Men's Journal, October 2009.
© 2009 Men's Journal.
It's hard to imagine Viggo Mortensen pouncing on Oprah's couch. You don't see him doing the Starbucks shuffle for the paparazzi, hawking baby photos to celebrity tabloids, or getting caught in a Lake Como liplock with Sienna Miller. That's not the Viggo Mortensen way. Just look at him: hazel-eyed [sic] handsome, square-jawed and angular, but no trace of Hollywood jackass. He shows up in a Camry to our interview in a state park about an hour and a half from Watertown, New York, a leafy military town near Lake Ontario where he graduated from high school and still visits occasionally. Dressed in a David Wright New York Mets T-shirt tucked into wide-leg blue jeans, he looks as if he's going to the hardware store to buy a nail gun. Has one request: that the photographer please not airbrush out the jagged scar above his upper lip. Viggo doesn't need or want your Photoshop. Viggo doesn't need most of the illusion, really. Loves acting, the immersion, even the rehearsals, but tries to avoid everything else. Hell, when he lost the Oscar in 2008 for best actor, he danced.
"Most people don't win, you know?" Mortensen says, after we walk down a trail to a lakeside picnic table. "So on the way out of the big auditorium, the Kodak, I went over to these people and said, 'Hey, let's do a losers dance.' I started jumping, and they were just horrified at this loss they just suffered, you know? There were these filmmakers from Canada who lost and actually agreed. And I think Michael Moore did the losers dance. But I would say 99 percent of the losers didn't want to do the losers dance. They all just sort of ran from me like I was shitfaced drunk or something."
By now, you might have heard a few tales like this from the unconventional life of Viggo Mortensen. How he slept in his caped Aragorn costume while making the Lord of the Rings trilogy; how he walked barefoot around New Zealand for most of the three years he was there; how he stashes chocolate on his person like a marsupial, foisting blocks of it on unsuspecting costars and journalists; how he makes experimental records with his friend Buckethead, the enigmatic former guitarist of Guns N' Roses who's known for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head. Elijah Wood, Mortensen's friend and Rings costar, recounts how Mortensen called his cell phone for weeks, leaving nonsensical messages in the accent of a German military officer. "He would laugh hysterically for, like, 30 seconds, and then it would go back into this weird German accent," Wood says. "There really wasn't any purpose to it; he just delighted in these messages. That's part of Viggo's madness."
Despite this quirkiness, or maybe because of it, Mortensen, a 50-year-old actor who has stubbornly resisted the formula for modern movie stardom, finds himself one of the last great leading men standing. At a time when what passes for masculinity is jogging shirtless on a beach, here is Mortensen, a multilingual polymath (English, Spanish, and Danish all fluently; Norwegian a little less so; Italian, French, and Swedish passably) who recalls the understated but commanding actors of a previous age. "There's just an authenticity to the guy," says Charlize Theron, Mortensen's costar in The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's global bestseller that opens October 16. "He's not really caught up in it."
That's because it -- movies and all the baggage that comes with them -- is not Mortensen's only passion. He is an accomplished poet, painter, pianist, and photographer who has shown his work in galleries from Santa Monica, California, to Denmark. He has also launched an independent publishing house, Perceval Press, through which he produces a small stream of art books and CDs. He's working on two books now about indigenous tribes in South America, and has published, among other titles, a critique of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a collection by avant-garde multimedia artist Alix Lambert, and young adult fiction from Mike Davis, of City of Quartz fame. Mortensen helps edit and signs off on every book himself; he also has his own contributions, including Linger, a collection of eerie black-and-white landscape photos, and At All, an abstract new-age album on which he plays keyboards and guitar. "We're in the red mostly, and I can subsidize it," he says of Perceval, which is named, appropriately, for a knight who blazed his own path. "Once in a while, you get to break even."
By Hollywood standards, Mortensen is a late bloomer, not approaching anyone's definition of stardom until he was a last-minute addition to The Lord of the Rings, which made him an international hero at age 43. More recently were a pair of sublime thrillers with Mortensen's oddity soulmate David Cronenberg: A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the latter of which earned Mortensen the Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nikolai, a taciturn driver for the Russian mob. Last year brought a critically acclaimed turn in Appaloosa, directed by and costarring Ed Harris, and the indie film Good, a morality piece about a German professor falling under the spell of the Nazi party. And now comes the much-anticipated The Road, a relentless, uncompromising portrait of a postapocalyptic world that features Mortensen in nearly every frame.
It's as credible a run as an American actor has had lately, and it has heightened suspicions that the choreographer of the losers dance might again be invited to the waltz -- and maybe this time he won't have to dance. Mortensen reacts to his ascension with bemusement. Yes, he can laugh at himself. "He's not one of those morose, inward-turning method actors at all," says Cronenberg. "He likes to have fun." Mortensen once reacted to being labeled one of the sexiest men alive by asking, "So there are a lot of dead men who are sexier?" and when I ask him for his favorite joke, he responds with a rare one-word answer: "Me."
From his choice in roles, nearly all of which portray men who, with varying degrees of reluctance, reveal a brutally proficient violent side (see "Viggo on His Most Violent Scenes," below), you might expect Mortensen to be inscrutable and intense, even difficult, but in person he is polite and so soft-spoken he can be hard to hear at moments. He does like to talk, however, especially when the topic turns to one of his many passions -- the Mets, soccer, or the depiction of violence onscreen.
"I think carefully about it when I am acting out the violence. I try to be realistic about how it's portrayed, and the reasons for it," he says. "But I also understand that it's storytelling, and a lot of times the violence or the way it's shown is a metaphor for a relationship." The extreme behavior and skills of his character in A History of Violence, he says, are exaggerated to make the point that all of us have secrets. "Nobody really knows anybody completely, even if they've been married to 'em for 53 years, you know? That's what the wife of my character has to face: Holy shit, look what I got married to!"
To prepare for Aragorn, the warrior in Rings, Mortensen trained extensively with fight choreographer Bob Anderson, a former British Olympian in the saber and Darth Vader stunt double. Anderson once called Mortensen as good a fencing student as he'd ever instructed. The actor has proven adept with other weapons as well. When he showed up to shoot Appaloosa, director Harris recalls, "Viggo was pretty startled by the size of the 8-gauge shotgun we had for him. But, you know, within two days, he'd made it his own."
And he's equally as convincing with few or no props at all, as in the desperate melee from Eastern Promises in which Mortensen's character grapples in the nude with two Chechen thugs. In the hands of a more self-conscious actor, a steam-room brawl could quickly have descended into camp, but Mortensen played it unbounded, without vanity. "Viggo is not particularly self-aware," says Cronenberg, who directed him in that scene. "He really understands that anonymity is a valuable thing for an artist," he adds, emphasizing that Mortensen's tendency toward reclusiveness isn't antisocial, but protective of his craft. "If you are always being observed, and your presence changes everyone's behavior, you lose that wonderful ability to observe things in their natural state. That's why huge stars, surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, end up with a distorted worldview. They never see what's real anymore."
Once, when he was asked where he lived, Mortensen responded, "Planet Earth, mostly." It's easy to see why he resists being pinned down geographically. Mortensen's mother, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Oslo, met his Danish dad while skiing in Norway, but Viggo was born in Manhattan. When he was still a baby, the family moved to Venezuela, then to Argentina, where his father helped manage a ranch. When he was 11 his parents split, and Mortensen and his two younger brothers moved with their mother to Watertown in upstate New York. The transition was jarring. "Only with my mother did I speak English. We only spoke Spanish," he recalls. "And suddenly I'm in a small town in northern New York where nobody speaks it. That was a big change."
In Watertown, Mortensen swam competitively and played soccer, and often visited his father back in Denmark during summer vacations. After high school Mortensen briefly detoured back to Denmark, where he drove a truck while he tried to figure out his life plan. Later he enrolled at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he majored in government and Spanish literature. Following graduation he started to study acting and landed some film roles but usually ended up on the cutting-room floor. Then, in 1985, a pair of breaks: He got a regular job on a soap and made the final cut of Witness, in which he played an Amish farmer. A few years later he married singer Exene Cervenka, of the L.A. punk band X, whom he met when they worked together on the film Salvation! The couple, who split long ago, have a son, Henry, now 21. (In recent years Mortensen has been linked romantically with Spanish actress Ariadna Gil and artist Lola Schnabel, daughter of Julian. A devoted fan site speculated that his romance with the much younger Schnabel foundered on outdoorsman Mortensen's unfamiliarity with a bar of soap. "I'm not that involved in personal grooming," he has confessed in the past. "But I try not to be offensive to people.")
Fatherhood is central to Mortensen's life. As every Rings adherent knows, it was Henry, a Tolkien fanatic, who convinced his skeptical dad to take the part in the Rings trilogy. A poet and musician himself who attends school in New York City, Henry has traveled extensively with his dad, joined him for live readings, and played with him on his albums. On a coast-to-coast road trip when Henry was 11, Mortensen says, his son made a homemade map ahead of time to chart their itinerary, a map Mortensen has kept. "Instead of a little under 3,000 miles, it looked like it was going to be 16,000 or so, a kind of insane cardiogram, you know?" he laughs. "It took us the time it took us."
Fatherhood is at the core of The Road, too. Mortensen called McCarthy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, to discuss the part prior to shooting, but "in the end, we didn't really talk too much about the book. We talked about our sons, which seemed appropriate."
Despite what the movie's trailer suggests, The Road isn't a blockbuster disaster movie. Directed by Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Proposition), it seeks to replicate the almost claustrophobic intimacy of McCarthy's novel, in which its father-son protagonists try to evade cannibalistic gangs who occasionally hunt them. Mortensen was bowled over by his costar, a then 11-year-old Australian actor named Kodi Smit-McPhee: "I haven't had a better acting partner ever. I've never seen any actor, of any age, man or woman, give the kind of focused and emotionally brave performance that he gives. Kodi's going to blow people's minds."
Filmed mostly during the gray late winter in western Pennsylvania, The Road was an appropriately challenging movie to make. "Snow and ice and rain and intense cold and bitter winds," says Hillcoat. "But it made it a real adventure and led to a lot of black humor. Whenever the sun came out, people were freaked out and depressed. And when we got really miserable weather, we were rejoicing."
Still, the mood on the set could be intense. Hillcoat describes an afternoon when Smit-McPhee, already shivering from the cold, began to cry in Mortensen's arms while filming a difficult scene. After Hillcoat called "cut," the boy remained locked in Mortensen's grip, even as Mortensen signaled Smit-McPhee's father to come in and take his son. "Kodi's father actually stepped back, and he said it was one of the hardest things he's ever done in his life," Hillcoat says. "But it helped create an unbelievable bond between Viggo and Kodi. From that day on, there was this whole other kind of emotional layer."
"This story is no different from what every parent goes through," Mortensen says of The Road. "Any parent can understand the concern: What's going to happen to my child when I'm not around? Are they going to be okay? Are they going to have enough food? Are they going to have friends?"
For Mortensen, the film's grim plotline did not feel like science fiction. "Obviously, the whole world is behaving in a crazy manner," he says of the real-life state of things. "Those who have the power and should be the most responsible are often the least responsible. There are serious pollution problems, serious problems with nuclear proliferation, and if it continues that way, with disregard for both the environment and human life, it can only end badly, you know? This story is not such a stretch of the imagination."
Many actors, of course, abstain from talking issues, or politics in general, for fear of alienating their audience, or because they don't know what they're talking about, or perhaps a little of both. Mortensen is not one of those actors. With little prompting he will open a vein about the war on terror, the lack of universal healthcare, or his vision for a wind-energy corridor in the United States that also preserves wild horse and buffalo populations. Asked, for instance, if he thought President Obama was moving swiftly enough to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, he replied emphatically, "No!" Even a benign question can yield a deep answer. Asked about his favorite kind of chocolate, he e-mailed a detailed answer chronicling the lengthy history of "exploitation and child slavery connected to cocoa cultivation and production." (For the record, he likes single-bean organic chocolate from Venezuela, where such abuses are not the case, he says.)
Still, he listens to enough right-wing talk radio -- opposition research, he says -- to anticipate the negative reaction that usually follows when an actor dares to speak out, as Mortensen did when his preferred 2008 presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich, was shut out of the debates. "Mind your own business -- certainly if you're an actor or singer or sports personality," Mortensen says, mimicking a popular attitude. "Just be grateful that you're an overpaid baby and stop whining. Don't stick your nose in something you don't understand."
But he's not shutting up. "It's supposed to be a participatory democracy," he counters. "Since when can't the average person on the street give their opinion about what their government is doing? We're paying their salaries."
With so many active interests, Mortensen admits he used to be impatient. "It felt unjust that we were given such a limited period on Earth, but I don't feel that way anymore. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I just figure, eh, what's your hurry?" He's also tried to put a friend's advice into practice. "He was talking about horses, but you could apply this to any activity in life. He said: 'Go slow to go fast.' You know, when you try to do 50 things at once, you end up doing them poorly, and you're probably less efficient and you probably go slower in the end than if you'd just done it methodically and tried to be relaxed and stay focused."
For now he's putting his film career on hold. "I have no plans to do another movie," he says, flatly. "I don't know what's going to happen. I'm open to seeing how I feel in a while, but right now I'm not saying yes to anything. And you know, my agent is like, 'Well, if you don't do anything, people will forget about you.' Maybe they won't say it in those words, but I just feel like I've taken on too much for a while."
It's hard to know how serious he is, or if it's just a tossed-out comment. In any case, it isn't as if he doesn't have enough to do. When he's not riding horses, gardening, or pruning trees at what passes for his primary residence these days, in the woods of northern Idaho, he'll be making trips back to Argentina and Paraguay for Perceval Press.
For one of the books, Mortensen has teamed up with a couple of anthropologists to collect photos of indigenous life -- photos taken by the tribespeople themselves. "We've gone to all these different remote areas and taken disposable cameras and shown them how to use them. And we just say, 'Take pictures of things that are important to you, whatever it is.' And that's going to be the heart of the book, you know, noninterventionist, ethnographic workings."
He's also preparing for a role for a stage production in Madrid of Ariel Dorfman's play Purgatorio -- "another joy ride," he jokes. He has acted in Spanish before, a language he says can be better than English for getting to the heart of the matter.
"I think Viggo has many faces," says Elijah Wood. "It's not to say he's elusive -- just that there are different facets to his personality. He can be quiet. But once the doors are open and he gets a sense of comfort, he's hilarious and incredibly affectionate and loving and kind of crazy, in the best possible way."
We don't see too many like that anymore. Mortensen doesn't do the easy trail or the glib quote, and he doesn't claim to have all the answers. Maybe it's because he grew up in so many places, or it took him so long to find the top, but he's content to be a searcher.