Director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen have made three movies together: “A History of Violence,” in which Mortensen played a family man driven to his physical edge; “Eastern Promises,” in which he played a Russian gangster given to outbursts of rawboned brutality; and now “A Dangerous Method,” in which an actor known for his chiseled good looks and compact muscularity delivers an improbably avuncular turn as psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud. The film co-stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Jung’s who became his lover and eventually precipitated a break between the two men.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Cronenberg and Mortensen talked about what Mortensen called the director’s “first Merchant-Ivory picture,” while Mortensen nursed a double espresso and a small pot of Argentinian mate tea.
Q. You’ve spent a career making movies about the very drives, impulses and sexual taboos that Freud is so responsible for articulating. It feels like the movie you were always meant to make.
David Cronenberg: The usual question I get is, “This isn’t a very Cronenberg film,” so I think what you’re saying is absolutely correct. It’s sort of about time! It was very cathartic for me, and really a lot of fun. I felt that I was connecting with something very primordial in my life, but also in the development of the intellectual life of the 20th century, which is my century, basically.
Viggo Mortensen: Do you think maybe if you’d done this early on you wouldn’t have been as — you know, with the [visual approach] being relatively simple, would that have occurred to you earlier?
Cronenberg: I don’t know. This is the interesting thing, and it’s unknowable. . . . However, I have really simplified my approach to filmmaking. I think it’s more efficient. That’s the dry term, but it’s more ascetic and more constrained.
Mortensen: Well, you also know when it’s working —
Cronenberg: — That’s true, I don’t spend as much time in the editing room.
Mortensen: But just for me as an actor, working with you as a director was more efficient each time. Less needs to be said, and we’re in sync in a way that I might have doubted more the first time around or the second time. I don’t know that I would have played a character like this with another director, or a few years ago. I think it would have been harder. But a lot of it had to do with your approach, I think, of not being weighed down by an idea of the importance of the subject matter or the characters or the profound things that are said in the script. It was just like, “Let’s film a story that’s fun and what’s really going on with these people — who’s jealous, who isn’t, who’s saying what they mean, who isn’t, all that sort of stuff.” That’s what it’s about. If you get burdened by the academic importance of it, I think it would be hard to make an entertaining movie.
Cronenberg: I think, ideally, I should disappear. A director should disappear. When people get to the set, they think my assistant director is the director, definitely. Because they don’t see me. It’s pretty invisible.
So you’re not there whispering in people’s ears?
Cronenberg: Oh yes, I am. But I’m whispering in their ears. I’m not pontificating.
Mortensen: After “Eastern Promises,” you retired the bullhorn —
Cronenberg: — The electric cattle prod, which came in so handy.
Viggo, did you come to the role of Freud with many preconceived notions of who he was?
Mortensen: I thought of him as an emaciated, white-haired old man, and in terms of personality, that he was quite rigid and formal. What I learned that was most useful to me in terms of doing the part was that yes, he was formal . . . but he was also very clever in terms of PR. He was known for saying something at a meeting, presenting an idea that nobody had ever heard of, and he’d say, “Well as all of you know . . .” or “I think all of us in this room would agree that . . .” And then he’d present something weird, and people would feel like they were part of this germ of it, when in actuality it was something he was presenting as revolutionary and new.
Even though Jung and Sabina have the sexual relationship in the movie, it’s really an intellectual romance between the two men.
Mortensen: They had a different approach in terms of their goals, and it said a lot about them and it said a lot about why eventually the rupture between them had to do with personality differences and background differences —
Cronenberg: — It was a train wreck. You could see it coming, really –
Mortensen: — But don’t you think their personalities were just –
Cronenberg: Yes. Freud was grounded in the body, and Jung was fleeing the body. That’s the way I look at it, in a nutshell. And therefore Jung became a religious leader, as far as I’m concerned, and Freud remained as much of a scientist and a physician as you can be when you’re dealing with individual human psyches, which means you can’t really apply scientific method because it’s not repeatable from one person to another. But still, I feel that Freud was more grounded in human reality, whereas Jung went into outer space with the collective unconscious and archetypes. It was disconnected from human reality, as far as I’m concerned.
Would you say you enjoy a similar intellectual relationship as Freud and Jung have on that epic first 13-hour date-slash-conversation?
Mortensen: We can have a conversation about baseball statistics as readily as we could have about psychoanalysis.
Cronenberg: We are readers, and we do get excited when we say, “Oh, I read that same book!” and things like that, so there is that intellectual connection.
Mortensen: I think one of the things about you that I most like, other than just the exchanges we have intellectually and just the silly jokes we sometimes enjoy, is the fact that, each time you’re making a movie, you get as excited as I do or more so about the subject. . . . You have the eternal beginner attitude. Which I think is a great thing to have for an actor, for a director, anybody.
If you enjoy what you’re doing, no matter how serious the subject matter, I think you feel that when you watch the movie. I think you watch this movie — and I’m subjective because I’m in it — but I think you can see we had a good time making it.
is rated R and opens Dec. 16 at