17 years since he came to Cannes with his first David Cronenberg collaboration, the universally-acclaimed A History of Violence, in which he played a small-town diner owner whose mobster past returns to haunt him, Viggo Mortensen returns to the Palais with his fourth.

Following 2007’s Eastern Promises (playing a heavily tattooed Russian gangster) and 2011’s A Dangerous Method (playing Sigmund Freud), the latest entry in a blossoming creative partnership seems to be something wildly different, taking Cronenberg back to his early body horror roots. Having its world premiere in the Official Competition lineup, Crimes of the Future is set in a not-so-distant future where the human species has begun to adapt to its synthetic environment, with bodily organs transforming and evolving at pace. Mortensen plays Saul, a celebrated, avant-garde performance artist who, alongside his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), publicly showcases — and removes — his own advanced biological mutations.

According to the actor, while Crimes of the Future may indeed be shocking, it’s also a film that should leave the audience with questions and talking points (even if one may well be “what the hell was that?”).

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Mortensen explains why working with Cronenberg feels like being on set with someone just out of film school, describes how the director’s daring and controversial Crash is “head and shoulders” above last year’s hugely provocative Palme-winner Titane and professes his love for The Lord of the Rings almost two decades after it ended.

However, it would seem that he hasn’t been paying all that much attention to more recent big-budget movements in Middle Earth despite his ancestors being involved.

Crimes of the Future is your fourth collaboration with David Cronenberg. Do you still read the scripts thoroughly or is it just a “yes” whenever he calls?

Oh yeah. Even though David is the director I’ve worked with the most, and we have a shorthand and shared sense of humor, it’s always about the script for me. I need to understanding what the story is and what I can contribute, if anything.

Even by his own standards, this film sounds pretty wild. How would you rank it in terms of Cronenberg craziness?

I think, in a sense, it’s a return to the stories that he told and the imagery that was present early in his career, before I worked with him. But what’s different now is that he has a lot more experience, and the technology has improved. I think he’s more assured as a filmmaker in terms of the types of shots and amounts of shots and how to dial it in terms of storytelling. He’s someone who keeps challenging themselves and getting better and better. When you’re on a set with him, and this is the same with all four films I’ve done, including Crimes of the Future, it feels like you’re dealing with an incredibly gifted director just out of film school in terms of the enthusiasm. He’s very forward-looking in terms of technology and technique.

Can you give any specifics about the prosthetics or any of the set pieces?

There are some prosthetics. What you see in the movie, you couldn’t do that to a human being in real life! But it’s convincing. But it’s not just about the physical nature of the story. As always with David’s movies, it’s thought-provoking, it’s a little bit ahead of its time, it deals with censorship and with what you do with your own body. It talks about the damage we do to our own environment and how that affects us physically and mentally, and how the body evolves to survive.

Your character is a performance artist who showcases the metamorphosis of human organs. I’m assuming this is a little more than Kevin Costner having webbed feet and gills in Waterworld?

Ha, yeah. It’s more an internal thing than external. In the story, Léa Seydoux is both my partner and creative partner, and she’s a very no-holds-barred, uncompromising artist and probably pushes the boundaries more than my character.

Last year, Palme winner Titane was arguably Cannes’ biggest WTF moment. Do you think people will be going to be coming out of the Palais having a similar response to Crimes of the Future?

It could be. But many years ago, it was Crash that caused the big scandal. And in my opinion, no offense to the director of Titane, but Crash was head and shoulders above that movie, because it wasn’t just about superficial shock value and unconventional imagery. There was a story beneath it, there was true character exploration in Crash, much more than in Titane, I think. Who knows what’s going to happen – every jury is different. But certainly in Crimes of the Future, like Crash, you get to know the characters, they’re fully realized and with motivations. There’s mystery to them, but they are actually characters. It’s not like one long music video. I imagine Crimes of the Future could cause controversy, but I think it will leave you thinking and discussing and with something to take home. You may wake up the next day and still think, “What the hell was that?” But at the same time, you’re likely to be thinking of the world as it is now. It’s impossible to say. Cannes can be unpredictable. [Cronenberg’s] been many times. But I don’t think he’s fully gotten his due there. But if people like Titane and liked the challenges it presented, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be equally, if not more, interested by this movie.

A couple of years ago, you made your directorial debut with Falling, which seemed to be really well received. Any plans to get back behind the camera?

I was actually invited to come and be in competition in Cannes in 2020, but obviously it didn’t happen that year. But I’m proud of that movie, and a lot of people seemed to like it. But yeah, I’m starting working on one movie right now and am looking at locations in Mexico and a little bit in Canada, and hopefully I’m shooting another movie later this year.

Can you say anything about them?

I don’t want to curse them. But they’re two screenplays I wrote during the lockdown in 2020, and I found producers for both of them. They’re both very different. One’s a Danish story. But the one I ended up getting the money for first is a Western.

It’s been almost 20 years since Return of the King. Are The Lord of the Rings films still very close to your heart?

Absolutely. I run into people who have seen them a lot of times and little kids who have seen them for the first time. I’ve sat with kids watching those film for the first time, and it’s really fun. And I made quite a few friends from that experience, and I stay in touch with quite a few of them.

How do you feel about the new The Lord of the Rings prequel coming up. Are you planning on watching it?

What is that? The TV thing? It is with Apple, or something?

It’s Amazon. It’s thought to be the most expensive TV series ever made.

Oh, right. Yeah, I’ll watch that. But do you know what source material they’re using? What were they allowed to use?

I’m not sure exactly, but it’s set thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings. And it’s all being made with the Tolkien estate. Your ancestors are in it. I believe Isildur is one of the main characters.

Oh, that’s cool! Yeah, It’ll be fun to see.

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