Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
Once described as a method actor in a leading man's body, Viggo Mortensen takes his craft seriously - but he's not dour, just thoughtful . . .
Viggo Mortensen is a famous actor, but is he a movie star? He doesn't have an action blockbuster on his CV and he's never dated a model. He speaks at least six languages and has a degree in government studies. He's so low tech that until recently he didn't own a mobile phone, and remains wary of iPods.
And there's a good chance Mortensen has the smallest shoe collection in Hollywood, since he prefers to pad around barefoot, displaying his fine set of prehensile toes. "When I have a day off, I won't spend it at a Hollywood party," he confirms. "I'd rather be at home with paints and a blank canvas."
Saying things like this just perpetuates the legend of Viggo Mortensen. Once upon a time we expected our actors to be this enigmatic, aloof, and maybe even tersely heroic. Now there are very few who can get away with his fabulous unselfconscious oddness. It doesn't matter that since he played Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's published more books of art and poetry than he's made movies, because even in terrible films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, he's a corner of the screen that demands to be seen.
Yet despite his intensity and his earnest Californian idealism, Mortensen has unexpectedly managed to climb to the top of mainstream cinema culture, largely thanks to The Lord of The Rings and an Oscar-nominated performance as Tom Stall in A History of Violence[sic]. It also speaks volumes that, when he was Oscar-nominated, he didn't drop his Kantian cowboy convictions and hit the nominee circuit of chatshows and special screenings - although he did attend the ceremony itself where Daniel Day-Lewis carried off the award.
"Afterwards it was interesting how glum people were at this big event. Four fifths of the room can go home feeling as if they are losers. But I didn't," he says.
Mortensen sometimes speaks so softly that you strain to catch a dropped word or a lost qualification. His answers are larded with qualifications and despite his solicitous politesse towards interviewers, he's not at home with being the centre of attention.
Peter Jackson nicknamed him "no-ego Viggo" and sure enough, he heaps praise on Kodi Smit-McPhee, his 13-year-old co-star on The Road while pushing around more personal topics like sprouts on a dinnerplate. Last year he turned 50, and his family threw a surprise party in Denmark with boozy speeches that went on through the night. "It was fun," he concedes, "but I wanted to run off to the woods and hide."
If this all sounds rather lugubrious and Scandic, it's only one side of Viggo Mortensen. "I like a twisted sense of humour," he offers. "On A History of Violence, David Cronenberg and I would be doing the grimmest scenes and laugh a lot." Even more surprisingly he claims one of his all-time favourite films is Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore, a slapstick squib about a hot-tempered golf prodigy that is fitfully amusing but wouldn't give Woody Allen sleepless nights. Yet Mortensen says it's the only film he watches repeatedly and can even do a rather good Sandler impression.
"I thought it was a very funny movie," he shrugs. "What can I say?" Has he thought of offering himself for a future Sandler film? "Maybe," he says, unconvincingly, "but I don't think Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell fear competition from me."
Comedy's loss is the end of the world's gain. For some reason this year has raised a large crop of Armageddon experiences, some predicting doomsday as early as 2012, but Mortensen's The Road may qualify as the feel-bad movie of the year. Somehow it's appropriate that it carries another of his studied contradictions, being both a postapocalyptic epic and a profound character essay.
Even Mortensen admits to putting off reading Cormac McCarthy's original Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed, survivalist tone poem, until he was sent Joe Penhall's adapted screenplay. "Everybody had been saying to me that I must read it. I'm stubborn so I went in the opposite direction," he says. "But after reading the script I had to read the book. It's a very faithful adaptation; in fact it is probably the most faithful I've ever been part of. And I include The Lord of the Rings, which was very faithful to Tolkien's spirit."
The real pull, however, was the theme of fatherhood. Mortensen cracks with pride if you ask about Henry, his 21-year-old son by Exene Cervenka, singer with the influential punk band X. Their marriage ended after 11 years but the couple remain on amicable terms, and Henry is the apple of his eye. They share a "pals" relationship, writing poetry, jamming together, and taking cross-country drives
Henry is now at university but as a child he had a cameo in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and played Mortensen's character's son in Crimson Tide. It was Henry, a Tolkien fan, who urged his father to accept the role of Aragorn after he had initially knocked it back because it meant living in New Zealand for two years, away from his son.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Mortensen met [sic] Cormac McCarthy before filming The Road, the main topic was children. "My character's only concern is the wellbeing of his child," says Mortensen. "'Will he be safe when I'm gone? Will he be happy, have enough money?' It's something we can all relate to. My relationship with my son, my ex-wife, my father and my grandfather all came into play. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays my son, reminded me of my own son when he was 11 but also of myself."
Like McCarthy's novel, the film never explains the flash of light that heralds the dying of the planet, but afterwards human society quickly unravels and cannibalism, literal and metaphorical, reigns. Mortensen plays The Man, bearded, gaunt and greasy-haired, who has only one goal: to keep his starving son eating, and from being eaten.
Smit-McPhee, a young Australian, was one of four finalists director John Hillcoat lined up for the role, and Mortensen admits he fretted over the casting. In the end, he auditioned with all of them. "I was really worried 'cause if you don't have a great kid, it doesn't matter what I do. Kodi was the last one to come in, and there was something about him. At least he understood the story in a way that maybe the other kids didn't. He's a joyful, well-adjusted kid, but there was something in his eyes that was sad and knowing. He's very mature."
Before and during filming Mortensen organised bonding events, taking trips around museums, sharing chilli-spiced crickets at a Mexican restaurant, and colluding over Kodi's pranks on the camera crew. "Other than that," he deadpans, "I didn't care for him."
Acting seems to be hard work for Mortensen, who is known to get deep into character. For The Road he slept in his costume and dieted on small portions of red meat and dark chocolate until he was convincingly emaciated.
During A Perfect Murder, Michael Douglas quipped: "He's a method actor in a leading man's body," and the huge abstract paintings he creates onscreen are his own art pieces; many more of them litter his home in Topanga. On the set of The Lord of the Rings, he slept for weeks in his costume again, often outdoors. When he broke a tooth in a Mordor battle scene, he asked for superglue, and when composer Howard Shore conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a Lord of the Rings concert with four choirs, Mortensen joined in, singing in Elvish. Because his mild mannered academic became a Nazi in Good, he visited Poland's concentration camps and listened to Mahler in the car. For Eastern Promises he brushed up on his Russian by wandering across the country.
"I believe in research. The studio gave me a ticket from London to Moscow, but I paid for the rest of the trip myself," he says. "I could go anywhere in Russia, and I was just ignored, which was perfect for me. It wasn't until my last day that a young boy looked at me, then came over and asked quietly if I was Aragorn."
Does being recognised bother him? "A little recognition is not a bad thing because it means people appreciate your work. The only problem is when you can't walk down the street or have a meal without people looking at you. I want to be the one looking at people."
Mortensen's distinctive angular look is a combination of an American mother and Danish father, and he grew up mostly in Argentina, where his father managed a large farm in the Pampas. His childhood made him fluent in Spanish, and he still keeps tabs on the nuances of South American culture and politics. But he has also lived in Denmark, speaks Danish and continues to visit several times a year.
So he can slide between American, Latin American and Scandinavian cultures - yet at the same time he says: "I don't really fit in at all."
After university he took up acting and quickly won roles off-Broadway. His movie career was less successful: Jonathan Demme cast him as a sailor who tries to chat up Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift, then changed his mind, rewrote the scene and left Mortensen on the cutting room floor.
His appearance in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo was also unexpectedly cut. "My family went to these films," he recalls "and thought I was delusional." But he made it to the finished cut as an Amish farmer in Witness and became a jobbing support act - if you rent Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Mortensen is there as a psychotic sidekick - and eventually Sean Penn gave him his first major film role in Indian Runner as a violent, anti-social Vietnam veteran.
"I got good reviews, but nobody saw the movie," Mortensen remembers. "I was out of money, I had a son to support and I started seriously questioning whether to pursue acting. I spent as much time playing music and painting as I did looking for work."
Between acting jobs he worked as a dock worker, a flower seller and a translator for the Swedish hockey team during the 1980 Winter Olympics. As befits an actor with a philosophical bent, he says he's glad he failed to win leading roles in films such as Coppola's Dracula and Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan. He's not sure he could have coped with the preciousness of being a young, starry actor.
"The attention is troubling enough now; 20 years ago, it would have been too much. I would have become tired of the whole circus. I think I would have got disenchanted and probably quit," he says, and even now he regularly flirts with the idea of cutting back or moving away from acting altogether.
"Bertrand Russell said one of the first symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important. I take my work seriously, but it's not the only thing that exists in the world."
The kind of roles that draw him back and jag his interest are the ones that intimidate or frighten him. "If it's just, 'I can do this with my eyes closed,' then what are you going to learn? The next thing I'm doing is a play and I haven't done a play in over 20 years. I'm in a terrified state because I'm not there rehearsing like I should be and I don't know what's going to happen."
The play is Purgatario, in which he will perform in Spanish in Madrid. "At the moment," he notes wryly, "all I've learned is how to be scared all over again."