Viggo Mortensen is relating a tale that involves Vince Vaughn, a butcher knife and the threat of bodily harm. But, oddly enough, the actor isn't describing the shooting of his latest film, "Psycho." He's remembering a country music concert.
"Vince and I went to see Buck Owens one night after we had finished that day's shoot [for "Psycho"]," Mortensen said during a call from his Los Angeles home. "I had gotten one of the `Psycho' knives to give to Buck as a present 'cause it was his birthday. They wanted us to give it to him on stage that night. "So we bumbled our way through our speech to Buck. He opened the box and saw the knife, and the fiddler started making the "eek eek eek" [noise from the shower scene]. Buck got all excited and started posing as a damsel in distress. Then he began chasing Dwight Yoakam all around the stage with the knife. I don't think he realized it was real."
Though blond and chiselled, Mortensen isn't your typical Hollywood actor. His intense features and sly eyes convey an edge that eludes your Brads, Leonardos and Matts. The actor also exudes intelligence, whether he's playing a magnetically sadistic Navy SEALS officer in "G.I. Jane" or a genteel suitor in "The Portrait of a Lady."
Acting, though, is just part of the story. Besides the film roles for which he's won critical acclaim, Mortensen also is a published poet, musician, painter and photographer. And the well-traveled Manhattan-born artist is fluent in Danish and Spanish. During down time between filming love scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder," Mortensen kept his leading lady entertained by serenading her with Spanish songs. (His original paintings also made it into the film.) So it's a little surprising when, during the middle of an interview, he singsongs,
"Clap on, clap off."
"Whatever happened to those things?" said Mortensen, 40, laughing. "That was a good commercial. All my references are outdated because I don't watch television anymore. But I remember that one." Mortensen can be forgiven for not watching much TV--the busy Renaissance man just doesn't have the time.
There's his role in "Psycho," in which he plays Anne Heche's semi-clueless boyfriend, Sam Loomis. His art show at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., has been extended. And he has a new book, Recent Forgeries (Smart Art Press, $27), which features his paintings, photographs and poetry, as well as a CD of his poems and songs. On record, Mortensen's speaking voice--especially in Spanish--actually is more melodic and alluring than his singing. Confident and clear, he draws listeners in as he spins tales of deceit and humor.
That confidence is exhibited again on the new spoken-word record "The New Yorker Out Loud Vol. 2." The two-album collection includes readings by musician Chuck D and actress Suzy Amis. But it's Mortensen's readings of selections from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road Journals" that are truly mesmerizing. That he scored and mixed the avant-garde jazz in the background is an added bonus.
Now Mortensen is collaborating with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka (of the punk rock band X) on "One Man's Meat," a record that will accompany his next art exhibit.
"I don't know what it's going to be about yet," Mortensen said. "Perhaps just about how in our society people just devour each other, whether for money, or fame, or notoriety, or to just grandstand."
Mortensen's work schedule hasn't always been this busy. After what he believed was a prodigious start in his acting career, the fledgling actor learned that his first two roles in films by Jonathan Demme and Woody Allen were edited out. But it wasn't long before he was cast in a small role in the 1985 film "Witness." That part, which was supposed to be a one-day job, expanded into a speaking role as Alexander Godunov's younger Amish brother.
"I was basically told to shadow him," Mortensen recalled, laughing. "So wherever he went, I followed."
These days, Mortensen is taking the lead.