Ron Howard Says Viggo Mortensen Reminds Him of Robert De Niro
Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives and Robert De Niro in Backdraft. Photo credit: Amazon and Universal Pictures.

While Ron Howard was watching Viggo Mortensen prepare to play real-life rescue diver Rick Stanton in his Thai cave rescue drama Thirteen Lives, he was reminded of another Hollywood heavyweight actor that he’s worked with in the past: Robert De Niro.

Howard — who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Savannah College of Art and Design at the university’s 25th annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival on Sunday — worked with De Niro on the 1991 drama Backdraft, about a pair of firefighting brothers (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) who worked with De Niro’s character to investigate a series of suspicious fires.

“With Viggo, he reminded me a lot of Robert De Niro in terms of his approach to the work. When we did Backdraft, Robert De Niro taught me a big lesson,” Ron Howard said during a Q&A with Variety‘s senior awards editor Clayton Davis after SCAD’s screening of Thirteen Lives.

“[De Niro] went into the rehearsal period, and he said, ‘I’d like to meet some investigators from Chicago.’ And he met one, and he’s like, ‘You got more?’ Met another, met another, met three guys — started hanging around with them. I wondered what he was really doing with these guys. Just learning and so forth, but how much was there to learn? The dialogue was all there,” Howard added. “I’d never been with anybody who knew how to do a really deep dive. When it was over and we began shooting, I realized he had taken the posture from one, the cadence from another guy, and kind of the attitude of a third one. He wasn’t changing a lot of dialogue or doing a lot of improvisation, but he was creating through discovery. And Viggo Mortensen really operates that way, and he really spent a lot of time with Rick Stanton.”

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Thirteen Lives tells the true story of the Tham Luong cave rescue during which 12 boys from a Thai soccer team and their coach were trapped in a cave for 18 days after the cave suddenly flooded in 2018. The movie is dedicated to the memory of Saman Kunan, a Thai Navy SEAL who died during the rescue along with fellow SEAL Beirut Pakbara, who died a year later of a blood infection he contracted during the dives. All 13 people were rescued from the cave with the help of rescue divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson).

Mortensen went so deep into his portrayal of Stanton that he made the risky decision to dive with Stanton into a real cave.

“He, without telling anybody because there’s no way anyone would have ever sanctioned it, went into a real cave and dived a real cave, which he said was terrifying shit and he would never do it again. But he started working with the real divers,” Ron Howard said of Mortensen.

All that practice lead Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell to ask Howard if they could do their own stunt dives in the movie.

“Viggo and Colin came to me at a certain point and said, ‘Look, this is so particular, this technique, that now that we’ve learned it, we don’t want to trust stunt people. And it’s kind of part of our characters. We should do it,'” Howard recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s safe.’ But then we checked with our stunt team, and they said, well, look, there’s risk and everything. There are sections of the cave where we can’t get a safety driver to them if we wanted to. But we can do it. They can do it. They’re good. And I said, ‘I don’t think we can schedule it.’ And [Mortensen] said, I’ll work Saturdays, I’ll waive turnaround times,” Howard said.

Ron Howard also credited Mortensen and Farrell doing their own stunt dives with helping to make the based-on-real-life movie so authentic.

“You know how helpful that is, how meaningful that is for me — [I’m] able to create these waters, these shots that sort of lead you from a wide shot into suddenly seeing that it’s undeniably them doing it, and it was incredible. So they talked me into it, and they proved that it could be done. And I’m forever grateful for that. But later, they all admitted that at some point or another, they all had a near panic attack in the midst of it. But they didn’t want to tell me because there was they were afraid I would shut down that process,” Howard joked.

Thirteen Lives is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Main Image: Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives and Robert De Niro in Backdraft. Photo credit: Amazon and Universal Pictures.