With a principal role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen has already been involved in one major book-to-cinema adaptation. Now he features in another, the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He tells Donald Clarke about readers' expectations, being almost famous and boring the paparazzi.
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Viggo Mortensen began the last decade by toying with the ire of a particularly unforgiving class of reader. He got away with it. Released between 2001 and 2003, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy - featuring Viggo as the brave, handsome Aragorn - was a massive hit with both The Lord of the Rings evangelists and Middle-earth agnostics. He's starting the new decade in a similar way.
Now, you might reasonably argue that the fantastic works of J R R Tolkien could not have less in common with Cormac McCarthy's fatalistic novels. Yet Mortensen is once again dealing with material that means a great deal to readers. Published in 2006, McCarthy's grim, post-apocalyptic fable is one of those books that everybody seems to have read.
Part environmental jeremiad, part existential musing, the book says a great deal about the globally warmed (and globally terrorised) decade just past.
If John Hillcoat's film fails to satisfy, then a great many people will be very angry indeed.
"I felt a great responsibility because the film is based on source material that is worthwhile," says Mortensen. "This is a profound story. Yes, we're faithful. There is, for example, excellent narration in the book, so we use that in the film. But what is more important is to be truthful. We have to be honest on an emotional level."
He pulls out his own copy of McCarthy's book. Scuffed and stained with love, scraps of paper emerging from the dog-eared pages, it has clearly been consulted frequently during filming. I assume he must have also chewed the ear off Cormac McCarthy. The author - also known for contemporary classics such as All the Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men - does not give many interviews, so a conversation with him is to be valued.
"We talked before we started shooting," Mortensen says. "But we ended up talking about being dads. We talked about his son and my son. The state of my script was even worse than my copy of the book, I can tell you. And I realised later that there were all these practical questions I could have asked him. But ultimately I realised the story was simply about being human."
Such full immersion in the world of The Road could have a disturbing effect on the psyche. Set following some sketchily defined catastrophe - possibly nuclear warfare, possibly climactic trauma - the story follows a man and his son as they attempt to make their way to the sea. While the protagonist tries to remain moral, most of the world's population seems to have given in to brutality, selfishness and - most disturbingly - cannibalism. Did that misery hang around in his brain at the end of the working day?
"I wasn't aware of that," he says. "But certain aspects of certain movies stay with you a little longer than others. But you have to remember the story is not just one thing. It's not just descent. It gradually becomes more complex and ultimately uplifting. You have to earn that uplift by going through the trauma. The lesson ultimately is that the highest wisdom is to be kind."
He's right about the film forcing you to go through trauma. Hillcoat, director of the excellent Australian western The Proposition, has made no concessions to cheeriness in his depiction of McCarthy's post-apocalyptic world. The air is grey with choking dust. Every building looms miserably. The heroes' quest always seems faintly hopeless.
Yet The Road does, indeed, have some good news for us. The unnamed protagonist manages to maintain his humanity despite the wretchedness all around. There's a question here for every viewer: could you, under similar circumstances, continue to behave decently? "I find that to be a really interesting question," Mortensen says. "I don't know until I am in that situation. I tend to think I would because I am stubborn. I might not know how to live as I should, but I would know why I should try. That is the story of the film: the boy and the man don't know how, but they do know why. And that's okay. There's a key point where the man says if he were God he wouldn't have made the world any different. Any story that can instil that same kind of acceptance is a good thing."
He says he is stubborn and I believe him. Mind you, not many actors make it without a degree of obstinacy in their make-up. Tall and wiry with unmistakably Scandinavian features, Mortensen, now an unlikely 51, was born in New York, but grew up in a variety of exotic locales. When he was still a boy the family moved to Argentina where his Danish dad managed farms and ranches. Later, he lived in Venezuela and Copenhagen, before returning to New York. I would guess that such a peripatetic upbringing could be useful to an actor. It does no harm to experience so many different cultures.
"I think that's probably right," he says. "But it's more important who you are than where you are. It's more important how you've been than where you've been. I have lived in Argentina, so I do have a connection with Spanish-speaking cultures. Then again, I have the Danish connection. After working on The Lord of the Rings, I now feel at home in New Zealand. That's all good."
As you may have gathered from some of his responses - "It's more important how you've been ..." - Mortensen fancies himself as a bit of a philosopher. He also dabbles in painting and photography and has released some 14 albums of experimental music. He must, one assumes, have been confronted with a difficult decision as a youth. With so many interests, how did he decide to focus the greater part of his energy on acting?
"Well what I really wanted was to write," he says in his unexcited way. "Acting was just something I became curious about. I began to be interested in this trick: how do you get people interested in what you are feeling? How do you involve them emotionally? Then I got lucky with a very good acting teacher in New York. Without a mentor like that I might never have made it."
His career has followed an odd trajectory. He was over 40 when Peter Jackson cast him in The Lord of the Rings and propelled him towards proper stardom. Since then, he has been nominated for an Oscar in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and sought out more eccentric projects such as Vicente Amorim's Good. Yet, long before you knew his name, you knew his face. Turn on the TV late at night and you may catch him in Carlito's Way or Crimson Tide or The Portrait of a Lady or - from way back in 1985 - as one of the Amish characters in Witness. While plugging away at decent roles in mostly decent films, he managed to marry and divorce Exene Cervenka, late of peerless LA punk band X, and develop a nice little holiday home in a picturesque corner of Idaho.
One gets the impression that he rarely had problems paying the rent, but, for the first two decades of his career, he wasn't exactly famous either.
"I wouldn't really have said I was well known," he agrees. "I was known in the movie business as someone who could be relied on to do a decent job. I was making a more or less steady living. The best thing about The Lord of the Rings was that it gave me more options. If it had not been for my fame, David Cronenberg would not have been able to cast me in A History of Violence."
It all makes perfect sense now. But it is easy to forget that The Lord of the Rings was a preposterous gamble at the time. Nobody had ever attempted to make such an ambitious trilogy of films in such rapid succession. Peter Jackson was a relatively obscure director. Added to which, fantasy films - as opposed to science fiction - had, to this point, never performed spectacularly well at the box office. The project could have been one of cinema's great catastrophes.
"Well I certainly had no idea - nor did anybody else and if they say so now they're lying - that it would be such a resounding success. Of course, I could see that the various connections - Celtic, samurai and so on - could register in places where Tolkien was not known. But what really changed my mind was my son, who was a big fan of the books. I also had a nagging feeling that I might feel later I had missed out on a journey. I might miss out on an interesting life experience."
Articulate, mellow, not overly disposed towards humour, Mortensen does not strike me as the sort of fellow who would enjoy red carpets, decadent parties or scandalous love romps. He likes to watch a bit of football (proper football as played by Danish people) and indulges in the odd bout of liberal political activism. Otherwise, he keeps out of the limelight. So, did the increased media attention following The Lord of the Rings cramp his style?
"You do lose a little bit of anonymity I suppose. But you find ways of protecting what people can see. What I get up to in public is so ordinary the paparazzi end up getting bored. If they don't get something right away they get bored. When they don't get an image quickly they move on to somebody else." And, of course, fame makes it easier to pursue his other interests: poetry, music, photography.
"Yes. That's absolutely right. When you make a bit of money you can help people. I now have a small press and I can publish a few books. Being famous also helps me get certain films made. You could look upon fame as a curse, but I certainly don't." Sensible man.