Mahershala Ali met Viggo Mortensen in early 2017, at an industry brunch deep into awards season. Ali had made a splash with Moonlight, Mortensen with Captain Fantastic, and neither had expected to find the event — the latest in a long line of occasions packed with celebrities, producers, and agents — memorable. And yet… “He and I just connected,” Ali remembers. “It was special from the jump.”
Call it the beginning of a beautiful friendship — or, better yet, a fated one: Five months later, the two became costars in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a drama based on the true story of roguish Italian-American driver Tony Lip (Mortensen) and refined black concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali), and their tour of the Deep South in 1962.
Since the film’s rousing reception when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Mortensen, Ali, and Farrelly have been on a journey of their own — one that could lead to the Oscars. On this November afternoon, the actors and their director have reached their last stop of the day: a private dining room tucked inside a Los Angeles hotel, where they swap stories from set, reflect on the film, and gather in a long group hug to say goodbye.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Viggo and Mahershala, this film relies on your chemistry, which was strong from the first time you met. What were you talking about that made you two click that day?
VIGGO MORTENSEN: Well, we started talking about how much we liked each other’s work, and my son was with me, and [Mahershala] was just about to have a baby —
MAHERSHALA ALI: Like, the next day. [Laughs]
MORTENSEN: We just got along and had a long, normal conversation, which was nice. We got out of the…
MORTENSEN: Yeah. We were in a corner, and I was like, “This is great.” So when Pete said, “I’m meeting with Mahershala Ali,” I said, “He’d be amazing.” But [after they met] Pete said, “I think that was good?” [Farrelly and Ali laugh]
PETER FARRELLY: I was confused! He came in, we had a nice discussion, and then he just left, so I thought, “I… think it went great.”
ALI: I couldn’t say, “All right, I want to do it,” because it’s a process. You gotta get it right. I told him, “I’ll talk to you soon.”
MORTENSEN: But what does that mean, “I’ll talk to you soon”?
ALI: I had to talk with my wife, and people I’m close to. I knew I wanted to do it.
MORTENSEN: [Points to Farrelly] But he didn’t know! [Laughs]
Peter, when did you know pairing these two would work, if it wasn’t during that first meeting with Mahershala?
FARRELLY: Honestly, I knew if I got them, it would work. I never doubted it for a second.
The result is a film that juggles odd-couple humor with weighty material, as Tony and Don run into tons of trouble on their trip. Given how toxic racism continues to be, were you ever worried that the movie wasn’t serious enough? It’s been called “feel-good.” [Ed. note: This interview was conducted before Mortensen’s use of a racial slur at a recent event. He has since apologized.]
FARRELLY: It has a positive, hopeful ending, but “feel-good” makes it sound squeakier-clean than it is. When you, in the first minutes of your movie, have your protagonist drop water glasses in the trash because black workers drank from them, that’s not cutting corners.
ALI: No movie, I don’t care how heavy or gut-wrenching it is, is going to fix any of our larger societal issues. They just open the door to conversations…. Like, we’re going through some things right now, but —
MORTENSEN: Hope is not a bad deal.
ALI: Yeah. So the fact that people walk out feeling uplifted to some degree, I don’t think we should apologize for that. [Laughs]
How did you decide when to add comedy? Did the humor come naturally?
ALI: Things became funnier as we worked on them. I remember feeling this tension between giving over to [the humor] or fighting it for the sake of preserving this idea of doing a drama, which felt dishonest. The truth is that this is a quirky situation, and it has levity to it.
FARRELLY: Yeah, I was keeping that in check. I thought of trying to go for jokes. Like “farm dog” —
Sorry, what dog?
FARRELLY: [Points to Mortensen] We were winging it [in a scene on the road], and he goes, “You see that? Was that a deer or a… farm dog?” [Laughs]
MORTENSEN: [Tony’s] never been in the countryside, so… [Shrugs]
FARRELLY: It cracked me up, but it was like we were going for a joke. And we took out dramatic stuff, too. The truth is, the tour went for over a year, up to when JFK got assassinated. After Don Shirley found out the president had been shot, he called RFK, and RFK took the call that day. Don and Tony went to the funeral! We had it in the script for weeks, and I just remember not liking it. It would have been too heavy. It was fascinating but ruined the flow.
ALI: It takes them out of the car.
MORTENSEN: And it would have been a two-and-a-half hour movie.
ALI: [To Farrelly] You’re gonna use it for the sequel, though, right?
FARRELLY: [Laughs] Yeah. Our European Vacation.
ALI: Or Forest Green Book. [Mortensen applauds] Lime Green Book.
What’s your biggest takeaway from working on this?
FARRELLY: The whole experience has been special. When everything falls together like this, I feel unbelievably lucky.
ALI: In terms of the acting, working with Viggo, this was the first time I had ever been that present in a project. And Pete was so open, the energy was super-positive…. I just learned that you could be absolutely committed and focused and also be really light about [your work].
And Viggo, what has stayed with you?
MORTENSEN: [Pauses] As a fan of the New York Mets, I’m still deeply troubled that I had to pretend that I was really happy that Roger Maris hit that home run. [They all laugh] I’m kidding.
Green Book is in theaters now.