“A Dangerous Method” is the third movie that actor Viggo Mortensen has done with director David Cronenberg — and it is very different from their previous collaborations. In Mortensen’s first two movies together with Cronenberg (2005’s “A History of Violence” and 2007’s “Eastern Promises”), Mortensen played strong, silent, humorless types in fictional stories about violent crime. In “A Dangerous Method,” Mortensen plays renowned psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, a talkative intellectual with a sardonic sense of humor a biographical story about the early years of psychoanalysis.
“A Dangerous Method” takes place in the early 1900s, and it explores the intertwined relationships between Freud; his protégé Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender); and Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley), who goes from being Jung’s patient to being Jung’s apprentice/mistress in a consensual sadomasochistic affair. I sat down with Mortensen for an interview the day after “A Dangerous Method” has its North American premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. In this interview, Mortensen talked about working with Cronenberg again and what it was like to show another side of Freud in this dramatic story that is based on real events.
You initially turned down David Cronenberg’s offer to be Sigmund Freud in “A Dangerous Method,” so Christoph Waltz was cast instead. When Chistoph Waltz dropped out of the movie, you changed your mind, and you took the role. Why did you change your mind?
If [David Cronenberg] feels that strongly about it, and he’s coming back to me a second time, and saying, “You are my first choice for it,” not because we worked together, but “I just think you would understand the character and so forth,” if he’s saying it, there must be something to it. As soon as I started researching, I understood what he was saying. And I started to get into a groove, especially for the character’s sense of humor.
One thing is the physical aspect of the character— and that’s something we can work on, which we did. Understanding the kind of person [Sigmund Freud] was, the more I read about him, the more I understood what David was saying. That ironic tone and his style of conversation, it’s not unlike conversations on other subjects with David: these conversations you see in the movie. Just on a technical level, as an actor, it was a new sort of challenge — at first daunting, but then I really liked it. The language was having a character that spoke as much.
I don’t usually get to play characters like that. Usually, the characters I play, including for David, are men of few words, who communicate largely in non-verbal ways. We all communicate in non-verbal ways, including Freud, but he really uses words to manipulate, seduce, attack, defend, evade. That was really fun once I got the hang of it and comfortable with the great dialogue that [“A Dangerous Method” screenwriter] Christopher Hampton wrote. It was a lot of fun.
A lot of time that happens though. The thing that seems like the biggest challenge and “This is not going to work and I don’t know how to do it,” once you crack it, and you’re comfortable, it ends up being more enjoyable than things that come easier, I think.
Is there something that you discovered in your research that was a big influence in your performance in “A Dangerous Method”?
Well, a lot of times, when you’re looking really hard for something, as I say, it’s right under your nose many times. And I did tons of research and shared it with David. And he did tons of research. We enjoyed all of that, but the first or second day of shooting, I’ve got to be honest, the very significant part of what I was chasing after was right in front of me — and it was David, because his sense of humor and his wit and his intelligent conversation are not very different from Freud’s at all, from the Freud that I learned about in research.
It’s not like I thought, “Wow, I didn’t have to do all that research,” but it kind of was the icing on the cake. And then I started looking at him differently, and I found him even more amusing than before. “What would David do?” It seemed to fit really well.
Sigmund Freud was Jewish, so how much of a role do you think his religion played into how much he feared being ostracized?
A huge one. At the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in Austria, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in Austria was much more pervasive than in Germany. And Austrians took to Nazi ideas and anti-Semitism much more readily than Germans did, really. It was there for the taking.
He grew up in that atmosphere and also in a very repressive atmosphere in general — not just about sex, but just free-thinking. There were very strict censorship laws in the 19th century in Vienna. And one of the roots of his wit and his ironic tone in conversation that you see in the movie is a self-defense mechanism, a way of getting around censorship and anti-Semitism. It’s a defense mechanism: our way of speaking about something without naming it, using word play to get around it.
Apart from liking Goethe and reading Nietzsche, a lot of authors he was aware of and he was into (and the academic, more scientific, like Darwin), for enjoyment, he read the work of humorists. He liked to go to plays. One of his favorites was one of the prolific humorists in Vienna in the 19th century: a man named [Johann] Nestroy. He wrote around 80 plays between the 1830s and the 1850s. His greatest talent was word play.
We’d use dialects. He would speak a thing without ever naming it and somehow get around the censorship laws. He’d fly right in the face of all these laws and present these plays in Vienna, and people loved it. They knew exactly what he was saying, but they couldn’t pin him down because he wasn’t saying it. He was just referring to it. I think he appreciated that.
That had a lot to do with it, when I say “wit” instead of “humor,” it was because it was a sense of wit more than humor, because when someone cracks jokes, it has a sense of humor. You’re secure in who you are, and you’re just making jokes about life.
Wit is a bit sharper. It’s sort of weapon; it’s more of a defense. And it has a lot to do with his upbringing. One of the things you see in the movie is — and it stems from their upbringing — he’s a very different man, in terms of personality, from [Carl] Jung. Jung was a little more … I don’t know if it was because of his pastoral background — small town, son of a Christian pastor, a preacher’s son — [it made him] a very different person [than Freud].
Freud was the son of a Jewish merchant, who had to move his whole family to Vienna because he couldn’t get work. He, as a boy, watched his father be mocked and abused on the street for being Jewish. He just grew up in that. You develop a thick skin, and you develop a certain kind of wit to defend yourself, especially if you have no other means — physical or money or whatever — to protect yourself. You have to be quick on your feet mentally, and he learned that from an early age.
When you see [Jung and Freud] speaking, at first it’s charming to see how they are different. One is an urbane, Jewish intellectual. The other is an Aryan, Christian intellectual, a younger man who’s different physically. It’s fun to watch this difference but also the root of their problems later on. In the movie, I think get that across.
Their ideas aren’t so vastly different. If you look at Freud’s study, it is full of books about mythology. He had these interests. It’s just a question of “How do you present things?”
In this book, they didn’t understand each other. They spoke many words, and often didn’t speak about what they really thought and what they really felt. And the more there was a conflict in the relationship, the more they spoke and the less they said. It was interesting.
What Freud would say to Jung in the movie, to anybody else, he would make a joke without smiling, and if nobody got it, he would just continue. He wouldn’t even bother [to explain it] “If you get it, that’s what we have in common. If not, on you go.” And that was part of weaving, dodging all the time.
There’s one thing I said in the movie as an improv, but we didn’t use it: One time at a conference, all these colleagues had spoken, read their papers, hours of scientific minds [talking]. And when it came time for him to sum up things or give his speech, he said, “Well, a great many words have spoken today. They were so clever that I haven’t understood a single one.” And then he would go on to present.
Or he would say things like, “Well, as all of you know, as we all understand it …” He would include people, and then he would present some completely-out-of-left-field idea that they never thought of, but he would include people so that they thought it was their idea as well, which was good an generous, but it was also very calculating. It was like, “I want to get people on my side. I want to expand the moment based on my ideas.”
He was a complicated man, but a lot more interesting and a lot funnier than I had realized. When I started studying him, I thought he was an old, white-haired, frail, rigid, formal person, but those images of him are when he was quite a bit older, sickly, with cancer, his last 10, 15 years. And just this perception, what people have said about him, mostly people who don’t like his ideas or understand him will say, “Well, he’s just a fuddy-duddy and very rigid and inflexible.” And actually, the opposite was true: He was warm and engaging and fluid socially.
What would you ask Sigmund Freud if you could?
The same thing that I ask David when I haven’t seen him for a while: “What have you been up to lately? What have you been reading?” Like a really good friend you share interests with.
Because Carl Jung was married to wealthy woman, he had more money than Sigmund Freud. What do you think that did to Freud psychologically: to be a mentor someone who could afford to do more things than Freud could?
As far as the class thing and growing up relatively poor and struggling and dealing with anti-Semitism, whereas Jung grew up a little more comfortably, and then married into and was even more comfortable, that had some effect, but I don’t think it was the crucial difference. But I loved the fact that we had that scene on the ship, where [Freud] has his pride. He’s dignified about it, but he’s obviously upset about [getting a lower-class cabin on the ship than Jung does].
And that whole sequence of going to America — getting on the boat, the first-class thing, the scene about the dream at night, and then the arrival — it’s very tight. There’s a lot that comes across there: Two men going to the same place — both ambitious to be heard, but both looking at it in very different ways. Maybe one is more ambitious, in terms of ideas, and the other one is more ambitious in terms of one’s personal life. It’s very complicated. That sequence of small scenes says a lot about the relationship.
Just the fact that Jung is there, and as he says to his wife, “Well, I’m going to America with Freud, only he doesn’t know it yet.” That’s a very ambitious young man. And Freud, even though he was poo-poo’ing the idea, it was, “We’ve arrived here. Are they ready for us? Was it a mistake going?” That was part of his way of dealing with his own nervousness and making jokes. Those are sort humorous comments.
Jung was like, “What’s wrong with you right now?” That kind of visually tells you why they didn’t connect. But it’s fun. It’s dramatic to look at, and David was smart to visually keep it simple, in terms of the shot selection. Because the material is so complicated and the look is so rich and the dialogue, there’s a lot of it, and it’s profound and thought-provoking, if you then tried to show off with the camera, it just would have been too much.
And I think a lot of directors would have felt the pressure to do that, even though the experience with directors is, “Well, I better show that I know that this is an important subject about important people.” And I think he realized that temptation but that the perfect contrast is “Keep it as simple as can be.”
You mentioned earlier that you usually play characters that don’t do a lot of talking. Do you have a preference for doing characters that are talkative versus characters that aren’t very talkative?
[Sigmund Freud in “A Dangerous Method”] is more “colorful,” let’s say, and he’s certainly more expressive verbally [than the characters I usually play]. I like the difference. I like new challenges, so to be able to play a character who doesn’t stop talking, as opposed to one who hardly says a word, is very interesting.
And you’re using different muscles as an actor. There’s a self-discipline that’s just as demanding when you’re playing a character like I did with Nikolai in “Eastern Promises,” where it’s very minimalist but very detailed. The same with “A History of Violence.” It’s very precise, and it takes a lot of work to get it right.
And then, as always, you have to relax and trust that it’s there. You need a director who pays attention to those details. But it’s just as challenging to play someone who speaks a lot, because you could talk a lot, and if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and if you don’t find the music in it, and you don’t connect to the other actor, it can be incredibly dull to listen to and watch.
Do I prefer one or the other? I don’t know that I do. Right now, I’m very happy because I hadn’t seen the movie until the Venice Film Festival. When I saw it, I was like, “Yeah, It works. We got the humor in there without being obvious about it.
I like Freud. I’ve come to like all the characters I played, but I really like him. I think he’s funny and engaging. And I liked watching the dynamic between him and Jung and him and [Sabina] Spielrein.
I’m left at the end of the movie thinking, “I’d like to see more. And I’d like to see a movie about Otto Gross. And I’d like to see a movie about Mrs. Jung.” That’s a sign of a good movie: You want to see more, and you want to learn more.
For more info: “A Dangerous Method” website
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