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"Most scripts and most movies are pretty bad"

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Viggo Mortensen on the state of the film industry and a love of Sixties style

Your new film, The Two Faces Of January, was shot in spectacular locations. Did you get to spend much time in places such as Greece and Turkey?

Crete was the place we were in longest, with the seaside village and the mountains. We were only in Athens for two days – we had to move very fast there because of the tourists and demonstrations going on, so it was a little tricky.

Were the locations part of the film’s appeal for you?

Yeah, in a way. Although, when you’re going to do a movie, especially before you get your bearings, you’re more nervous than anything. And while you can see that you might be in some beautiful places, it doesn’t really matter where you are until you get comfortable. But once you do, it’s beautiful. It often happens that when you have fun on a shoot, the movie might not turn out that well, but in this case we had the best of both worlds.

Your character’s very dapper. Was it tough spending all day in smart suits when you were filming in serious heat?

The stuff we started filming at first was the stuff where Chester [Mortensen’s character] was starting to unravel – he was starting to drink more, he was sweaty and kind of all over the place. So it was helpful, because it was still hot in Crete at that time – it worked well for that crumpled, dishevelled look.

Did you enjoy wearing the Sixties gear?

I loved it. In that period [the Sixties, during which the film is set], there was a different mindset – even if men were crooks like Chester, appearance was directly connected to a sense of pride and dignity. When you see photographs from the Depression era, even people who were unemployed or were factory workers – if they had one suit or one jacket, they wore it, even if it was rumpled. Your appearance was important. And if you didn’t have an iron? I suppose you’d put your trousers under your mattress. There’s a scene in the film where Chester behaves really badly and gets really drunk, and the next morning, by the time he’s gone to buy a doughnut to bring to his wife as a peace offering, he’s pulled himself together as best he can because that’s important to him. It’s not a scam, it’s just the way he was raised and the way men looked at themselves in that time.

Did you take any keepsakes from the set?

Books – it’s not the first time I’ve done that. I did some research and thought carefully about what books Chester would be reading. He’s a self-made man and an autodidact – someone who probably didn’t finish high school, but the persona he’s adopted in order to take people’s money is someone who’s cultured and has a lot of knowledge about all sorts of things. Most of the books you see in Chester’s briefcase and the books you see him reading, those are books that I found, and I kept an old Hemingway edition.

Have you found that the roles you’re offered tend to get more interesting and complex as you grow older?

From the beginning of movies being made – not just in Hollywood, everywhere – every year, most of the scripts and most of the movies are pretty bad. That’s just the way it is. It’s hard to make a good movie. I’m not aware of better or worse roles. Men and women can rightfully complain as they get older that there just aren’t as many roles around for them; certainly most lead roles are younger, but there’s always something to do. There’s always a good role lying around there somewhere, you have to just go after it; you can’t just sit back and hope it comes to you. When I do have the good luck of someone I like sending me a script, I read it carefully and then I ask them questions: “How are you going to do this?” With [The Two Faces Of January], which is a film based on a [Patricia] Highsmith story and filmed in different locations, you have to realise that people have seen that before [The Talented Mr Ripley]. So you ask “What’s your take on it, how are you going to do it?”

Your co-star in the film, Oscar Isaac, was fresh from shooting Inside Llewyn Davis. Was he regaling the cast with folk tunes on set?

He was still singing those songs. A friend of Oscar’s, Garrett Hedlund – who is Kirsten Dunst’s boyfriend and who I worked with in On The Road – visited the [The Two Faces Of January] set, and he and Oscar would sing together. Garrett’s a good country and western singer. He’s a Midwestern boy from Minnesota. Oscar had some kind of instrument he got in Greece, similar to a mandolin. He was playing that.

Presumably he didn’t bring the Inside Llewyn Davis cat with him, too…

Didn’t bring the cat. I don’t think he much liked that cat.

The Two Faces Of January is at cinemas nationwide from 16 May

(Image: All Star)

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