Before they were cast together in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, the film’s stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen had met and bonded on the 2016-17 awards circuit.
Born to a Danish father and an American mother, Viggo Mortensen was arguably not the most obvious choice to play Green Book’s Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, the real-life Italian-American bouncer who landed a gig to drive African-American concert pianist Dr Don Shirley on his tour of the American South in 1962. In fact, filmmaker Peter Farrelly and his fellow writer/producers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie had been considering other actors for the role, including Jon Favreau.
It was after watching Captain Fantastic with his wife that Farrelly turned to her and said, “Do you think Viggo can do Tony Lip?” Her response, recalls the filmmaker: “Of course he could. He can do anything.”
Mortensen himself wasn’t so sure. He loved the script — “It started great and kept getting better and better all the way to the end. That doesn’t happen very often” — but didn’t know if he was “the right guy”. The filmmaker managed to convince him he was when Mortensen phoned Farrelly to express his doubts.
For the role of Shirley, there was ample casting discussion. “Studios and agencies throw names, throw names, throw names,” says Vallelonga, son of the film’s protagonist and the only one of the writer/producers who knew Shirley while he was alive. But he says he always believed Mahershala Ali was the right actor for the role.
Mortensen and Ali already knew each other. The pair had met over the course of the 2016-17 awards season, as both were being feted for their performances in Captain Fantastic and Moonlight respectively, and had enjoyed an in-depth conversation during one particular Oscar brunch.
“Before we know it, almost half an hour went by,” recalls Mortensen, talking with Ali to Screen International on the mid-October day of Green Book’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. “We were in a corner, and it was almost a relief, [you have] these brief conversations at those events, ‘Hi, nice to meet you, what are you doing next, I’ve got to go.’ We got out of having to do that for a while, and instead talk to someone you wanted to get to know.”
Given Farrelly’s track record for making mainstream comedies with his younger brother Bobby, the director himself was far from the obvious choice to direct Green Book, which tells a true story about two men from very different walks of life who connect over the course of events they experience on the road. Ali concedes that, had Farrelly not already been involved in the script and instead attached as director later on, “I would have been surprised.”
But both actors say they had no qualms about the project having Farrelly at its helm. “I was excited to work with him,” says Ali. “It was like working with a first-time director with 20 years of experience. It’s such a departure from what he had been doing, the energy that he had coming into this was like somebody getting a budget for the first time to go do a movie. I felt very comfortable stepping into this with Pete and Viggo. If I had any questions, it was about myself.”
The actors know that Green Book — named from the traveller’s guidebook to African-American-friendly establishments in the segregation-era South — is working as a crowdpleaser. They have witnessed the response of audiences at festivals from Toronto to Zurich to London. For Mortensen, the fact the film’s timely themes about prejudice, ignorance and intolerance come encased in an audience-friendly wrapper is a positive.
“Audiences will go see it and something will permeate,” he says. “Any time would be a good time for a movie like this to come out, but this is a particularly good time. It’s the thing that’s so hard to do — socially relevant and profound but it goes down smoothly and percolates into you.”
The full extent of Green Book’s appeal will be revealed imminently. Universal Pictures opens in the US today (November 21), while the international rollout includes a Bafta-qualifying release in the UK from eOne on February 1. Farrelly, Vallelonga and Currie produce the film with Jim Burke and Charles B Wessler, with backing from Participant Media and DreamWorks Pictures.
One speed bump along the road has been Mortensen’s use of the N-word earlier this month at a Los Angeles panel discussion alongside Ali and Farrelly. Although the context was Mortensen saying that no-one used the word now, whereas they did at the time of the film, the articulation of the offensive slur caused a media stir. After the actor later apologised, Ali commented that the usage “wasn’t appropriate”, but that he can “accept and embrace the apology”.
Mortensen, who is chasing his third best actor Oscar nomination following nods for Eastern Promises and Captain Fantastic has a suitably mature take on the awards process. “I agree with Churchill who said, ‘Don’t go looking for medals, always accept them, never wear them.’ It’s cool. It’s a nice honour.” But he eschews false modesty, especially when it comes to the film itself: “I think that the positive reactions to Green Book, and to what Pete [Farrelly] has accomplished, are deserved and correct. That’s my opinion. I think it’s a special movie.”
Ali, of course, has already won an Oscar, and with his first nomination — a win that has radically impacted the career of an actor who was in his 40s when he made Moonlight. “It changed an aspect of my life, most definitely,” he says. “So did my daughter. That really changed my life. I hear ‘No’ less, and people want me to sign up more often, and I’m really grateful for that.”
But Ali gives the sense the industry’s focus on awards, and particularly on roles likely to earn that kind of attention, is antithetical to the purity of his process. “The thing that I have to be careful of, you want to make sure you’re not signing up to something because you’re calculating the potential end result,” he reflects. “This is not sport. All due respect to sport, but there’s a real emphasis on winning, and that being the thing that sustains energy for people, to get to that championship.
“Acting is the opposite,” he continues. “You’ve got to make it as small and as intimate as possible. If things are complicated in your life, that affects the frequency and the energy that you have to work with. The challenge becomes learning how to put the attention and the accolades to the side and go back to why I signed up to do this kind of work, which is to really be a servant to these stories.”