Viggo Mortensen believes in the importance of understanding our past. On the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington, the actor explains to CBS News why he believes the voices of people in American history can inspire us today.
Mortensen is reading passages from Howard Zinn's "Voices of a People's History of the United States" at SummerStage in New York's Central Park, alongside other notable performers, including Uzo Aduba, Marisa Tomei, Rosanne Cash, Hong Chau, Staceyann Chin and more, as part of a free show called "Voices of a People's History." Mortensen says he has been participating in various "Voices of a People's History" shows since the early 2000s.
The actor says of Zinn's work, "It's maybe as important as ever right now, when there seems to be a lot of division socially and politically in the country and an ideological hardening in terms of binary choice — one extreme or another. … I think it's always important in any democracy, anywhere, that voices of dissent, voices of opposition or at least voices that question the status quo and authority be heard."
Mortensen points out that some of the selections in the book are by people who fought successfully for freedom from slavery and the right to vote.
"They were up against a lot of harder things than we are now," he says. "It seems to me like it's a pretty divisive time and we need good reminders that even when things seemed to be stalled and there doesn't seem to be much farther communication, what these people communicated can maybe help us open that logjam we seem to find ourselves in now."
Mortensen, who frequently posts readings and quotes on his publishing website, plans to read a selection by Zinn and also one by friar Bartolome de las Casas, who documented Spanish mistreatment of indigenous people in the New World in the 16th century.
Mortensen says that people should look back to the March on Washington to appreciate the gains the country made during that time, and be careful not to lose them.
"I don't think we ever had a president who fomented as much division and ideological rigidity and conflict, who fanned the flames," he says. "There's a lot happening now that threatens the gains made by people represented in the book. That's why it's always good to hear these voices to read them and keep them in mind today. One, not to give up hope if you're disappointed about, two, if you're not informed about the history of the U.S. and what really has happened over the centuries leading up to now and why things are the way they are right now — why we have certain rights and certain laws in place — it has a lot to do with these people. They were hard-fought gains and things that are much more easily lost than gained. … Everything that's been gained through legislation, through people's rights, animal rights, environmental rights, is under siege at the moment."
He continues, "Life is not just about having stuff. Making money on Wall Street — that does not excuse the multitude of injustices happening. We can go backwards; we can take a lot of steps backwards if we're not careful and don't keep history in mind."
The actor says he is hopeful for a big turnout during the November midterm elections, but he also wants to see more grassroots activism.
Mortensen says the performers at SummerStage Tuesday night won't be going off script to slam President Donald Trump; the point is not to attack, but for audience members or readers to judge for themselves.
"What's great about these voices is they speak for themselves," he explains. "Whether they're about activists against the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 or whether they're from las Casas talking about the horrible treatment of the indigenous population when Europeans first came to colonize on these shores, no extra commentary is needed. You can connect those dots for yourself, and connect them to the president as you like."
Mortensen, who is also a poet, says the political climate occasionally seeps into his own writing as well.
"I don't live in a vacuum," he says. "The weather — physical and political — at any time when I'm writing affects me like it does most writers, I think."
His next film project is alongside Mahershala Ali in "Green Book." In it, he plays the driver for a black pianist in 1962. The actor says he doesn't intentionally seek out subversive films —he portrays an anarchist father raising his children in the wilderness — but he does say that he looks for great storytelling.
"I wasn't looking for something political, but often, really great stories can't help but be connected to what's happening in the world," he says. "'Green Book' takes place in 1962, the year before the March on Washington, but there are clear resonances to what's happening now, to racial tensions, to social tensions and also class differences."
Mortensen says he thinks of "Green Book" as timely, even though it is set more than 50 years ago, and hopes viewers will learn more about civil rights from the film.
"Voices of a People's History" takes place from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in Central Park. Doors open at 6 p.m.