What a story. It goes something like this:
In 1947, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl defied the scientific community. His theory, that Polynesia was settled in pre-Columbian times by South Americans crossing 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean on a piece of balsawood, was hotly dismissed in official circles. To prove that it was possible, and despite having never sailed before and being unable to swim, he recruited a five man crew (and a Macaw) and took to the seas on a replica raft.
His exploits have gone down in history. In this 2013 film, Oscar nominated in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, his experiences were traced with aplomb.
Now finally released into UK cinemas, we sat down with Pal Hagen (who plays Thor Heyerdahl in the film) and Thor’s son, Thor Heyerdahl Junior, for a talk about the real life event and the film itself.
Pal, how aware were you of Thor’s exploits with Kon-Tiki?
Pal: For me, growing up, it was a story that was always there. I went to the Kon-Tiki museum as a boy and it’s a very magical place. You can see the raft and you can go under it. It is a story that makes a strong impression on children.
Thor, what is your relationship with your father’s work? Is it something that you have a love/hate relationship with?
Thor: I’ve always been very closely related to my father. Genetically, of course, but also as father/son – we had a very good relationship and, perhaps at times, a little too close, because some people think I look a bit like him and share his interests. I was afraid of becoming, or to be considered, as a clone of my own father. I tried to avoid walking in his footsteps. Deliberately, I chose a different career. I am not an anthropologist. I’m not an archaeologist. I am a natural scientist. I majored in oceanography, marine biology. In spite of different professionals careers, our careers merged, so I’ve always been an advisor to my father; where should your course be, when should you start etc. We always co-operated in planning his expeditions.
Also, for almost a quarter of a century, I have been the chairman of the board for the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo. We always had a great co-operation, but after I retired we became companions. I always had excellent contact with him. I could, at times, disagree with him, but he trusted me.
How did your collaboration work together?
Pal: Thor Heyerdahl lived a very well documented life. So much is written about him, but maybe most of the things written are also written by him. In this film, we wanted to get behind the image that he created, but also that which was created for him. It’s surprisingly difficult to get to know someone who is that famous, because the image is in the way of the real person. Maybe that is also a necessary thing when you are that famous.
I talked to a lot of people and you cannot believe how many people said, ‘I really knew him’. And then they gave me completely different stories! I collected all of these stories, but Thor (Jr) was my closest ally. He was not only one of the few people who was actually still alive to tell the story from this day, but also they were unusually close for a father and a son.
Is it harder to prepare for playing a real person?
Pal: I think so, in a way. As actors, usually, we use our imagination and we create these characters. It’s very strange to try and fill something that is already fixed beforehand. But the nice thing about this project is that his film is about the time before he Thor Heyerdahl, this legendary guy, so we tried to find out who he was before the success, before the fame, before he had done any of the things that he felt so strongly about that he had to do.
Did you have any cinematic references?
Pal: I know that the directors thought of Lawrence of Arabia, because although it’s not the desert, it’s the ocean and it contains that same will to go somewhere in order to get the answers that you need. As much as it’s good to have influences, I think it is very important to try and go in and create something from scratch. It was a very fascinating process. It’s very strange to get to know someone in this way, to try to be them. It has changed me. I am now a part of Thor Heyerdahl’s story and he is a part of my story.
How do you feel that you’ve changed?
Pal: I think that, as an actor, when you go to portray someone, any role will influence you in your private life somehow, for a time at least. I think being, to the best of my abilities, Thor Heyerdahl, was a very interesting place to be mentally and also his energy. It’s very inspiring. He didn’t see boundaries. He didn’t see limitations. He had a vision and ideas. He was so curious and he wanted to find answers. It’s a great thing to remember and I hope that this is also something that this film can contribute. His inspirational power is, in my opinion, his greatest legacy.
Do you both think that there is a fine line between obsession and madness?
Pal: I don’t think Thor Heyerdahl was in any way mad…
Thor: He was not mad, but stubborn. And very self-confident. By no means a fanatic or an adventurer. He had an adventurous life, but that’s different. He never sought adventure for the sake of adventure. He always had a purpose with his enterprises. That’s all from misunderstanding. He took that as an insult to be compared with adventurers. He considered himself as a hardworking, serious scientist. And me being a scientist, I agree with him. I recognise him as unorthodox, but I give him credit as being a scientist. I may be a bit bias by being his son, but he definitely was a scientist.
He definitely not mad. Selfish? Yes. Ambitious? Yes. But he needed the attention of the public in order to finance his enterprises. He was not employed by any museum or university, so he had to play the public scene. His life was very exposed and I would not be comfortable living like that. He had no options. He had no choice.
Do you feel that there is a price to pay for undertaking the tasks that he did?
Thor: Oh yes, of course! That’s captured so well in this film. It was a success. An unconditional success. It was planned to take 101 days. It took 101 days. But it had a price. It cost him his family life. Whether you are an artist, a scientist, a sportsman or whatever it might be, if you reach the top, someone has to pay. It cost my father’s family life. I wouldn’t say my mother’s, because she remarried to an American and was happily married for many years. You could say that I suffered, my brothers’ suffered, but not much. We always had a wonderful father; a considerate father. No reason to complain, but he was absent much of the time.
When I grew up, he was fighting in northern Norway for 3 years and we didn’t see him, we didn’t even know if he was alive. After the war, he was travelling around the world visiting museums and universities and excavations. I didn’t notice whether he was married to my mother or not! It made no difference in our everyday life, but of course it was a sacrifice, because all of my friends had a mother and a father at home. I had a father, but he was never at home.
How did you cope with that at the time?
Thor: I missed him. Sometimes, it could be a little embarrassing to me. Today, half of the Norwegian marriages make up, and there’s no sensation. In those days, it was a scandal. I always had to defend the fact that my father was absent, but it was a small price to pay. It was compensated when he was home, and even after the divorce and he was married to wife number two – Yvonne – I had a nice relationship with her too and I had an even better relationship with my father then. A small burden, but I didn’t really suffer. I have no reason to complain. I’m not bitter.
Why is it that the Norwegians are so good at these expeditions? You beat us to the South Pole, as well!
Thor: (laughing) I don’t know why we’re good, but I don’t like the way Roald Admunson beat (Captain) Scott. I thought that was a dirty play. I think it shouldn’t have been done that way.
We’re raised in a harsh country. Not today, but formerly, we used to survive under tough conditions. We used to be only 3-4 million people, but now we’re 5 million people in a country the size of Italy where there are 60 million people. So, we’re alone with the environment a lot.
Does this affect your psyche?
Thor: Definitely. It makes us individualists. You depend on yourself. We are not as social. Perhaps now we are, but we weren’t. This goes back all the way to the days of the Vikings. It’s been a tradition all through to this day.
Pal: It’s true. As Thor was saying, the world is becoming a globalised place. Exploring today is not what it was. Maybe you need a space craft to really explore.
Was 1947 the autumn days of that kind of exploring?
Pal: Yes, now we have reality TV. No one really goes on an expedition. I mean, I hope that someone still does, but without their phones blogging, reporting, taking pictures, but Thor Heyerdahl did that in 1947. They reported by Morse Code back to the mainland so that the world could follow them as it happened along the way. It was a sort of a reality concept in a very, very early stage.
Thor: I would like to add to that. The timing, 1947, as you say, if the Kon-Tiki expedition happened today, you wouldn’t pay attention. I wouldn’t pay attention. We are spoiled by science fiction, James Bond, Indiana Jones… nothing interests people anymore.
Besides, this was 2 years after the war and the whole globe was suffering from the wounds of war. People were urging for something nice to happen, and they heard and read about 6 good looking Scandinavians crossing the world’s largest ocean, landing on coral reef, waving coconut palms and with hula-hooped girls. It was a dream come true in those days. Finally, something other than the misery of war. And no television in those days, not even radio. Messages were sent by telegram from the Morse alphabet. Today, we’re so spoiled with all this modern technology. My youngest son repeated the Kon-Tiki expedition 6 years ago with a replica of the Kon-Tiki. Most people never heard about it, because today we’re so spoiled, we don’t care.
Kon-Tiki is in cinemas from 19th December 2014.