Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen relive family trauma in 'Falling'

Viggo Mortensen wrote, directed and stars in "Falling." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
1 of 4 | Viggo Mortensen wrote, directed and stars in "Falling." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Academy Award-nominated Green Book and Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen makes his directorial debut with Falling, which he also wrote.

Although Mortensen's script was fictional, he said he drew on events from his family's life, including parents coping with dementia. He dedicated the film to his brothers, Charles and Walter Mortensen, for that reason.


"There are some elements that are reminiscent of things they would remember," Mortensen told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "It was out of respect for them that I dedicated it to them."

Mortensen plays John, who is trying to care for his father, Willis (Lance Henriksen) as Willis' dementia becomes more severe. Henriksen said he also drew on childhood traumas to inspire Willis' anger and vulnerability.

"The arts have saved me from a really rough childhood up into my teens," Henriksen told UPI in a separate phone interview. "I [had] to revisit those because I'm not going to act this thing, I'm going to live it."


In the present day, Willis lives by himself on a Midwest farm. John's mother left Willis decades before and has since died.

Henriksen shared how his mother married five times, each time restarting a cycle of resentment between her new husband and Henriksen.

"Every time she married, I had to get into a Catholic school, a boarding school or it was the Norwegian children's home," Henriksen said. "It was getting rid of 'the little pig headed bastard,' which was me."

Willis was resentful of his wife and children before he had dementia. Now, he still lashes out at John for being gay and having an Asian husband, and Willis' wife cheats on him.

"He's living alone on a farm with all his regrets and all his stuff, and slipping into dementia, as well," Henriksen said. "It's a cauldron."

Henriksen said acting gave him an outlet to process his childhood traumas. Willis reminded him of his mother's siblings, aunts and uncles, who did not have such an outlet.

Many of Henriksen's granduncles died of drug overdoses, he said. The 80-year-old actor said he resurrected his childhood feelings about that era for his performance.

"It was my secret," Henriksen said. "I wasn't laying it out, but I'd come to terms with a lot of that stuff."


Mortensen said he also was familiar with men like Willis, who resists John's assistance. His dementia further complicates his attitude because he is not entirely aware how much help he needs.

"He's a man of that generation," Mortensen said. "You're not supposed to seem like you're not in control. You're not supposed to show emotion and so forth."

Finnish actor Sverrir Gudnason plays Willis as a young man in flashbacks. Henriksen said they collaborated on the character at Henriksen's home.

"He was picking up my mannerisms," Henriksen said. "I was watching his, not knowing how much we could use of each other. We kind of absorbed it."

Gudnason has a line that Henriksen once said in real life. Mortensen said Henriksen told him that when his daughter was born, he said, "I'm so sorry I brought you into the world so you could die."

Henriksen told Mortensen he was so consumed with love, he felt guilty for exposing his daughter to the harsh world. Mortensen wanted to include it in the movie.

"It's not your usual father's statement to his newborn," Mortensen said. "It's going to be the younger version of [Willis] because I want it to be early in the story."


The 52-year-old Mortensen said he has been attempting to direct a film for 25 years. He wrote different scripts set in different eras that he was not able to make.

Mortensen said he finished writing Falling in 2017 and spent two years trying to find financing. He'd co-starred with Henriksen in the 2008 western Appaloosa and later thought of him for the role of Willis.

Henriksen has had a prolific career in horror and science fiction films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Terminator, Aliens and Near Dark. Having seen him play androids, vampires and humans dealing with aliens and robots, Mortensen was confident Henriksen could apply his intensity to Willis.

"No matter how crazy the genre was, he was always riveting," Mortensen said. "He was a really committed actor. So I believed him even in the most incredible situations no matter what the movie was."

Production on Falling finally began in 2019, as Green Book was enjoying awards recognition. Mortensen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, said attending awards shows distracted him from preproduction, but he wanted to show his gratitude.

"If you're nominated, you should show up," Mortensen said. "I was glad that season was over, to be honest with you, that I can now just fully focus on what we're doing."


Falling opens in theaters and is available on video-on-demand Friday.

Latest Headlines