Gatherer and hunter . . . (from left) Mortensen ….
© 2008 Fairfax Digital.
On a rearing stallion, with a big sword, under a snowy New Zealand alp, he was tersely heroic. With viking hair flowing, epic battles to win, elves to romance, realms to recapture and wizards to wrestle, he was Aragorn, the warrior-king with right on his side - and a problem with personal hygiene, judging by the filthy fingernails and crusty tunic from all that hectic outdoor activity and the obvious lack of shower facilities in Middle Earth.
Fast forward to a recent stage in Rome and there is still something mildly heroic about Viggo Mortensen: a lingering righteous purpose. Alone, sunk into a red chair under a single yellow light that makes his hair a blur of blond, he is facing several hundred members of the press at the Rome Film Festival. But there is a strange silence from the motley correspondents; unasked questions are dying in the dark.
What is happening is something close to understated performance art. Mortensen has got himself onto the subject of politics and personal responsibility and he is quietly rapping away. It has rhythm, it has blues: you almost feel like tapping your feet. Not a grandiose oration, nor a preachy lecture (or one you can actually stop or interrupt) but his audience nevertheless starts to feel a creeping sense of guilty moral turpitude.
If we came expecting him to dutifully flog his movie and - as is the custom - extravagantly praise his co-stars, what we got went something like this: "Any government will try to destroy opposition, however subtly it happens. And the best way is to keep people apart. Make them dislike each other and not trust each other, make them insecure about ageing, about their economic well-being. It doesn't matter how good a government seems to be, their primary goal is to survive. Representative government in the principle of democracy, those are just words. They don't mean anything..."
There was more, much more, of this righteous stuff, which was, at the time, quite mesmerising, coming as it did from those sculpted features.
The next day Mortensen, 50, casual in bare feet, jeans and a maroon shirt, is drinking from a round glass beaker with a silver straw something comprised of green chunks that looks decidedly herbal and narcotic - but probably isn't. He is tall, thin and moves with the grace of an athlete. His Scandinavian looks are certainly compelling - but it is his thoughtfulness that will leave the lasting impression, in spite of an excessive amount of unassailable California-speak. We are in his room in the swankiest hotel in Rome and he is describing how acting for him is full immersion.
He cares to the point, perhaps, of being ridiculous - but it is apparently the journey that counts. For the film Eastern Promises, in which he plays a fixer for a family of Russian mobsters operating in London, he went backpacking in Russia, alone.
And, yes, for Lord Of The Rings, he did sleep outside with a swag to get that grimly wind-swept thing going.
"What is interesting about working on a movie is what you find out along the way before you start shooting," he says. "It is like you are going on a trip on that first day of shooting. And you say I can only put so much in this bag. So I will take this and I will take one of these, I don't need that and I will take this and that, I only need one of those and I will probably need some water. And that becomes even more distilled as you go along. That is fun."
For the film Good, in which his performance is extraordinarily sensitive and where he plays a German professor who is seduced into joining the Gestapo and then wilfully fails to see what is happening until it is too late, he travelled to Berlin, Munich and Warsaw.
"I wanted to listen to Mahler and I was lucky that the pieces that you hear in this movie were being performed in Berlin and Munich," he says.
"For many actors and most directors the music is a key part of the story. I was interested in learning to play the piano because I wanted to be physically engaged in the music. I found an old Russian upright piano in a little house on the edge of town, moved it into my hotel room and started playing it. It was the first thing I would do when I walked into the room. And I started replacing what I usually do, which is just before I go to sleep look at the script for tomorrow so you wake up with your mind already there, you dream about it. So I would be playing the piano and thinking about tomorrow's work and I ended up playing musically what the scene was for me, which I had never done before. I liked it so much I just did it all time. When I watched the movie last night there was a certain rhythm in the body
language and speech-wise that has to do with the piano."
If Mortensen seems to have the soul of a poet, that is because he is a poet and was one before he was an actor, publishing his first book, Ten Last Night, nine years before Lord Of The Rings. He is also an accomplished photographer, artist and musician. Those huge abstracts in his house in A Perfect Murder were his paintings. Those who have visited his house in the wooded Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles report he has to move canvases and notebooks to find a place to sit. His paintings and photographs have been exhibited in galleries in New York and Los Angeles and he has published 10 books of poetry, journal entries, photography and painting, usually in collage form. "It is a way of living," he once said of his art, "remembering, filtering what you see and answering back, participating in life."
His early poems often have a wistful quality; miniature snapshots of lost romance. He has described them as "stolen moments" but more than a few seem to be rejoinders to departing women told with an almost sophomoric poignancy. Later poems have hardened into his anti-war agenda. Ever the right-on guy, though, with the large chunk of change he received for Lord Of The Rings he founded his own publishing company to publish offbeat, controversial books to do with art, writing and ideas that might otherwise languish in slush piles.
This burning idealism is, of course, that much easier when you don't have to worry about anything as vulgar as making a profit in order to survive. That is not to say he is a dilettante, or like so many of his contemporaries, a distant figurehead taking the credit for other people's work: "I go over all the books with a fine-tooth comb before they go out."
Mortensen was born in New York to a Danish father and American mother. When he was small the family, with three boys, moved to Venezuela and Argentina, where his father was a farmer. At 11, his parents divorced and his mother brought the children back to New York. After graduating from St Lawrence University in New York he moved to Denmark, where he wrote poetry and did a lot of menial jobs, including - now here's an image - truck driver. As a result of all this peripatetic activity and being thrown into different languages at school he is multilingual, chatting in Rome in fluent Italian, which he learned "because I like it, it is a beautiful language".
Following a woman back to New York, he predictably waited tables while waiting for the break into acting that took its own good time coming. His debut as a shirtless Amish person in Witness was noted but it was six years before Sean Penn cast him in The Indian Runner. He was 45 by the time Lord Of The Rings rocked up.
The woman about whom he wrote "I taste the blood/that shimmered/on your lips. Lingering, like guilt does", may be Exene Cervenka, the singer of the punk band X, which was big in LA in the 1980s. Together they had a son Henry, now 20, to whom he is extremely close and with whom he has been known to give poetry readings. It has been exhaustively reported he nearly turned down Lord Of The Rings because it would mean too much time away from Henry and that Henry, who had read the Tolkien books, talked him into it.
Mortensen's humility perhaps comes from the rejection that is requisite in the struggle to be an actor, a long one in his case, and he certainly knows what it means to be stone-cold broke. "As far as arriving," he said on the eve of the release of Lord Of The Rings, "I've been told that many times in the past 20 years. And presumably departed as well."
Morality is a constant theme with Mortensen, especially in connection to the drastic moral dilemmas presented to his character in Good - an essentially kind man who nevertheless massively fails his Jewish friend - and he seems to be permanently engaged in monitoring the correctness of his own responses.
"I think moral choices happen to all of us every day," he says. "Every conversation you have, every encounter you have with a person. You could drive yourself crazy if you were conscious of it all the time but it is a sort of test of how honest are you going to be. Are you going to come at a conversation from a loving point, being considerate of the other person not just because it is good manners but because it is the better thing, or are you going to do something else, or not pay attention?
"There have been moments where I have maybe not taken the right road. You can try to make up for it but sometimes you can't. It is too late. And there are times
too that are part of survival as well where you instinctively fight incorrectly.
"A friend reminds me that I am on the wrong path, in my relationship with them or what I am doing, but the ego doesn't want to hear about it. We don't want to be reminded sometimes of what we are doing. We don't want to look in the mirror, or look in the eyes of someone who knows you well and justify yourself. I think we like to think of ourselves doing the right thing more often than we do it. But life is not black and white. It is usually more uncomfortably in the middle."
For Appaloosa, you might be pleased to hear, he is back on a horse. There is something about Mortensen that suggests the open range. Based on the sparsely worded novel by Robert B. Parker, it is the story of city marshall Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directed) and his sidekick Everitt Hitch (Mortensen) who have made their name as ruthless peacekeepers in the lawless towns of the West. Hired by the small, dusty town of Appaloosa to deal with powerful rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) whose cowboys are terrorising the town, they bring their own version of the law and a lot of expert firepower to sort things out. Essentially a buddy movie with a dramatic New Mexico backdrop, their easy companionship comes unstuck with the appearance of a manipulative, beguiling woman, Allie French (Renee Zellweger). When you rely on a fast draw to stay standing, you can't be distracted by a pretty woman.
Such is his affinity with animals, Mortensen has a habit of buying the horses he rides in films to "continue a friendship". The stallion in Lord Of The Rings was said to be an extremely tricky and difficult animal. "I have the paint horse from the film Hidalgo in the United States," he says. "The two horses from New Zealand are with a friend there and I go back and visit them."
A poet and a warrior, there is something of a Sam Shephard quality to Mortensen: the artist who can tame a stallion and then adopt him, an outspoken political liberal who can cook from scratch and sword fight with a vengeance. A movie star who backpacks in remote, unlovely places. A beautiful man who will sleep in the dirt on a mountain in New Zealand. A rich guy who uses his money to publish books that will never sell because they are lovely.
If you could design the perfect man, Mortensen might just be close to it. But would he start to get on your nerves, all that earnest, righteous stuff? The day after the interview I am back at the swanky hotel very early in the morning on other business. There is exquisite music wafting through the lobby and I am drawn by it around the corner. And there he is, Viggo Mortensen, alone, unshaven, barefoot, playing the piano. "They let you play it before anyone comes into the bar," he says, greeting me warmly. Would he get on your nerves?
Nah, probably not.