When Viggo Met Sean

An extract from Sean Penn: His Life and Times on Viggo Mortensen's breakthrough in The Indian Runner.

For all the glaring evidence of his talents, not to say his formidable anchoring presence in the billion-dollar grossing Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen remains an uncommon sort of movie star. His creative interests have led him in many directions, and his choice of acting roles has been bravely unconventional–hence the perfect sense of his recent collaborations with David Cronenberg on A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007.)

Mortensen was first noticed on screen as far back as 1985, playing an Amish man in Peter Weir's hit thriller Witness. But arguably the first film on which he really declared the range of his gifts was Sean Penn's debut as writer-director, The Indian Runner (1991.)

Set in Omaha in 1968 (and derived by Penn from the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's murder balled 'Highway Patrolman' off the Nebraska album), The Indian Runner is a story of brothers who are temperamental opposites, seemingly sharing nothing but blood. Sergeant Joe Roberts (David Morse) has been a sheriff's deputy since the loss of his farm to creditors. His unruly younger brother Frank (Mortensen) returns to town from a tour in Vietnam, bringing with him a tattoo-etched torso, a virulent mean streak and an adoring waif-like girlfriend, Dorothy (Patricia Arquette.) The drama of the movie concerns Joe's efforts to make Frank into a responsible man, husband and father–efforts that finally collapse after Frank beats a bartender (Dennis Hopper) to death on the same night that Dorothy is giving birth to their first child.

In the following extracts from the authorised biography Sean Penn: His Life and Times (Richard T. Kelly, Faber and Faber), Penn, Morse, Hopper and The Indian Runner's producer Don Phillips recall how Mortensen first caught Penn's eye as plausible casting for the volatile role of Frank, and how Penn–an actor's actor, but one with a reputation for a hot temper of his own–helped Mortensen to find the furies inside Frank.

DON PHILLIPS: Originally I gave Sean's Indian Runner script to two producers, and they said, 'This is pretty damn good, but who's ever going to see a movie about a guy who murders somebody and gets away with it? No one will ever give you the money with that ending, never.' So Sean put the script away, until I happened to know that my friend Thom Mount, who now had his own company, was closing in on Japanese money to make a slate of films. I knew Thom was a big fan of Sean's. And Bruce was now more huge than ever, and here you had a Springsteen song visualized by Sean Penn. Thom thought we might be able to attract a Tom Cruise, a Robert De Niro. So Thom said yes, and Sean and I were in business. Then, of course, there was no Tom Cruise in this movie . . .

Over at his place Sean had a really interesting book of photographs from the sixties by Dennis Hopper–just plain ordinary folks across the country. There was a picture of a guy at a diner, with his hair up in the air, wearing a white shirt with the cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve and a tattoo on his arm. And Sean said, 'That's Frank!' Then Sean calls me and says, 'I got the television on here, it's HBO, and there's a movie on called Fresh Horses, and there's this actor in it . . . '

SEAN PENN: I was over at Robin [Wright]'s little house in Santa Monica Canyon, waiting for her to get dressed for a date. The television was on, sound off, and I saw a face: he was only a cameo in a movie, but I saw the face that I'd had in my head when I wrote Indian Runner. He had something, an angularity, a severity to his handsomeness that I perceived as being 'like Frank'. So I watched the movie through, and I called Don and said, 'Find out who he is.'

"Viggo's inherent kindness as a guy showed in a sort of languid movement. And that was a lesson for me about what parts of people express themselves without trying."

DON PHILLIPS: It was Viggo Mortensen. We sent the script to Viggo, who was playing the seventh or eighth lead in Young Guns 2. We flew to Tucson, Arizona, and bam! He was our man, and we were off and running.

At the climax of The Indian Runner, as his wife Dorothy is birthing Frank's child, Frank sits brooding in the tavern bar owned by Caesar (Dennis Hopper), a joint he has already cleared once before in a bloody punch-up. Joe arrives, tightly coiled and hot, to take him back to his wife's bedside; but Frank is too mired in a funk.

DAVID MORSE: Sean had decided that Viggo and I were going to rehearse for two weeks, but we were only going to rehearse our big scene in the bar. So he had a bar set up in a gymnasium where we could shoot baskets but also really do our work. And during those two weeks, I have a feeling it was harder for Viggo, because Sean identified more with the role of Frank, and he would really try to push him to do certain things. But Viggo just kept holding back. He never really did the scene in those two weeks.

SEAN PENN: Viggo is, by nature, a very poetic character: he is a poet, and a painter. And some of his poetic nature was very good for the part, in the moments of tenderness with Patricia Arquette. But I did find that when he was photographed head-to-toe, some of the danger of Frank would go out the door: Viggo's inherent kindness as a guy showed in a sort of languid movement. And that was a lesson for me about what parts of people express themselves without trying. So he did some work with a friend of mine, [a member of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club], on a certain physicality, to try to overcome that–so that when I needed an edge in that space from head-to-toe, there was clear and present danger.

DAVID MORSE: I think Sean was still a little nervous going into the bar scene. Then I remember a real struggle for what was going to happen, what the moments were going to be between the two of them. And something happened, it crystallized, and suddenly Viggo was on fire.

SEAN PENN: I think I stimulated Viggo's temper. And, as I remember, I think I got a little bit personal. But I think he was professionally responsive, he knew where to go for what I was looking for. When you're abusive to an actor, it's one thing–when you're abusive to a character, it's another. And I think I found it was helpful to both of us to raise my own tempo a little bit, get in the same place as him, share the vibe . . .

It is Dennis Hopper's bartender character Caesar who bears the brunt of Frank's bottled hostility: having clearly said the wrong thing to his customer at an earlier stage in the evening, Caesar is then murderously assaulted by Frank with a chair.

DENNIS HOPPER: If you play a small part in a picture, it's nice to have a beginning, a middle and an end: that one had a middle and an end, and the end comes very quickly [laughs]. I remember rubbing the bar a lot. 'OK, yeah, better get this bar cleaned, man.' Then I give a little speech to Viggo's character. And then he kills me...

Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)