TA: Do you have any plans to collaborate again?

VG: David always has a couple of things cooking. One possibility is to do a sequel to "Eastern Promises." The end left you wondering what would happen to my character now in that criminal London subculture. It was an ending that asks for, or allows for, a sequel like the "Godfather," like Michael Corleone. What will happen next? I'm not a fan of sequels, although "Godfather 2" was as good as the original, maybe somewhat better. With David you can count on something interesting. He's never done a sequel before. It's not like with Woody Allen where he gets to do a movie every single year.

TA: That may not be a bad thing — some times I wish that Allen would take a year off and meditate.

VG: David challenges himself. His subject matter and shooting style varies. He doesn't look back. People like to compartmentalize him, but he's very clever about dancing out of it. He'd be as happy as any of us who admire his work if he were nominated for an Oscar. But, unlike a lot of name veterans, that seem to calcify a bit, or repeat themselves, or play to a persona and make less and less interesting movies, he makes more interesting choices.

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TA: And how does that feel to an actor in his movies.

VG: When you work with him the excitement is contagious. You feel like you're with a recently graduated film student who is absolutely brilliant. He acts like a kid about shooting every day. It helps you feel excited about it too.

TA: And how did this flow over into "A Dangerous Method," a period piece set in Europe about the friendship, and ultimate falling out, of Freud and Jung. Cronenberg told "Filmmaker" magazine that he was looking to "resurrect" those historical figures as flesh and blood.

VG: I did go along with an attempt to not caricature, not to make some abstraction but to bring back to life Freud and Jung, in their 50s and 30s. In this case this was as thorough, as accurate and meticulous as Merchant Ivory, for example, and because of that some people said "It's not a Cronenberg movie." But he shot it. He made it his.

TA: And it's in not prissy in addressing Cronenberg's recurrent themes of flesh, addiction and psychological transformation.

VG: Whatever David's ideas about psychoanalysis, it's not an ideological movie. It's historically and academically sound. For some people, if they don't know better, it's probably a dull thing. But it's actually a dramatically interesting, tragic story of a friendship, an intellectual ménage a trois. With the main character of Carl Jung, played by Fassbender, and the hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein by Keira, at heart "A Dangerous Method" is a tragic playing out of a great friendship that falls apart between two men. There are very universal themes -- ambition, jealousy, inferiority, insecurity. It's dramatically interesting and sometimes sad and sometimes amusing

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TA: Were you surprised that Cronenberg wanted you to play Freud?

VG: Once I said yes, I was surprised that he wanted me to play that. He had wanted me before, but I had been rehearsing the Ariel Dorfman play...

TA: "Purgatorio," that you're now performing in Madrid, Spain.

VG: Yes. But then, I had to leave the project, illness my family, my mom. I wasn't able to work for most of that year. I was surprised when David called. He went on and cast it, and eventually settled on Christoph Waltz for Freud. But, on the heels of attention on "Inglourious Basterds"...

TA: Waltz dropped out, right?

VG: That left them without a Freud. David called: "Can you do it?"

TA: And suddenly you could.

VG: I had a little gap of time. Are you sure I'm the right guy? "Of course," David said, "I take pride in casting my movies well. I would never ask you to do a favor for a friend." We talked for hours, and wrote hundreds of emails, about how I was going to physically approximate him. I have blue eyes, a different nose. I even went to brown eyes. Even though Montgomery Clift played Freud for John Huston with blue...

TA: In "Freud: The Secret Passion." And why were the eyes so important?

VG: Freud had a piercing gaze. So, I wore lenses, changed my hairline, beard, and gained weight. In his fifties still healthy and robust he loved to drink wine, loved to eat food.

TA: The image we often have is from the end of his life, when he was ill with cancer.

VG: Yes. I had an idea about him as a slight old man with white hair and glasses and not someone who you could say was robust or had an appetite for life. But, before that, he was described by his contemporaries as socially gregarious, with a strong voice, a generous big family guy who was very outgoing with quite a good sense of dry humor. He even cracked a smile! I found the things he liked to read for pleasure Oscar Wilde, humor, wordplay — it was all news for me.

TA: And did that give you a way in to the man himself?

VG: Once I figured out how I could get some irony into his speech, his tone, the way he listened, the way he watched people when he spoke to see how they reacted: That was a way in. It helped create a contrast between Jung and Freud. The main reason for their falling out — besides pride and insecurity and ambition on both parts — had to do with their upbringing.

TA: Did you research heavily?

VG: It was an interesting process. I went to Vienna and found Freud's books and worked really hard to smoke and hold cigars right. I shared all that with David. I don't know any other director — there were thirty or forty emails about cigars alone — the preparation, the music he listened to, and then to do the job, it's all in there as inspiration. I found Keira worked that way, too. We were very similar in the way we prepared. The process of preparation is the thing I take with me in the end, that means the most, and that I enjoy the most. And, with David, you have the knowledge that as enjoyable as the process is, I'll be as proud to watch the movie.

TA: And what did you think about Fassbender, who just got a Golden Globe nomination for his "Shame" sexaholic?

VG: I didn't know Michael Fassbender until I got there. I met him just before we started shooting. He was very observant and focused and he was also fun to be around. His process was more about studying the script thoroughly. He read it hundreds of time, finding the rhythms in the actual text. It goes to show you there are an infinite number of ways to skin a cat.

TA: And then you have a skinned cat. What was Michael like on set?

VG: I remember a funny moment. It had to do with our playful approach to work. There was a scene in my study and Jung is sitting in a chair. I offered him a cigar and he said no, he smoked pipes. He had coffee and cookies, as Jung had an oral fixation. He was always eating. Freud collected phallic art. I was gradually moving these phallic pieces closer to Jung's coffee cup. It wasn't until his saucer was completely ringed by these penises, that he realized when he put his cup down — "What is this?" Michael looked around — he thought it was the art department.

TA: Well, Freud did originate the term penis envy, so it's historically accurate.

VG: We also had a lot of fun singing duets. In Belvedere Gardens where Freud did take his walks, and then you see him in the end, in his morning walk, we were singing at the top of our lungs, which surprised the public and some of the journalists. He has a good singing voice and I did harmony. In Belvedere, we sang that song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," including all the high notes, which Michael hit really well.

TA: With all this bromance, did Keira feel left out?

VG: Keira was a prankster. We had a good time. Mike and I tried to gang up against her, but she took us apart very quickly, in a ladylike way.

Watch Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud in a scene from 'A Dangerous Method':

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