After 24 years away from the stage he opens Purgatorio in Madrid
Rehearsals - October 2011
Image Andrés de Gabriel.
© Teatro Español.
Before the opening of his third film with David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method, in which Viggo Mortensen plays Freud, the Hollywood star will spend six and a half weeks in Madrid, as a great draw for a theatrical run. The inclusion of the actor in Purgatorio, which opens next Friday at the Naves del Matadero, is a big event since it involves his return to the stage after a 24-year absence. He's doing it in the company of the Barcelonan actress Carme Elías, with a script by Ariel Dorfman that is very topical, since it speaks of victims and oppressors, of pardon and repentance. Mortensen, who can't take a walk through the streets without having people recognize him from his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or as Diego Alatriste from the film version of the works of Pérez Reverte, is a man with many other cultural concerns. He tells of them in this interview.
How long has it been since you've done theater?
About 24 years, since I did Martin Sherman's Bent in Los Angeles.
And why now, and in Madrid?
The people responsible for the Teatro Español's programming were interested in the proposal and the author, Ariel Dorfman, also liked the idea. I'm a little anxious - a normal thing for any actor, I guess - now that it's almost time to open. I also know that I'm very lucky. It's a great honor to work with Carme Elías and Josep Maria Mestres in Purgatorio, and to do it in Spanish for the first time. And Stage 2 at the Matadero is a very good space, ideal for this play. A fairly austere space, with a set by Clara Notari that's perfectly suited to the hall.
Do you spend periods of time in Madrid now? What do you like and what is strange to you about the way of life in Madrid?
I came to Madrid for the first time at the end of the seventies, so I already have a long history with this city. I have always liked being in Madrid and I like that it's precisely here that I come back to the theatre after so many years.
Do you approach a character for the theatre in the same way you would if you were acting in a film?
Yes, always with a certain fear and preparing myself the best I can, paying a lot of attention. I don't think there's so much difference between good acting in film and good acting in theatre. In general, depending on the size of the hall, it's true that in theatre you have to take into account adequate voice projection, but, ultimately, what matters is whether the spectator believes what the actor is doing or not.
Why did you accept doing this play? What did you like about it?
The challenge of the story interested me: is it possible to forgive and ask for forgiveness without imposing any conditions. Sometimes it's very difficult, but possible. The challenge of doing a play in which there are only two characters who are always on stage, without a break, also attracted me. Sometimes, during rehearsals, I have thought that I've been an idiot to get into this theatrical challenge, but then the doubt, the insecurity go away and I keep enjoying what I´m learning from my colleague Carme Elías, and from our director, Josep María Mestres. Ariel Dorfman´s script is demanding, but it´s full of little gifts that keep coming to you to the extent that you are deciphering the text and physically absorbing it.
The play deals with an obsessive theme in Dorfman´s theatre: revenge and forgiveness. Is there any intention on the author's part?
In all fairness, it would be best to ask him that, but I guess the personal option of choosing between revenge and forgiveness at a given moment does have to do with this play, a lot to do with it. He has talked about this lately in what he has written for the press, and sometimes he has commented on these things to us. He has also said that, with this play, he wanted to deal with the theme of colonization, the consequences to those who conquer and those who are conquered.
This is an absolutely topical subject in Spain, where it´s being discussed whether we can forgive ETA terrorists and allow them to enter the political institutions to govern their victims. What do you think?
There is nothing that cannot be forgiven, there's no one absolutely incapable of giving and asking for unconditional forgiveness. It is difficult, but not impossible. It's the best and most courageous option. True forgiveness is worth it, it clears things up, it cleanses and calms us down. From there on we can advance, grow, in a healthy way.
Actually, the play is an extrapolation of the Medea and Jason myth, isn´t it?
Yes. Generally speaking this play by Dorfman reminds us of the saga of Jason and Medea created by Euripides, the most well-known version of the tragic relationship between these legendary beings. But Purgatorio has elements from other versions of Medea, and also references to other characters and mythological sources.
The play was going to open in December 2009 and with Ariadna Gil. Why was it postponed and why hasn't the initial cast been kept?
It couldn't be done then due to scheduling problems. And Ariadna was not available either when we got back to the play. We were very lucky with Carme Elías, lucky in the sense that she liked the play. She's an extraordinary actress, very powerful. I think she'll be an unforgettable Medea.
Besides acting, you have other artistic interests; for example, you founded a publishing company. What kind of texts does it publish?
I founded the publishing house Perceval Press because I wanted to publish authors and artists that seemed interesting to me, and that, in many cases, don't have much chance of being published, or of seeing their work presented as they would like. I also present my books and recordings with Perceval Press. That tends to compensate us economically and helps us move forward with the projects of other lesser known artists. The real pleasure of being a publisher is to see these artists satisfied, to help them in any way possible so that what is published meets their creative expectations.
What poets do you like?
Recently, I was looking at an old book, a collection of poems by Leonard Cohen called Flowers for Hitler, published in 1964. There was a poem that made me think of Purgatorio. Like always, you can find references, connections everywhere the minute you fine tune the preparation of a project. This is something that I looked at 10 minutes ago and it seemed to me that it had an echo of our story, or vice versa.
Why Experience Is No Teacher
Not mine -- the body you were promised
is buried at the heart
of an unusable machine
no one can stop or start.
You'll lie with it? You might dig deep --
escape a Law or two -- see a dart
of light. You
won't get near the heart.
I tried -- I am the same -- come the same.
I wanted my senses to rave.
The dart was ordinary light.
Will nothing keep you here, my love, my love?
(from Flowers for Hitler, 1964)
You're also a lover of painting and photography. How would you define your pictorial style?
I don't feel comfortable giving definitions of what I do as an artist, categorizing my work, whether it's as an actor, photographer, painter, or writer. So I'll ask your forgiveness to continue not wanting to do that.
And what do you usually photograph? Which camera do you prefer?
It depends on the time, on where I've been, on what I go looking for. I've photographed landscapes, I've done portraits, I've worked with Eastman and Graflex 8x10 and 4x5 inch cameras that are more than a hundred years old; with a Hasselblad 2¼ x 2¼ that I acquired 30 years ago, a fifteen year old 35mm Leica, and I also started working with a digital 35mm Canon three years ago.
Your international renown as an actor came after The Lord of the Rings. Did you expect the effect the movie would have on your career? What was it like, working with Peter Jackson in that mega production?
Nobody knew that Jackson's trilogy would have the financial and socio-cultural success that it had. In my opinion, anyone who says, now, that they knew that is lying. What we did believe when we were making the three movies was that they could be enjoyed in Japan and other Asian countries that weren't familiar with Tolkien's work. It seemed to me that the world of the elves and their warrior culture, and also their healing culture, had a lot in common with the Samurai heritage and the balanced sensitivity of Buddhism. For me, as an actor, the success of the trilogy was an important gift. It made it possible for Agustín Díaz Yanes to later offer me the part of Diego Alatriste, and for David Cronenberg to choose me for A History of Violence.
And speaking of the Canadian director, David Cronenberg, how does he manage to get the best out of you on the screen?
Cronenberg and I are very good friends after all, we understand and respect each other. I know I will always learn new things and have fun filming with him, and that we will make a film that will be worth presenting. He also has trust in me. Knows that I will arrive prepared and that we will get deep into it to derive all the worth from any story we have to shoot. He is a very special director, unique, one of the greatest there is in the world. He loves what he does, and this shows every day. He thoroughly understands the medium. His enthusiasm is contagious, gives you courage and his experience helps him to transmit his passion. I feel very lucky for having shot three very good and different films with him.