The success he found with The Lord Of The Rings gave Viggo Mortensen the opportunity to pick and choose his roles ... and follow other creative paths as a photographer, painter and poet.
Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
It was two Sundays ago that Viggo Mortensen killed British actor Alan Howard. The man who played Aragorn in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was on stage in London, receiving his Icon prize at Empire magazine's annual awards ceremony, when he delivered a two-part acceptance speech that brought down the house.
In Part One, Mortensen followed the lead of many other guests that night, gently chiding Russell Crowe (winner of the magazine's Actor Of Our Lifetime award), who demanded that the show's running order be altered so that he could breeze in when he wanted, collect his award and walk straight out. In Part Two, encouraged by several glasses of white wine, Mortensen heaped praise on Howard, the English stage actor who had inspired him in his youth.
In fact, so full was the laudation that it sounded akin to a eulogy. The person sitting next to me that night leaned in and whispered: "When did Alan Howard die?" From across the table came another whisper: "Who's Alan Howard?"
The day after the awards show, I meet Mortensen in the library of a different, but equally fancy, London hotel, and he feels a little embarrassed - not for his comments about Crowe's tinkering with the show's format, but by the fact that more than one person thought that his tribute to Howard sounded like an obituary. For those, like my fellow guest at the dinner table that night, unsure of Howard's identity, he is a CBE, who prospered with the Royal Shakespeare Company and plays regular leading roles at the Royal National Theatre; he starred in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and voiced The Ring in Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy. Alan Howard is, as it goes, very much alive.
"It sounded as though he had gone," cringes Mortensen. "He's not dead; I just made him sound as though he was dead. I don't know how I did that. I didn't intend to. I meant it as a tribute to the kind of actor I aspire to be."
The seeds of that aspiration were sown in the early 1980s, when Mortensen saw Howard in an early performance of Good, a Nazi-era play written by CP Taylor, and it left an indelible impression. More than 15 years later, Mortensen is now playing the same character as Howard - John Halder - in the cinema adaptation, which opens on Friday.
"I saw Alan Howard in the original production of the play at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1981 or 1982, before they moved it to The Aldwych," he remembers. "It was amazing, a really good production. It has, among actors, and among theatre people in England certainly, a legendary status. I saw it when I was just starting out acting, living in New York, and I was sent to London to do a screen test for a movie I didn't get. In my first couple of years I had at least 24 or 25 auditions and I never got anything.
"For this one, I got down to the last two people. I had a day off and I saw a listing, a brief description of the play Good. And when I saw it, it was unlike any other story I had ever seen about the Nazi era or the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. The play was very moving. I might not have got the part in the film I screen-tested for, but that trip to London, and seeing Alan Howard - that had a big effect on me."
On the awards stage the previous evening, Mortensen was highly animated, playing to the crowd and even dipping into a bag of props. Today, however, the 50-year-old actor is his normal, quieter self. His hair has grown long - not like Aragorn's tumbling mane, but it's touching his shoulders - courtesy of his latest work, which sees him play the adult lead in the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize winner The Road. He is softly spoken and very articulate. He even pre-empts my next question, despite the fact that I've yet to steer the conversation in that direction.
"The thing is," he says, perhaps thinking of The Reader, Valkyrie and Defiance, "there have been so many Nazi-era films this year - people probably think, why do I want to see another one? Well, for the same reason I did it, I would say - because it is different. It's not like others."
The playwright, CP Taylor, who died in 1981 soon after the production opened in London, sought to explore the conflict between man's ideals and his limitations. In Good, he created the character of John Halder, an academic who is ideologically opposed to National Socialism but is gradually flattered into colluding with Hitler's nascent regime. As so often with Mortensen, it is a thoughtful, gentle performance, set against a grisly backdrop.
"I was lucky to get the chance to do this," continues the actor. "There were obstacles to getting this film made. The play is more concept-driven, the music quite abstracted, so maybe people didn't think it would translate. Our film, however, reflects everything in a more naturalistic style. You open it up and you see the streets and the houses and people's lives more fully. But I've been very lucky not to have to do anything I haven't wanted to for a number of years."
That number of years totals around eight, since The Fellowship Of The Ring stormed the box office in 2001. If the truth were told, with the exception of Sir Ian McKellen, who was already an established stage and screen actor, Mortensen is the only member of the original Fellowship who has since prospered. "It is not an easy thing to make a living as an actor," he says. "And as an actor who is making a living and is doing very well. I have a lot of friends who are very good actors and they can't make a good living."
But isn't success a double-edged sword? Many actors clearly dislike the trappings of fame, even the award ceremonies that accompany it. "The problem is if you agree to go to something, you've just got to go. But don't just go. Enjoy yourself and say something. I think that we all, me too, sometimes make trouble for ourselves. We create situations to make our lives more complicated. I understand it. Sure, it's nice to be liked and appreciated, and I was flattered to be at the Empire Awards last night, but it's just movies. It is just play. It is make-believe, and it is meant to be fun. That is what is lost."
Mortensen's playing to the crowd and Crowe's early exit from the awards ceremony prompt an interesting comparison: both stand among the most respected actors of their generation, and yet the two men couldn't be more different. Admittedly, Crowe has had to suffer the glare of the tabloid spotlight, but his behaviour in public doesn't always help matters. Both men are keenly intelligent, although Crowe is a brusque, unremitting character, driven by his passions and unforgiving of anything he considers trivial. Mortensen, meanwhile, is more conciliatory.
If the pair were to befriend great artists from the past, Crowe, you might imagine, would be out carousing with Caravaggio or watching bullfights with Picasso; Mortensen, on the other hand, would seem more at home with the Pre-Raphaelites, conjuring hazy dreams of times long past. He is in fact an artist himself, a recording musician, an exhibiting photographer and a published poet (an anthology of poems by American writer Raymond Carver sits on the table between us). With his earnings from The Lord Of The Rings, he founded his own publishing house, Perceval Press, which takes its name from the Grail-finding hero of the Arthurian sagas - stories, incidentally, that were much beloved by Edward Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelite painters.
"I do like the legend of Perceval, mainly because it has to do with finding your particular path in life," Mortensen offers. "That's what Perceval is about. There's a moment where he and his friends come to the edge of a forest and they all say each one is going to find his own path in the forest. I like that as a metaphor for approaching books or any other artistic endeavour."
Mortensen's pursuit of artistic endeavour has been widely shaped by a nomadic upbringing. He was born in New York to an American mother and Danish father, the family moving to South America when he was just a baby. "I feel a connection to Argentina, because even though we were visiting Denmark almost yearly until I was 11, from infancy until then, I was raised there." His parents divorced just before he hit his teens, and he moved with his father to Denmark. He now owns property in Idaho and spends as much time as possible there with his son, Henry, the offspring of his former marriage to American punk singer Exene Cervenka.
His own love of acting, he says, was ignited in his late teens. He feasted on an eclectic mix of classics - "things like Death In Venice, Bergman movies, Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc" - and demonstrated his own talents long before he strapped on Aragorn's sword, most notably as one of a brace of feuding brothers in Sean Penn's muscular directorial debut The Indian Runner (1991); as a wheelchair-bound friend of Al Pacino's gangster in Carlito's Way (1993); and in the John Gavin role in Gus Van Sant's much-maligned remake of Psycho (1998).
It was The Lord Of The Rings, however, that opened the doors to stardom. "I was initially reluctant to join that production," he smiles. "They'd all studied the books, but I hadn't read the books or anything. But when I was finally offered the chance to play Aragorn I became curious, because I thought it might be something that I could regret not doing." And he was right. "If Aragorn hadn't become well known and I hadn't got that visibility, there's no way that any production company would back me to me appear in Spanish movie Alatriste, or would say, 'Yeah, sure let him play Nikolai in Eastern Promises or Tom Stall in A History Of Violence.' I simply wouldn't have got that chance."
And yet Mortensen has made the most of those chances, forging a bountiful relationship with iconoclastic director David Cronenberg (first in A History Of Violence and then Eastern Promises), indulging in Ed Harris's enjoyably bleak western Appaloosa, and signing up to star in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, The Road (adapted from Cormac McCarthy's book by the director John Hillcoat, who announced himself a few years ago with Australian "Western" The Proposition). The Road follows a father and son on a journey through the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America.
"I like Cormac McCarthy, especially No Country For Old Men and Blood Meridian," says Mortensen. "The Road is so very moving - certainly it brings me to tears. For me it's a hopeful story in the end. It's devastating but it is hopeful and the boy represents that. There is always hope."
It seems typical of Mortensen, finding the positive in what many consider a truly harrowing tale. Maybe Hillcoat has tempered the author's quiet fury, or maybe this is just how Mortensen sees it. He's a positive character, after all. Is there anything he's hoping for at the moment?
He pauses for a moment before smiling. "Yeah," he says, "I hope that if Alan Howard hears about last night, he doesn't mind that I made him sound dead ..."