Viggo Mortensen is one quality individual. Not only does the man have a film schedule that might make the most seasoned actor reach for caffeine pills (or worse), but he delves just as deeply into his other passions -- poetry, painting, photography, politics, music and more -- as he does into his roles. And as much as the legendary accounts of Mortensen's dedication on the set of the canonical-text-turned-classic-film, Lord of the Rings -- where it was rumored that Viggo disappeared into the woods in his Aragorn costume to really sink into the role -- might raise your eyebrows, his determined loyalty and continual involvement in Los Angeles' other (read: neglected) arts scenes should elicit your respect. Before the world went haywire over Mortensen's turn at the Tolkien canon, Viggo had already embedded himself deeply in the arts community through his poetry (from 1993's Ten Last Night to this year's Coincidence of Memory), his painting and photography (several gallery exhibits to his credit), and spoken word recordings and readings with the likes of his ex-wfe, Exene Cervenka (one-fourth of LA punk icons, X), Buckethead, Jerry Stahl and Karen Finley, among many others.
So it seemed apropos that Viggo would agree to not only a reading/signing at Santa Monica's invaluable yet independent bookstore, Midnight Special -- which recently declared that it could no longer afford the skyrocketing rent of that town's increasingly chain-stored Promenade -- but also an interview with Morphizm. All of this after flying into town in the wee hours of the AM the morning before, fried and exhausted from a shoot in Montana. To no one's surprise, Viggo showed up barefoot, clothed in an American Indian Movement long-sleeve, and encouraged a rapt crowd to pick up Noam Chomsky's 9/11, before reading a few poems from his new collection, Coincidence of Memory, published by the equally independent Perceval Press.
And although both Viggo and Perceval's editor, Pilar Perez, planned on keeping the time of each signing down, that didn't stop the tireless renaissance man from giving each fan the kind of one-to-one attention that they dream of. He shook their hands, posed for countless pictures and even let some take photos of his bare feet. Which is why when I got tired standing for hours behind him -- since our interview was postponed, I figured I'd help the awesome Midnight Special keep the peace -- I didn't sit. Or complain.
By the time it was over, the clock struck 2AM and I felt like an asshole for even suggesting the interview. But he was just as enthusiastic in the penultimate hour of his night as he was in its commencement. Plus, he sent me on my way with a bottle of whiskey.
Like I said: a tireless individual.
ST: Coincidence of Memory closes with a famous quote from Kant: "Seek not the favour of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of the few; and number not the voices, but weigh them." How does that quote inform your work and what does it mean to you?
VM: Well, I think it's good to listen to others. But if you're making things for approval, then ... that's not exactly what the quote means, but it makes me think of that: to not do things -- and I don't -- for an audience. I mean, I'm doing this signing for an audience, as thanks for buying the book, for driving from wherever. Some of these people drove from Texas, Las Vegas, Canada, and I do not know where.
ST: I thought someone came from Australia.
VM: I don't know if they did or not. But that's happened! (He laughs). Some people came from Japan. You know, it's the least I can do is sign the books and thank them, but the work in the books is not made with them in mind, I don't make it for them. I wouldn't put anything in a book, thinking, "Somebody might like this." There are images that I know have sold before that I might include in a show, but that's as much out of consideration for the gallery. You know, at least something has a chance to sell. (Laughs). But it's not going to be something I didn't like. It's just something I put in a show and it happened to do all right, a photograph or something. But I'm sort of rambling ...
ST: That's ok, keep rambling.
VM: Make it purely to please yourself and then there's a chance to please someone else -- that's what it means to me. Everyone has a few friends that they can listen to. You don't have to agree with them, but their opinion is worthwhile. If you're trying to please everyone, then you're not going to make anything that is honestly yours, I don't think, in the long run.
ST: Because it's an artistic process -- looking inward rather than outward.
VM: Yeah, you can probably make nicely crafted things, whether they're poems, sculptures, paintings, records, CDs, whatever. But they'll just be that -- nice. They won't be unwieldy in any way as personal expression often can be.
ST: Or honest.
VM: Yeah, they'll just be easy to digest for a certain, what do you call it? For an average group of people but no one in particular. So then you're not really making it for everyone; you're making it for a vague mass of people. It's not the way to do things I think. It may be profitable, but not satisfying.
ST: Kant's quote stuck out for me because you're signing at Midnight Special Books, which is an independent bookstore getting priced out of the now high-profile Santa Monica Promenade. What are your thoughts on this? I mean it's a trend, revamping entire areas everywhere with chains swallowing up the independents.
VM: Well, I've never done a book signing or reading of any kind at Midnight Special. I've been to several really good events here and I've always come here to buy books, because I live not that far from here. So I would always come to Midnight Special rather than the chain stores. Not that they don't have good books; they sometimes have the same books. But these guys are special and make an extra effort. The events that they have and the authors they get in here are people you wouldn't get to see otherwise. Knowing that they were going to have to move from this location ... I mean, I didn't think that I'd do this thing to help. It's nice if it does well, like it did tonight, but it's not going to make a difference to help them stay, by any means. I wanted to have it done here to honor Midnight Special. I like this place and I am a loyal customer.
ST: It's a huge question, of course, but what do you think it would take to keep the more independent places like Midnight Special alive and thriving, rather than getting priced out of a market like this?
VM: Big bombs. (Laughs).
ST: Big bombs? Isn't that a Spinal Tap song?
VM: "Big Bottom". (Still laughing)
ST: "Big Bottom", that's right! No, I'm kidding. Let's talk about Coincidence of Memory. Talk about its genesis. It's a 25-year retrospective of your work.
VM: Yeah, I don't know how it ended up being that. I wanted to do a poetry book for awhile and, at the time, I had a certain amount of poems that I felt comfortable with, felt that they were done. And I thought that I might as well put some from Ten Last Night -- which has long been out of print -- that had connections in a way to Beyond Baroque, and some of the authors that came out of there in the '80s and early '90s. But all through the '80s, Illuminati Press was making some unique books and Peter Schneider, the editor, asked if I wanted to do one, which was flattering. So I did a book there -- this was when I was still regularly going to the workshop at Beyond Baroque. It was a very small run; people keep asking for them. I didn't even have one of my own -- I'd given them away -- so I borrowed one from a friend that had a copy and looked at the poems. I included some of those in Coincidence.
But while I was trying to remember when I wrote them, I decided that it was almost like a journal. I put the years on the poems and, in some cases, rewrote them, adding this year to the original published date. I ended up doing the same with the paintings that I hadn't put in other books (or a couple that had the same years on them.) For someone who's maybe bought some of my other books or has been interested in my artwork, it might be kind of interesting to know the chronology. And it was also a good thing for me to have, to remember old things and new things. And there's this series of photographs in Signlanguage where I used a camera that was broken and had this electrical short ...
ST: The one that gave you those orange flares?
VM: Yeah, there were a lot more in that series, so I put some that weren't in Signlanguage in Coincidence also.
ST: I was trying to figure out the process for those flares. I thought that burn came from the development process.
VM: No, it was in the camera. The wiring that advanced the film and activated the flash got messed up. I was fishing and dropped the camera and it got wet. When it dried out, it started doing that. I shot a roll, saw it and thought, "Oh, shit." But when I looked at them, I thought that some of them looked kind of interesting. So on the next roll, I tried moving the wire all the way to one side and the flares would go to that side. Then I moved it to the middle, the right, and on the bottom and shot maybe eight rolls of film before it stopped working altogether.
ST: That's an interesting physical manipulation, like the one David Lynch used in Lost Highway, where he actually takes the lens off his camera to get a blur you can't get with any kind of other manipulation. You work in many different mediums. Which do you feel is the most rewarding? Do they all bring you the same satisfaction?
VM: I look at them all as being the same thing. The only difference, practically speaking, is movies. There the finished work is out of your hands. I like acting, I like the whole process of movie-making, the team effort of it. No matter how big the film is, it doesn't have to be impersonal. However, as an actor you do not, so to speak, finish the painting.
I'm working on a job now and I've got this whole crew sitting up on a hill in middle-of-nowhere Montana. A couple days ago, there was this hail. And everybody's just sitting there, kind of setting up the scene with clothing from 1890 and a herd of close to a thousand horses. And the waiting is almost like a ritual, like preparation for a religious moment where something might happen. You have words for the ceremony, the vestments, and all the elements and you're hoping that something good happens. So it's still interesting, the group getting together and doing it.
But the end result of what I do individually as an actor isn't mine. I don't always recognize it that much as being mine, depending on what someone does with it. Whereas with the other media, for better or worse, the process and the results are both mine.
ST: Your poem "Edit", from Coincidence, makes me think of that. The "graveyard that smells of popcorn".
VM: Yeah, I wrote that about 10 or 11 years ago. When I wrote it, I was being sort of tongue-in-cheek -- trying to have a bit of a sense of humor about the situation -- but I probably got more angry about it then than I do now. I've learned to accept that that's just the deal. That's the nature of it: the director or whoever is in charge of the editing. It's their painting and I'm just a part of it.
ST: Which one of the media that you work in still offers a challenge? Not to suggest that you've mastered them, but some must come to you easier than others.
VM: It depends on the day. You know what I mean? There are certain things that I know. As far as acting, no matter how difficult it seems, I'll get through it somehow because I've gotten through things before that I knew were difficult. The same goes for the others. I guess painting, since it is the newest for me. But I've learned that I can ruin it and keep going because it'll become something else.
ST: It's always in process.
VM: Yeah, I don't have to freak out about it. I can just keep going. I can take a piece of sandpaper and sand the whole thing off if I want to. And I have. Even that process can become something interesting. Like taking the lens off as you spoke about earlier, which I've done. I have a camera with a broken lens -- I was actually doing it two days ago in Montana. There were all these horses running and I was taking pictures and then the lens was just all screwed up. So I took it off. I don't know what it's going to look like. It's hopefully just going to be a good flow of shapes and color.
ST: With Coincidence, you took a lot of pictures in New Zealand and elsewhere. Do you take your camera wherever you go? A place like New Zealand must just boggle you.
VM: Yeah, I didn't think I'd taken that many because I was working every day, pretty fried all the time. But over that period, I did take quite a few. I don't generally do it on a set; it's always peripheral to that. But I did end up taking a lot; I've already taken a lot on the job I've been on now. It's interesting when there's animals involved in the story. I'm pretty much on a horse all the time in this one.
ST: Any vivisected pigs, like the ones from Coincidence?
VM: I'm not going to give it away, but there is a dead animal already in there.
ST: Also like Lynch.
VM: Is that what he would do?
ST: He's had photos of carcasses that he's manipulated into something surreal. I wanted to ask you about the tension between pursuing your independent work in other mediums and what might amount to your exploding popularity from the next Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers and Return of the King. How do you resolve being such a presence with trying to stay out of the public eye to pursue the things you want to do? Like something like tonight's signing, which goes several hours past what you might have expected and you're just fried.
VM: Yeah, there were a lot of people.
ST: And you're so gracious with them.
VM: Yeah, well they are pretty nice people! It's just easier to try and get along than not ... I sound like I'm on morphine. When I started off the reading, I thought, "Shit man, I can't even speak".
ST: I don't think anyone noticed. Everybody was going crazy.
VM: It was like a game show atmosphere, wasn't it?
ST: Yeah, but it was a blast. Lord of the Rings was a massive enterprise. And now the central thesis of The Two Towers and Return of the King seems to revolve just as greatly around Aragorn as it does Frodo. So I'm guessing the exposure is going to be insane. How will you balance that with the desire to maintain your independence, your distance from it all?
VM: When I do something like this, book signings, there are usually more people who show up now. And you get all these things, there are all these letters and gifts, sometimes strange ones; most of the time it can be really nice. But at the same time, it's overwhelming. Because I know I'm going to have to look through it. Most of it is filling the corners of my house and I can't respond to it all right away.
ST: What's the weirdest thing?
VM: No, you know, just letters and things where people are convinced that ... most of the mail is friendly and interesting but every once in a while there is something weird.
ST: Some think you're actually Aragorn.
VM: Yeah, for example. Or their father, son or something. But it's also just weird getting that much fan mail from strangers, which I am sure is the case for the other actors from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There's so much of it. I may just have to say that if I'm doing a book signing or you catch me on the street, then fine. But otherwise I cannot do it anymore. It takes hours everyday and it takes too much time away from other things I must do.
ST: From your poetry, photography, painting. That's was basically my question.
VM: It can. And I think I'm going to just try and eliminate that somehow. If someone is there and I see them, that's one thing, because most fans are well-intentioned. But if you write back, sometimes they write again and want to cultivate a relationship.
ST: You don't want to look like the bad guy when you cut it off.
VM: Well, yeah. So I'm thinking it's a question of how much time it takes. And I don't want to do what so many do, which is you get a stamp or a signature put there by someone else. That's so impersonal, you might as well not do it. But it's nice that people like the work and write about it. And not just the acting -- they'll write about other stuff too. That's nice. I do appreciate it, but I find that I don't have time to sleep. Because that's what suffers -- I already don't sleep enough.
ST: Hey, I said we could stop!
VM: (Laughs). No, no. We're almost done. The other thing is if I'm going to do something, I like to do it right.
Pilar Perez: I was also going to say earlier -- in the same spirit of independent outlets -- is that's what Perceval Press is all about. We're also fans looking for something, like the list of recommendations on the Perceval Press site and this book signing. It's really expanding, I think.
VM: Yeah, and it's weird that there is a big group of people in different parts of the world who are buying and ordering these books. Right away, it establishes Perceval Press to the point that we can put out other books. Books that no one would ever think about. I have some different ideas for books that I don't think anybody would otherwise see -- artwork and stuff from different places like Cuba -- that people aren't going to know about. Especially here.
ST: Is there a way to negotiate all of this to where you can get independent stuff from Perceval Press out there and succeeding?
VM: I'm well aware of the fact that it is because of the newfound attention resulting from the success of Lord of the Rings that we can sell so many books on nights like tonight and in this past week. If I wasn't in that movie, maybe we would have sold ten last week and then tonight there would have been 50 people here. Which would have been cool. But in the past, before that movie, I had been doing poetry readings for a long time. I've done poetry readings in LA or San Francisco where there were a hundred people. But I've also done them where there were only five, sometimes in places that could hold a hundred.
VM: And you just do it. But now more people will show up.
ST: And it's bringing some well deserved attention to poetry. In a sense, poetry was a sublime form within the last few centuries, but with the proliferation of media, it still needs to be propped up.
VM: A lot of people read it. A lot of people that were here tonight said something about their writing, but were too embarrassed by it. And I'd ask them about what they write and encourage them to pursue it. People sometimes seem to feel that poetry is just this little thing you do privately, like your diary. But in reality it's something that you can work at in many ways, that you can share, that you can take as far as you like.