Lance Henriksen has played more than 250 roles in the past 50 years. But Variety’s Peter Debruge wrote that the actor “gives the performance of his career” in “Falling,” the writing-directing debut of Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen says with admiration for Henriksen: “At 80, he gets a part that shows everything he can do.”
Mortensen also stars, playing a man trying to cope with the growing dementia of his father, Willis (Henriksen). It soon becomes clear that Willis was always verbally abusive, and while the family dynamics are riveting for the audience, it wasn’t easy for the actors.
“I had to visit a lot of stuff from my life,” says Henriksen. “It was painful to go there.” When growing up, his parents “were trying to get rid of me most of the time,” he says, so he left home at age 12 and began supporting himself. Since he’d completed only three years in grammar school, he was illiterate until age 30.
At that point, he was cast in Eugene O’Neill’s “Three Plays of the Sea” and learned his role by listening to a tape. He taught himself to read by studying other plays. “I saw Francois Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows,’ and it was like the story of my childhood. I couldn’t believe someone made a movie of my life.” Other influences included “The Big Sky” with Kirk Douglas and the 1951 “The Great Caruso,” starring Mario Lanza. They started his path to acting.
He says, “These films sparked something in me: ‘If I want to live 1,000 lives, that’s what I have to do.’ That’s what acting is — my education, my socialization. I got pulled in by movies, telling stories, the magic. I’ve learned from every job I ever did.”
Mortensen didn’t intend to star in the film, but it made financing easier. And he was glad for the experience of acting with Henriksen. “I got the best seat in the house, watching him build that character. Every day, he would do remarkable things.”
Mortensen adds, “I’ve seen a lot of dementia in my family, but I never felt at ease with depictions of it in films. Those characters are usually kind of confused. That’s not been my experience — it’s the observers who are confused. To a person with dementia, their present life is very real. I had worked with Lance before and I knew he would be interesting. He was apprehensive, because it’s a big challenge. He went beyond my expectations; Lance totally nailed it.”
On a personal note: As someone who’s dealt with the dementia of both parents, I was moved by the film’s accuracy in depicting its effects on the patient and his/her family — a welcome departure from most movies. Did I like “Falling” because I related? No, I think I liked it simply because it’s so good and because you won’t see better acting anywhere.
The film, which merits Oscar attention, debuted at the 2020 Sundance Festival; it is distributed by Quiver Distribution and available in virtual cinemas through KinoMarquee.com.
Though COVID changed the original release plans, Mortensen adds that it arrived at the right time, considering the zeitgeist. “The more things are polarized, the more timely this story is, unfortunately. A lot has to do with problems of communication.
“In the film, the family is reminded of a time when the bonds of affection were not broken — and they’re hoping those memories can help them rebuild something. I think that’s also true of the country right now: Let’s remember who we have been, who we are capable of being.”
Henriksen adds, “After all the chaos in this past year, we’re yearning for connections. And that’s all in the movie. It’s kind of a miraculous film.”
In talking about “Falling,” Mortensen always steers the conversation to Henriksen. “His work will stand the test of time, but I want people to see it now. I want him to get his due.”