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The ultimate Renaissance Man, Viggo Mortensen has dedicated his life to the arts. An accomplished actor, painter, photographer and occasional poet, he is also a man in a hurry to make his mark on the world. Films may be his most visible medium of expression, but they only reveal a fraction of the man's deeper embrace of life. Oblivious to fame and his own imposing physical beauty, Viggo imagines himself as an engaged spectator whose love of travel feeds his aesthetic cravings. Relaxing in a plush leather sofa in a downtown Toronto hotel, the 54-year-old actor was looking very dapper in a blue jacket and striped blue polo shirt following the premier of his new film, Everybody Has a Plan, shot in Argentina where Mortensen spent his childhood. As always, he had a pot of his beloved maté tea, a syrupy potion he brews himself, on the glass table beside him.
"I've always had an urgency about doing things - because life is short and I've always worried about time running out," Mortensen reflects. "I love travelling and getting to see places and observe people from different cultures and trying to make sense of things. Those experiences are very illuminating and I try to distil all that in my work."
That kind of sensibility is very much in evidence in Everybody Has a Plan (Todos Tenemos un Plan), a dark thriller that sees Mortensen speak flawless Spanish. He plays the part of Agustin, a disillusioned paediatrician living in Buenos Aires who assumes the identity of his identical twin brother Pedro upon the latter's death only to discover that his sibling was heavily involved in the criminal underworld.
Though the Danish-American Mortensen has forged a successful movie career working in English, he is also fluent in Danish, Italian, French, and Spanish. Everybody Has a Plan marks his fourth Spanish-language film, but the first where he could actually speak in his native Argentine accent - "When you learn something as a kid, especially language, it never leaves you."
The film is a long-awaited homecoming of sorts for Mortensen, whose Danish father, also named Viggo, ran chicken farms for a large company based in Buenos Aires. Following his parents' divorce when he was 11, Viggo moved back to New York City where he was born, together with his mother Grace and two younger brothers. As a young man, he worked in flower markets in Copenhagen and bars in New York before deciding on a career in acting.
Mortensen's long and varied career includes roles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the apocalyptic drama The Road, and his three recent films directed by David Cronenberg: A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. His most recent film, On the Road, co-starring Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund, saw him play the writer William S. Burroughs.
Mortensen divides his time between San Francisco [sic], where he runs Perceval Press, a publishing house devoted to publishing poetry and works by young writers, and a home in Idaho. He is currently preparing an exhibition of photos he took while working on Everybody Has a Plan.
Viggo, this must have been such a pleasure for you to have finally made a film in the country where you first grew up?
I'd been hoping for many years to find a project where I could work in Argentina. The country has a very deep film culture and I've followed Argentine cinema over time and I've been very impressed. Whenever I wanted to work there though the films I was interested in weren't available and others that I had been approached to do weren't to my liking. So when (Everybody Has a Plan) came to me, I knew it had the potential to be a very good film and I decided to do it. It was very rewarding to not only be able to spend more time in a country which I feel a deep personal connection to, but also to be part of the incredible film culture in Argentina. Most people aren't aware of it, but the country produces some of the world's best actors, directors, and films. They also have some of the world's finest theatre schools and acting teachers.
How did you happen to meet Ana Piterbarg (the film's director and screenwriter)?
I ran into Ana Piterbarg by chance. I was in Argentina on one of my regular visits and I was actually at the headquarters of the San Lorenzo football team club, which is also just a big sports club where you can watch sports and she was there. She's not a member or a fan of the team but she takes one of her kids to swim at that club, and she was picking up her kid and she saw me and said, "Oh, you're Viggo aren't you? I'm Ana and I have a script to a movie I want to film. Can I send it to you?" I said, "Sure" and gave her an address to send it to and when I finally got it (a few months later in the mail) I thought it was very original and so I said "Yes."
Was it particularly interesting for you to be able to not only work in Spanish but use your native Argentine accent?
It wasn't as easy as I expected because Agustin is more of a middle-class character living in Buenos Aires whereas his brother Pedro is living in the countryside and should speak with a more local accent. So I tried to pick up some of those variations as best I could. That kind of detail always helps me in building a character which in this case was unusual because I'm playing identical twins. I spoke to (good friend and frequent collaborator) David Cronenberg about what he observed when Jeremy Irons plays identical twins in Dead Ringers. He confirmed what I pretty much thought Irons had tried to do in terms of differentiating the characters and creating very distinct personalities. And if you remember when Irons accepted the Oscar (for Reversal of Fortune) he thanked David Cronenberg for giving him the part in Dead Ringers.
Was it a challenge to create those distinct personalities?
The most difficult thing was trying to act badly when Agustin is trying to impersonate Pedro. It's sort of an impossible task. He can't do it that well because he hasn't seen his brother in years and yet you're trying to do this in a way where you're not being overtly comical or exaggerating too much.
Much of the film was shot in the El Tigre region of Argentina. Did you know that area when you were growing up?
Oh, yeah. As a kid I knew that area, yeah. But I hadn't been as far into the interior as we went while we were shooting. I didn't know that area very well, but I got to know it in pre- production and I actually lived in Tigre for the shoot so I got to be quite familiar with it and that was helpful definitely to have a better understanding of it when we started. It was actually pretty cold while we were shooting there which also gave the film the kind of look and sensibility we were aiming for.
Growing up in Buenos Aires, what was life like as a kid growing up in a culture very different from your parents?
Living in Buenos Aires was a very special time for me. The life there is so different, it's more intense in many ways. I still keep a collection of old tango songs and I listen to them all the time. I also listen to some other Argentine singers of the moment. And some old ones. I still play soccer too. I'm still a big fan of the San Lorenzo soccer team which I was a fan of in Buenos Aires, I follow the results, everything. My family left Buenos Aires in 1969, and I came back once in '70 and then I didn't return again until '95. I have strong memories of the kind of spirit that Argentine people have. Over the last few years I've also got to work in Spanish several times and that makes me think even more about my time in Argentina.
What are some of your favourite things that you like about Argentina?
I still drink this Argentine tea called maté. It's this strong green tea that's brewed using twigs. I drink it all the time, without sugar, of course. And I make my own 'dulce de leche' which is kind of a milk 'marmalade' without which no Argentine could survive (laughs). And over the years spending time in LA and San Francisco I've always been able to find lots of classic Argentinean snacks, 'empanadas', 'membrillo', 'yerba'? So wherever I am I still find a way to keep in touch with my Argentine youth! I also enjoy listening to Argentine music when I'm down there. I love this Argentine song from the 1930s called Envidia by Ada Falcon. It's very special.
You've said that you spent most of your childhood by yourself, drawing, painting, and generally observing the world. Were you lonely growing up in Buenos Aires?
I don't know if I was particularly lonely in that sense of the word, but I was often alone and living in my own small world. I didn't hang out with other kids at all, and so I turned very inward and that's enabled me to find a lot of joy in life simply working alone in my studio or wandering through different places and countries taking photos. I've always loved the kind of isolation that comes from intensely devoting yourself to art forms like painting or poetry or whatever. That's also what makes being an actor so fulfilling in that you can share the creative process and get out of your own head.
Your family is a mixture of American, Canadian, and Danish. What drew your family to Argentina?
My dad got work down there, working in agriculture, managing farms so we moved when I was an infant. The first decade of your life is really important, it's formative. I never lost the feeling for the country, for Argentina and for the language spoken there. I still have that inside me. I've always wanted to make a film in Argentina and I was just waiting for the right story, something challenging and interesting. I always hoped I could become part of Argentine film history and with Everybody Has a Plan now I am.
Because you spent time in different cultures growing up do you feel very multicultural, a citizen of the world?
I enjoy being comfortable in different countries and certainly whenever I visit Argentina it feels like I'm going home. But I also feel that way in other countries like in Denmark where my family is from, where I have spent a lot of time. I guess it's also part of moving around a lot, being around a lot of different cultures. I have a multicultural background so I tend to have an open mind about things and I find other cultures interesting. I really enjoy my job and part of my job is looking at the world in a way that is different from my own.
Are you proud in some way that the new Pope Francisco is from Argentina?
Well, what I'm more interested in is that he's a life-long fan of San Lorenzo, which is the team I've been a fan of since I was a kid. I couldn't care less about the Vatican but if you got to be pope, you might as well be a fan of San Lorenzo. That I think is kind of fun. Also, there's the fact that he seems more personable and down to earth. His character to me seems to be, I don't know, warmer.
He's also a Jesuit?
Yeah, he didn't come from bureaucracy, the institutional route. He was a priest for the poor people, typical Jesuit. That's probably why he's more personable and more humble. I mean, you don't get to be pope or president without making some enemies, but I think he's an intriguing person.
It's probably occurred to you that you tend to play characters who are loners or in other ways iconoclastic?
(Laughs) I suppose it has something to do with my own nature. I'm certainly conscious of being drawn to people who are a little different or who think for themselves. I'm curious by nature and it's helpful to be curious about the world around you when you're an actor. I've always been curious about other cultures because I travelled a lot as a child. That's informed my outlook on the world and I like to keep exploring as much as I can.
You've said in the past that death was something that preoccupied you when you were a child?
I still don't understand why I was so affected by the awareness of mortality, but it kind of left its mark on me. I'm increasingly aware that my time is limited, my parents are older and not as sharp mentally or physically. When I was a little boy and realised that you die, I was angry about that knowledge and occasionally I would resent it but mostly it's a reminder to keep going? What else are you going to do!? (Laughs)