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Viggo Mortensen on 'The Dead Don't Hurt', a Western set during the U.S. Civil War

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Olsen and Vivienne are two headstrong people - Olsen an immigrant from Denmark, Vivienne from Quebec. In a new movie, they've just begun to make a life together when Olsen announces he's enlisting in the U.S. Army again, to fight in the U.S. Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEAD DON'T HURT")

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Holger Olsen) I won't be gone long.

VICKY KRIEPS: (As Vivienne Le Coudy) Men are so stupid - so stupid. What if I don't wait for you, huh?

MORTENSEN: (As Holger Olsen) I'm a good soldier. They need me.

KRIEPS: (As Vivienne Le Coudy) You're too old to go to war.

MORTENSEN: (As Holger Olsen) Perhaps.

KRIEPS: (As Vivienne Le Coudy) Yeah.

MORTENSEN: (As Holger Olsen) But I must go.

SIMON: Viggo Mortensen's film, "The Dead Don't Hurt," doesn't move the camera into battlefields. It stays with Vivienne to tell stories of her battles at home.

Vivienne is played by Vicky Krieps. Viggo Mortensen, who also writes and directs, plays Olsen and joins us now from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

MORTENSEN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Did this film begin with an image you had of your mother?

MORTENSEN: It did. I started writing this story in 2020. And the first image was of - this is something you see in the movie. There's a young girl playing, running around, dreaming in a forest of maples and red oaks, black walnuts - typical Northeastern forest. I mean, we looked for a place that looked just like the forest where my mom used to play as a little girl. She was from northern New York, up on the Canadian border.

And this little girl, like my mom, her personality was very independent-minded, somewhat stubborn, maybe a little bit mischievous, but with a strong sense of adventure and a strong sense of herself. And that's where the story began.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Olsen and Vivienne. They meet in San Francisco, and the next thing you know, they're riding off to Elk Flats, Nev. What's Vivienne's fascination with...

MORTENSEN: With Olsen?

SIMON: Well, all right, yes - Olsen, yeah.

MORTENSEN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Let's pick up Olsen first. That's you. Yeah. What does she see in him?

MORTENSEN: It's a good question. I think she asks herself that question in the morning after they spend their first night together. They meet by chance on the waterfront in San Francisco. This is 1861. And there's something that draws her eye to him, and his eye has already been drawn to her. He's been watching her. She engages him in conversation, and they connect right away.

But I think the next morning, when he wakes up in her place and he starts talking, he seems a little bit full of himself and a little bit clumsy. And she thinks, well, now that I see him in the light of day, he seems like a bit of a dolt, a bit of an idiot.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MORTENSEN: And how can I get rid of this man? And she in fact says, where will you be going next? And he says, who says I'm going anywhere?

SIMON: Your feeling for the West is so palpable in this film. And therefore, I was a little bit surprised to find out you were born in New York City.

MORTENSEN: Well, I started riding horses when I was very little - 3, 4 years old - about the same time I started going to the movies. Yeah, I was born in New York City, but as an infant, my mother, father and I - we moved down to South America, and I learned to like those kinds of landscapes.

Not only was I watching cowboy movies, westerns on TV and at the movie theater once in a while, but I was sort of living that and imagining that. And like most boys back then, you know, who played at cowboys and Indians - I don't think kids do that so much now. They probably imagine being Spider-Man or something more than - just because westerns aren't the same part of the culture as they used to be, I don't think.

But I would imagine I was a gaucho or an American cowboy or even - because kids don't put limits on themselves - even as sort of a maybe a Lakota warrior or something.

SIMON: What's it like to direct yourself in a film?

MORTENSEN: It's more tiring. By the end of the day, you're more tired. But it's not necessarily a detriment, especially in terms of the acting, because as an actor, when you're directing a scene, you're doing what you really should always do, which is react, be in the moment - completely in the moment - and react to everything you see, hear and feel from the environment you're in, you know?

But directing and acting at the same time, I'm looking at, let's say, Vicky - her gestures, her expression, her eyes. I'm listening to the tone of her voice. I'm listening for what exactly she's saying. Is it what she's supposed to say? And I'm looking at everything around her to light the objects. So I don't have time to get nervous or second-guess myself.

SIMON: I have read that you said something as you began directing the movie that ended up on the film's daily call sheet.

MORTENSEN: Yeah.

SIMON: You know what I'm talking about, obviously.

MORTENSEN: Yeah, I do. Yeah. I think it was, I hope you have a good time - you know, meaning on the shoot - but that the experience doesn't punish you too much. I think it was something like that. Is that correct?

SIMON: That's what I've read. Yeah. Exactly.

MORTENSEN: I was sincere, but it was sort of - maybe it's Danish humor. I don't know. Sort of -there's a certain irony to it, but I knew that it was going to be difficult. I mean, I knew we had a very limited shooting time because of the budget we had, and it was a very ambitious undertaking for our cast and crew - locations somewhat far-flung and period piece, and there's a lot to do in a short time.

But I thought that if we do this together as a team, I think we can have fun and making it clear to everyone that their input is appreciated and expected. In other words, you're not just here for your technical abilities. It's not just another shoot. I want this to be something we tell together that's unlike any other story.

SIMON: Viggo Mortensen directs, has written and stars in "The Dead Don't Hurt," in cinemas now. Thank you so much for being with us.

MORTENSEN: Thank you very much for the good conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.