Chiaroscuro: Viggo, Light And Dark

Source: El Pais

Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
He is sitting on the balcony of a Madrid hotel, trying to catch the weak sun that occasionally peaks through the clouds. He politely asks: "Are you sure the sun is not bothering you?" He smokes every now and then - "Do you mind?" - and he shares his bottled water." What kind of obligations does one have as an actor? Whichever you want, there are no limits". Viggo Mortensen loves to explore, he leaves no holes in the tale he is working on, he is the tireless researcher of contradictions, the one who always asks what happened to his character from birth to the first page in the script. It is a lonely and personal task. "Some people do a good job as an actor or director by simply preparing certain words, gestures, shots, compositions, music. And they do a really good job, and you can admire it and cite it as an example of a good movie, a story in which everything falls into place. But if one wants to go farther and explore more, you have to think that there will be no mistakes, just attempts, efforts, the discovery of who knows what, something different, maybe opposite to what you thought when you were reading the script."

This is the Viggo Mortensen, who, supplied with maps and books, threw in a car trip that lasted months to visit concentration camps in Germany, Poland, Austria; the one who sat in auditoriums in Berlin and Munich to hear Mahler's music in live performances, the one who sat among Germans, listening to a language for which he had never felt a special fondness. All to get a feeling for John Halder, a professor who is dragged along by the impetus of Hitler's rise to power until, one day, this apparently good man discovers, with so many other Germans, that he has been converted into a Nazi, a role that he interprets in the film Good, which will be on Spanish screens beginning next Friday. The same one, who, years ago, tirelessly crossed the mountains and villages of Leon in search of the childhood of the soldier Alatriste, interpreted under the direction of Agustín Díaz Yanes, and saturated himself in the history of the Golden Century as no one else has done, and visited with devotion the Prado museum to view the portraits of Velázquez.

Without knowing it, or maybe he does, Mortensen, with a Danish father and North American mother, born in New York, 49 years old [sic], is always in search of the contradictions in the character he plays as well as his own. Without fear. As if it were a game. "I like the idea that you have to lie a little bit. I am Diego Alatriste and we are in 1640. You have to believe that limits don't exist. It's fun. I never forget that we are always facing a subtle, difficult story, that it is a challenge, that it provides a lot to think about, but also that it is fun, that we are playing."

He has 40 films behind him and has graduated from supporting roles and belongs now to the lineage of the great. He is a reflective man, one who delights in explanations, a cultivated person, noteworthy; he writes poetry, edits books, plays the piano, paints. But what is more surprising is the simplicity and naturalness of someone who in the world of the cinema is a complete celebrity, the unforgettable Aragorn of The Lord Of The Rings, a major Hollywood star. Ray Loriga, the writer and producer who directed him in 1997 in La Pistola de mi Hermano (My Brother's Gun), says, "He is methodical, exacting in his work, he carries out meticulous labors to do something that looks true, and projects it. He is like Robert Mitchum or William Holden, the class of actors whose work seems effortless."

Good, a film directed by Vicente Amorim and based on the theatrical play of the playwright C.P. Taylor, tells the important experience of John Halder, a literature lecturer in '30s Germany, who publishes a novel where he explores his family circumstances and defends euthanasia. This is used, some years later, by high Nazi politicians to support the government propaganda. Halder's career as a writer takes off, but with devastating consequences for the people that surround him. Mortensen saw this play in London more than 25 years ago. It was when he was starting his career as an actor and was in London for an audition. He didn't get the role, but he did see Good. "It surprised me, as the play broke all the traditions. It's a very different tale from the rest of the things about the Holocaust and the Nazis than have been made before, though superb films have been made about this topic. In this story there's no catharsis, there's no heroic ending, there's no mask dropping to show us the bad, bad guy or the good, good guy. This is the reason why there's no distance between the audience and the historic period. It doesn't lend you enough distance to think: 'How bad those Germans were, I'm not like them'. This doesn't happen in Good. There is no distance here. Characters are exactly the way we are. That's why some people have got a bit upset, because sometimes one can feel so bad by identifying with that kind of character. Why are there intolerant people that don't want to see things as they happened? How can people, in any country of this world, behave in such a bad way like that? How can a government do the things that government did? People let those things happen, not only the Germans, but also the English and the Americans who praised Hitler's government, and also the big companies that established economic bonds with the Nazi regime. It's so easy to talk about the Germans and the way they were, about their tendency to be intolerant in some way, about their strictness, about their way of following Hitler like a flock of sheep, and we really believe that we, ourselves, are not that way. And that's not true. What has happened in other places such as Argentina, Chile, China or Spain? What happened during the 40 years of General Franco's regime?"

It wasn't difficult for Ray Loriga to bring Mortensen to Spain to shoot: "It's easy with good actors." Nor for José Luis Acosta, who, 2 years before, looked at him in order to direct him in Gimlet: "I sent him the script, he liked it and, only after adding a lot of riders and positive contributions and after hours talking about it, he accepted. He explores to the infinite, not only the character's emotions but also the wardrobe, all the things. He's so honest and generous," Acosta remembers. At that time, Mortensen was completely unknown to large audiences, he hadn't yet played the role that shot him to world fame, that changed his life and his career. Agustin Díaz Yanes knows that very well, as it was he who, in the middle of the great whirlwind of Lord Of The Rings promotion, looked for and found him to play Alatriste. Their first meeting was in Berlin. Diaz Yanes travelled without any hope: "I knew he had liked the script, that he wanted to make the film, but I asked myself if a man who had just finished shooting The Lord Of The Rings, who was probably one of the most known faces in the world, was going to come to Spain to shoot with a Spanish director about a swordsman in the Spanish Golden Century. His agents or friends would surely take that suicidal idea out of his head."".

Today the producer from Madrid recalls how much he has learned about the cinema thanks to Mortensen. "He is a super-professional, a tireless worker. He never stops, always keeping an eye on the director and the other actors. He keeps an eye on the whole movie. It keeps you wide awake. He is someone special," explains Díaz Yanes, who highlights once again the theme of exploration."He does it in an intelligent way, without showing off. All of his preparation is done in an intellectual and physical way. It's like working with God."

Mortensen is not so much concerned about partnership with directors, though he has it with some of them: not only with Ray Loriga and Díaz Yanes, being very good friends of his, but also with David Cronenberg, the director with whom he has faced the darkest side of life in A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. "I think we actors are used to solving problems by ourselves, because you don't always have an accomplished director with you. It's just that way, and you must know how to react when things are going wrong at work, even though you've an accomplished director by your side, willing to help you. You've got to seek it by yourself. The final option is to admit that something is not working and try another way. This is when you have to return to the starting point, when you have to ask yourself all the questions again. That is going to be the salvation. It cannot be a punishment for doing it wrong. What is doing it wrong? It doesn't mean anything. All the good performances start with the reaction."

He knows that his name is a box office attraction, and seems fine with that. "Before the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, it would not have been possible for producers to hire me to work with Cronenberg or with Díaz Yanes. It's good that they know me and that they put me in a film, but it's also a question of luck. Before the Lord Of The Rings I did very decent work but I was not lucky. Few actors have been fortunate enough to earn a living as I have, and even fewer can say that they have a film that in twenty years will still be seen and appreciated. I have more than one."

He is a Hollywood star, but it looks like fame has been respectful to him. " Maybe they are not very interested in what I do." He pauses for a moment and he remembers some pictures that were published a short time ago in a Spanish magazine, which related him to someone in a way that was not correct. Also an interview he gave a few months ago to a British magazine during the promotion of Good, in which he admitted that he was a bit tired of going around the world promoting movies, and that, at the time, he did not have a new movie in sight. "I never said I was retiring, but the interviewer wrote Good and Goodbye. You have to put up with things like that and not pay too much attention. The only moments that can be harmful are those that affect your family or your love relationships. Your brothers, cousins call you and ask you, and you have to explain it to them. 'It's in the magazines!' your friends tell you. 'Are you going to believe me or the magazine?' is my answer." In spite of it all, he does not sound angry; it is almost ironic.

It's clear that Mortensen doesn't avoid any topic, especially politics. He voted for Barack Obama in the American elections last November, but he now looks a bit disappointed. "We musn't forget that the best president in the world, always will have amongst his most important purposes, to retain the power. For Obama and his government, 2012 reelection is fundamental, and you've got to convince the people to let you govern, that nothing happens, that they do not give you special attention. All the governments do the same. It's better not to really trust in governments, never, never, never. In general I like Obama, his way of speaking, of looking at the other countries, other cultures, his open-minded way of communicating, listening to them, making them see that he doesn't think the world revolves around the USA. It's true there's some kind of optimism, some kind of elegance, hope. All of that is good and he has already done lots of good things. But if he's saying that he's going to close Guantánamo, he should close it; that he's going to get out of Iraq, he should get out of it. Is Iraq the bad war and Afghanistan the good war? I don't think so."

But there's one thing that gets on his nerves most of all, and that's the Israel issue: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel all of the US presidents, including Obama, have shared a very special relationship, and that's unfair and out of proportion. And talking about this is almost a crime. If you want to fight terrorism that comes from Muslim fundamentalism, and that has nothing to do with the Muslim religion or the Koran, you've to change your relationship with the government of Israel. This is not about sending more troops to Pakistan or looking at airport security. Obama is not going, never, to deal the same way with Israel's neighbours, and that's the biggest trouble when we talk about terrorism and the military situation in the Near East. Unfairness, imbalance are noticed, it has nothing to do with being right or left-wing, with being Jewish or not, it's about justice. In general, it's a relief that it's Obama who's leading the US, but it's so serious to do certain things. He has to decide whether it's more important to be reelected or to be honest. Both things don't have to go together, helping the world or being reelected, as far as I'm concerned, after seeing the Israel, Guantánamo or Iraq issues, he has just chosen."

The interview is over. The initial 30 minutes that, according to his agents could not be prolonged into 40 minutes have turned out to be a lively and relaxed one hour long conversation that concludes with two gifts for the interviewer. They are two carefully edited books, two small gems: Antología de la Nueva Poesía Argentina and Twelve The King, by Michael Blake. Viggo Mortensen is the editor.
Last edited: 26 June 2009 04:08:41
© El Pais.