LOS ANGELES – It was the third course, really, that did him in.
Viggo Mortensen was prepping for “Green Book” (in major markets Friday), in which he packs on the pounds to play a working class Italian-American, Tony Lip (real name: Frank Anthony Vallelonga). In the film, Lip checks his racism in 1962 New York to earn an income chauffeuring a world-class black pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), in the Deep South.
Mortensen, 60, who is Danish-American, recalls flying in from his home in Spain to meet Tony’s descendants at a New Jersey red-sauce joint still owned by the family.
And the Italian food just kept coming. “Oh my God,” he says. “The first thing was, ‘Let’s go to the kitchen and have (Tony’s wife) Dolores’ meatballs.’ But I was already full. I hadn’t gained all that weight or expanded my stomach (yet).” Then came the antipasti, and a second course, and a third. Mortensen struggled to finish his plate. “And then they’re looking at me like, ‘He doesn’t like it.’ … ‘No, no! It’s great!’ ”
Afterward, “I made a good show of going out to my rental car and getting in it, and I just drove around the corner and parked, cranked the seat back, undid my belt and laid there for an hour,” he says with a grin.
“Green Book,” a flip on “Driving Miss Daisy,” is based on a true story and doesn’t cut corners: The film shows the blue-collar Tony hurling epithets common to the period – a contrast to the reserved, regal pianist he drives – and touches on police brutality. (While discussing the era at a recent Q&A for the film, Mortensen invoked a racial slur in describing what’s no longer permissible, for which he has since apologized.)
But the movie, which is largely a road comedy, also is based on a real travel guide. The Green Book, which began publication in the 1930s, was a pamphlet that mapped where African-Americans could find safe lodging across the country. Before filming, the cast thumbed through old copies.
Many Hollywood insiders also believe it’s Mortensen’s turn to win a gold statue, after two best-actor nods for “Captain Fantastic” and “Eastern Promises.” On the awards prediction site GoldDerby.com, he has 4-to-1 odds of edging out Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”) and Christian Bale (“Vice”).
GoldDerby founder Tom O’Neil calls “Green Book” a “sleeping giant” at the Oscars this year that could trigger “lots of upsets.” And despite a tight race for best actor, “Viggo has some strong pluses,” he says, citing the actor’s radical physical transformation and the respect he holds inside Hollywood. “Voters love to catch up with beloved industry veterans who are ridiculously overdue to win.”
Away from the red carpet, Mortensen lives by his own rules. He’s still the proud owner of a flip phone, his one Luddite pleasure (well, aside from sending postcards to friends), and is in the midst of a self-made avalanche of responsibilities: an upcoming film he’s directing, a publishing house he runs, a new book of Spanish poetry he’s releasing.