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“You Have to Speak Up”: Viggo Mortensen Defends Quentin Tarantino’s Criticism of Police Killings

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Award-winning film director Quentin Tarantino is refusing to back down from his criticism of police brutality, even as police unions have launched a campaign to boycott his films. Tarantino sparked controversy after he called fatal police shootings “murders” during the Rise Up October rally against police brutality in New York City on October 24. Tarantino’s comments have come under intense criticism, with several major police unions calling for a boycott of his films. “[Tarantino] clearly saw what anybody with eyes on their head could see,” says Academy Award-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen. “What’s troubling is the tacit condoning of these abuses of power by certain police officers by their bosses, by people who should know better.” Mortensen also looks back on his own brush with a right-wing political backlash, after he famously wore a T-shirt on the PBS show Charlie Rose that said “No more blood for oil.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Viggo Mortensen singing Bob Dylan “Masters of War,” courtesy of The People Speak. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we go now to the controversy around the award-winning film director Quentin Tarantino. On October 24th, Democracy Now! was down at Washington Square Park. There was a major protest there. Quentin Tarantino spoke at the Rise Up October rally against police brutality before thousands of people here in New York City.

QUENTIN TARANTINO: I got something to say, but actually I would like to give my time to the families that want to talk. I want to give my time to the families. However, I just do also want to say: What am I doing here? I’m doing here because I am a human being with a conscience. And when I see murder, I cannot stand by, and I have to call the murdered the murdered, and I have to call the murderers the murderers. Now I’m going to give my time to the families.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Quentin Tarantino’s comments have come under intense criticism. Several major police unions have called for a boycott of his films. On Wednesday night, Tarantino defended his remarks on All In with Chris Hayes.

QUENTIN TARANTINO: Now, in the case of Walter Scott, who was the man running in the park—


QUENTIN TARANTINO: —and was shot in the back, in the case of Sam DuBose, I believe those were murder, and they were deemed murder. And the reason—and the only reason they were deemed murder is because the incidences were caught on video. However, if they had not been caught on video, the murderers would have gotten away with their murder. In the case of Eric Garner, in the case of Tamir Rice, I believe that those were murders, but they were exonerated.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was award-winning film director Quentin Tarantino speaking on Chris Hayes last night. So, Viggo Mortensen, could you respond to this controversy?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Well, I saw—I saw both the clip of what he said on the 24th of October, and I saw him on All In last night with Chris Hayes, and I thought that Quentin Tarantino knocked it out of the park in his interview last night. He clearly saw what anybody with eyes on their head could see in certain videos. Fortunately, those certain events were videotaped, of police brutality. He was commenting, like the people, the families of those who had been slain by police officers—unarmed people, you know. In some cases, those acts have been condemned, you know, have been called murder. And in other cases, they have controversially not been—what happened on Staten Island, you know, recently, and in other places, even though they were videotaped, and all could see what was going on.

You know, clearly, there is a—it’s a small minority, obviously, and it is a problem, of police officers, not just in New York and not just in Missouri and not just in the South, but all over the country—there are some individuals who break the law, who are committing criminal acts as police officers, who are murdering, who are using excessive force. But what’s more troubling—and that’s part of the reaction, the backlash against Tarantino—is the condoning, the tacit condoning of these abuses of power by certain police officers by their bosses, by people who should know better.

Quentin Tarantino did not say that all cops are murderers. He didn’t say, “I hate cops.” Never said any of those things. He said, “Certain things that I have seen and that everyone has seen are wrong, and I’m bearing witness.” You know, that’s what the Howard Zinn book and Twilight of Empire are about. They’re about bearing witness.

AMY GOODMAN: So, police unions are calling for a boycott of his film that’s coming out, The Hateful Eight. Interestingly, you turned down a role in The Hateful Eight. You also, what, auditioned for his film Reservoir Dogs.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Yeah, when he’s early in his career, his first big feature, Reservoir Dogs, I did audition for that. That was fun. And I was lucky to meet Quentin again about a year ago before he was going to shoot The Hateful Eight. I simply wasn’t available. It wasn’t that I turned it down. I just wasn’t available to do it. But I had a really great conversation with him.

AMY GOODMAN: So Mark Ruffalo, the musician Tom Morello, the great author Joyce Carol Oates, they have all come out in support of Tarantino. Do you join that list?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Absolutely. But it’s not just Tarantino. It’s about all the other people that were there on a 24th. It’s not—you know, just being someone in the entertainment business does not give you more right than anyone else to speak, and it certainly doesn’t give you less right. You know, the way that the police authority figures are speaking against Tarantino is by making irrelevant moral judgments about his movies, you know, to attack him. And that will work, you know, with a certain part of the population who likes to think, “Well, everything that’s done in the movie business is—you know, it’s Sodom and Gomorrah, and these people shouldn’t be allowed to speak,” and so forth.

I mean, I don’t think anything I say on this program today is going to be a problem for me as far as big reaction, because I’m not, you know—I mean, people see my movies, fortunately, but I’m not—it’s not like when Lord of the Rings came out. Then I was more in the news, along with the rest of the cast, you know, because those movies were a box office phenomenon. But I was, you know, mercilessly attacked and slandered by all kinds of people just for saying in—I remember 2002, I think, I was on Charlie Rose and in other places when I was asked what I thought about, you know, what was going on or the buildup to war in Iraq. I just said, “Well, it’s wrong.” I said, “Obviously there’s no justification for it.” And I got hundreds of emails a day for months and months saying, you know, “Why don’t you move to France?” And much worse. And, you know—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to—

VIGGO MORTENSEN: —that I was a traitor and a coward and so forth, and I didn’t have a right to speak. This is what they do to Quentin, saying, “You’re a movie maker, you don’t have a right to speak. Let the politicians speak about politics.” Well, I think that letting our rulers decide how to govern us is not—we haven’t had a great history there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go back to 2002, before the U.S. entered the war in Iraq. You appeared on Charlie Rose along with fellow Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood and producer Peter Jackson. You wore a T-shirt that said “No more blood for oil.” Charlie Rose asked if you were making a political statement by wearing that shirt.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I wouldn’t normally, but it’s sort of a reaction to—I’ve heard a lot of people say to me, and I’ve read in a lot of places about the first movie and increasingly about the second one—I’ve seen where people try to relate it to, you know, the current situation, specifically the United States and their role in the world right now. And if you’re going to compare them, then you should get it right. You know, I don’t like hearing—you know, I mean, I played a character who is defending Helm’s Deep, you know, and I don’t think that The Two Towers or Tolkien’s writing or Peter’s work or our work has anything to do with the United States’ foreign adventures, you know, at this time. And it upsets me to hear that in a way. And it upsets me even more that questioning what’s going on right now, what the United States is doing, is considered treasonous, really. And “How dare you say that?” And “How un-American of you!” And really, this country is founded on the principle that if the government isn’t serving the people, you at least have the right to say, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?” And there’s no questions really being asked, at large, about what we’re doing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was your appearance on Charlie Rose in 2002. So could you talk about the response that you received to what you said that evening on Charlie Rose?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Well, there were some people, you know, friends of mine or people who are among those who do like to find out, who do like to see what’s going on and think for themselves, who felt that it was a good thing to speak up, you know? And yes, I was there to promote the movie. And there are some who would say, “Well, you know, you’re there to talk about the movie. Don’t talk about that.” He asked me about the shirt I was wearing, so I answered. And there are times where—

AMY GOODMAN: You made the “No more blood for oil” T-shirt yourself?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: “No more blood for oil,” yeah. And, yeah, with a Sharpie, before going in there, and on a white T-shirt. I think there’s times where you have to speak up, or you should, or you look back and you think, “You know, I should have said something, because I knew better.” And that goes for most of Congress, you know, in 2002 and 2003. This interview that you just showed a clip from was in the fall of 2002. And I think on that show at one point—whether it was on the air or not, I don’t remember—Charlie said, “Well, how do you—why are you saying there’s going to be an invasion of Iraq?” And I said, “Well, you know, today I opened the fashion section of The New York Times, and they were showing all the new military uniforms. I mean, this is a movie that’s obviously green-lit and well on its way in pre-production, and it’s ready to go.”

AMY GOODMAN: And you weren’t talking about Lord of the Rings. You were talking about the movie, the—

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I was talking about the invasion of Iraq, you know, under false pretenses. And I don’t know. Yeah, no, I got a lot—because those movies—that was when the second one was coming out, The Two Towers, and so all of us who were involved in that trilogy were suddenly very popular. And just as is the case with Quentin Tarantino now speaking about police brutality and the condoning of it by the authorities within police departments, I got a lot of crap at the time, you know, tons of it, on a daily basis for months and months, that I was a traitor, that I should, you know, move to France, as I say, and much worse, you know? And this is what—this is what routinely happens. I mean, Quentin Tarantino didn’t say anything that many other people have said, but because he is a public figure and he will be making the rounds and be doing interviews for months to come and probably go to the Oscars with his movie The Hateful Eight and so forth, they attack that movie and are trying to make people boycott and so forth. I mean, I have a feeling that probably more people will go see his movie than would have anyway. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. But sometimes you do—you do lose employment. You do—

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I don’t know. I know that some—I mean, I have gotten emails at times when I have said something critical of U.S. foreign policy, whether it be with regard to the government of Israel or problems in the Middle East, problems in Latin America, when I’ve spoken about, you know, something that’s a long tradition in this country. I mean, even in recent history, the Clinton Doctrine, Bill Clinton Doctrine, basically says that the United States has—reserves the right to use unilateral military force anytime, anywhere that, you know, it feels that it doesn’t have access to foreign markets or resources, anytime it wants to enforce its geopolitical ambitions. I mean, that’s crazy. That’s tyranny. And George W. Bush didn’t do anything new. He just followed that doctrine. And so has Barack Obama.

You know, I saw an excellent show you had on here with Jeremy Scahill talking about “The Drone Papers.” I mean, everybody should see that, you know? I want to see, I want to know. And when I saw that show, I sent that link to everybody I knew—and many people I didn’t know. And whether they looked at it or not, I don’t know, but there are times when you have to say something. I felt at that moment in 2002, in the fall of 2002—I was in New York City, and here we were, you know, New York City, where the year before, you know, September 11th and all that. And just there are certain things that can’t be left alone without comment, I think. And—

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