The usually-cut Viggo Mortensen gained over 20kgs for his portrayal of Tony Lip in Green Book. “It’s not something I want to dwell on because it’s only a part of what the characterisation is about,” he tells us. “It was definitely the easiest part, though. It’s like, ‘just eat’.”
Eating often went hand in hand with hanging out with the Vallelonga family. “That first lunch, God, it was gruelling, as it turned out,” laughs Mortensen. “I thought ‘We’ll be there an hour, maybe two hours,’ because we were going to talk. And then they’re all there, and that’s when I knew. Frank, he’s kind of a lot like Tony. It’s just like stuff happens and suddenly it’s ‘How did you do that?’ ‘Eh, don’t ask’.”
Frank Vallelonga is the son of Tony Lip, the character Mortensen plays in the film, which was co-written by Frank’s older brother Nick Vallelonga.
“I go in there and they say ‘Come into the kitchen. First, let’s try Dolores’ meatballs’. And we did that. I had some, they were great, it was Dolores’ recipe. And then ‘Okay, now we’re going to have some seafood’. It was a plate like that with octopus and things! It was before I gained all the weight and stretched my stomach lining to ridiculous dimensions, I hadn’t begun yet. I was just getting to know them, and I was almost just wanting to apologise for the fact that I was going to play one of their family members. And they were like ‘Nah! Just go ahead, have some food. We’ll talk about that later’.
“And so I’m eating and I plowed through all of this food. But it was delicious, and I was like ‘Amazing!’ And they’re all like ‘Ah, see, he likes it, he likes it. See, I knew he would like it. That was a good choice for the first plate’. And I’m thinking ‘The first plate?!’ And then they bring in another one! Just this big with other stuff! And they’re eating, you know, and I’m eating, but I had a really hard time. The third plate – and it was like an hour and a half into this thing – I couldn’t finish it. I ate half of it, which was way more than I thought I was going to be able to. And I was just sitting there, and I was looking if there was a couch or something, because I needed to just unbuckle and pass out.
“And they were saying ‘Aah, he doesn’t like it. You overcooked it, you overcooked it!’ And I was like ‘No, no, no! It’s really good’. ‘Nah, you overcooked it! I told you, you shoulda brought it out right away! You let it sit on the counter!’ And I’m like ‘No, it’s really good!’ And they were like ‘Well, you don’t eat so fast, so we had to wait, it was sitting, it was already done. We shoulda brought it right away! You don’t like it!’ ‘No, it’s excellent!’ And then I was like ‘Okay…’ So I realised I have to finish this.
“So, I finished it, but the problem is every time I’d finish a plate, they’d bring out another one. So, this went on for, like, five hours. I could have had a heart attack! But in the process, we also talk a lot. It wasn’t just, like, shovelling, it was a lot of information. And they were extremely generous. They had brought photographs of Tony, they gave me recordings where he was talking about the trip with Shirley, and just a million things. They even said ‘Frank has the cold chain and the Mother of Mary metal that’s from his father, who’s from Calabria, gave him that, he wore until the end of his days. You can use that, if you want’. Which I did. And they also ended up giving Linda Cardellini some jewellery and objects.
“So, that was the beginning with them. And then I went to visit Rudy [Tony Lip’s brother] and his family in Long Island, and I spent some time in the Bronx. Gradually, I got comfortable. But eating was the way in and the way out.”
Sitting down to eat with the family was also when Mortensen found out that they were going to be playing his family on the screen as well.
“They said ‘this is my dad’s brother, Rudy, he’s going to be playing your father in the movie’. I’m like ‘Oh, really, well that’s cool.’ ‘And Frankie’s gonna play your brother!’ And I go ‘Oh, that’s wild!’ I went back and took a nap because I was spent, but after I called Pete [Farrelly, director] and said ‘So, you’re going to have the whole Vallelonga family in the movie?’ And he goes ‘I am?’”
So, this was all before the cameras started rolling. How did Viggo Mortensen go about depicting the character and his eating habits during the actual shoot?
“When you think about it, there’s obviously more than one take, and more than one angle…” he says and then paused. “It was brutal! There were times where, like the hot dog eating contest, which was really inhumane. They said ‘You got this bucket here. You just eat it and when they say ‘cut’ you just spit it out’. I thought ‘That’s disgusting! I’m not doing that in front of all these people’. I said ‘Nah, I’ll just eat it, Pete’. I thought he would just do a take or two, but by his count, it was fourteen and a half. I didn’t finish the last one, and I did go and lie down.
“I couldn’t tell you what the catering is like on this movie because I’ve never had lunch. I didn’t need it.”
Green Book is in cinemas January 24, 2019