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When Diner owner Tom Stall stops a robbery, he becomes a small town hero. But the media spotlight burns, and that's when Tom's dark, violent blood-soaked past comes back to haunt him....with a vengeance. With the highly acclaimed A History of Violence, cult film-maker DAVID CRONENBERG and the Lord of the Rings star, VIGGO MORTENSEN unite for a tale of sin, sex, crime and redemption.
BY GILL PRINGLE
A barefooted pacifist, he's against the Iraq invasion and all forms of cruelty. He supports wild horse preservation and champions various Indian tribes, thoughtfully resisting usages of that peculiarly condescending term 'Native Americans'. And along the way, his gentle, calm demeanour - not to mention his good looks - have won him legions of fans.
Yet it took a film that lives up to its name, A History of Violence, to entice Viggo Mortensen out from a two year hiatus from filmmaking, enthusiastically casting aside noble Aragorn's crown, which has sat precariously on his head since the Lord of the Rings made him a superstar. 'I guess that's kinda weird isn't it?' agrees the actor in that slow solicitous voice of his, shaking his head like he is still trying to figure out the dichotomy. 'But I have played a couple of bad guys before. I even played the Devil himself [in The Prophecy] once. But I know what you mean. People don't see me as the violent type do they? I was just glad to be in with a really good, thought-provoking movie'.
Notoriously picky about his film projects, Mortensen would rather write poetry or paint, or ride horses than engage in a movie that doesn't fascinate him.....regardless of the numbers on his pay-cheque. Mortensen is that anomaly in Hollywood: a quiet guy who sticks to his principles and lives below the radar. The immense success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy allowed him the luxury and he's probably the only cast member who has not been milking that glory for all it's worth over the past three years, instead making just one movie, the adventure Hidalgo. Thus David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is only Mortensen's second post-Aragorn screen outing.
'I guess if I had a different point of view about career and wanted to strike while the iron is hot, as you say, then I probably would have done eight movies or something since Lord of the Rings and taken advantage of that. But if it's only for attention?' I've had more than enough attention from people. If it's making a good living? I've done fine, and I've been able to have enough spare to give away and help people and to help family and friends or whatever. Movie-making is all about financing and because of Lord of the Rings, I'm presently seen as bankable, so I'm grateful for that. But I've been very busy anyway with my other projects that don't involve movies.'
You almost feel guilty for disturbing Mortensen's preferred solitude right now, though he appears somewhat resigned that interviews are intrinsic to the Hollywood process. 'I don't mind not being considered the greatest thing since sliced bread and I'm pretty happy being a loner,' says the actor who nevertheless was able to rise to the occasion and enjoy two incredibly erotic sex scenes with his History of Violence co-star Maria Bello. 'Sex scenes are only comfortable depending on who you're shooting with. In this case, Maria Bello was really brave and into just trying to get it right,' he says somewhat sombrely, staring down at his shoes at New York's Regency Hotel.
Where does this sombre nature come from though? No stranger to the pain of divorce, Viggo's parents split up when we was eleven years old. Prior to then he and his two younger brothers had lived in Venezuela and Argentina with their American mother and Danish father. In the aftermath of the divorce, the Mortensen boys moved with their mother to upstate New York.
'I didn't react very well to change at the time, but it's something you get used to. For most of my teens, the first thing I though of when I woke up, before even lifting my head from the pillow, was that I would die. I thought of all that I wanted to learn and do, the books I had never read and all the places I'd never see, and it made me really angry,' recalls Viggo, whose two younger brothers are both geologists. 'Changing schools so many times can sometimes leave you vulnerable to the forces around you and there were a couple of times when I came up against school bullies. Usually, as it often can, it would surprise me that somebody would have it out for me. Fights can happen so quickly and if you're not looking, it's like, "What's that person doing on the ground? What happened?' It's so fast. Violence is just that quick.
This of course leads straight back to A History of Violence. 'It's about the everyday violence of jockeying for position between people,' Mortensen says. 'Even in casual chitchat, there's always something happening that you might not be saying; there's always something hidden that you're not talking about. It's as much an anti-violence movie as it is a violence movie. It's a movie in which you definitely see the cost and consequences clearly without dressing it up. It's very matter of fact which, in effect, makes it scarier in a way. But you can also see what humans can do as opposed to other animals. As far as I know, they can reason, and they can make a choice not out of fear but out of reasoning that it's a better way to reject violence. I think that every one of us has the ingredients for violence. In other words, I think we are capable of imagining anything, good or bad. And therefore feeling anything good or bad. And therefore acting out on those feelings, good or bad, in any way. Anything you can imagine you can do, potentially we all can do it. People are complicated and we all have secrets. There are probably not too many people in the world that don't have the potential to lose their temper. Or be impatient or snap at somebody or something. It's just there.'
Mortensen seems so serene and composed today that you wonder if he is capable of any form of violence - let alone the over-the-top version as portrayed in Cronenberg's film. 'I can get angry,' he nods vehemently. 'That's for sure.'
It's obvious that he's relishing this opportunity to shed Aragorn's saintly mantle, shocking movie-goers along the way, though in his private life too, he likewise resists pigeon-holing. 'I appreciate that people view me as unconventional though, after all, I'm in an unconventional line of work. Contrary to appearances, I do care what people think and I'd rather get along with people than not. It's a fact that I'm not too involved in personal grooming, but I try not to be offensive to people. And yes it's also true that I keep to myself a lot and, yes, I do walk barefoot as much as possible, though I don't think I'm that different from most people.'
If few will disagree that Mortensen is one of the best looking actors alive, then us cynical journalists - having met him several times during the Lord of the Rings frenzy - hold widely disparate views on the man, Vain and pretentious, say some. Takes himself way too seriously, say others. No sense of humour....
Well, yes, he is a little serious, not to mention obsessive about protecting his privacy, but today it turns out he enjoys a laugh as much as the rest of us - it's just he never got around to sharing the joke. Until now....
One highly regarded website claims that Mortensen has a clause in his movie contracts that he doesn't have to film on Halloween - a sacred day which he shares with his son. Repeat this to him and the intense eyes gleam with mischief: Seriously? That's too funny! Can you imagine? A film company saying, "Yeah, of course you don't have to work on Halloween!'? I mean, I guess you could get away with it. I've worked with people have on their contract that at 5.30 pm, the day is done. And I've seen it happen. I've been working on a scene with someone and then the guy just gets up and leaves and says, "Have a nice night'. But that' in his deal and the director's pulling his hair out saying, "Just give me ten minutes'. "Sorry no'....But just for the record, no, Halloween isn't special to me. You know what? I made that story up when I was bored in an interview once and it's come back to bite me ever since. I guess it goes to show that people will pretty much believe anything.'