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The Coolidge: A Hub For Independent Film 07:53

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Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen faces reporters during a news conference at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, in Brookline, Mass., Monday, March 5. (AP)
Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen faces reporters during a news conference at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, in Brookline, Mass., Monday, March 5. (AP)

Reported by Jim Sullivan

On Monday, Viggo Mortensen was at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline to accept the theater’s 9th annual Coolidge Award, which honors achievement in independent film.

The 53-year-old actor is best know for playing Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He's also the star of edgy independent movies like “The Road,” “A Dangerous Method” and “Eastern Promises.”

There are a lot of awards handed out these days — a glut maybe.  So what does this award from — let’s face it — a tiny nonprofit theater complex in Brookline mean to Mortensen?

"Well, I’m ambivalent about awards, because, as you say, there’s a lot of them... but something like this is pretty unique and I have to say that one of the main reasons that I even tried my hand at being an actor was Meryl Streep," Mortensen said. "And I know that she was given this award and when I saw that I thought, well, it’s a very prestigious award and the fact that she is one of the previous recipients, I’d be an idiot not to say yes. You know, what an honor, really.”

The Coolidge Corner Theatre marquee, October 16, 2010. (Flickr/ericts8)
The Coolidge Corner Theatre marquee, October 16, 2010. (Flickr/ericts8)

Mortensen has played some pretty tough characters, like the self-loathing paraplegic rat in “Carlito’s Way,” and the Russian mobster and double agent in "Eastern Promises."

"I don’t really have a preference [in roles]," Mortensen said. "But I think people have a mistaken idea about how much say actors have in what they end up doing in their careers. Even actors who are relatively well known like I am, or much more well-known, even the George Clooneys of the world, they don't get offered everything. You know certainly, after the success of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, as with the other cast members, you know, I had a lot more opportunities all of a sudden.”

Mortensen said he's most interested in playing characters he may not innately understand.

“The job, as I see it, is to look at the world from a point of view different than mine, sometimes very different. And once you start looking underneath each layer that you uncover as you start doing the research, at least in the way I like to do it, I like to leave no stone unturned," Mortensen said. "I like to really believe it like a kid likes believing that they’re a cowboy or an Indian or a solider or a princess or a great athlete. It’s ridiculous, but in your mind you’re there and there are thousands of people watching.”

A Hub For Independent Film 

So how did a little independent theater in Brookline land visits from Mortensen, Streep and other big-name Hollywood talent? The Coolidge has become a significant player in the independent film world as one of the leading organizations in a group of 200 theaters called the Art House Convergence.

Coolidge Executive Director Denise Kasell says the theater’s main goal is to remain relevant.

“Our programing is quite unique. We’re known for first run, art house films and at the same time you can see those films and also see all of our special programs," Kasell said. "When I say special programs, they really run the gamut. We have kids programming in the morning at 10 a.m., then we have special programs that we've developed like 'Science on Screen.' We've got midnights that  are completely run by two of our staffers."

Mortensen agrees the Coolidge serves a unique role in supporting independent film.

"When you ask someone 'What is independent film?' It’s like other things, people have an idea. What is abstract art? What is abstract expressionism? What’s a European movie other than that it’s made in Europe? What’s film noir? I just prefer to refer to good movies and bad movies," Mortensen said. "I think some of the movies that they show at the Coolidge sometimes are movies that are quite big budget movies but they just have something that’s interesting.”

A Growing Nonprofit 

The Coolidge now has about 3,000 members which help support the theater financially, but Coolidge Theatre Board Chairman Michael Maynard remembers when things weren't quite so rosy.

“I first started coming here when I was in town in college in the '70s and the Coolidge had some good years and it had some very up and down years in the '70s and '80s. The theater almost went out of existence in the late '80s," Maynard said. "But the theater has been, really, since the late ‘90s, on very solid financial footing. We've completely renovated in the last seven or eight years and it’s in great shape."

In addition to the Coolidge's 400-seat main theater and its 200-seat balcony room, there are two smaller screening rooms, holding 45 and 13 people, where more esoteric movies are shown.

The theater is considering expanding by adding a sizable fifth theater, using land they own in the parking lot behind the building.

Moviehouse one at the Coolidge Corner Theater. (Flickr/sushiesque)
Moviehouse one at the Coolidge Corner Theater. (Flickr/sushiesque)

"Another part we're very conscious of here is the experiential part of it," Maynard said. "We want our moviegoers, when they come to this place, to have a good experience. And I think that’s how we differentiate ourselves in some respects. We still have the classical big curtain that opens before the films. We don’t show commercials. That's one of the beauties of being a nonprofit. We try to make the experience as pleasant and relaxing and kind of classical, in some ways, as we can."

Marilyn Reisman, at 84, is a longtime Boston scenester and socialite. She was at the party after the award ceremony Monday night. Reisman has been coming to the Coolidge since childhood.

"I came here every Saturday with my brothers, it was part of our family routine." Reisman said. "I think that they have a lot of the art films which I really love. They’re so diversified. They have children’s programs, they have programs for the avant-garde young set. And they have programs for me."

Mortensen appreciates the Coolidge so much, he donated the $10,000 honorarium that comes with The Coolidge Award back to the theater.

"It’s a great honor and I’m really happy, in some way, to be able to support a place like the Coolidge Theatre because there are not too many theaters like it left in the country, unfortunately. You know, it takes a lot of work, a lot of people work very hard to keep a place like this going, to keep the community interested. Boston's very lucky to have the Coolidge Theatre."


This segment aired on March 6, 2012.

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