Drastic and harrowing events in a person’s life often push them into complete defeat, but their underlying heroic tendencies often help them maintain their most dignified characteristics. The impassioned exploration into the emotional contradictions and shortcomings of a person as they strive to maintain their humanity is grippingly showcased in the new thriller, ‘The Two Faces of January.’ The thriller marks the feature film directorial debut of famed screenwriter, Hossein Amini, who also adapted the script for the movie from Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name. The filmmaker enthralling worked with the movie’s main stars, including Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, to emphasize the flaws of their characters, including their irrational jealousy and paranoia, in a way that would still allow audiences to empathize with their fear and heartbreak.
‘The Two Faces of January’ follows a glamorous American couple, the charismatic Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife, Colette (Dunst), who are enjoying their vacation in Athens in 1962. While sightseeing at the Acropolis, they encounter Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young American who’s working as a tour guide in Greece. Since he also scams gullible female tourists on the side to make extra money, he’s drawn to Colette’s beauty. He’s also impressed with the wealth and sophistication of her husband, who reminds him of his father.
While eating dinner with the MacFarlands, Rydal realizes that all’s not what it initially seems with them. When the young con later visits the couple at their exclusive hotel, Chester persuades him to help move the body of a seemingly unconscious man, who he claims attacked him first. Rydal agrees to help in the heat of the moment, but quickly begins to doubt his decision when events become more sinister. Finding himself to be in a compromising situation, he realizes he has an increasing infatuation with the vulnerable Colette, against his better judgment. The young adults’ bond stirs up Chester’s jealousy and paranoia, which leads to a dangerous battle between the two men. Along with their growing desperation to avoid a confrontation with the police, the two men are forced go on a frantic international journey to Istanbul, in an attempt to regain control of their lives.
Mortensen and Dunst generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Two Faces of January’ during a roundtable interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. Among other things, the two actors discussed how they both embraced the fact that Colette was a much fuller character, and had a more significant influence on the overall story, than the way she was portrayed in Highsmith’s novel; how they agreed with Amini’s ideas about what film noir clichés he wanted to avoid, but also agreed with the elements he wanted to borrow from the best thriller genre’s best movies; and how the fact they knew each other, as well as Isaac, before they began filming helped make them feel more comfortable around each other on the set.
Question (Q): There are several different ways the movie could have been filmed, in terms of bringing the book’s story to the screen. What surprised you the most about the way the movie was made?
Viggo Mortensen (VM): What surprised me the most before we started film was that the movie company allowed us to shoot in all the actual locations. They don’t do that so much anymore, especially now with green screens-you can fake certain things.
Also, Greece is still undergoing a certain amount of turmoil that it was while we were there shooting. There are strikes and economic situations, so it was tough there. It’s also complicated to film in a city like Istanbul. It’s a crazy city, with all its back streets. But the city surprised me in a good way.
What didn’t surprise me was that Hoss(ein) did such a good job. I could see he was really prepared, way before we started.
Kirsten Dunst (KD): Yeah, in the beginning, he said, “I haven’t directed before because I haven’t wanted to. This is the only script that I’ve actually wanted to direct. That’s going to be it-I just want to direct this movie, and that’s it.” (laughs) Then on the first day of shooting, he’s like, “I like this, so I’m going to be doing more of this.” (laughs)
VM: He should. It’s one of the best (directorial) debuts I’ve seen.
KD: But what did surprise me, and I have to say is one of the sweetest things, is when we got off the plane-I think we first flew to England, then Greece and then the island of Crete-they were all waiting for me at the hotel. The camaraderie and support that was immediately within the group was so nice.
I had met Viggo before, because we were also both in ‘On the Road,’ but we didn’t have any work together. He also knew my boyfriend (their ‘On the Road’ co-star, Garrett Hedlund), and I already knew Oscar. So I immediately felt like I trust, and feel comfortable, with these people, which is very rare to happen.
Q: Viggo, since you played such a dark character, when the crew yelled cut, would you immediately be able to be yourself again?
VM: Oh, yes.
KD: He’s funny-we joked around a lot, and we had fun.
VM: We did have a lot of fun, and that doesn’t always happen. We ended up making a really interesting, original movie, and were making jokes and having fun. We also got to see beautiful places. Those things don’t often go together.
Q: What were some of the challenges you did face?
KD: Sometimes for me, I felt like it was all about the boys. Sometimes Colette is objectified, since she’s the only female.
But I wanted to be a part of this film because I loved the script so much, and Viggo was already attached. So I wanted to make Colette as much of a character as I could. But it’s also about the guys, so that was probably the hardest thing for me-I wanted to make her as full as possible, when she could have easily just been a throw-away character.
VM: Hoss started that, because in the book, there’s not many dimensions to her. She doesn’t have much class or elegance, or even intelligence, thoughtfulness or sensitivity. He brought it further for the film.
KD: That’s the same with Chester, too.
VM: In the begging of the movie, Chester was already a little of who he ultimately becomes. You already see him desperate and paranoid. It’s just not as interesting, and doesn’t give me somewhere to go as an actor. When you first see them, they look happy, and you think, what a great life they have, even though they don’t.
KD: What’s interesting is that when I watch movies that are only about boys, and there aren’t any interesting female characters, I don’t really end up liking it that much.
VM: It’s difficult with Patricia Highsmith, because the females in her stories aren’t typically as well-written or layered as the male characters. In this novel, Colette is a typical Highsmith female character, and is almost objectified. I think you made her much more deep in the movie.
KD: She is a little more interesting, as she’s a little bit more involved in the scheme, and you want to know about it.
VM: You’re affected by her as you’re watching the movie. In the book, she’s like, “I don’t care. I just want to find a way to get out of this.”
Q: One of the more interesting things you just mentioned was about bringing a complexity to your characters that wasn’t in the book. Can you both discuss the process of also working with Oscar, to develop your characters’ relationships?
KD: I knew Oscar from before this film. I knew him in a very familiar way, which was very comfortable. But it was interesting acting with you (turns to Mortensen) and Oscar, for me as an actress.
I naturally behaved very differently as I was doing scenes with the both of them. My being with the both of them was very different. I grow farther away from Viggo, and closer to Oscar.
VM: That was happening because of my paranoid behavior.
KD: Yeah, and Oscar’s there and he’s a young American. In my mind, we’ve been on the run for awhile, and we’ve obviously haven’t been to the States in a long time. Then here comes this young guy who knows New York, so there’s an immediate connection, just because of our age.
I also think the more Viggo becomes paranoid and pushes me away, the more I deter to Oscar to possibly take me out of here. But in my mind, I didn’t see that Colette had in her mind that she was going to run away with him. I always saw him as a possible way to get out of Greece.
Q: Were there any films from the 1960s that you watched to prepare for your roles?
KD: I watched ‘L’Avventura,’ which I hadn’t seen. I also looked at some fun 1960s fashion books, because we decided Colette was probably into fashion. We also surrounded ourselves with music from that time.
(Turns to Mortensen) You know what you were always good at? He would collect postcards from all over, and hang them up all over the hair and make-up departments. So we were always reminded in the morning of what we were seeing. That was a nice thing you did for all of us.
VM: I also watched some film noir stuff. It helped that Hoss is such a fan of that genre. I think he collects film noir posters in his house.
KD: Oh, I didn’t know that.
VM: He also knew what he wanted to avoid, in terms of clichés. But he also wanted to borrow from the best of them, and also bring his own thing. So there was a good fusion. This movie looks and feels totally right, in terms of the period and our behavior, dialogue and clothing.
But he wasn’t trying to make a retro exercise-he was trying to make his own kind of movie. In the subtle way it was shot, there is more. There’s a dynamic element to the cinematography. It’s subtlety keeps it classy. But there’s also an energy to it.
KD: The movie’s color is so pretty, too. It’s very ambitious.
Q: Kristen, between this film, ‘Melancholia,’ ‘All Good Things’ and ‘Marie Antoinette,’ to a certain degree, what is it about playing wives who meet tragic endings that you’re drawn to?
KD: I didn’t even think of it like that-I’ve never connected them like that. I did other movies in between! (laughs) I did ‘Bachelorette’ after ‘Melancholia,’ so I wouldn’t have that vibe.
I think when you get to a certain age, there are things that start to happen in your films. You can start to play roles in which you can get married. I think that’s because of what’s age appropriate for me now, as I’m in my early 30s.
Q: Would you like to get more scripts like ‘Bachelorette?’
KD: There is one comedy I’ve received, and it has a straight-up stoner girl comedy. It’s really funny, and I’m debating whether to do it. I don’t know yet if I’m going to do it.
But I love comedies, and I love making them. I don’t think there are enough good female ones. I love working with women, and you don’t even get to do that very often.
That’s part of the reason why I did ‘Bachelorette.’ I loved Lizzy (Caplain) on ‘Party Down.’ Now she’s obviously so successful with ‘Masters of Sex.’ I’ve always been a fan of Isla (Fisher), and she took a big hiatus and raised her kids.
I wanted to have fun with girls my age who are also actresses. You hardly ever get to work with other women, and that’s really nice. The dynamic is different, because you’re not playing the love interest. It’s fun to change it up.
Q: Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
KD: I did one movie this year, and it’s coming out next year. It’s called ‘Midnight Special,’ and it’s from the director of ‘Mud’ and ‘Take Shelter,’ Jeff Nichols.
VM: I have two coming up. Sometimes that happens-you have movies that were all spread out while you were shooting. Then all of a sudden, they come out at the same time, for some reason. I have one called ‘Jauja,’ and it’s a strange movie.
KD: The poster looks really cool. It went to Cannes, right?
KD: I remember seeing the poster, and my friend posted it on Instagram. You looked really cool. You play a Danish character, right?
VM: Yes, and it was my first Danish role. I play a Danish military guy in the 1880s. He goes to Argentina to work for their army, with is 15-year-old daughter.
Like most dads, he’s the last one to realize his little girl is becoming a woman, and the guys are checking her out. He freaks out, because they’re in the middle of nowhere, and there are all these soldiers. She runs off with this guy, and I go off to try to find her in the Indian territory of the desert.
I got to do my dad’s accent for that one, and it was hilarious. I speak Spanish and Danish in it. (Mortensen is of Danish descent, and speaks fluent English, Danish and Spanish.)
KD: I love that! Viggo does the funniest impression of his dad.
VM: My brothers’ are going to laugh when they see it.
KD: I’m going to laugh when I see it!
VM: Then the other one is called ‘Far From Men.’ I play a school teacher in Algeria in the ’50s.
Q: When you both make dramatic roles, how do you spend your down time when you’re not filming?
VM: We did have some nice times, and had dinner together.
KD: We did have dinners. When I’m doing something that’s very emotional, I like to take time for myself, and have my headphones in. But most of our scenes were relaxed.
VM: There were only a few scenes that were really intense. I think it’s healthy if you can let yourself off the hook, even if it’s for a few minutes once in a while to make some jokes.
KD: Doing that also keeps your energy up. I think if I wasn’t making jokes with everyone else, and was by myself all the time, I think my energy would start to drop. I was actually feeding stray cats in between set-ups on this film. (laughs)
VM: There were lots of stray cats where we were.
KD: The cats were everywhere in Greece, including the monuments. So one of the producers, Robyn (Slovo), and I would take the extra crafts services to feed the stray cats. (laughs)
Written by: Karen Benardello