War Games: Meet the actor who proves that beating the daylights out of Demi Moore (onscreen in GI Jane) can be a good career move.
We got thrown out of a bar. I know that sentence implies all kind of juicy things: Maybe we drank too much, got a little belligerent, did something we shouldn't have. And when you figure that one of us is a movie star, or at least an actor who just might become a movie star one of these days, then the story sounds even more scandalous. So I say it one more time Viggo Mortensen and I got thrown out of a bar.
Now comes the boring part. You see, Mortensen, first name pronounced Vee-go, co-star of GI Jane with Demi Moore, supporting player in Crimson Tide and The Portrait of a Lady and a lot of movies you've never heard of, and an accomplished poet and photographer to boot somehow got on the wrong side of a grizzled bartender at a (former) favorite hangout, a dark little bar on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Mortensen simply came in, ordered a beer and asked the guy if he was watching the soap opera blaring from an overhead TV. "It's my show," the guy said and turned up the volume.
I came in, and Mortensen asked the bartender for another beer, "when you get a chance." Whereupon the guy erupted, yelling, "That's it! I've had enough of your f***ing attitude. Get out!" He threw the beer money at Mortensen, who threw it back at the guy, who called the cops. So we left.
Coincidentally, this happened half a block from my front door, so I got a couple of beers from my refrigerator and we did the interview on my front porch. First, though, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what had just happened. "I kinda feel cheated," Mortensen said. "You get thrown out of a bar, usually you've got to do something a little more...interesting."
Mortensen turns down my offer to brush off the cushion he'd be sitting on. "Looks like my car," he says. He pets my cat, says hi to a guy who came by to drop off a package, speaks Spanish to my cleaning lady, and gives me fliers for a show of his photography and a party to celebrate the release of One Less Thing to Worry About, an album he has made of poetry and music. He is, I decide, a swell drinking companion and, our recent experience not withstanding, not the kind of guy to get thrown out of bars. He is intense (those cheekbones and those blue eyes help: "chiseled" and "piercing" being the operative cliches) but surprisingly soft-spoken, and arty but not pretentious.
"The quality that really stood out to me was his quietness," says Ridley Scott, who cast Mortensen in GI Jane as the Navy instructor who makes life miserable for aspiring SEALs, including Moore. "He has a still, modest quality to him that was perfect for these guys. I noticed that in some of the movies I'd seen him in, and he also had it in real life."
Scott who talked to his brother Tony before casting Mortensen ("Viggo's a sweetheart," said Tony, the director of Crimson Tide), thinks GI Jane could do wonders for Mortensen's career. "But it's up to him," he adds. "He has it in him to be a star of mainstream movies, but I think his ambitions are very much tied to the material he's offered."
For his part, Mortensen isn't buying any predictions of impending stardom. "I've been around long enough that I don't really count on it one way or the other," says the 38-year-old actor. "Personally, I think GI Jane is a good movie. I think I met the job requirements. I think it has a good chance to do well commercially and also to be respected critically. But who the hell knows? Sometimes the movies you think will make the most difference don't make any difference at all."
Fortunately, Mortensen has something to fall back on. "I get more consistent satisfaction out of writing than I do out of acting, because I don't have to compromise," he says, having just finished his second book of poetry. (Relax: His work is far more serious and substantial than most movie star poetry.) "I don't have to wait on other people as to whether I'm allowed to work, and it's up to me if I want to ruin it in the editing."
When Mortensen was a kid growing up in New York state, writing interested him before acting ever did. But a play audition led him to study acting in Manhattan, and after receiving immediate encouragement from an acting teacher, he was hooked. His film debut (after being edited out of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift) was playing an Amish man in 1985's Witness. After that, he stuck mostly to a diet of smaller films, which included a well-received role in Sean Penn's directorial debut, 1991's The Indian Runner, and a spooky turn as a smooth-talking Satan in The Prophecy.
Slowly though, Mortensen began to do more mainstream movies. "It's a combination of things," he says, explaining his gradual move toward bigger-budget studio films. "Part of it came from being broke at a certain time, which is not an excuse, it's a fact. Also, over time, I realized that if I never did one of those movies, then I wouldn't have access to them. If I hadn't gotten that part in Crimson Tide, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to play that part in Daylight or GI Jane. I wanted to have more options, really, whether I chose them or not."
So now Mortensen uses his options, both for smaller films like the upcoming My Brother's Gun (shot in Spain, entirely in Spanish) and for high profile pictures like GI Jane. For the latter, he lobbied the director to make his character less misogynistic and more of an equal-opportunity brute. "He is absolutely dedicated to the process," says Ridley Scott. "He was constantly revisiting me with questions and notes and suggestions, none of which I ever got tired of."
For Mortensen's first scene, in which his character addresses some 40 prospective SEALs, Scott was looking for something more unusual than a normal drill instructor's spiel. Mortensen brought in a short D. H. Lawrence poem ("I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself") that the director says showed richer and more intriguing sides of a character whose ensuing acts of violence are so horrific that many viewers may not get past them. The poem, in fact becomes a crucial part of the film. For a key scene in which Mortensen's character gives a copy of the book to Demi Moore's character, the actor used his own dog-eared copy.
Mortensen also brought the filmmakers a song from the rock band Auntie Christ, a new group featuring his ex-wife, singer Exene Cervenka (formerly of the seminal punk band X). He talks enthusiastically about Auntie Christ's new CD, Life Could Be a Dream ("an amazing punk-rock record"), about Cervenka ("A lot of young bands are imitating things that she pioneered") and about their 9-year-old son, Henry. The couple met in 1987 on a low budget film Salvation! and hit it off immediately. "He kept a lot of his poetry inside his refrigerator," says Cervenka, "which endeared him to me forever. In the face of all these horrible people who are doing nothing but making money and fleecing the public, people who are not artists, he is an artist on so many levels." Though the marriage has ended, the couple are still close. "We're not married now," Cervenka says, "but we are part of the same family." Adds Mortensen, "We do a lot of things together, the three of us: go to movies, travel... And it's not that we're thinking, well, we should do this for Henry. That's certainly a good enough reason, but we do it because we want to."
Maybe GI Jane will be the film to make Henry's dad a star; maybe it will happen with Mortensen's next movie, tentatively titled The Blouse Man, in which he plays a traveling salesman who shakes up the life of a Catskills housewife during the tumultuous summer of 1969. Or maybe neither movie will make him a big deal. Mortensen doesn't worry about it too much. If he gets offered good roles, he'll take them; if not, he'll write poetry, take photographs and travel with his family. And he'll do it quietly.
Except, of course, on those odd occasions when he attracts the attention of a crazy old bartender. "I'm still thinking about that bar," Mortensen says hours later when he walks down my porch steps. "Part of me has trouble leaving something like that alone. I'll go back tomorrow with a different shirt on; maybe he'll have forgotten!"