Lance Henriksen revisits a harsh childhood to play an even tougher parent in ‘Falling’

Lance Henriksen (left) stars in Viggo Mortensen's "Falling." Mortensen writes, directs, produces, scores and stars.
Lance Henriksen, left, has perhaps the most challenging role of his long career in Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, “Falling.”
(Brendan Adam-Zwelling)

Between them, Viggo Mortensen and Lance Henriksen‘s acting careers have spanned 95 years, but the drama “Falling” was something new for both. Mortensen, the three-time Oscar nominee, makes his writing and directing debut while also starring, scoring and producing. Henriksen, despite about 260 credits and three Golden Globe nominations, agrees he has never had a dramatic showcase role like this: a toxically bigoted, dementia-afflicted patriarch careening through his family like a drunkard on a bulldozer. Both men, without telling a true story, had to face and understand their pasts, their parents and find their way back.

You started writing this on the plane back from your mother’s funeral, right?

Viggo Mortensen: At the funeral, you’re hearing stories that you’re familiar with, but might be slightly different versions, and new stories. It’s very vivid, and you’re looking at photographs, videos. So even though she’s dead, she’s very alive. She’s as alive as ever. With time, that tends to fade away, just like the pain finds a place; your body naturally does that.


I didn’t want it to, though. I wanted to remember these things. So I started writing them down on the plane, whatever I could remember. And I thought, “This is an interesting structure for a story.” By the time we landed, it became about this fictional family: Willis [played by Henriksen], his son John [Mortensen], his daughter Sarah [Laura Linney].

From left, Terry Chen, Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen star in "Falling."
Terry Chen, Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen star in “Falling.”
(Brendan Adam-Zwelling)

Willis is bitter and bigoted; he’s pretty tough to take. He also gets many of the best lines.

Mortensen: Lance made those things work because of his complete commitment. I felt that even writing: “This is pretty intense, and I’m pushing it and pushing it,” and then Lance went for it. It’s a very brave, graceful performance. It’s much more than was written. There’s layers and layers to what Lance gave us. It’s beyond what I had hoped.

Henriksen: There was a scene we did where we’re fighting, really fighting — blows and so on. When we finally got it, I walked around the corner to video village, and the crew had all moved into there because they wanted to see it. And some were crying.

Mortensen: Men, women. Yeah, it was amazing. They were with us.

Henriksen: It was an emotional film all the way along. When things happen like that, it gives you great hope that what we’re doing is good.


This has to be one of the most technically demanding, emotionally explosive roles in Lance’s long career.

Mortensen: He hesitated for a second. He’s like, “It’s going to be difficult.” “It’s a lot of text, a lot of emotional twists and turns, hard part for any actor.” “No, it’s not just that. I don’t wanna be caught acting this; I wanna live it. I’m gonna have to go to places that I’ve long since moved past, that took me decades to accept and not be bitter about” — his childhood, which was tough.

Henriksen: I’m laughing about it, because I outlived it. Art saved me, because without that I wouldn’t have.… My mother, at one point — she was a drinker, and she came from 10 brothers and sisters, so she was a wild child. And one night when I was about 5, she ran up to me, because I was scared about what was going on in the house, and she took my birth certificate and folded it into my hand and opened the door and shoved me out, saying, “Now you’ll always know who you are.” So I went off into the night. It was terrifying, really. [Henriksen has said that he returned eventually but that he “left home, really left, at 12.”]

I look back on that now.… It’s part and parcel of what happened when we were making the movie. The movie had that thin line, like walking a tightrope between “I’m gonna be abandoned” or “I’m going to be ‘fixed’ into oblivion” or “I’m going to lose my son.” All of those feelings were going through me when I said [terrible] stuff to him: I gotta get it off my chest, but it doesn’t feel good.

I come from a place where abandonment is huge in my life. But I forgive it all. I mean, the arts give you that power, because you understand it.

Trailer for “Falling,” the writing and directing debut of Viggo Mortensen. Starring Mortensen and Lance Henriksen.

When you think of Viggo as a director, what comes to mind?


Henriksen: One day I came in, and Viggo had gotten flags of every nationality that was working on the film: British, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, American. And they were big, they were like 5 feet by 4 feet. He strung ‘em together between the trailers. And they were flapping in the wind every minute of every day, because it was cold. I think that bonded us: “We’re appreciated, no matter who we are, on this set.” And then he put all of his family pictures in the makeup trailer. And suddenly the walls went from just his, to everybody putting pictures up. And there we had it, we were all bonded.

Viggo, do you feel this process clarified any of the things that motivated that first writing on the plane?

Mortensen: Maybe. I mean, I loved my mother and father before I wrote it. But I love them even more. Maybe I understand my father better in a way, even though Lance isn’t playing my dad. I’m more forgiving of his flaws. Writing this story … I kept a flame lit of memory of feeling for my parents. And the wound, from healing over, willingly. My father and mother couldn’t be more vivid for me.

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April 22, 2021