What do 21st century audiences really know about Sigmund Freud? There’s the cigar joke, the stuff about dreams and sex, the screw-your-mother-kill-your-father riff, and maybe a smattering of penis envy. But, I can’t help but wonder if our collective knowledge of this seminal thinker has become reduced to a few pop culture clichés and pseudo-scientific buzzwords?
Certainly this is the sense one gets when surveying his usual role in our entertainments – a favourite dream-sequence caricature, the pop “Freud” tends to step in, all imposing accent and stuffy intellect, to interpret a character’s situation and set them on a sunnier path before they awaken. What does he usually say? What wisdom does he impart? For the most part it’s a bunch of armchair psychology, metaphorical ramblings, and mystical mumbo jumbo about freeing the subconscious.
This is our Freud – a kind of mental medicine man who can see beyond our public face into the recesses of our darkened soul and tell us who we are. It’s all bullshit, of course, a fantastical reimagining of a man whose insights and approaches to the heretofore under-explored workings of the human mind largely underwrote the work of the great thinkers of the twentieth century (in ways both good and not so). But, as far as stock characters go, he sure makes an attractive one for writers because when they bring the old Viennese shrink into the scene they get to expose deeper truths through pithy symbol-interpretation rather than through regular old exposition. Plus, they usually get to make a cigar/penis joke, so there’s that.
All of which helps to foreground why one finds Viggo Mortsensen’s complex and rewarding take on Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method so bracing. Gone are the expected gestures of a thousand comic strip banalities, the over-the-top absurdities of countless trite pop cultural visions of the man and his work. In their place we find a brilliant, deeply thoughtful, and powerfully restrained man very much of his just-post Victorian time. Languid of speech and careful of tone, Mortensen’s Freud is both comforting and frustrating, caught between his conviction that the science of the mind is a crucial arena for study and the knowledge that what he has found there is likely to prove too controversial for the general public. He is cautious and yet righteous, evangelical and yet circumspect. It’s a wondrous creation, and among the shiniest moments of Mortensen’s already impressively brilliant career.
A longtime supporting player in Hollywood, Mortensen became an overnight A-lister with his darkly sexy portrayal of the Ranger Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, it was with his turn to smaller, more intimate films in subsequent years that has cemented his reputation as a leading man. Most notably of these are his two (and now three) collaborations with David Cronenberg, first in 2005’s A History of Violence and then in 2007’s Eastern Promises. Now, with his superb work in A Dangerous Method it seems that Mortensen has truly emerged as the Canadian master director’s go-to lead. Over a cup of yerba maté at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had a chance to chat with the Danish-American actor about his method, his relationship with Cronenberg, and his thoughts on the great Viennese doctor.
“The thing I really liked, as I got used to the language, was having a character that spoke this much. I usually don’t get to play characters like that. Usually the characters I play (including for David [Cronenberg]) are men of few words who communicate largely in nonverbal ways.” And it’s true that Mortensen’s Freud is a talker; although it’s more that he is a teacher, a wise elder in his scenes with the fledgling Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). “As soon as I started researching I understood what he was saying and I started to get into a groove,” he explains, “especially as far as the character’s sense of humour.”
But before the research – which Mortensen dove into, pouring through acres of Freud’s writing, critical discussions of his work, and bios of the other principal characters in the film – he had to be convinced that he could even fit this part. “Well [Cronenberg] was in a jam. It was just last, not totally last minute, but pretty late in the pre-production. The actor that was supposed to play Sigmund Freud [Christoph Waltz] decided to do another movie so they had to recast. Fortunately I was available.” (This is the friendly way of saying that Waltz backed out at the 11th hour, and there was a mighty scramble to secure a player for this crucial role.)
“I wasn’t available when [Cronenberg] asked me to play the part the year before. But yeah, it worked out. I mean it probably was helpful to him that he’d worked with me before […] and I would show up prepared and I was familiar with his way of working. That was good for me too because if somebody else had asked me to play this part I would have said, ‘No I don’t think I’m the best actor for this. It’s a bit of a stretch.’ But because it was him and I knew him and we’re good friends, and I respect his opinions, if he feels that strongly about it that 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.”
Mortensen’s performance betrays none of this initial reluctance. Indeed, his overarching confidence is perhaps what one feels most acutely while watching his work. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of times that happens, though. The thing that seems like the biggest challenge, and the most: This is not going to work, I don’t know how to do it… Once you crack it and get comfortable, it ends up being more enjoyable than the things that come easier.”
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Mortensen’s take on Freud is his ability to convey a roiling complexity below a placid surface. His Freud is a man wracked by anxiety over a demanding, and perhaps unwilling, public. He is an outsider, self-conscious of his radical ideas, terrified of moving too far too fast, of pushing too much and being slapped down for his transgressions. His confidence is a mask draped across his insecurity. But this diffidence is as much about his concern that psychoanalysis is too radical for the people as it is about his own ethnic difference.
A Jew in Austria in the early 20th century may have enjoyed fewer social impediments than in decades past (or, for that matter, in those to come), but he was still and always a Jew. “There was a lot of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in Austria was much more pervasive than in Germany. […] He grew up in that atmosphere. Also in a very repressive atmosphere generally, not just about sex, but just free thinking. There were very strict censorship laws in the 19th century in Vienna. One of the reasons, the roots of his wit and that ironic tone that he has in conversation, is a self-defence mechanism, a way of getting around censorship and anti-Semitism. It’s […] a way of speaking about something without naming it, using wordplay to get around it.”
Mortensen maintains that recognizing a distinction between humour and wit was the key to getting inside the character. It was Freud’s playful facetiousness, his sense of irony, that conveyed duality, conflict, depth. “Humour is like… you’re secure in who you are, and you’re just making jokes about life, maybe. Wit is a bit sharper and it’s sort of a weapon. It’s more of a defence and it has a lot to do with [Freud’s] upbringing. One of the things you see in the movie is – and it stems from that – is the very different [personalities of] Jung and Freud. Jung was from a more, I don’t know if it’s a pastoral background, but [his father was] a small town Christian pastor preacher. A preacher’s son, a very different type of person.
Freud was the son of a Jewish merchant, who moved his whole family to Vienna because he couldn’t get work and suffered. He as a boy watched his father be mocked and abused on the street for being Jewish. He just grew up in that. You developed a thick skin and you developed a certain kind of wit to defend yourself, especially if you had no other means, physical or money or whatever to protect yourself. You have to be quick on your feet mentally.”
But with all of this research under his belt, and all of this insight into the character, it was actually something else that constituted the creative spark, that led to the moment when Mortensen finally understood how to embody Sigmund Freud. “A lot of times when you’re looking really hard for something, as they say, it’s right under your nose. I did tons of research and shared it with David [Cronenberg] and he did tons of research. We enjoyed all of that. But the first or second day of shooting I realized a very significant part of what I was chasing after was right in front of me. It was David. Because his sense of humour and his wit and his intelligent conversation are not very different from Freud’s at all, from the Freud that I learned about in the research.
So it’s not like I thought ‘Wow I didn’t have to do all that research!’, but it was the icing on the cake. Then I started looking at Freud differently, and I found him even more amusing than before. I was like, oh yeah: ‘What would David do?’”