You have to wonder where Viggo Mortensen finds the time to act. In between gigs like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and David Cronenberg's movies (most recently Eastern Promises), the 50-year-old star is also a photographer, poet, musician, painter, publisher, activist and avid traveler. He's fluent in Spanish, Danish, French and possibly Elvish.
When we caught up with him, though, he kindly stuck to English, and to the projects at hand: first, Good, opening Wednesday, about a German professor who, through his passivity, unwittingly ends up a high-ranking member of the Nazi party. Early next year comes The Road, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father and son traveling in post-apocalyptic America.
Between Good and The Road, you've been in some pretty dark places. Has it affected your outlook on the world?
It makes you value paying attention, you know what I mean? As a family member, or friend or member of society, if you don't pay attention or you don't participate to some degree, then you can't complain later if that person leaves you, or your country gets out of control. We may not know why we're here, or where we're going after we die, but if you're here, you might as well be here. And being here means paying attention, I think.
There are quite a few Holocaust movies this season - how would you set Good apart?
I guess, to quote [co-star] Jason Isaacs, it's an ethical thriller. It doesn't have a political angle, and there isn't a catharsis. There isn't some great heroic gesture. What's terrifying about it is how mundane even the concentration camps seem.
You travelled to many of them before the shoot - did you find that kind of normalcy by visiting one after another?
Yeah. I remember I was in Treblinka, and there's hardly anything left there. And as it happened, I was completely by myself in this forested area. The sun was out, it was a spring day, and I stopped at one point and sat down under a tree. And I thought, "OK, this is where I am now, and it's actually a beautiful, beautiful place." There were probably moments when both prisoners and guards noticed that it was a very beautiful day, [which] makes it more real, and more disturbing.
What type of souvenirs did you bring back from Germany and Poland to be used for the movie?
I brought a lot of books, editions that would have been from that time. Poets from the 18th and 19th centuries, and Scandinavian writers. And my glasses; I found some frames that were made back then. My pocket watch. Little things. I like collaborating with the props and set designers, to feel like I'm involved in the character's life.
What about The Road appealed to you?
That book has sold more than any other of McCarthy's, because it's the most univerally understood and accepted story. It takes a worry that any parent who cares at all about their kid has, which is, "What's going to happen to my kid if I'm gone? For a day, or a week, or forever?" It takes it to an extreme.
How does the movie address the novel's bleakness in a way that will be appealing to an audience?
Well, gradually the boy becomes the teacher. He reminds his father of the sort of compassion that he's tried to instill in his son. And, as happens with most parents at some point, they contradict what they're telling their kids. You say one thing and you do another. There are moments that are humorous, there are moments of revelation, there are uplifting moments.
Why has the release date been pushed back?
I think they just weren't done. They figured, this is a book people like, and we've only got one chance to put it out, so let's get it right. I would have loved to see it come out now, because it's moving into winter and that seems appropriate, story-wise.
"I like naturally occurring film grain, and what happens to film when it's under- and over-exposed."
"Antologia de Tangos y Lunfardos by Marcelo Oliveri is a very interesting compilation of tango lyrics, complete with glossaries for individual slang, using 'Lunfardo' slang particular to Buenos Aires."
"[I have] a goalie shirt of the team San Lorenzo, from Boledo, Argentina. I have been a fan of that club for as long as I can remember. I'm going to see San Lorenzo play for the Argentine Championship."
"[I'm reading] Touch and Go, the Studs Terkel memoir, because he was - like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn - heroic in his efforts to educate himself as to the realities of capitalism and imperialism, never shying away from speaking truth to power."
"By far the best artwork I have seen recently was a collection of pencil drawings made by a group of 7-to-8-year-olds in Madrid, at their school. They consisted mostly of trees in summer and trees in winter, with the occasional bird, butterfly, fighter jet, dog, cat or horse included. The best "major" exhibition I've recently seen is the Miro exhibit at MoMA in New York. He seems to me to have been less of a showoff and more of an original, purist painter than his fellow countrymen Picasso or Dali, or just about anyone else."