For a man who likes to spend his spare time on gentle pursuits such as writing poetry and painting, Viggo Mortensen can be surprisingly threatening on screen.
© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
After scoring an Academy Award nomination for his ruthless Russian mafia standover man Nikolai in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), Mortensen follows up with another character who is equally menacing but in a different way.
Co-starring opposite Ed Harris, who also directs, in the western Appaloosa, Mortensen is the taciturn sidekick Everett Hitch to Harris' lawman Virgil Cole, but he allows a prop to say plenty for him.
In the Robert B. Parker novel on which the movie is based, Hitch's weapon of choice is an eight-gauge shotgun, rarely used these days because its length (about 127cm) and weight (about 5kg) make it clumsy, at best, in most hands.
"On horseback it's crazy because if you fire it you'd blow yourself right off the horse," Mortensen says with a smile.
He and Harris, who became friends while playing bitter enemies in Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005), had long discussions about the gun.
"I said to Ed the first day that, walking around, it's heavy and in reality you normally wouldn't use a shotgun like that for law enforcement or walking around the streets, so at first I didn't like it.
"I said, 'I know it's in the book so I have to do it' and he said, 'Well, you don't have to carry it all the time but I need to see it a little bit because it's emblematic of the character'.
"By the second day I was walking around doing everything with it. I realised that if I could make friends with the problem maybe it'll be useful, and it turned out to be really good.
"It's almost like another character. Once I shoot it in the movie I don't even really need to shoot it again. The fact that I have it with me, mostly politely broken but loaded, is psychologically threatening.
"It's like I'm bringing my scary friend with me."
Despite his reputation as a poet and painter - and an accomplished photographer and jazz musician who has released three CDs - 50-year-old Mortensen is comfortable in the outdoors and in the saddle.
He was able to accept the physically demanding role of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-02-03) at short notice, reportedly replacing Stuart Townsend after shooting had started, and later starred in Joe Johnston's Hidalgo, about an epic cross-country horse race.
"I like riding horses; I get along with them and like them as creatures," he says.
Appaloosa is a return to the traditional western, with Cole and Hitch being hired to protect a small town under threat from renegade rancher Randall Bragg, played by Jeremy Irons. Then the partnership between Cole and Hitch is placed under strain by the arrival in town of the fetching, piano-playing widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger).
"Thousands of westerns made since the beginning of movies have been terrible, badly acted, badly designed and everything else," Mortensen says.
"This one I like because you actually see the landscape and it's told at a leisurely pace like some of the old ones that I did like - some of Clint Eastwood's work; The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn) was interesting, I thought; High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann); the Anthony Mann movies; Sam Peckinpah and all that.
"There are not many made now and not so many are really good, but I enjoyed being in this because Ed didn't try to reinvent it or appeal to a younger audience. He said, 'This is how these stories are told and I am going to respect the genre, I'm going to respect the pacing and I'm going to count on it being well written and well acted'.
"Virgil and Hitch don't really butt into each other's private business, which is why they've been friends more than 12 years and work so well together. I liked that in the book.
"And having worked with Ed in A History of Violence I knew he would give me a lot of play off in very subtle ways and that he would find a subtle humour in the relationship.
"Then to see the effect when Renee's character comes in and doesn't really observe boundaries so much is interesting, because you see that whole dynamic get broken up."
Appaloosa was one of three movies Mortensen worked on last year. For a change of pace he also completed Vicente Amorim's Good, screened at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, in which he plays John Halder, a literature professor in pre-World War II Germany.
And he's awaiting the release this year of the much-anticipated The Road, which has big Australian connections. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), it is directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, 2005) and co-stars 12-year-old Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. Guy Pearce also appears in the film.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are father and son - their characters have yet to be named - trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
"All I can say is that unless they make some really major errors in terms of editing, which I can't imagine they would, the end result will be in the spirit of the book," Mortensen says.
"It will probably be upsetting to watch but I also think it will be, in a brutal way, beautiful. That's my hope for it."