To portray the hero of the Thai cave rescue in the new film Thirteen Lives, the Hollywood star had to go deep—literally. Mortensen plays the part of Rick Stanton, the legendary British cave diver who helped lead the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the far reaches of a flooded cavern in northern Thailand. The actor’s preparation included months of conversations with Stanton and a harrowing cave-diving adventure of his own. In this episode, producer Paddy O’Connell talks with both men about what it takes to endure the mental and physical challenges of swimming through dark, tight spaces, where just one mistake can kill you.
This episode was brought to you by Costa Sunglasses, designed to help you make the most of your time on the water. Find the frame for your pursuit at costasunglasses.com.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is The Outside podcast.
You've reached Michael Roberts. Please leave me a message and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks so much.
Paddy O’Connell: Mike, it's me, Paddy O. Okay. So I just got off the horn, uh, with Vigo and man, is that guy awesome to talk to? Also. He totally. gets Rick Stanton. He totally understands cave diving. And what makes Rick tick and what makes him able to do. This incredible rescue, like, which is insane because it seems bonkers to everybody else. So it's almost like relatable in some sense.
Oh, and get this: he was sporting a mustache that rivaled mine. So that made my Friday.
Uh, okay anyways, sorry. I know that you're on a plane, uh, on vacation with your family. I hope you have a wonderful time. Talk to you later. Okidokie. Love you, buddy.
Producer: We're rolling.
Producer: Thanks guys. Hey Paddy, just stand by one second.
Paddy O’Connell This is me at the start of a very fancy Hollywood press junket zoom call, waiting for the tech engineers to get Viggo Mortensen's setup dialed.
Producer: Paddy. Welcome. If you could just say your name and outlet for us and then go ahead.
Paddy: Yeah, my name's Paddy O'Connell but you can call me Paddy O I'm with Outside Magazine.
Producer: All right, go ahead.
Paddy: Right on Viggo. How are you today?
Viggo Mortensen: I'm good. How are you doing?
Paddy: I'm doing really good. Listen. I'm sure that you are doing a ton of these interviews, but, uh, I'm pretty excited because I am hoping that this is gonna be a lot different
Hunky TinselTown leading man Viggo Mortensen is famous for his ability to transform himself into adventurous characters, including, of course, Aragorn, sword-wielding hero of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As it turns out, this isn't much of a stretch for him.
Paddy: Are you a searcher? Are you an adventurer?
Viggo: Yeah. I've always been a running away from home kind of person, even as a baby. I’ve twice crawled outta my crib and my parents had to go looking for me for hours. And so, I always like to run away, but I mean, I come back home, you know. So far I've been able to come back home.
When I was 10, even I would, one time, left a note saying I'm running away for the weekend and I took whatever, some hot dogs outta the fridge. And I don't know what Coke and, you know, got on my little, uh, stingray bike and with my buddies. And we had planned this all week and we left school and we went out. Outside of the town and out in with a tent and stuff and camped out. And it was sort of late winter, early spring. So it was kind of warm and we had, you know, jeans and t-shirts, and then that night as happens sometimes in the Northeast, suddenly the temperature dropped like 35, 40. But we did make it home
Paddy: So you were kind of like, oh, you know, I wanna be like huckleberry Finn, but. [00:03:00] Kind of like a weekender huckleberry Finn.
Viggo: Yeah, no, I'd like to go on adventures and as an adult, I still do it. You know, suddenly my girlfriend will turn and say, ‘where where'd you go?’ And then I come back a little while later, she goes, ‘where'd you go?’
I said, ‘I went for a walk.’ You know, I just wanted to go do something.
Viggo: I mean, I had that in my nature and I like to. You know, I figure life is short and I want to see the world and, and see what I can do in the world.
Paddy: Viggo has played a number of memorable characters over the course of his career in films like Captain Fantastic, Green Book, and Eastern Promises. But we are not here to talk about any of that. We are here to talk about cave diving, as in scuba diving for miles and miles and miles in deep flooded holes in the Earth.
In the new Ron Howard film "Thirteen Lives," Viggo takes on the role of Rick Stanton, a 61-year-old real-life cave diving badass.
Viggo: I didn't know anything about it. I started talking, doing zooms with Rick Stanton, the guy I played. And he would tell me these things and showed me pictures, and I was like, so how did you guys do this? And why did you do this?
And some of the harrowing things he was describing, you know, retrieving dead bodies and
Viggo: Also just exploration. I said, so you do this for fun. You go into these situations that are just horrifying and going into caves, like kilometers and kilometers that are unexplored.
Viggo: Um, where you don't know what, if you're gonna come out at all. You don't know if there's gonna be a chamber that you were, you could
Viggo: You know, get out of the water at all for maybe for miles. And I said, ‘so you do this for you willingly go into these situations, you know?’
And he said, ‘yeah, you know, like people dive out of planes or people climb mountains and do all these things.’
And I said, ‘yeah, well, I've always thought that people diving out of a perfectly, well functioning airplane was insane. I've never done that, but, uh, yeah, what you guys do is extraordinary.’
I certainly admire the people, the real life people that 13 lives is based on. It's incredible what they did. There were many individual feats of bravery and self-sacrifice and courage with no guarantee that it would work.
Viggo: That they would survive.
Paddy: Thirteen Lives recounts the seemingly impossible Thai Cave Rescue that captivated the world in the summer of 2018. Let me jog your memory:
In Northern Thailand, over the course of 18 days, Thai first responders and military, along with thousands of volunteers, including more than 100 divers, worked to save 12 boys and their soccer coach who were stranded miles into a flooded cave. The rescue was so preposterous and incredible that no screenwriters could have dreamt it up. Especially considering that at the center of the twisting drama were real life action movie heroes: a bunch of scruffy, geeky, middle-aged dudes from England who spend their weekends cave diving.
Viggo: These guys are the biggest nerds in the world.
Viggo: And at the same time, they're all like Evel Knievel. It's a weird combination.
You know, Rick told me lots of stories.
Viggo: He has this like a motorcycle inner tube on his back. That's his flotation device. It is very odd. And then it's 25 years, 30 years of rigging stuff. And you know,
Paddy: he's like building his own re-breather on his lathe at home.
Viggo: Yeah. Oh yeah.
Paddy: Which is just, and then going into the deepest parts of the earth underwater with it. It's just insane.
Viggo: And just his harness is all homemade with different bits and pieces over the years, he is like, ‘oh, that didn't work. That almost killed me. So I better change that for the next dive.’
And this, this is homemade stuff. That's very particular. But he knows what works for him and, and I'd rather make it myself and test it myself. Rather than get some store bought thing that doesn't doesn't work and–
Paddy: Which is incredible. I think I, I consider myself like a pretty apt outdoors, human, you know, but I think the only thing I trust myself to make it home is a sandwich. Like I'm not trying to like make my own ski boots or something, you know?
Before taking on any role, Viggo famously spends months doing obsessive research. But becoming Rick Stanton was a unique challenge, because Rick Stanton is kinda inhuman.
Before he was at the center of the Thai Cave Rescue, Rick was already considered the greatest cave diver in the world. He was the first to explore TKTKT cave systems and has reached record-setting depths. He's also completed multiple successful rescues and been called on to retrieve bodies in caves around the world.
Viggo: When it comes to the task of cave diving, nobody is more focused and more, uh, well prepared to deal with the unknown than he is.
And just in general, from the cave diving community, there is such respect for Rick. He's kind of like this Zen master of this discipline. Everybody knows who he is.
Viggo: Everybody knows who John Volanthen is. Everybody knows who Jason Mallinson is
Viggo: They're called into emergency situations by governments in different parts of the world frequently to retrieve people, retrieve bodies. Yeah. , but they really love the exploration aspect of it.
Think of people who wanna summit mountains that have never been climbed. It's like space exploration, but it's inside the earth, you know?
Paddy: Right. Yeah.
Viggo: The unknown. And I think it tells me it can't be done and I want to figure out a way to do it kind of attitude. They dive way, way into these places that there's no guarantee they're gonna get out, but they love that challenge.
Paddy: When he first read the script for Thirteen Lives, Viggo was drawn to Rick's complexity– I mean, what in the hell drives someone to dive in a sunken dark hole in the ground for crying out loud. But Viggo was also captivated by the complexity of the rescue.
Viggo: The main thing that interested me was the collective bravery and the selflessness of, of the endeavor. It's rare and extremely welcome to see something like that happen, where people come together.
Viggo: You know, it's just like all these people from around the world, thousands of people in Thailand, they just said, okay, this is the right thing to do. We're gonna do this for the common good.
Paddy: Is that what attracted you to this story?
Viggo: Yeah, that was the main thing. Coupled with the opportunity to work for Ron Howard, who's a great director. I knew he would tell this story. Well, this, this amazing story.
Viggo: I mean, almost. Too amazing to be true
Paddy: And to tell an unbelievable story filled with astounding people, you need an actor as committed to rigourous character research as Viggo is. To become a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises, he traveled to Russia to read Russian novels in Russian and somehow obtained prison worry beads made from melted down cigarette lighters. Viggo got so good at sword fighting for Lord of the Rings that legendary stunt coordinator Bob Anderson, a former Olympic fencer and Hollywood fight choreographer for 50 years, said he was the best swordsmen he’d ever trained.
This is the same precision Viggo applied to studying Rick Stanton. Before filming for Thirteen Lives began in Australia in the spring of 2021, Viggos spent close to five months talking to Rick over Zoom, getting to know him, and uncovering his quirks, even the slight variations of Rick's speech.
Viggo: He's from Essex originally, but he's been living for years in Coventry. So it's this sort of blended accent.
Paddy: Viggo read an advanced copy of Rick's 2022 book, Aquanaut: The Inside Story of the Thai Cave Rescue. All this time, all this research led Viggo to understand what is at Rick's core and what drove him during the rescue.
Viggo: There's a certain curtness. He's not a man of a lot of words. He's a man of, he does things rather than talks about them. But, he doesn't jump into a situation. He's not gonna go in if he doesn't think he can get out.
Paddy: Right. Right.
Viggo: And even if there's 12 kids in there. It doesn't matter to him if he's thinking that he's not gonna get out, he's not gonna go in. So he's very blunt, almost to the point of being rude, just very direct.
The way I behave in the movie, it's kind of like him in a way. I was trying to be like him. He's someone who at first seems kind of gruff.
Viggo: And I say, you know, this bullshit, bullshit, this is impossible. You're all celebrating. You're celebrating nothing. You don't know what you're talking about. We're not gonna be able to get these kids out. There's just no way. And he's kind of weighing whether he's gonna accept the challenge of going to help. Right. In a situation that seems chaotic. And he says, I don't even like kids, you know?
Viggo: And he's sort of joking, but he's not, it's like this tough love. And it's also, But you realize by the end he cares as much or more than anyone else about his kids.
Viggo: But he's, he's actually very kind and generous. He'd probably hate me saying this. He's an extremely sensitive person.
Paddy: Viggo's assessment of Rick is spot on. But don't take it from me, take it from Rick himself. When I spoke to him about it, he 100 percent agreed.
Rick Stanton: I am confident, but casual, not, that's not in a, that's not like overly confident. I'm not in. Uh, I'm not falsely confident. It's just like, casually confident
I think I'm very sensitive to people's feelings or I can be, I don't want, sometimes I choose to ignore them, but I can be, should I, so I, I can be, should I wish to.
Paddy: If you're thinking that cave divers seem like superhuman dare devils while also thinking it's absurd that a handful of nearly 60-year-old Brits were the action stars of this tale, well, Rick agrees with that too.
Rick: How preposterous was it that there was a 57 year old man flown out from England to take part in this rescue? These four middle-aged men wandering around with all this equipment and, you know, being the heroes of the day, it does seem a bit far-fetched.
Paddy: And when it comes to actually bringing this far-fetched rescue to the silver screen, Zoom calls and reading a book can only get you so far. What was it really like in that cave, what did it all look and feel like? To find out, eventually, Viggo had to dive into a cave himself.
Viggo: We are underwater. We are in tight spaces. And something goes wrong, when you're underwater.
Paddy: It goes really wrong.
Viggo: Uh, a few seconds and you're done. It doesn't matter if there's a guy that's 20 feet away that could swim to you.
Rick: You cannot see a thing. There is absolutely zero light in the cave. The water was a, a hugely opaque. The current was hugely strong. You could not swim against it.
Paddy: Cave Diving expert Rick Stanton is describing the impossible conditions inside the flooded Tham Luang cave during the famed rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach.
Rick: You had to pull yourself along the floor. You couldn't see the floor. You can sort of dig your hands into your fingers, into the sediment and pull yourself along.
We had no idea what we were gonna come across. Hoping to find them alive, but also steeling ourselves that they might not be. And therefore, you're swimming in water where you cannot see anything and you're going to bump into 13, uh, lifeless bodies floating around.
When we first found them, they were all alive. They're all ambulant. They were all fine. It was really a relief that they, that was relief for us, not for them. Relief that we didn't have to encounter them in that, in that state.
And then of course joy that they were alive and relief for them.
Paddy: Did it feel like you were actually the furthest away from rescuing them that you had been even before entering the cave?
Rick: Most people, you know, when, when we found the boys thought that was it, that was the rescue and of course, it wasn't at all.
It was, it was the start of, of the rescue of which at that point, when we found them, we had no idea how to bring them out,
We thought there were lots of things when we came out from that, you know, we thought if it rained, if the rains really came that night or the next few days, no one would go back, then we would be the only people to have seen them alive.
People were looking at us. We felt that responsibility because we were the experts in that field. We certainly didn't feel despair. It was like, we need to crack on and find a way of solving this.
Paddy: The ability of Rick and the other divers to perform in a chaotic situation under undermous emotional pressure is all the more remarkable when you consider the extreme physical challenges they were facing in Thailand.
The Tham Luang cave is nearly six and a half miles of narrow tunnels and chambers that weave into the Doi Nang Non mountains. When the twelve boys and their soccer coach entered the cave in mid-June 2018, unexpected monsoon rains fell without warning and flooded the cave with millions of gallons of water. The tunnels transformed into whitewater rivers in a matter of moments. Thai Navy SEALs led the initial rescue effort, and thousands of volunteers from all over Thailand (and a handful of other countries) set up pumps, constructed dams, and tried to divert water any way they could. But the SEALs had little to no experience diving in flooded cave systems. That's when Stanton and his expert, albeit odd, team of divers were called in.
Rick: You know, there's a British phrase: Men in sheds. People that spend their time in sheds making things or inventing things. We are all geeky men in sheds come forward and save the day.
For me in caving, it's about, can I do this? I like, I want to do this. How can I do this? So, you know, we, we, haven't just sat on our laurels. We go bigger, deeper dives, whatever. So it's just, how can I do this? What do I need? What do I need to do with my equipment?
You know, it's matching the equipment to the cave. If it isn't available, maybe even design it or invent it or make it or something like that
I'm not a very good teacher.
Showing Vigo, how, how, you know, our equipment and, and how we move in the water. How to sort of look, like you've amassed 40 years of cave diving experience. And of course that is surely the art of an actor, his being able to take direction and do it immediately. And you know, that is their craft to be able to mimic what they see. Acting on his incredible, all of them are acting on their incredible acting skills.
Paddy: It's gotta feel pretty good that the guy playing you has been nominated for best actor, three times and who just so happens to be incredibly handsome. I bet that felt pretty good.
Rick: It is not gonna do, not going to do me any harm, is it?
Paddy: Yeah, that's right.
Rick and Viggo spent months as cave diving teacher and student for Thirteen Lives, and they both say they became friends. This helped Viggo bring sharp accuracy to his portrayal, not just to Rick's personality but also his movements.
Viggo: The way he walks, the way he puts on his equipment. Uh, the way he presents himself to others. It was just watching him and seeing what he does. He has a very particular style Underwater, especially. Like the finning, for example, it's kind of counterintuitive, but
Paddy: the frog kick.
Viggo: Yeah. But it's not the normal kind. It's yeah. You're pushing water
Viggo: rather than back or down,
Viggo: back and down. So you can get propulsion without stirring up the sediment.
Paddy: Being able to pick out minute details, like proper flipper technique, only comes after you've had your own cave diving experience. Which Viggo was keen to have. Sort of.
Months before filming was set to begin in Australia, he was at home in Spain, when Rick offered to arrange a cave diving opportunity for him with some Spanish friends. Viggo, who had gotten his open-water scuba certification for a scene in 1997 film GI Jane that was cut–and who is ever the committed method actor–immediately agreed.
Then he entered the caves, and freaked out.
Viggo: The first day we just walked, you know, a long way. I don't know how many kilometers into these caves, very narrow, very into some water or some places not, some drop offs. Uh, these gorges inside the mountain, I just kept feeling, don't, aren't they worried that the roof's gonna fall in? I mean.
Viggo: And then we get to this rock wall. I said, so that's, this is the end of the line. And he goes, no, this is just the beginning.
I go, ‘what are you talking about?’
He said, ‘well, if you dive down about 20 feet, then there's a hole in this wall.’
Paddy: Oh my god.
Viggo: You need lights, it's dark. And, uh, And then you go into the hole. I go, ‘where does that go?’
And he goes, ‘well, it's a long narrow thing. And then you eventually come out in a chamber.’
I said, ‘okay, that's for sure?’
He goes, ‘yeah.’
He goes, ‘do you wanna do it?’
I said, ‘no, absolutely not.’
Viggo: I said, I just wanted to see what it looked like. And then the next day we came back, went to another one. It was similar, a little bit longer. And I said, ‘okay, I'll do it.’
And so we got the equipment on and I, I'll follow you guys. If you think it's safe.
He goes, ‘well, it's all relative.’ I'm like, yeah. And so
Paddy: What?! It sounds insane.
Viggo: They said, life is a risk. And I said, that's true. Okay. And I,
Paddy: Yeah, but there's a big difference between like going down to the corner store for some extra milk, right. And maybe twisting your ankle off of a curb and like getting into a cave. And then you're like, now it's time to go underwater. That's not just like life is relative moment, right?
Viggo: Yeah, no. And they said just, Just stay calm and just do what we do.
Paddy: And don't think about how terrifying this actually is
Viggo: and don't ever let go of the line because once we start kicking off the sediment, it'll get right.There'll be no visibility. And if you go off into some other part, we may not find you. And I said, okay, I won't let go–
Paddy: Totally mellow,
Viggo: I won't let go of the line.
And so, the rock was the same, the conditions, the tight spots, the current, all that.
And so it was a good, um, warm up, a good taste of it
Paddy: Though the film set created in Australia had to accommodate space for underwater cinematographers, director Ron Howard and crew perfectly recreated cave sections that Rick and his fellow rescuers said were the most difficult.
Rick, who was at the film shoot as technical advisor, worked with designers, cinematographers, and the film's dive supervisor to ensure the cave and the rescue were depicted as accurate as if it had been filmed in Tham Luang–which was an impossibility due to the pandemic. But even for a well-studied Viggo Mortensen, the caves on the set were terrifying. The set designer in charge described it an underwater haunted house.
Viggo: There were times where we were, it was so narrow that it was like how do, how does this. And then I said, Rick, well, I can't get through. There he goes, ‘yes, you can. Think about it. How would you do it?’
I said, well,’ I would have to take my tanks off, push them through first.’
He goes, ‘exactly.’ And I said, ‘okay.’
Paddy: That sounds awful.
Viggo: So we did that. And then it was whatever nervousness you have about your own safety. Figure out. Okay. I can put the tank through, I can wiggle through and then I can get the tanks back on and then keep going that made it times 10. The nerve, you know, the, the anxiety you have about, okay, I gotta breathe easy. I don't want to use up all my oxygen so I gotta be calm
Paddy: Uuuggghhh, Yikes...but it is this granular (and terrifying) attention to detail that makes Thirteen Lives and Viggo's portrayal a triumph. Even the unshakeable, never impressed by anything Rick Stanton was amazed by the movie magic.
Rick: In the sets and in the caves and in the training tanks, they do look like the, you know, the diving scenes do look like they're professional cave divers.
Paddy: What this means for anyone watching Thirteen Lives, is that Viggo Mortensen really does transform into Rick Stanton, the world’s greatest cave diver, a man who feels the hefty yoke of moral obligation and the burden of responsibility to save thirteen souls stranded in a cave chamber miles under a mountain.
Viggo: Even though what he does seems insane. And I think it is a little bit I wasn't gonna listen to anyone else other than him. R It's like, how do I do this and not get in trouble?
When they need someone, they really can't figure it out or they can't get someone out. He's one of the guys that they first go to cuz he's the best.
Viggo: He knows how to do it. He knows how to get it in and out of impossible, seemingly impossible situations.
If you manage to stay calm and get through it, it's like, well, I would've never done it. If it hadn't been for the situation, but I'm glad I did cuz I learned something and I learned something about myself that I could get through it.
My admiration for Rick Stanton and, and the other guys that did this with him. I mean, I can't say enough about them.
Paddy: Viggo that looks like that is our time right now. Thanks so much for, uh, taking the time to chat with me. Uh, it's a great movie. You do a wonderful job as always and from one mustache to another, that's a bitchin' lip caterpillar you got there, my man.
Viggo: Thank you.
Paddy: Right on.
Viggo: Have a great day. Good luck. Stay safe.
Paddy: Yeah, you too.
Producer: And cut.
Paddy: "Howdy! You've reached Paddy O. Please leave me a message. and I'll get back with ya. Thanks!"
Michael Roberts: Hey, Paddy O, it's me. So I forgot to record an outro for this episode before heading out on vacation...which means, I need you to do it. So here's the deal.
First, let everyone know that they can watch Thirteen Lives now on Amazon Prime video.
Also, Rick Stanton's book is Aquanot: The Inside Story of the Thai Cave Rescue.
Annnd this episode was brought to them by Costa Sunglasses, designed to help you make the most of your time on the water. Find the frame for your pursuit at costasunglasses.com. Costa Sunglasses, see what's out there. Please say it just like that.
Lastly, don't forget O+!
The Outside Podcast is made possible by our O+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. We're offering new members a 25% discount: just enter the code pod25 at checkout.
And that's it. Really appreciate it. Oh, and great job with Viggo. This came together so so well.
Now, I'm taking my boys snorkeling in a little bay, to look at creep horseshoe crabs. See yah!
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.