David Cronenberg’s new film “Crimes Of The Future” asks its audience to go on quite a journey to the dystopian future. The film’s most quotable line, “surgery is the new sex,” only scratches the surface. Amidst the detritus of Grecian ruins, the human body is not only generating strange new organs but removing and tattooing them becomes a form of art in its own right with an erotic dimension. This is the specialty of Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tanser, who grows the new flesh, and his performance partner who handles it, Léa Seydoux’s Caprice.
And that’s only the beginning of the film — as the narrative progresses, Cronenberg reveals the body is not done evolving as a survival mechanism in an ecological wasteland (read our review here). Yet “Crimes of the Future” never feels like a window into another world; it’s a funhouse mirror distorting our own. The committed central performances of Mortensen and Seydoux bring Cronenberg’s thematic tensions surrounding art, beauty, pain, and transformation to life. The duo matches the energy required for the heightened world in which their characters reside while also remaining grounded enough to reflect back on recognizable anxieties.
Mortensen and Seydoux sat together for a paired chat on the day before “Crimes of the Future” opened in theaters. They talked about how they ended up in their roles, the connections they found to the characters, and why they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reaction to the film thus far.
You were initially attached to different roles: Léa to Timlin and Viggo to the police officer. Was it challenging to change gears?
Léa Seydoux: I would have played any role.
Viggo Mortensen: You preferred this.
Seydoux: I would have played Saul.
Mortensen: I could have been operating on her.
Seydoux: I liked Caprice because I liked the relationship we both have. As an actor, when you are part of a film, you always have your subjectivity. So you make your own film inside the film as actors, I feel. I felt that I had more to say about Caprice.
Mortensen: I wanted to play a different character initially, but he convinced me to play this one. And I’m glad because we had a good time telling the story. I really liked working with Léa, and most of my stuff is with her.
Seydoux: You wanted a smaller part!
Mortensen: She wanted a bigger part. See, she’s very greedy! I’m humble. But you had a strong connection emotionally with this character and what she was about as an artist, right?
How did you balance finding the character emotionally with the need to find the character physically? It’s a Cronenberg movie, after all, and “body is reality.”
Seydoux: I try to [balance], at least, but what I’m looking for is truth. And I know there are many different truths, but I always like when it’s truthful. So, in David’s world, which on the surface looks quite unreal as a future, I wanted something to be truthful. I feel that we connect to a certain truth. When I was playing Caprice, what I liked was the fact that she’s very committed to her art. She believes in art, and she stands for it. She fights for it. This is what I liked and tried to do.
Did you find a connection between the way that she approaches art to how you approach acting?
Seydoux: Yes, exactly! Or to art. I wish I had other talents. I really believe in art, and it’s a serious thing for me. Even if it’s told with humor — it has to be —I think we need that tool because it’s the only thing that we have to access the sacred. I think that we need that, as we are not only animals. We are animals, but we also have a soul. I feel that the only way we can access the sacred is through art. There are different forms of art. You have literature and paintings… it’s really something that I feel connects us human beings.
You mentioned the humor, and the macabre comedy in the film is fantastic. Is that evident on David Cronenberg’s screenplay page, or is it something you find on set?
Mortensen: I mean, some lines in the script are funny. I laughed when I was reading some of it, and then some of it has to do with the way things are expressed. For example, I’m reading on the page the character of Timlin or Wippet, but then when we’re doing our first scene, the way that Kristen [Stewart] plays Timlin — her voice, her body, the look in her eye — it was unexpected, perfect, and it was funny at times. And Wippet talks a lot, he’s got all these ideas, and he’s nervous, but a lot of that came from the performance that Don McKellar came up with. When I read it, there were some moments with a sort of a dry humor. But then there were many more in the doing because of what other performers brought or what David inspired. He’s very careful, always, about his casting. He got together a really good group of very diverse actors with very different approaches and backgrounds. He’s got a gift to make each person feel comfortable. He adapts to what they seem to need because he’s just trying to get good performances out of each of them and have them be relaxed. It’s a very particular skill. Not that many directors have that gift.
Speaking of the ensemble, Kristen Stewart has said the cast would get together and talk about the script, trying to figure it out. Was there anything that you all discovered in that collaboration?
Mortensen: You and I were kind of a little bit off on our own a lot. But sometimes, you guys talked. I don’t remember discussing what the movie was about a lot.
Seydoux: No, not really; we didn’t talk about it a lot.
Mortensen: Maybe some of the ideas.
Seydoux: Sometimes we were like, “Oh, yeah, I thought this and that.”
Mortensen: Or, “It was interesting that that happened. Maybe it means something else for the next scene.”
Seydoux: Kristen, when we were in Cannes, said, “It’s funny because now the movie feels very clear and easy to understand.”
Seydoux: She said, “I thought it was much more complex.”
Seydoux: But, actually, it’s very easy to understand. It’s something that I can feel as well with journalists. I feel that everybody understood it. Like, you got what it meant! From the questions that we’ve been asked, I can sense that people really understood it. And that is quite magical when you make a film because you never know if what you do is going to be understood.
Mortensen: That’s true.
What will you carry from “Crimes of the Future” to future projects?
Mortensen: I was just playing it just individually. I was playing a character that has a lot of subtle things going on, but it’s not completely obvious in any one scene. But as accumulation, you realize, “Oh, this is what’s going on with his body. This affects it this way, this affects it that way. Sometimes he’s paranoid. Sometimes he’s jealous of other artists. He’s got all these human flaws.” Trust the little tiny details. I generally do that, and if you’re thinking real thoughts, the audience is going to feel that. It’s going to come across. And I genuinely I trust myself to do that, but I don’t always trust the director to use that well or understand it in the editing.
With David, it’s not that way. The first movie I did with him, “A History of Violence,” it’s a character who’s two people, really. He’s constructed this other persona. And there’s a couple of moments, one scene in particular, where there’s a transition from one to the other. And it’s just in his look in the eye and a certain movement — it’s very subtle. And I think a lot of directors would have gone, “Eh, there’s nothing going on. Let’s do another take and make more of it, or let’s not even use that.” And he was like, “That was perfect. We’re not doing another take. That was great.” [I said,] “You sure? You could tell?” He said, “I could tell, don’t worry about it.” And he was right. So it’s only the rare director who really is watching and understanding what the actor is doing and where you can trust yourself to be subtle. You’re spoiled when you’re working with him. I knew I could do that with this character, with his ailments, with everything else. Tone of voice. It encourages me to trust myself. But next time, I don’t know who I’m working for. And if I can trust them. They have to prove it, that they’re as good as him. [laughs]
Well, David is lining up a new movie…
Mortensen: Yeah, who knows. Maybe.
“Crimes Of The Future” is in theaters now.