Viggo Mortensen on The Dead Don't Hurt

Back in March, Viggo Mortensen brought his Western The Dead Don't Hurt to Glasgow Film Festival. On the morning after he'd sampled a few local whiskies at The Pot Still, he sat down with us and his Scottish co-star, Solly McLeod, to discuss the film

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 11 Jun 2024
  • The Dead Don't Hurt

This year’s Glasgow Film Festival, its 20th edition, was a typically stellar affair filled with sharp programming and wholesome vibes. It also had a sprinkling of bona fide star power thanks to the presence of Lord of the Rings legend Viggo Mortensen, who visited Glasgow for the UK premiere of his soulful Western The Dead Don’t Hurt.

The film is clearly a labour of love. As well as starring alongside Vicky Krieps, Mortensen also wrote, directed and produced The Dead Don’t Hurt. He even composed the music for the film. He’s a very talented man.

Mortensen could have hardly wished for a warmer reception than the one he got at Glasgow. The multi-hyphenate star had such a good time at the Q&A that he came back for an unscheduled one at the next day’s matinee screening, much to the delight of audience members who hadn’t managed to get tickets for the previous evening’s sold-out premiere. 

Set in the 1860s in a small Nevada outpost, The Dead Don't Hurt is both a beautiful homage to the great Westerns of the past and a subversion of this most macho of film genres. It centres on the romance between Mortensen’s character, Olsen, a Danish carpenter, and Krieps' Vivienne, a fiercely independent French-Canadian woman who grew up dreaming of being Joan of Arc. 

The film begins with Vivienne’s death, and from there, the story of Olsen and Vivienne’s life together is told using intersecting flashbacks. As actors, Mortensen and Krieps are a match made in heaven; every scene with them together is a joy. They’re skilfully supported by a cast that includes Danny Huston, Garret Dillahunt, and Scottish actor Solly McLeod, who plays a brutish psychopath who will change both Vivienne and Olsen’s lives forever. 

The day after The Dead Don’t Hurt’s UK Premiere, we sat down with Viggo Mortensen and his young co-star Solly McLeod to discuss the film.

What struck me first while watching The Dead Don’t Hurt is that it was made by somebody who really loves Westerns.

Viggo Mortensen: You felt that watching it?

Definitely. It reminded me of John Ford, Howard Hawks…

VM: Oh, good. That was the idea. Once I realised it was going to be a Western, I wanted to respect certain traditions of classic Westerns. So the way it was shot, the way it looks, historical accuracy in terms of costumes, design, language, reflecting what society would have been back then, which is not so different from now. The West was very multicultural and multilingual; it was a melting pot.

My film does have a significant difference in having a woman [Vicky Krieps’ Vivienne] at the centre of the story, which is not the norm in classic Westerns. So when my character, Olsen, Vivienne’s male companion, goes off to war, we stay with her, and it's really about her. It's a love story between the two of them, but it's centred on her and that's unusual, I suppose. But we weren't trying to reinvent the form. 

Another way that it’s atypical is Solly’s character Weston, the villain. Solly, who’s young and fresh-faced, isn’t your typical Western bad guy. Solly, how did you get involved in the project?

Solly McLeod: It was unlike any audition process I've ever had for any other job – in a good way, I think. My agent gave me a call asking if I've heard of an actor called Viggo Mortensen. And I said, "Erm, yeah, obviously." And he said, "Viggo wants to give you a ring after the weekend to speak to you about a role in his new script that he's gonna direct." So Viggo called me and explained the character, explained the premise of the story and then said, "I'll send you the script. And if you hate it, you let me know." You sent it over and I thought it was fantastic. I read it in one sitting. 

The role that he thought I could do was far bigger than I expected. I was instantly on board, pretty much, but I think I held off on sending an email right back; I waited a couple of days. 

And what were you looking for, Viggo? What drew you to casting Solly?

VM: I was looking for someone who had a really strong presence, which Solly has, and I didn't want a clichéd nemesis. I needed an actor who was skilful and somewhat daring, I guess. And brave, because it's a complicated character. He's a sociopath, basically. He can be extremely charming. But at the drop of a hat he can be unexpectedly brutal, just mercilessly savage, and has no moral compunction about it. To be able to go from one of those to the other, sometimes in the same scene, that demands a lot of an actor. You have to have a certain amount of range and intelligence and subtlety to make it work. And Solly did that more than I could have dreamed of.

SM: Yeah, it was about layering that dangerous confidence that [Weston] has with the knowledge that he could switch at any moment and shoot everyone in the room. We wanted to have that tension for the audience on screen where he comes into a scene and you don't know which way it's gonna go.

And part of that tension comes from the film’s interesting structure, which is told in these interlacing flashbacks. So we open in the middle of the story and know from the off that Weston is a killer, but other characters don’t. 

VM: I like that. The audience has a secret. I like when he goes to pay Vivienne a nice Sunday visit. It's a beautiful day, she's gardening, and he couldn't be more of a gentleman, right? And the audience is saying, "No, no, no, don't speak to him. You're all alone..." So the audience is ahead of the characters.

You used nested flashbacks in your first film, Falling, too. What draws you to that structure?

VM: Well, I don't know that I'll always do that. I mean, I've written four other stories – only one of them has a little bit of that, the other three are linear. But I guess I like stories where you see the effect before the cause. So even though my first images were the little girl running through the woods in her fantasy world, I thought, "Oh, who does she become?" And so I said, "Well, let's go right to the end, literally, of her life, and then build backwards from there." It's not completely backwards. It comes back and forth into the present. And then there's another string, which has to do with what happens to my character, Olsen, when he goes off. So there's three threads. It was a jigsaw to put it together while writing so that it flowed, and then in editing, I tweaked it a little bit more. 

I trust the audience and their intelligence, but it's not the usual spoon-fed thing. The first 20 minutes or so, you're putting pieces together. But once you have those pieces, you can build your own structure. In other words, from then on, less is more in terms of information, and the audience will put together the rest as they go along. So it becomes their movie, which I like. I make the kind of movies that I would like to see, where I can participate. And so by the end of the story, it's my story. It's not the director's, and that's the way it should be.

You are both great in the film, but I also have to mention Vicky Krieps' performance, which was wonderful. What was it like working with her?

SM: I mean, Vicky, for me, being able to act alongside her, having Vicky as a scene partner made me better in those scenes. She's so present and so subtle and nuanced, and she really looks at you.

VM: And she tests you…

SM: Oh yeah, she was looking at me like she wanted to kill me in some of those scenes. And I was like, OK, I have to up my game to make sure my character isn’t drowned out, because she's just so fierce. It was a phenomenal experience, I learned a lot. Not only being in scenes with Vicky, but from watching her and Viggo act off one another. I came away from the project a better actor, for sure.

The Dead Don't Hurt is in cinemas now via Signature Entertainment