Viggo Mortensen’s fee per film? A reported $2 million.
The number of languages in which he’s fluent? Three (English, Danish, and Spanish.)
His take on Sarah Palin? Priceless.
“I think it would be unwise to dismiss her because she is foolish and misinformed,” the ruggedly handsome movie hero told me. “People say there’s no way she will hold any significant office, in Congress, or as president. Don’t be so sure. I notice she’s starting to sound relatively eloquent in that superficial way she has: ‘We gotta cut taxes and we can’t keep penalizing small business’—that same old litany. She’s not saying anything significant but she’s stringing the words together and she’s not just saying, ‘Aw shucks, I just killed a moose in Alaska.’ She’s stringing the words together as well as George W. Bush did in the beginning.” The actor elaborated: “George W. Bush got the knack of sounding a certain way. They realized they couldn’t make him sound like somebody who actually read books and cared about how he sounded—even though he had the benefits of the best possible education. It just wasn’t interesting to him to sound like he made sense and to speak English anywhere near well. But what they did, very cleverly, is say, OK, he’s just like us. He makes mistakes when he says stuff; he’s a regular guy. And I can see the same thing happening with Palin. So do not underestimate her ability. She’s not going away.”
The multitalented Mortensen—who’s not only an acclaimed performer but also a published poet, sculptor, and photographer—was holding forth in a midtown Manhattan office suite, along with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Danny Glover, to tout The People Speak, a program that premieres next Sunday at 8 p.m. on the History Channel.
The two-hour special—culled from 96 hours of live performances by Mortensen, Damon, Brolin, Glover, plus Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington, and a host of others—is a mélange of dramatic readings, using public documents, private letters, and poems from presidents and other notables but also ordinary citizens over the life of this nation. Also featuring traditional American songs performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, The People Speak is based on the 2004 book of the same name by popular historian Howard Zinn, as well as Zinn’s bestselling blockbuster A People’s History of the United States.
“My relationship with Howard is very special,” said Damon, who has known the 87-year-old Zinn, a close family friend, since he was a Boston University history professor who lived next door in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Matt was a lad of 5. “As I got older, I appreciated who Howard was professionally, but I always appreciated who Howard was personally.” He was the nice neighbor who attended Damon’s school plays. “He suffered through all of them, as a matter of fact—every single one,” Damon told me as the historian sat beside him on a sofa in a conference room. “By the time I was in high school, I was quite the popular guy, because once a year Howard would speak to our class.
The 39-year-old Damon, filling the role of producer and driving force behind the History Channel project even as his next movie, the South African rugby docudrama Invictus (co-starring Freeman as Nelson Mandela) opens on Friday, has partnered with Zinn for the past decade to bring The People Speak to the screen.
“We wanted to try and make a filmed version. We went through all these different incarnations,” Damon said. “We thought about doing something like a miniseries. We were going to do that and we left one studio and went to another to do kind of standalone films. And we got scripts written by John Sayles—we really got some good stuff. But ultimately we stumbled onto this format. This is definitely the best format for doing a history book, because you’re not taking poetic license; you’re using the direct words of real people. For me personally, I connect to the history much better seeing it spoken this way, or hearing a song.”
Zinn added: “When you fictionalize reality, sometimes the artistry gets in the way of the truth.
“Ultimately the goal is trying to energize young people about history,” Damon said.
“Do not underestimate her ability,” Viggo Mortensen said of Sarah Palin. “She’s not going away.”
Another advantage of the History Channel approach is that it’s about 50 times cheaper than a feature film. Damon’s last Jason Bourne movie, the third in a trilogy, cost over $100 million, which hasn’t dissuaded him and director Paul Greengrass from thinking about doing a fourth.
“We have a couple of ideas,” Damon said, “but the way historically these movies have worked is the studio has picked a release date and we had to go make a movie to try and hit that release date, and that’s really tough to do. You know, it was a trilogy about an amnesiac super-spy, and the guy’s got his memory back, so now we’ve got to figure out where to go. What would really happen to this guy? Where do you go from there? We haven’t cracked that yet. We really want to do one and I’m sure we will.”
But it might take a while. “I think it would be interesting to see the character at 50 after a long break,” Damon mused.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.