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Matt Ross put life, love of acting into ‘Captain Fantastic’

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Actor-writer-director Matt Ross, right, works on the set of “Captain Fantastic” with young Charlie Shotwell. (Courtesy Wilson Webb/Bleecker Street)

With the new “Captain Fantastic,” Berkeley-based Matt Ross has made one of the year’s most refreshingly original movies, simply because it is about being human.

“My wife and I were discussing our parenting choices,” says Ross, who has two children, 9 and 13. “I took all the questions I had and I just put them into the story.”

Opening Friday at the Sundance Kabuki, “Captain Fantastic” — which won a directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival — tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), who is raising his six children in the woods, living off the land. When their mother dies, they must go into civilization to help fulfill her dying wish.

Far from heavy or preachy, the movie manages to acknowledge and accept different beliefs.

“Clearly the character does a lot of things wrong. Maybe he’s negligent. He’s certainly extreme,” says Ross. “I hope that all the characters are portrayed with humanity and complexity, so that no one’s right and no one’s wrong.”

A veteran actor on TV in “American Horror Story” and “Silicon Valley” and in films including “Face/Off,” “American Psycho,” “The Aviator” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Ross learned filmmaking from experience.

He says he’s worked with directors who cared about acting and not the camera, and vice versa, as well as directors who didn’t seem to know much about either.

“I’m as interested in the acting department as I am in any other department,” he smiles. “I’m a film geek and a camera geek so I care a lot about it. But I deeply love the craft of acting and actors.”

He cast carefully, choosing English George MacKay (Hulu’s “11.22.63”) to play Bodevan, the oldest son, who knows about love only from books, and then experiences his first kiss.

“You can see all these emotions going over his face: hope, fear, love, devastation, and it’s really complex,” says Ross. “It’s acting gymnastics.”

It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Mortensen in the role of Ben, and it’s one of the actor’s finest performances.

“Viggo was my first choice and I was lucky to get him,” Ross says. “He’s a deep, deep actor. He doesn’t have any inauthentic moments. You never catch him acting.”

But perhaps Ross’ most difficult actor was a four-legged one, a deer Bodevan catches in the film’s opening scene. “What you do is you don’t feed him for a half a day so he’s hungry, and you have a path that’s filled with leaves so he’ll eat and he’s supposed to follow the path,” says Ross.

How did it work out? “He did literally nothing we trained him for.”

Captain Fantastic
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Steve Zahn
Written and directed by Matt Ross
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

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