Viggo Mortensen: The Soul of a Warrior

Source: Studio Magazine

© Studio.

The hero of Lord of the Rings ... is also poet, photographer, and painter. This actor speaks exclusively to us about his career and shows us his world. An artist of all trades.

A room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. His short wheat-blond hair makes his extremely clear gaze stand out. He has a drawling voice and bare feet. He has just come from Morocco, where he is shooting Hidalgo. He is wearing simple jeans and a faded sweatshirt, and always wears on his finger the ring from Lord of the Rings which Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, gave him. Around his neck, he has a green Elvish stone. Usually, he drinks South American maté tea. Tonight, despite a bad cold, he is sharing a bottle of Bordeaux with us, drawing on imported cigarettes, which a Danish journalist left for him ...

What awaits us in The Two Towers after Fellowship of the Ring?
- Viggo Mortensen - This episode is tougher, more desperate because the Fellowship of the Ring is broken. Aragorn, my character, finds himself with a new responsibility, which will give him a dimension that is more tragic, but also more beautiful. What I like a lot in this part of Lord of the Rings is the use of a very free structure which returns to the past, to the future, to dreams, to hope, to fears, all at once ... Peter Jackson has increased the degree of difficulty throughout his trilogy. And also, there are some really new things: visually, the Viking country (Rohan) is astounding, and the city of Minas Tirith, incredible. As for the rest, I prefer to leave it as a surprise!

The shooting of the three Lord of the Rings films took place simultaneously, over 18 months. However, since then, you have re-shot several scenes ...
- That was expected. Every year, we go back to New Zealand for a good month of shooting. Also, next year, I'll go back there for additional scenes for the third episode, Return of the King. For The Two Towers, this year, we filmed mostly flashbacks.

We know you were chosen at the last minute, even after the shoot had begun. Was this a handicap?
- As you know, I replaced Stuart Townsend. I knew there was nothing wrong with Stuart; simply, Peter wanted an old dog like me for Aragorn. (He has just turned 44.) My only fear was that I didn't have enough time to prepare. Also, I hadn't even read Tolkien's book. As well, I was reluctant to leave my family behind for such a long time. But my son, who I'm bringing up, gave me his blessing. Then I read what I could: the script and the books, of course, but also medieval French and Spanish poems which could have inspired Tolkien. I loved this reading. At the same time, I intensely studied fencing: the first scene which I had to shoot was a fight. So, the first characteristic of Aragorn which I noticed was his physical strength.

How would you describe Aragorn?
- A king who doesn't want to be king. A mortal in love with an immortal ... It takes time to get to know Aragorn: for many years, he has hidden his identity from Sauron, because he is the last of the Numenorean line. At the same time, he feels very alienated (or distant) from his ancestors, who, although brave, succumbed to the power of the Ring. Aragorn has fear that he too will succumb, which makes him psychologically troubled. It is very interesting for an actor to have such a role, a character who evolves gradually, with subtleties and subtexts.

What touches you most in the story of Lord of the Rings?
- It's a story about fellowship: the union of people and races to save the world. It's quite easy to compare it with what we see nowadays, this fight against terrorism that the whole world must fight. It's rare to find a film that isn't simply concerned with the characters' actions, but also with their internal conflicts. What I liked in the book is the fact that there are so many diverse forces: Tolkien was a master at juggling myths, literature, poetry, ancient tales, language. In addition, my knowledge of Celtic myths helped me feel close to Aragorn immediately. My father is Danish and I used to live in Denmark; so I know these Nordic legends which say that heroes and gods have weaknesses, that they're all human. Right away I saw Aragorn as a mixture of all the archetypal Nordic heroes. Except that he is more modern than those guys who sang before acting. Aragorn's actions speak louder than his words.

You got so close to Aragorn's character that even when you were not filming, you wore parts of your costume ...
- That's how I work. I always wear an accessory of my character during filming. On Hidalgo, for instance, I never took off my character's boots. On Lord of the Rings, it was even more important, because having arrived after they had started filming, I needed to become Aragorn immediately, to wear the costume as naturally as my own face. So it's true, I wore some of his clothes all of the time, and also I often carried my sword around between takes. But Peter Jackson encouraged us all to immerse ourselves in the film to make this epic as real as possible.

The latter (Peter Jackson) spared his crew nothing. They say that you yourself broke a tooth during a fight ...
- Yes, it's true (he shows his front tooth), so? (He dismisses the subject with a wave of his hand.) Everyone was injured more or less seriously, including the crew. Better to say that we were lucky to get off so lightly! (Laughs). Anyway, we were all ready for anything. Peter was such an inspiration, such a force for us all. The story we were telling, and even more so, the places where we were filming, were a fantastic inspiration. But it's true that the days were very, very long, and we went weeks and months without a break. The battles were definitely the hardest work; I had lots of them and I wanted to do as many stunts as possible myself. Luckily, over time, I became very friendly with the stuntmen. By knowing each other well, we could go faster and faster without hurting ourselves. But, in spite of everything, those scenes take very long to film. In The Two Towers, there's one battle that we shot every night for over three months. And if what I'm hearing is right, that scene will only last ten minutes on the screen!

What was Peter Jackson like on the shoot?
- Like a hobbit! He has incredible concentration and remains deceivingly calm under all circumstances. I can't imagine anyone else supervising this gigantic enterprise whilst keeping such a sharp eye on all the details. He slept only four hours a night. But he was as excited on the last day of filming as on the first.

Was there a moment when you felt you had lost touch with reality?
- During the filming of The Two Towers, when we were shooting the battle of Helm's Deep, which I mentioned to you and which lasted three months! When I went to bed, I felt like a vampire, and when I got up, like a ghost! I had strange dreams, mostly about killing ... I became even more the character, because the context lent itself to that so much: it was always cold, damp, there were no trees, the place was isolated and the landscape surreal ... In any case, it was during the shooting of this sequence that the script and reality came together, that a true fellowship was created between the actors.

- A magic bond was truly created between us. It is still alive today. I'm still in contact with most of them and I'm very friendly with Elijah Wood. It's the best group of people I've ever worked with. The fact that the story celebrates team spirit galvanized us. It wasn't guaranteed though; we could have very quickly got frustrated with each other! But it must be said that the casting is inspired. Take Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf. He is very prepared, he knows what he has to do. And he has a good sense of humour and truly enjoys life. I don't know if it's a sign, but Ian came to see one of my plays, long ago, when I was unknown ... The team spirit was also heightened by shooting in New Zealand. This country has an island mentality: you have to work together.

Through the trilogy, Aragorn will have to assume his destiny as king ... From your point of view, after the success of the first part, do you have the feeling that you have to hold yourself differently, as an actor? You have suddenly become very famous. What has that changed for you?
- There isn't really a difference. Apart from fan-mail, which has suddenly grown. As for job offers, people must think I have an exclusive contract with Tolkien ... (Laughs.) I can't actually say that projects have been pouring in since! The real difference concerns my other career - if I can say that without seeming pretentious - that of painter-photographer: nowadays, more people come to my exhibitions or buy more of my books. They are suddenly more aware of my work.

It is tempting to make a comparison between the power of the Ring and the power of Hollywood ...
- You're on the right track! (Laughs.) Hollywood stirs up envy, and the battle is fierce ... Personally, I have never been fascinated by Hollywood. What I like is cinema itself, as a means of expression. Also, I am well aware that everything depends on luck. The days when I had to do mediocre films, just to move on, if they worked, to more interesting projects, seem to be over, but nothing is ever certain. The only control I have is to do the best work possible and to profit fully from each experience. My ambition is not to become number one, but to find projects which won't be "just another job." In any case, an artist should stay away from the Ring. (Laughs).

You live in Venice, an artists quarter of Los Angeles by the ocean, where you are a painter and a photographer, but also a poet and a musician. How did these other artistic careers begin?
- Somewhere along the road. Writing interested me before movies and theater. And I have always been attracted by drawing. Photography happened naturally, soon after. In the end, all of that is just my way of expressing myself, an extension of who I am, of my way of seeing things ... In any case, nowadays t has become as important to me as acting.

On that subject, can you remember the moment when and the reason why you wanted to become an actor?
- Not really. I know that I went to see films with my mother when I was a child. Towards twenty, I lived for a year close to London, and I went to a cinema which only showed classics. I discovered Bergman, Ozu, Pasolini, Dreyer ... It was a revelation. It wasn't just that I liked going to the
movies, it was that on leaving the theater I wanted to enter this world. So, logically, I became very curious about the way in which a film was made. Later on, there was this audition for a play, which pushed me to take lessons in New York ...

Denmark, London, New York ... it's easy to get lost in your career ... can we try to establish a chronological order?
- (Stubborn.) We can try ... Between 2 and 12 years, I moved a lot. My father was Danish and my mother American. They changed jobs often. We lived in Venezuela and Argentina. Every year, we went to Denmark, where I have lots of family, for the holidays. My parents divorced when I was 11. At that time, my two brothers and I, we went back northern New York with my mother, near the Canadian border. It's there I went to college and high school. Then, at 18 (sic), I went to Denmark, where I stayed only a few years, before going to live in England. Then the return to New York.

Witness is your cinema debut. Is there a film before that which counts?
- No, Witness is the first film in which I had a part where they didn't cut me out in editing! (Laughs.) You might have seen me in The Purple Rose of Cairo but the editor decided otherwise! (Laughs.)

What was your ambition at the time of Witness?
- I wanted first to satisfy my curiosity about the movies. The offer of Witness came at the same time as an offer for a Shakespeare play in Central Park. I chose Witness, although I was only supposed to be there for two days! I had the feeling this was finally my chance. It was Peter Weir who, seeing me, said, "It will be interesting for (the character played by) Alexander Godunov to have this brother who follows him everywhere." And he asked me to stay six weeks instead of one! It was in June and July, it was very hot. As I had little to do, I passed the time in roaming around Pennsylvania on a bicycle I had found. I made friends. I was like Tom Sawyer, and they paid me, and I could watch the crew on set as much as I wanted.

And also Harrison Ford?
- Of course! He was most of all professional. Conscientious. Interesting to study. I had the greats before me: Peter Weir, above all, with his calmness and efficiency. In the evening, when I came back from my wandering, they let me watch the rushes. Witness was an idyllic experience.

What happened during the years that followed, between Witness and, finally, your first starring role in Indian Runner?
- I had four or five difficult years. I had lots of auditions, with no success. At that time, I left New York for Los Angeles. I did some theater there ... And then it came little by little, with really small films, with a part in the sequel to Young Guns. One day, during the filming of I can't remember which film, I went back to my hotel and found a message: "Sean Penn called you," with a telephone number. I asked myself which of my friends was playing a trick on me. And there was a spelling mistake in Sean. I call: "Sean Penn?" "Yeah," replies Sean Penn, grumpily. "It's Viggo Mortensen What do you want?" I didn't even realize I could have been friendlier. (Laughs.) And then, he told me about Indian Runner. He saw me in Fresh Horses, a TV film which I had made for HBO. I had a little scene at the end. He sent me the script and I was instantly hooked. At the start, I preferred the character that was finally played by David Morse. Mine was just described as "the baddie'. But I said to myself that, behind the slightly too obvious behavior of Frank Roberts, there had to be a really complex reason. The filming was extremely interesting ... All the more so because Sean was very involved. It was there that I became friends with Dennis Hopper. After that, the offers came.

You met Sean Penn again later, in Carlito's Way. Have you remained in touch?
- No. Even now, we meet by chance, that's all. In Carlito's Way, we were supposed to have a scene together, but Brian De Palma decided not to shoot it. A shame.

Since then, you've kept on transforming yourself from one role to the next: sadistic instructor in GI Jane, romantic in Portrait of a Lady ... Was this desire for metamorphosis a conscious choice?
- I'm happy you see my work in such a varied way. It's not conscious, it's just ... (in French) 'qu'il faut bien s'amuser un peu, n'est ce pas?' - that one must amuse oneself a little. (Laughs.)

Was it not also a desire to break this image of handsome guy that threatens you?
- I don't think that this label of sex symbol concerns me. Going without a pause from black to white is more a part of my temperament. I'm curious, I like to try new things.

You've worked with many actresses: Demi Moore (GI Jane), Sandra Bullock (28 Days), Nicole Kidman (Portrait of a Lady), Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder), Diane Lane (A Walk on the Moon) ... With who did you have the best relationship?
- They were all great. But it was one of the lesser stars, Diane Lane, who perhaps impressed me the most. She's been working for years with little recognition in comparison to her talent.

What memories do you have of working with Jane Campion, on Portrait of a Lady? Was that special?
- Oh, yes! How I loved working with her! Her way of rehearsing, of discussing before shooting ... At the same time, she demands much more than you think you can give. I've rarely met anyone as demanding, but it's something an actor appreciates. I also think that Nicole Kidman did a remarkable job in that movie, and that she's not often as highly regarded as she should be. She is so intense ...

You're filming Hidalgo. Why this project?
- You won't believe me, but I didn't have many offers after Lord of the Rings. Hidalgo was lucky. The film, directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III), is based on a true story that takes place in 1890. Hidalgo is the name of a horse. I'm a cowboy, the best rider in the West, who goes to Arabia to take part in a great horse race, after being dared by Omar Sharif. Omar Sharif! I would have accepted this film just for him!

It's another story about a rite of passage ...
- It's a theme that I like: the interior journey, the experience. Hidalgo is a film about courage and dignity, honor and survival. It is not the story of an American who goes to Arabia and says, "I'll show you how it's done." This American will learn another culture. It's much better that this film is being made today. I'm even surprised that it's a studio film!

Is the curiosity about movies that you had at the start satisfied yet?
- I've had more than I hoped; I've discovered the infinite possibilities of my job. Around a movie, for those who make it and those who see it, there is something religious. Also, on set there is a sort of ritual, with the preparation, the lighting, the direction ... When I arrive at a set to rehearse, when I see us all in our costumes, made up, speaking words written by others, when the word "action" resounds and we immerse ourselves so intensely that we begin sometimes to forget reality, I find that there is no better invitation to journey, to dreams, to magic, to the inexplicable ...

"In the canvases I have been working on a while, there are phrases, sayings, extracts from personal diaries or newspapers ... I even use these as the medium for my paintings, like the paint. These days, I've stopped copying them, in notebooks or on the kitchen wall, so as not to lose them. However they are still there, in my paintings, like so many indicators of my past points of view and my experiences ..."

"My kitchen is my studio. I don't have a real working studio. But it's nice to paint in the kitchen: while the canvas dries, I can take a break and eat something. I like cooking, especially for my son. I'm not sure that you'd like my cooking. It's not at all conventional ..."

"It's a real pleasure and a true luxury to be able to combine poems, paintings and photos in one book ..."
If his canvases are formal research into color and symbolism, his photos are witness to the same work: representations of life taken from real life, details isolated from their context, solitary figures, almost abstract visions of swimming pools ... In addition to Sign Language, he has notably published Hole in the Sun and Coincidence of Memory, both with Perceval Press. And also Recent Forgeries, whose preface is by Dennis Hopper, and which includes a CD, on which Mortensen reads some of his work.

"Of my poems which are related to movies, I like "Matinee', from Coincidence of Memory. It's a little verse which evokes those afternoon screenings, always a little special, if only because you often find yourself alone; and which says simply how anyone can feel emotions upon seeing movie, or reading a book. "Matinee' speaks of the way in which a film can transport you. And how, when you leave, you feel, perhaps for a brief moment, but also sometimes forever, different as an individual. That's a characteristic of art - whether it be film, theater, painting or literature - it can make you feel different. Better: make you feel unique. Of course, the film which this poem speaks about doesn't exist!"

"Photography, painting, poetry ... these are only extensions of myself, of the way in which I see things. It's simple my way of communicating. I think that it's Robert Louis Stevenson who said: "It is better to travel hopefully than arrive at one's destination." I agree with that. I think I am fundamentally hopeful and when I paint or take photos or listen to someone talking to me, it's because I always hope that something will happen. That's it, "to travel hopefully."

"I'm not really a musician, but I experiment with sounds, I delete, I re-record ... The Other Parade is, of my three CDs, the one I would recommend, if you want to get a little idea of the strange things I do. (Laughs.) On that record, I don't sing, but I do a bit of everything, I play a little of everything with people who ... do a little of everything, too. I don't give concerts, but sometimes, during a poetry reading where I read my work, I happen to play in front of an audience, between poems."

"If I thank Saint Francis of Assisi in my book, Hole in the Sun, it's for a private reason. I don't want to explain any these references - a word, a name or a quotation - which mark my work. Even if the reader does not know exactly why I wrote that, it won't stop them searching for a connection, questioning themselves. I like that people draw their own conclusions. In life, it's the effort you make to try and understand which keeps you alive and open. It is more important to ask questions than to find answers."

"When I saw Death in Venice, by Visconti, I had a big shock. It is one of the movies that has really inspired me. I saw it again recently, it's a little dated, especially the flashbacks, but still ... That mixture of beauty and sadness ... And also the performance of Dirk Bogarde is so extraordinary! Its impact on me has been enormous."

"I cannot tell you who are the novelists, the poets, the painters, or even the filmmakers who I prefer. If I answer, I'll regret tomorrow what I have said. I don't want to be the person who likes so-and-so or so-and-so - because I really can love one piece by an artist and not all of his work. And this also depends on moments, times, states of mind ... What I can do, however, is to cite several texts, figures, people, actors or movies which meant something when I started out in this career, which have nourished me ..."

"I met Dennis Hopper while shooting Indian Runner. Straight away we liked each other. He has an incredible sense of humor. I like him as a man and we share the same interest in photography and painting. We show each other our work; we talk about it. He is really very encouraging. It's also him who pushed me to show my work and he recommended me to galleries so that I could exhibit my photos and my paintings. I admire the fact that he has made himself respected as a photographer as well as for his mythical career as an actor. Personally, the photographer Dennis Hopper interests me even more than the actor. He has such a good eye ... In a way, it's correct to say that it was he who officially introduced me to the art world. Still, while one can choose to become an actor, it's not the same with art - there is no starting point, it's there, inside you, that's all."

"To discover Bergman, Pasolini, Ozu, Dreyer, at twenty, that was a revelation. Could that be it, the movies? My jaw dropped in admiration. These filmmakers really inspired me. I like the simplicity of Ozu, I like the films of Carl Dreyer, which capture so well the pain of the human condition. I like the purity of Bergman and Pasolini. It was after I discovered their films that I became very curious about film as a means of expression.

"The real trigger for me was the film that everyone was talking about when I was twenty: The Deer Hunter, particularly Meryl Streep. What an inspiration! All the actors in that movie are amazing, no doubt; but there's something about Meryl Streep in that movie that makes me identify with her. I don't know why, something mysterious that you can't put your finger on, but which haunts you deeply, and for a long time ... Apart from that, if I think hard, it is mostly actresses who have inspired me. Like Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann. I still have very strong memories of Autumn Sonata. That portrayal of the intense and frustrating link that you can have with your parents ... That wish, perhaps subconscious, which they often have, to keep you down - even the best parents in the world do that! It's really up to you to find yourself. But that theme would not have hit me so hard without the performances of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, which come close to perfection. They make each word get under your skin. They are the model of restraint, but still they shine and burn with a fever that is contagious. The performance which most astonishes me is certainly that of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. It is so vibrant. The first time I saw this film, I felt moved in every fiber of my body. When a performance leaves you so marked, so to speak, it's because you have watched great art. Or, quite simply, the form of art that comes closest to you. When I started to take acting lessons in New York, I used these performances as models. It's not surprising I still can't break through!"

Last edited: 6 May 2005 20:39:07