Play It As It Lays
Still riding high from his star-making performance in The Lord Of The Rings, and his Oscar-nominated turn in Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen takes on a wholly complex role as a decent seduced into the Nazi Party in the period drama Good. Sure, it's a tough role, but since when has Mortensen ever done anything the easy way?
Filmink Magazine April 2009.
Even though we'd met a few weeks earlier at the Toronto Film Festival to talk about his film Appaloosa (where he also spoke at length about his other movie, Good), Viggo Mortensen insisted on doing more interviews a few weeks later when we were in New York for another press junket. Even without being asked, he explained why. "I know that you have 500 other movies to look at right now," Mortensen joked, "but the reason I appreciate this opportunity is not the subject matter or the thoughts that the movie provokes, but mainly because this is a modest movie. We don't have the budget to attract attention in the way that other movies can. Good deserves attention, and it needs help from people like you to get it out to the public."
In the complex drama Good, based on the play by C P Taylor, Mortensen plays John Halder, a literary professor whose novel advocating compassionate euthanasia brings him to the attention of the rising Nazi party in the years prior to WW2. Though he sees himself as a decent, upstanding, "good" man, Halder is soon caught up in the excitement of The Third Reich, whose rise initially re-energised a moribund Germany. Directed with admirable economy by Vicente Amorim, Good courses with rich themes and reams of subtext, expertly showing through the corruption of one decent man how an entire nation could have its moral compass thrown so disastrously off course.
Though a fine study in period detail, the film is indeed a modest one, and with a whole host of films released recently that deal with the issues of The Holocaust and its aftermath, Good has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. With bigger budget films like Defiance, The Reader and The Boy In Striped Pyjamas on the scene (and Quentin Tarantino's WW2 anti-Nazi diatribe Inglourious Basterds just around the corner), Mortensen is keen to assert his film's right to be seen. Referring to a recent New York Times article, the actor continues with obvious passion. "There's an interesting piece about the dozen pictures coming out this year relating to Nazi Germany, Germans during WW2, and the Holocaust, from the perspective of both the perpetrators and the victims. Even though we've gotten coverage elsewhere, there is no mention of our movie. That's unfortunate, especially as the article talks about the Hollywoodisation of these kind of movies, and particularly those made in America. That article questioned the films that go for a comfortable ending, if not a happy one, and the films that sugarcoat it so that you can feel okay about it. You feel good because you're remembering it, but you're not dealing with it in a complicated way, or in a way that challenges you. They give you a comfortable distance."
Mortensen contends, in no uncertain terms, that Good is different. Its very protagonist is seduced into the seemingly warm bosom of the Nazi Party, where he is tempted and corrupted by power and comfort. It's a complex, daring narrative, and it does indeed set the film apart. "Our movie, unlike most movies about this period - including this year's batch - doesn't let you off the hook. It doesn't give you an easy answer. So it would've been a good antidote. Many people, even if they're interested in movies about Nazi Germany and about the Holocaust, have found our movie troubling. It doesn't end with a definitive heroic gesture: some have been frustrated by the passive and even cowardly nature of my character. It's maddening, but it's more true to life. It's what people do in those circumstances. The character who I play is a thoughtful person, but in the end, you can say he's cowardly. He doesn't make a grand gesture. He doesn't let you walk away from the theatre having that distance. There's no, 'Thank God there were some people who did this or that.' There's no safety net for the audience to feel okay about themselves afterwards. The article in the New York Times suggests that for American audiences, WW2 movies have become a genre. They're like westerns, with the historical, moral weight taken away. Good hasn't done that. There are no real heroes in our movie."
Interestingly, Mortensen has another film currently in release, which plays out like the flipside to the grim WW2 drama Good. Appaloosa, the traditionalist western directed by Ed Harris (who also stars), is all about heroism. Its central characters are Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen), two gunmen hired to police a small frontier town being lorded over by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a newly-arrived rancher with money, a gang of thugs, and a driving lust for power. In the middle of this simmering feud is pretty widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who wins Virgil's heart, while Everett has his suspicions about her motives. Though complex in its characterisation, Appaloosa looks at old themes such as justice, the right to mete it out, and the importance of friendship and loyalty. "You could say that this movie is about law and order, and very conservative values," Mortensen says. "It's about cleaning up corruption. I like landscapes, and I like riding horses. I like the classic western period. I was willing just to be in a western, but I like this one because it's told in a leisurely pace. I enjoyed being in it because Ed didn't try to reinvent the genre or appeal to younger audiences. He said, 'This is how these stories are told, and I'm going to respect the genre.'"
Aside from the lure of donning spurs and jumping astride a horse, Mortensen was also excited by Appaloosa's commentary on friendship and loyalty. "Virgil says, 'I don't butt into his business, and he doesn't butt into mine,' which is why they've been friends for more than twelve years and work so well together," he says of the lead characters' rapport in the film. "I liked that in the script, and having worked with Ed on A History Of Violence, I knew that he could make it work as a film. I knew as an actor he'd give me a lot to play off in subtle ways. I knew that it would be fun and that we'd find humour in the relationship together. Then when Renee's character comes in, and she doesn't respect the boundaries, that throws Ed's character, and it makes him nervous, but at the same time it intrigues him. It's interesting to see that dynamic broken up by her."
Mortensen also responded to Appaloosa's themes of decency and doing the right thing. "Well, I do have a sense of justice and fairness," he says. "I do get upset when I think about people who can't defend themselves being treated badly. If I have a chance, I'll try to do something about it. I tend to speak up. Sometimes people are offended by that, but I always try to be fair and well informed. I think that I could be brutal about meting out justice in the way that Virgil and Everett are. Maybe I'd make a good lawman..."
Though he might feel comfortable wearing a badge in Appaloosa, Viggo Mortensen really has the heart of a poet. "He's very intense," says Gwyneth Paltrow, Mortensen's co-star in the 1998 thriller A Perfect Murder. "He's a real true artist. By that, I mean he lives to create his art and be obsessed by it." Outside of acting, Mortensen indulges a whole host of artistic pursuits: photography, poetry, publishing, and writing and performing music. "I just closed a photo exhibition in Denmark," he explains. "I had another one in Iceland in the summer. So I've continued to do that. Perceval Press, my small publishing company, continues to put out books. I haven't done much in terms of painting, but I keep busy. The photo exhibition was a good experience because I'd never had a show in Denmark, which in some ways is the country that I consider home. I have a lot of family there. I also did a lot of poetry readings there, which was fun, because a lot of people came from England and from Spain. Of course, a lot of them came because of The Lord Of The Rings, but it was nice to be in Denmark in summer, especially because my son was with me."
Despite the fame that his film career has brought him, Mortensen is still the same soft spoken, bemused non-conformist that he's always been, a characteristic that he most likely inherited from his father, who was also a free spirit. Viggo is the eldest son of Grace and Viggo P Mortensen. Viggo Sr., who farmed in Denmark, met Grace, a New Yorker, in Norway. They wed and moved to New York where Viggo Jr. was born, before then moving to South America where Viggo Sr. anaged chicken farms and ranches in Venezuela and Argentina. When Viggo was seven-years-old, his parents sent him to a strict boarding school in the mountains of Argentina. Then, at age eleven, his parents divorced. Viggo moved back to New York with his mother, where he became a conscientious student, and also proved to be an impressive athlete. After graduating from university, Mortensen moved to Denmark, where he indulged his love of poetry and prose while working in a variety of odd jobs, doing everything from working the docks to selling flowers on the cobbled streets of Copenhagen.
"I lived in Denmark, but my formative years were spent in Argentina," Mortensen explains of his somewhat complicated childhood. "I left just before the generals too over. It was during that period when all those terrible happened in Brazil and Argentina, not unlike the terrible things that happened in Nazi Germany. I saw it from a distance, but I felt because that's where I grew up, there was aparticular resonance to what happened in Argentina. When I first saw the play Good, it was early 1982. That was when I was first beginning acting, and it was like a faded memory. Only after I read the movie script did I realise that it was the play that I'd seen in London. This was right when the Malvinas - or as the English call them the Falkland Islands - crisis happened, which was precipitated by the generals doing something not unlike what the Germans did much more effectively in creating WW2. They united people, manufactured a common cause, and then jumped Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Denmark. It was the same thing with the Malvinas. It was a tragic error, which cost a lot of young people their lives. There's still a lot of bitterness from that. I was in London, seeing this play, and the newspapers were all about, 'We're gonna kick their ass.' It was an interesting thing to be sitting through."
In 1982, Mortensen moved back to New York and, after a youth filled with travel and constant movement, trained for two years as an actor at Warren Robertson's Theatre Workshop in New York. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he ironically - in light of his current film, Good - landed the role of a Nazi in a stage production of Bent, a play about a gay concentration camp prisoner. After having his scenes cut out of both Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Mortensen finally made his big screen acting debut as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's 1985 classic Witness. Though now hardly a blip on his career resume, Mortensen's involvement in the subsequent little-seen 1987 film Salvation! would literally change his life. It was here that he met musician and occasional actress Exene Cervenka, who had been a member of the seminal punk group X, and also had a successful solo career. The two married and had a son, the aforementioned Henry Mortensen. After nearly eleven years together, however, the couple divorced.
The actor maintains a very strong bond with his son. "He's twenty now, so I'm not living with him as I was before," Mortensen says. "He knows some Danish, and he's actually learned to speak Japanese. He likes to cook, and I miss his cooking. I like to cook too. I'm a bit frantic in the kitchen though. I'm calm while I'm doing it, but I'm pretty restless in that regard. I try to do a lot of things every day, probably more than I should. I do like to read though." Mortensen replies when I ask about his other interests, "I like to see movies and plays, and I like to stay in contact with friends. I like to follow the news and compare notes with people and newspapers and the internet. I'm probably as frantic and hectic as my character in Good, in my own way."
Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, Mortensen well and truly established himself as a strong, reliable and consistently authoritative character actor. With his lean muscularity, and unconventional, slightly cruel good looks, Mortensen was an instantly eye-catching proposition on screen. His first truly dynamic, substantial screen performance came as brooding bad boy Frank Roberts in Sean Penn's strikingly poetic 1991 directorial debut The Indian Runner. The film should have made him a star, but its potency didn't cross over commercially, and Mortensen continued to give fine performances in supporting roles, stealing his scenes in Carlito's Way, The Portrait Of A Lady, Daylight, GI Jane, A Perfect Murder and A Walk On The Moon. "I've never played a character, no matter what the movie was, that I didn't like," Mortensen says. "That's part of my job; otherwise you're just collecting a paycheck. It becomes part of me no matter where I go. I enjoy that journey."
Mortensen was a recognisable, reliable actor who could always be counted on to bolster a film. That, however, would soon change. When director Peter Jackson decided that British actor Stuart Townsend was too young to play the warrior king Aragorn in his mammoth three-film adaptation of J R R Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, Mortensen's career hurtled off in an exciting direction. "I don't plan my career," Mortensen once said. "I wait and hope that the right thing will find me." The Lord Of The Rings made him a huge international star. When offered the role of Aragorn, the actor was reluctant to spend two years in New Zealand away from his then twelve-year-old son, but when young Henry encouraged his father with, "Oh my God, dad, you have to," Mortensen was on the next plane. He made sure that the separations from his son were as brief as possible. "He came over several times, and I went back whenever I could," the actor explains. "The first year, we were promised a couple of weeks off before the halfway point, and then two more short breaks later on. The middle break ended up being only three weeks for me, and there were no other breaks after that. For much of the time, it was six-day weeks of fourteen-hour days, which was the only way we could get it done. But Henry was there for school holidays."
The Lord Of The Rings films proved to be a creatively enriching and wholly enjoyable experience for Mortensen, who revelled in the shoot's sense of camaraderie. "There is no star in Lord Of The Rings," Mortensen said. "The Fellowship is a union." Viggo became something of a source of fascination for his younger co-stars. "There is something beautiful and quiet about Viggo," says his co-star Elijah Wood. "But the more that I got to know him, the more I realised how insanely brilliant and crazy he is. He has this insane wild side."
After The Lord Of The Rings, Mortensen finally got the leading roles that he had so long deserved. He showed off his skills as a horseman by playing a cowboy who finds himself in a cross-country horse race in the Middle East in the bustling western Hidalgo, and then teamed with director David Cronenberg for two of his most seminal roles. "It's comforting to be working with someone you know will make a good movie," Mortensen has said of Canadian auteur Cronenberg, with whom he has formed a tight and creative bond. In A History Of Violence, Mortensen played a smalltown family man eventually revealed to be a ruthless killing machine for the mob. Far less cartoonish but no less malevolent was his performance as Nikolai, a Russian Mafia enforcer caught in a moral quandary, in Eastern Promises. The role netted Mortensen a surprise Oscar nomination, finally burning him into the firmament as a true Hollywood leading man.
So what does Mortensen do after getting that Oscar nomination? Shape up for the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Seek a role with a major director? No. He opts to star in a low budget, morally complex film as a man sympathetic to the Nazi Party. "I felt fortunate to be offered this part," says the perennially unconventional actor. "My interest in getting into acting and being in movies was because I love stories. At one point when I started, I made that transition without even thinking about it by just watching movies and being provoked by them. The best movies - say, something like Visconti's Death In Venice - make you think about life. I remember a period when I started thinking that I'd like to try that. It's not just interesting or thought provoking or entertaining, after a while, you start wondering, 'How do they do it? How do they make me cry or laugh? How do they make me think about this story in the context of my family, or my relationship with my government?' I just wondered how it was done. I wanted to try it, and that's what I've been doing."
Mortensen's preparation for playing the highly intelligent but morally compromised John Halder in Good was unsurprisingly involved and expansive, on both practical and personal levels. "I read and re-read lots of German authors that someone would have read at the time," he explains. "Not just German writers, but authors who a literary professor like John Halder might have taught at the time: Proust, Hamsun, American writers. In the movie, you see him in the classroom teaching Proust. I also spent time in Berlin, where I found all the books that you see in John Halder's house and office."
This trip to Germany proved to be one of Mortensen's most important pieces of preparation. "I spent a couple of weeks driving around, just following my nose," he explains. "I had a plan. I flew to Munich, rented a car and, as luck would have it, there was a lot of Mahler being performed, not only in Munich but especially in Berlin and even Warsaw, which is some of the music that you hear in the movie. The audiences were so passionate. There was total silence, and total respect. While I was sitting there, you could feel how much they cared. Then before we started shooting, I wanted to go to Auschwitz, which I did, and I was looking around. I'd found a map that showed all the places where the camps were. I went to every single one. I drove like a maniac, day after day, and sometimes it was difficult to find them. People don't want to talk about it so much, and in most cases, there's just a plaque. The thing that was valuable was just standing there. It was spring, there were flowers, and the sky was blue. You sit on the grass and yes, you're moved by all these things and the ghosts that you can feel. I was thinking about the guards, the prisoners, the kids... but there were things that I didn't expect. It's hard to explain, but it just keeps opening and opening, and you can never stop learning."
Were there things that he had to do to get into the part? Why the eyeglassesfor instance? "Once you start digging, you find that there's a lot more than meets the eye," Mortensen replies. "We thought about the period of history, and the choice was made that everyone would speak with a neutral British accent, so that once the story starts you're just paying attention to what is happening and not the combination of strange accents. So I had to make sure that I sounded like the others. Andrew Jacks, who was the dialect coach on The Lord Of The Rings and Eastern Promises, made sure that the other English actors brought their accents down a bit, and I met them in the middle. But it was more on the emotional level, and what you're feeling inside when you're playing a character like this. My goal was not to think about history, and what we know about this period, but to think about this situation and each moment. Why does John Halder do the things that he does? He's not one thing or the other. He's not good or bad. He's somewhere in between, we all are. The challenge was to find the emotional through-line. Even though the glasses were a surface thing, I spent a lot of time choosing the right frames. I found them by looking at pictures from the period. I found them in lots of photographs. Even with the clothes, I get involved in that as much as they let you. Once the wardrobe people, and the hair and makeup people, realise that you're trying to help them, they don't mind at all because it's helping them contribute to telling the story. Actually there were three different frames that I used in the film. I kept one, I gave one to the director, and I gave one to the producer, Miriam Segal, who incidentally spent twelve years trying to put this together. You can see that it was a difficult movie to get made."
Spearheading that difficult process was Brazilian filmmaker Vicente Amorim, who had made a minor splash with his 2003 film The Middle Of The World. "He's very good," says Mortensen of his director. "He'd been an assistant director, and he'd worked with a lot of very fine directors, from Brazil, America and elsewhere. He's obviously very capable. He really cared about the film, and he worked very hard. He did a great job. The producer, Miriam Segal, wanted him instead of an English or German director who might have had some baggage, or who might have felt some pressure in terms of political correctness. That might have affected how the story was told. She felt that someone from outside Europe might have a different kind of objectivity. She also liked his previous work."
Did Mortensen learn anything about that era that he didn't know before? "I've been interested in that period in German history," the actor replies. "I've admired German culture and music, but I realised in preparation for this role that I had a kind of prejudice about it, which is common in my generation. Even to this day, Germans are self conscious about it. I'd been to Germany a lot, so I had become more accepting. Playing this character allowed me to get past that prejudice a little bit, which is certainly a good thing."
Despite doing much of his preparation in Germany, Mortensen had to turn once again purely to his gift for acting when it was decided that the film would actually be shot in Budapest. "Because Berlin was bombed so much at the end of WW2, Budapest has often stood in for Berlin," he explains. "Budapest has been used for movies like Mephisto. The architecture is similar and relatively intact. We didn't have the budget to do lots of special effects, so Budapest made our life much easier as far as the look of the movie is concerned. We also had a great crew, there's a great tradition of filmmaking in Hungary."
When Mortensen makes mention of Mephisto (Istvan Szabo's acclaimed 1981 film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as a self-absorbed German stage actor who becomes a favourite of the Nazis), I am instantly struck by the thematic similarities of the two films. "There is a difference," Mortensen replies when I bring this up. "The lead character in Mephisto is consumed by vanity, and he sells out from the beginning. He's very vain. My character is different, although there is an element of vanity and flattery when he's told, 'Oh, you're brilliant, and your thesis is so brilliant.' But the Nazis wanted to use him, as they used lots of academics: to justify their amoral programmes, whether it was ethnic cleansing or euthanasia. John Halder's is a gradual process, so the audience can share his fate. 'All I have to do is write this paper or just wear this pin, and that's it.' Then you're asked to do something else and something else, and you look back on your life and you think, 'Well, if I'd known that all those little choices would add up to really compromising myself and lying to myself...' You get to the point where you're defending something that you know is wrong. John is ashamed, and he says to his wife, 'I let everybody down.' But she replies, 'No, we're proud of you, you have this position in government.'"
© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
Though in Good he plays an effete man easily seduced by power and the things that go with it, Mortensen is more famed for playing deeply masculine characters, be they heroic (most famously in The Lord Of The Rings), brutish (The Indian Runner) or highly malevolent (A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises). When asked about the concept: of manhood, and if he's secure about his, the actor responds in typically candid but ultimately cryptic terms. "I have my moments when I'm not very secure about my manhood," Mortensen smiles, "but I'm not going to talk about that. I've had my moments, but I'm okay with it for the most part. What does the word manhood mean actually? It can mean a lot of things, but the lines are not quite as distinct as people would like them to be, between men and women, in terms of behaviour, responsibilities, roles. There are all kinds of women, and there are all kinds of men. There's a saying, 'Well, he's a man.' I don't think there's any all-man, or any all-woman. We're all mixtures of influences, be they genetic, dispositions, upbringing, or general nature. It's a mixed bag that we're all handed in the beginning, and we keep adding to that bag. I can say that there are certain things that can make me uncomfortable or embarrass me or make me feel unsure or not useful; it would be a very long conversation and one that I would regret having had, so I won't have that conversation, with due respect."
To something simpler then, what guides Viggo Mortensen in his career choices? "My instincts," he replies. "When you're younger, you have instincts that could get you killed, so you have to squash them. I trust my instincts in terms of acting and the movie business much more than I used to. I've had practice and I've gotten more secure. There are some things that I'm offered where I can take it or leave it, to be honest. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way. I've felt that way for quite a while. If these were the last movies I made, I feel that I've made a lot of interesting ones. I've worked with some really good people. I've had a very good run lately, not just with these three (Appaloosa, Good, and the upcoming The Road, directed by John Hillcoat and adapted from Cormac McCarthy's stark post-apocalyptic novel), but also the two before them (A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises). But just as you did as a child, you grow up and in some healthy way you become less trusting of certain kinds of strangers as your parents would like you to. You become less trusting in certain circumstances. I can smell a certain kind of behaviour or personality or situation coming up in making a movie. It's good to see that because you can save yourself a lot of time and worry. I'm better about trusting my instincts rather than let a director intimidate me or make me unsure of what I'm doing. In the beginning, I had to breach something with Ed Harris on Appaloosa. It was the first day when I was trying to walk around with this 8-gauge shotgun. I said, 'It's crazy because it's impossible to shoot, you'd blow yourself right off the horse.' Ed replied, 'But it's in the book.' 'I know that it's in the book, but we don't have to use it.' He said, 'Well, you don't have to carry it all the time, but I need to see it a little because it's emblematic of the character.' By the second day, I got used to it, and it turned out to be really good. It was the same thing with my horse. It seemed too big. It would be impractical to have a long chase with these big horses, but psychologically it works, and so I guess the thing that your instinct tells you are wrong end up being the most memorable and useful... if you have patience."
While he remains an unconventional soul ("He's a different sort of person," says his A History Of Violence co-star Maria Bello. "He truly lives his life with art. You can't separate Viggo from his art. Everything he does is art."), Viggo Mortensen is also now an Oscar nominated, highly credible Hollywood movie star. "Now, if my agent says, 'Read this script for A History Of Violence,' or 'Read this script for Good,' and I like it, I can say that I'd love to meet the director," Mortensen explains. "Ten years ago, that wouldn't have happened. I wasn't bankable. I've been lucky, but I realise that luck is ephemeral, and there are different ways of making something out of luck. One, you can go and make lots of money. The other thing that you can do is try to be challenged and tell interesting stories and learn something along the way. That's what I try to do."
Last edited: 18 March 2009 17:11:03