Viggo Mortensen - For The Good Of The People
Moving Pictures, Winter 08-09
Moving Pictures magazine, Winter 08-09.
© Maitland Primrose Group, Inc.
TALENTED, INDEPENDENT, MASCULINE.
It's easy to understand why there are so many websites - viggophile.net, viggomortensenweb.com, viggo-works.com, viggofanbase.com - filled with dedicated fans lost in admiration for an active artist who preaches thought-filled open-mindedness. The most revealing display of Viggo's character, however, isn't contained in his nearly fifty acting credits, but at his publishing company's percevalpress.com.
At home at Perceval Press are Mortensen's books, his photography, his music, his paintings, the collaborations with 21-year-old son Henry, as well as the works of artists he admires enough to invest his energies in. Percevalpress.com may be promoted to portray Mortensen's cerebral acceptance and emotional sensitivity to the world around him, but it is not only that. It is, in fact, a portrait of a person's passions - for his art and the art of others; for opinions, visions and expressions. It is a portrait also of his passion for the physical pursuits of organized sports - for Argentina's San Lorenzo soccer club; for Denmark's DBU; the Montreal Canadiens; Real Madrid and Cadiz; for his St. Lawrence University's hockey teams and New Zealand's All Blacks and Hurricanes rugby clubs; and for New York's Giants, Knicks and Mets.
Mortensen's year has been a busy one - the Ed Harris-helmed western Appaloosa and Vicente Amorim's WWII-themed Good (based on C.P. Taylor's play) both premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Agustin Diaz Yanes' Alatriste continued it's two-year release schedule around the world, and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, for which Mortensen received Oscar and Golden Globes nominations, has opened in new territories, from Kuwait to South Korea, each month of 2008. The cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road (with Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce), and The People Speak, a documentary featuring some of the world's best-known faces and voices bringing life to documented and often-repressed moments of this country's past - and based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States - will both be seen in 2009.
MOVING PICTURES: I was lucky enough to be at a taping of The People Speak in Malibu back in April .
VIGGO MORTENSEN: With Sean Penn?
MP: Right; and Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Jackson Browne, Eddie Vedder, etc. In Good there is a book that your character, Halder, writes that is used by the Nazis to help justify their radical actions. Has any book - like, maybe, Howard Zinn's People's History - ever inspired you to commit to action of any sort?
MORTENSEN: Well, other things that Howard Zinn has written have focused disparate ideas I had - about government, the nature of government. Noam Chomsky as well. Certainly Howard Zinn has spoken about the fact - which I completely agree with and am paraphrasing - that the primary goal of any government, no matter how democratic it is or seems to be, is survival, to prolong itself. For a president or prime minister, the main goal is to achieve power, to be elected, and to remain in power as long as possible, as legally possible. That's what happens.
In order to stay in power or to be re-elected or what have you, one of the main ways of trying to ensure that is to convince people - either consciously, directly orindirectly - that we ought to allow those who are in government to govern and [we should] stay out of it. Obviously, that flies in the face of what this country is about, or any participatory democracy, which is "of the people, by the people, for the people."
MP: Comparing the period of time explored in Good, the 1930s, to now, what impact do you think the Internet has had?
MORTENSEN: I think people can source more information more rapidly than they could by just going to the library, for example, and looking at books and periodicals and microfilm and all that. But I think even though people now can find more information, most people tend to look for information that justifies things that they already believe. It reinforces the beliefs that they hold and the points of view that they hold.
You do get exposed, whether you want to listen to it or not, to other points of view - the barrage of news and radio - if you're driving in your car for a while, I do that; I'll listen to things I don't really like to listen to. I'll listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or even the most demented ravings of Michael Savage. I listen to these people just to get a little bit wider spectrum of ideas that are being thrown around. Sometimes they're not even ideas, just ideological ravings of people on the right and the left and in between.
MP: I know you studied government formally, but what was it that influenced you to become politically active? Was it a parent or was it a situation?
MORTENSEN: I'm not quite sure. My mother has always done some sort of volunteer work, but I wouldn't say that either of my parents are politically engaged. Maybe it's partly from having traveled so much since I was born, living in different cultures and just observing people who sound different and think differently and look at the same situation in quite different ways. Maybe that has something to do with why I like acting, because that involves a lot of traveling, physical traveling and mental traveling, in order to do my job properly - at least as I see it being done. My job is to see the world from different points of view than my own. Sometimes quite different than my own. Even if I disagree with it in principle, I'm gonna investigate it.
I think children do this naturally. They play. They wanna be this, they wanna be the bad guy, the good guy; it doesn't really matter. They don't differentiate, they just go at it to the full. As adults, we tend to calcify. We tend to get a narrower field of view to some degree, to protect the personas that we've built for ourselves.
MP: Does the job give you clarity into humanity, or is the gaining of knowledge the provocateur only of more questions?
MORTENSEN: I think you do end up with more questions. I think it's a process. I don't think you arrive. I think that democracy or a good marriage or a relationship, a friendship, they aren't really tangible things. Each one of those is a process. It changes, and you've got to keep an eye on it.
MP: In Good, your character leaving his wife for Jodie Whittaker's character seems comparable also to his leaving the university institution for the bold colors of fascism.
MORTENSEN: Yeah, replacing my wife with a younger woman who seems at first like less trouble. Some people would say, "He's much more of a passive character than you usually play," and to some degree that's true, but at a certain point there's a very active pursuit for ego gratification because it's convenient economically. And he does accept [fascism] and actually actively participates in it at a certain point. He's no longer befuddled or understandably thinking, "What's the harm in writing a paper or something?" He's now putting a uniform on and has become an active participant in programs of the party.
MP: The small decisions lead to a dire end game. That can be true for people living in many different time periods.
MORTENSEN: Exactly. That's why I think this movie is not only different from almost all other movies, good or bad or indifferent, about that period, it's much more relevant to now 'cause you're not given that distance.
Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
MP: Were you able to debate your character's decisions with Jason Isaacs' [portraying a Jewish friend of Halder's] in some sort of rehearsal period?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, we did and we continue to do so. Sometimes, we do interviews and we're seated together with a group, like in round tables, and - I don't wanna put words into his mouth, but he was saying something about the film not being instructive about anything, and I said, "Well I think it is in terms of it's worthwhile paying attention." It's a little bit like our relationship in the story, but it's also just Jason and I. I really enjoyed working with him. He's a fine actor and a very smart man.
MP: There's a book that's been published by your company Perceval Press, called The Horse Is Good. I thought it would ironic if I asked you what the title of the film meant to you and you just answered, "The horse."
MORTENSEN: The horse? That is funny.
I like the title. It's intelligent. It lets the audience think for itself a bit. If you wanted to be really obvious, it would be Good?, or "Good" in quotation marks. The movie doesn't steer you that much. It shows you some lives, parts of some lives, and I think it leaves a certain amount open to debate, I like that there's something to talk about afterwards.
It subverts people's expectations, so at the end, they're kind of saying, "Well I sort of related to the guy to some degree but then not at all, and I expected something more melodramatic at the [concentration] camp and I didn't get it." I think there's calm dissent to the horror that doesn't happen all at once. It happens on a daily basis in a very normal, quiet way. That's more disturbing than the usual dramatic heroic gesture, tragic gesture, horror moment you usually see in Holocaust-related movies with the Nazis.
The audience here can't have that distance to just judge it or say, "Wow. That thing is different than me." This is a lot like you, unfortunately, whether you wanna deal with it or not.
I think the source of good drama is those moments or that gradual realization, in some cases, that I'm on the wrong path. Everything I thought I was doing right or that was justified is completely wrong. It's the, "and then what?" Whether it comes at the beginning, the middle or the end of a movie, [that] is the basis for good drama, as far as I'm concerned. That's why, when this movie ends, it kind of implodes and this person suddenly is standing there beginning to feel that, and the screen goes black, You're like, "Oh, shit."
MP: Did putting on that uniform have any effect on you? Was it more than just a costume?
MORTENSEN: It ended up being, yeah; in a way that I didn't expect. It just kind of snuck up on me because I'd been trying on all the other ones when we had the fitting, and then I put it on and I said, "Oh the boots are - I guess they fit. They're all right." Then the pants. It's, like, "I don't know. Is this the way they're supposed to fit?" "Yeah. It looks right." "What about the jacket? It feels strange around the shoulders." "No, it looks good. Can you lift your arms? Yeah. It's fine." "Really? "Cause it feels funny. The hat feels like it's too small." "No it's not."
And I'm not like a fussy person; really, I want it to work. To all eyes it was perfect as it should be, but there was something about each piece of clothing I put on that seemed - it didn't fit right or something...I've learned over the years that when there's something that's not working, whether it's a scene in general or text, sometimes, you do have to rewrite something or change the way of doing a scene, but it's always worth trying at least once to befriend it instead of fighting what doesn't work. So I thought, "OK, what can be good about this?
Well, maybe it's OK to feel uncomfortable wearing this uniform. Just trust that. I think that when he's running around Kristilnacht, or even at the end, as he's walking around in it, I think he gradually sees more and more that the uniform and the man don't go together. It just seems odd somehow. It's a subtle thing but it was how I felt; I was starting to let this persona that the character had constructed go away or crumble. It's interesting. If you trust that feeling, it might be one of the most helpful.
MP: How do you build trust with a director who hasn't necessarily had a lot of first-hand exposure, like Vicente Amorim?
MORTENSEN: Well, he's a very intelligent person who's traveled a lot. He is the son of a Brazilian diplomat, so he's lived all over the world. He's someone who is well read; before making this movie had read Proust, for example; who understood that moment in history; who has a kind of philosophical leaning. So we had a lot to talk about. And he also was very well-prepared and technically very knowledgeable. He directed one feature before and at least one short before that.
He'd also been a first assistant director and had producing responsibilities and managing responsibilities on a lot of important movies with a lot of really good directors. So he really knew the ropes as far as making a movie and he had a very well-thought-out plan of attack, together with Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer. And he was very open, also, and that's the thing that's unfortunately sort of rare - directors who actually not only aren't afraid of actors and their own crew and their ideas that they might suggest, but that actually like actors and the crew and the group effort. That's a strength.
MP: Is that indicative of your general outlook on life, whether it's the books that come together or the music, that spirit of collaborating with people who are mindful and interesting?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, I would guess that's true.
MP: Which came first: the music? the painting? the poetry? the photography?
MORTENSEN: I guess the painting, in a sense, 'cause it's drawing, telling stories; and then photography. Photography pretty early, too. As a teen I was into taking pictures.
MP: If you're thinking and re-thinking something and you feel like putting it out in a certain expression, do you have to choose whether to pick up the paintbrush or the pen or the camera?
MORTENSEN: No. A lot of times I'll combine it, paintings and photographs and words. Books that have some poems in them usually involve photographs as well, and in the past, I've had paintings sometimes. I sometimes gravitate toward one language or another or a certain structure for a poem or short story. In the past year or so, I've been writing mostly in Spanish for some reason. Whatever I was feeling, I felt like I've got to express it in Spanish. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's because I've been hanging around Spanish-speaking people or Spanish-speaking countries a lot recently.
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
MP: The People Speak involves an incredible line-up, some of whom you've worked with before. When did you first meet Sean Penn?
MORTENSEN: I met him 'cause he was interested in me for [The Indian Runner, 1991]. I had not met him before. I was sort of vaguely aware of him - when I was just starting out acting, he was doing a play in New York, just starting to work as an actor. He's the rare case of an actor who has almost always chosen well or had the luck of having good things come his way. I've made a lot of movies over the years, and I'm aware that a lot of them are not good movies and they weren't bound to be good, but I still learn something from each situation, each set of landscapes, friendships, different shoots.
MP: How did you come to work on The People Speak?
MORTENSEN: I had performed it a few times over the years in different places. The others had done it a lot more than that. Danny Glover, for example, had done it many times in different theaters. And then we went and recorded - it was supposed to be kind of an all-inclusive for three days. We filmed it in the[Cutler] Majestic Theater in Boston, and then they decided to do some extra ones. They did the show that you were at in Malibu, and recorded some of the people separately, I guess.
MP: In Toronto in September, you were wearing a T-shirt that read, "Impeach. Remove. Jail." When did you start using T-shirts as billboards?
MORTENSEN: Well, in 2002, it wasn't the first time but the first time publicly where I knew it would be seen and have some sort of impact. It was a good six months before we invaded Iraq. I was on the "Charlie Rose" show and I hastily, just before going on the show, wrote "No more blood for oil" on my shirt. The reason I did it, I was just annoyed 'cause I'd just spent the whole day talking about [The Lord Of The Rings:] The Two Towers, and people kept talking about it like they had done in the first part of the trilogy, and I'd just gotten tired of having to defend Tolkien and the movie against the assumptions.
They just said, as if it was fact, that it was allegorical and the fellowship represented the United States and the coalition of the willing, and then all the Orcs were the Muslim hoards. And I said, "No, I don't agree with you." I just thought that's really not true. [Laughs] I got annoyed and I said, "Furthermore, if you look at the New York Times and you look at the fashion section where they have the new uniforms for the guys and girls, we're clearly going to war."
So we ended up talking about that, and the shirt was the way in 'cause Charlie Rose said, "I can't not ask you about the shirt." I said, "I don't think we're justified at all and I think that it's gonna be a big problem and we'll be really sorry." A lot of people got mad at me, but I meant whatever I said, and then some stuff happened since and it doesn't seem so out of left field or radical now.
MP: How was working with John Hillcoat? His film that played Sundance a couple of years ago, The Proposition, is beautifully poetic?
MORTENSEN: Yeah. That was nicely made and he obviously has the ability to do the story well. Everybody came ready and it was well cast and we gave a lot, and the crew was really invested more than you usually see. The crew was really into the story and really hung on every word and just went beyond the call of duty in terms of hours worked and difficult conditions. It was a labor of love from most people, so I know that John is lucky and smart in how he put it together.
MP: I remember you working with another Australian director - Peter Weir [Witness, released in 1985].
MORTENSEN: Yeah. I loved him. Here was a director who was very smart, very calm, very team-oriented; surrounded himself with like-minded people who
were just about getting the job done and no fuss, no muss, no yelling. Shoot the thing in an organized fashion and finish on time and everybody gets treated right and everybody can express themselves and opinions are welcome.
That was my first experience, or at least the first movie I wasn't cut out of, where I was on the set for any amount of time, but it gave me the wrong idea. Most directors aren't that way. [David] Cronenberg works that way. It's understandable to some degree, because I think most directors, just out of a certain insecurity, don't fully trust actors or even their crew, even if they assemble a good one. They are not as welcoming as you would think they would be to a diversity of opinions. It's a delicate thing. You're trying to protect this thing. It's a labor of love for you, and it can feel like a tax on your ego if people see things a little bit differently sometimes.
MP: As a photographer also, it must've been beautiful to see A History Of Violence afterwards and see all Peter Suschitzky's references and David Cronenberg's references back to Edward Hopper.
MORTENSEN: It's unbelievable. And I have to say that the [cinematographer] John Hillcoat hired, Javier Aquirresarobe, is also a really fine artist. Peter Suschitzky is like Cronenberg. He's not been recognized the way he should be because the work is too good. It's too subtle. It's too smart, I think, in a way. And Suschitzky, both in A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises (and pretty much everything he does), is a master. I mean, he's just perfect in terms of disappearing into the story, observing the story.
MP: There was a quote on Perceval's website from Edgar Allen Poe that I adore. It's, "Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night."
MORTENSEN: Yeah. I think that's true.
MP: Did you choose to put that up there?
MORTENSEN: Oh yeah. Everything that's up there, I choose. Lately, it's just about my football team [San Lorenzo]. We're on a win-it-all run. There's one more match to be played, and three teams, including them, are tied for first place. I pepper [the website] with the odd news article or opinion piece, but mostly it's all biogaphical information and exhortations about the team.
MP: Did you go to San Lorenzo matches when you lived in Argentina?
MORTENSEN: No. I would listen on the radio. I was pretty fanatical about it. At the time it was unusual, because we weren't a very good team. We were interesting, but most of the kids in school were Boca Juniors or River Plate or other teams, and then the year before I left, suddenly we won it all. It was the only time that it's ever happened that we had an undefeated season, so that was a big deal. All of a sudden, the day after [that], a kid at school said, "I like San Lorenzo, too," and I said, "Bullshit. You're Boca Junior. Whatever."
MP: So why, with so many outlets to your passion and so many of them making up the components of film -
MORTENSEN: That's a perfect universe, movies. It has everything.
MP: So why isn't film director on your resume yet?
MORTENSEN: You have to do that when you have time to do that and nothing else, if you wanna do it properly. I'm thinking about it. I have a story that I wanna tell, and I'm trying to clear the deck a little bit. The last few movies I've been in have been interesting, and I was nominated for awards last winter and that influences people; I have been offered some interesting things. But I've basically just sort of taken a break from it. It doesn't mean I haven't worked all year [laughs], and not just on books and things, but I've been promoting Good, Appaloosa, even The Road that's coming out, even Alatriste and Eastern Promises were released in different countries this year. It's been kind of non-stop for months.
MP: What are you most grateful of, that you've learned from an acting gig?
MORTENSEN: Well, every movie teaches you something different, and often things you don't expect to learn. In the case of Good, the way music influenced what I was doing was very interesting. I would say the most important thing I learned from Good was to get over my learned prejudice against Germans and the sound of German spoken. As I was spending time in Germany and trying to get my head around the idea of playing a German truthfully, I realized that, even though I speak a few different languages and can sort of plough my way through a newspaper in German slowly, I don't speak German - and, obviously, I don't speak it because I'm not interested in it, even though I love German composers and photographers and painters and some philosophers. I appreciate the cultural legacy of that nation or of those peoples.
I have had this block for a long time, understandingly with those of my generation. In my case, where part of my family was in an occupied country - Denmark - we have associations from all these movies we've seen and these books we've read and TV specials and documentaries and imagery. You just have this idea about Germany: that it's harsh, that it's intolerant, that it's authoritarian; it has an unpleasant connotation, the language itself and the people. In a way, this movie, I just found myself getting past that. I didn't feel so strongly about that anymore. It's like that need to be prejudiced against Germans kind of disappeared.
MP: Do you think the language itself, even if it didn't have those connotations and that history, just audibly lends itself to being -
MORTENSEN: Brutal sounding? No, 'cause, just like there is in Australia and certainly England and Denmark, there are different German accents. Some are softer, some are harsher, some are slower, some have different music. Danish, to some people - to Swedes and Norwegians - they can think that it just sounds appalling, like a drunken person with their mouth full of food, you know? So many sounds are swallowed and guttural and weird. Actually, it can sound really nice sometimes.
MP: I'm thinking perhaps you would find some sort of redeeming factor in any country that makes good chocolate.
MORTENSEN: Absolutely. Unquestionably. [Laughs] But I'm a strong believer in the idea that it's more important how you are than where you are, what you're saying than how you're saying it.
MP: A lot of interviews you've given ran during the race for the White House. What is your outlook now that Barack Obama is the president-elect and we're heading towards inauguration?
MORTENSEN: I think it's positive, but it's just the beginning. I think people that vote every four years, if that, and then think it'll take care of itself - especially when someone is coming to office who seems like a welcome change to the business as usual of the past eight years... You have to keep after 'em. Like I say, any government is not gonna be responsible if they're not made to be in the end. They're gonna do what's important to them to stay in power. It's more important than ever to be vigilant.
You're not gonna ever have an ideal democracy and have everything work out. I think it's important to give it a try. There's a great movie that I saw the other day at a film festival. It's a Danish movie called Go With Peace Jamil. It's about these sorts of things; about it being worth making an effort even if it seems hopeless, even if it doesn't work, even if you get killed in the process. It takes place in Copenhagen but it might as well be Baghdad or Libya. It's a blood feud between Sunni and Shite families. Very well directed and incredibly well written and heartbreaking. It's still worth trying to make things better, trying to understand each other, trying to avoid violence.
MP: On a lighter note, what makes you laugh either on the screen or elsewhere these days?
MORTENSEN: Total unguarded honesty. It makes me cry, too.
Last edited: 1 February 2009 14:23:08