Interviews 2012

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The World of Viggo Mortensen

By Manuel Martínez Torres - translated by Ollie, Rio and Zoe

March 2012

Source: Esquire Latinoamerica

Esquire Latinoamerica magazine - March 2012
Esquire Latinoamerica magazine - March 2012
Image John Russo.
© Esquire Latinoamerica.
Viggo Mortensen is a charmer of journalists. I had already noticed it in the interviews with him by other media that I read to prepare. In those texts, there is praise for his work and admiration for his way of life, away from fame, and for his creative passion. When I spoke with him, I could understand the reasons for his magnetic power.

1.On the other end of the phone line was, aha, Viggo Mortensen, whom I´ll never tire of watching play the best mobster/not mobster in movie history, in David Cronenberg´s Eastern Promises. 2. He is a guy who is generous with his time (our conversation lasted almost two hours) and his ideas; he doesn´t shy away from any subject and criticises what he doesn´t like. 3. When he learned that our original plan was that he should be interviewed by a North American journalist, he said he´d rather speak Spanish. 4. His command of Spanish is perfect. (He lived in Argentina during his childhood and has retained the accent.) 5. He not only acts, but is a (published) poet, musician (with CDs), painter (with exhibitions), photographer (ditto) and editor (he founded the independent publishing house Perceval Press). 6. He is irredeemably crazy about soccer, as you can see in our pictures, where he posed with a shirt and a flag from the Argentinian team San Lorenzo de Almagro (he donated a chapel to the club´s Ciudad Deportiva and has a column on their web page, Welcome to the world of Viggo Mortensen, the charmer of journalists and readers. Come on in.

"As a child, I played at being other people without thinking that it was something creative. And not only didn't I think that, but I believed without a doubt that I was the character that I took on that day: a Viking, a pirate, an adventurer, a soldier who was dying, a gaucho... Children are very good actors because they believe totally in what they're doing; they surrender themselves to it, without embarrassment, without fear; they dance, they sing, they do everything.

I like acting because it's a way to keep on playing. It lets me grow a beard and put on glasses, gain weight, put on a fake nose, speak with a certain accent - all to play Sigmund Freud. I don't look anything like Freud, but I did it very seriously and I also had fun. It's a more advanced, detailed, more consistent and prolonged way of doing the same thing I did at the age of five, when I was imagining that I was Martín Fierro. It's much more likely that the viewer will like my work, or at least will believe that I'm Freud, if I do everything to believe it, by almost, almost being him.

What interests me most as an actor is to tell stories. That´s why I always look for interesting stories I don´t know or that are told through a type of character I haven´t done before. This is always a bit scary for me, because the possibility of failing exists, something we are very aware of as adults, but that we don´t care about as children. A child thinks, 'Today I´m going to be Martín Fierro,' and it´s possible he is not a convincing Martín Fierro, but he doesn´t care. He goes and does it. And maybe it turns out very well because he doesn´t care.

I´m always scared of failing, but I see it as a good sign. If there´s no other impediment to playing a character apart from fear, then I say yes, because those roles are the ones you learn from. The obstacles I have to face to play a role right, in the end become the things I like most from the experience.

With the role of Freud, I ended up loving having so much dialogue, much more of it than I've had before. I also liked having to look for a tone, not only of intelligence, but also ironic, an ease, a certain grace. Because all of the descriptions of Freud that I found say that he was a very lively and funny guy, who when he talked or gave a lecture, engaged almost everyone, even though he was presenting very strange ideas. He was very clever, very good at self-promotion and at promoting psychoanalysis.

I feel fortunate having done Freud to try out having so many lines; maybe now they'll let me do it another time [laughs]. I think that David Cronenberg is the only director who would have offered me that part. I wasn't the most logical candidate, and with good reason. I hadn't demonstrated either Freud's 'look' or his facility with words in any other role, but Cronenberg knew me.

Cronenberg can work with any kind of actor. If you think about the actors who've been in his movies, all of them - myself included - do their best work, or nearly their best work, with him. And it's no accident. There have been so many times where you realize that this guy knows how to work with actors, that he's interested in what they do, understands them and knows how to help them feel comfortable. And it helps him a lot that he likes actors, enjoys them, isn't afraid of them.

There are directors who seem to be afraid of actors, and because of that don't help them or treat them badly. They're insecure and don't know what to do with those strange people who pretend to be other people. They see them as tools, and think, 'Okay, when the filming is over, I'll finally be able to go to the editing room and I won't have to talk with them.' The problem is that when there isn't good communication with the actors and you don't pay attention to them, they're not put to good use."

Image John Russo.
© Esquire Latinoamerica.
"When we did the press conference in Madrid for the play Purgatorio, issues like the Germans and the Second World War came up. We were talking about forgiveness, because the question the play asks is: could you, could I forgive anything? In principle, we should be able to do it, but if someone kidnapped or killed your son, would you be able to forgive them, even though that person might not have repented? To me, it seems most Christian to say 'Yes, you can. There´s no obligation, but it can be done.' And among many other things, I mentioned ETA, and you wouldn´t believe what came down on me [laughs]. To me, the most Christian thing there is is forgiveness without conditions. And I told them there, and I also told them that sometimes the most Catholic, most conservative ones, are the ones opposed to that forgiveness. They told me, 'No, sir, in the Catholic Church you have to speak about repentance so there can be forgiveness.' And it could be that it´s technically right, but it doesn´t seem very Christian to me.

People were taking what I had said out of context depending on their political point of view. Some were saying, 'Viggo is pro-ETA. He is an etarra [trans. note: a [member of ETA] because he says ETA should be forgiven,' and others were saying, 'No, Viggo says that the government should be forgiven.' I was saying both things [laughs]: ETA has to forgive and you have to forgive ETA, without conditions. 'What do you mean without conditions?!' I´m not saying they shouldn´t go to jail, but they also can be forgiven in the heart, in the soul.

If we don't talk about these things - with respect and good manners, and informing ourselves as well as possible - they get worse and worse, darker. There are more misunderstandings and problems. As in any relationship, the things that aren't talked about come out later in another way.

I´m interested in the ideas that lie behind almost all religions. Deep down there aren´t many differences in the good things, like treating your neighbour as you would like to be treated, respecting people, helping those in need, brotherhood, and even treating the earth and animals right. There are many religions that have the same ideas, but at the moment they are written down as law, as rules of behaviour, they become dead words, meaningless, unless someone gives them life with honest acts. And based on those rules, everybody quarrels, kills, doing each other more harm than good.

What scares us, almost without exception, is what we don´t know. It seems to me this is the cause of racism, stupid fights between followers of different religions or athletic teams or any other thing. It´s the ignorance, fear of the other, toward the other.

I'm for San Lorenzo de Almagro, but I don't belong to any church, to any temple, or religious team. If there is a God, God is in people's good acts, and if God has a face, I don't know what color it is. I don't have the least idea if God's a man or a woman, a coyote or an earthworm. God is an idea of good behavior, of forgiveness, for example. If there is a God, I think God would agree with forgiveness without conditions.

Unconditional love, unconditional loyalty, I don't feel those for any team, or any country or anything, only for San Lorenzo. Although they fail again and again, and only end up champions occasionally, although we have a glorious but hard, and sometimes tragic, history. I like how the San Lorenzo supporter behaves; I like their traditions. They have the best songs and are the most witty, and the other supporters recognize that. And besides, they sing non-stop; it doesn't matter if we're losing 0 to 7. San Lorenzo supporters have a very rich history, of endurance above all, and a special dignity.

There are people who don't like soccer, and that's also acceptable, as weird as it may be! [He laughs] In the United States, where I lived for many years, there are people who say they hate it, commentators that say it's an absurd game full of dirty tricks, that people dive - which is true, there are players that are unbearable because they dive so much - that is very boring. They don't understand how a game that ends 0 to 0 could be interesting, and that people would leave cheering. I don't know. To me, soccer is a metaphor for many things, like struggle in life. It's a sport in which someone really little like Messi - who looks like an ordinary guy who could be riding a bike delivering newspapers or sandwiches, whatever - does unforgettable things every time he comes out to play. It's impressive.

Before he went blind, Borges, the great Argentinian writer, worked in a public library in Boedo (a neighborhood in Buenos Aires) and had lunch in a bar there. It was a bar that a lot of San Lorenzo supporters went to. And they always came up to him and bothered him. 'Maestro, maestro,' they said. 'What team are you for?' 'What do you mean, what team?' 'Soccer, soccer.' 'I hate soccer, I don't support any of them, leave me alone.' 'You have to be for San Lorenzo, you have to become a San Lorenzo supporter, maestro.' Every day it was like that. Until Borges told them, 'Look, if you promise me that I won't ever have to go to a soccer game, I'll become a San Lorenzo supporter.' 'Great!' So we say that Borges is also for San Lorenzo, even though we're cheating a little.

I read somewhere that Borges went with another writer to see a match between the national teams of Uruguay and Argentina. Neither one of them knew anything about soccer and they weren't very interested in it, and at the half they left. They didn't know there was another half [laughter].

I began to feel the San Lorenzo colours in the mid-sixties and it was then when I became a true Cuervo. They weren´t champions, but they got support for their efforts. They put a lot of will into it, they had a lot of drive and it was a very good team. They suffered a lot during that decade, but a lot of famous players came out of it, like "El Loco" Doval, who went to Brazil and had great success with Flamengo, or "El Bambino" Veira, who is a legend. In 1968, they were undefeated champions, and because of that the kids in school respected me a little more."

Image John Russo.
© Esquire Latinoamerica.
"United States is an empire that, like any other, maintains itself through its military power. And nothing else. Although its politicians want people to think that the rest of the world respects United States democracy...That´s a joke! They are not respected abroad for that, because they don´t behave that way.

I don't like at all how cynical Obama's become, although maybe he was always like that. There are people who say, "But obviously, he has to do what he's doing; if not, they won't vote for him in 2012. Once they vote for him, he's going to change and do very different things, because he won't have to worry about re-election in 2016." They said the same thing about Bill Clinton, and Clinton's foreign policy continued being the same after his re-election: very cowardly in Africa with the Rwanda massacre, quite cowardly in Yugoslavia until the last moment, really awful in Iraq. He didn't change and had even more imperialist behavior.

Obama's foreign policy is not so different from Bush's. It's just as unjust and unilateral up to a certain point. Obama talks better than Bush, but his acts are not different: how he uses military force outside of his country; half-clandestine murders or not clandestine at all; he hasn't closed the Guantanamo base; he continues on in Afghanistan creating messes that cost lives and money. And then they ask why there are people who say that this war is another Vietnam...because that's what is. Sooner or later, they are going to go and Afghanistan will move on, just like Iraq.

These things hardly surprise me because, in his election campaign, Obama was already getting together with people...the people he brought on, at the end of 2008, to solve the economic crisis were some of those who created the problem. And he goes and gives them the key to control the national economy. It was clear that it was going to be a disaster, and it has been for the majority of people.

Among the people working for Obama, there are many who are scary and who could be in the Republican Party. But even though that bothers me, I prefer Obama being in the presidency over any of the Republican candidates for the nomination. At least there´s some possibility of his not going completely mad and doing some horrible thing in the world.

The (Republican) candidates get more intellectually inferior every time. This year is not going to be any better than in 2004 [sic] with John McCain and that crazy woman from Alaska, (Sarah) Palin. If it weren't so dangerous for the world and for the Americans, it would be very funny every time there was an election in the United States.

The majority of people on talk radio in the United States don't respect the rest of the world. It's as if nothing had changed, as if the United States kept on being the king of everything. And it's not like that, it's not like that anymore, and it never was a good idea. There are a lot of TV channels and radio stations in the country, but [they're] distributed among very few owners, so that the news is almost always the same. Because of that, it's easy for the politicians to manipulate people and give a lot of shit to the Mexicans or the French or whoever's turn it is that day.

Every kind of government, however democratic it might be, is naturally against freedom, because its number one objective is to remain in power. So, for government to work well, people have to get involved, to insist on freedom of speech, on gender equality, on all that. Because they aren't things that are a done deal, that we won them and that's it. They have to be renewed every day.

I'm surprised by the contradiction between the supposed new freedom that we're given by technological advances like the Internet, Twitter, and the thousands of things that there are for communicating more rapidly, and the fact that there's a fear of freedom, even in Europe and the United States. People don't make an effort to be free. Although there are all these opportunities, people are closing their minds more and more; it seems that they're agreeing more than ever with letting those who give the orders decide for them.

It seems to me that, in general, there was more of an effort to be free in the sixties and the beginning of the seventies than now. I'm aware that there are indignados [trans. note: the Spanish precursors of the Occupy movement] everywhere, that that movement to a great extent came out of Spain, but it's also true that here, people voted overwhelmingly for a party (the Partido Popular), that's in no way in favor of what the indignados ask for. It's interesting that people voted that way when it's obvious that things aren't right.

But I´m an optimist, and there are things that are so absurd that you have to laugh at them. And sometimes things are so serious that you can´t do anything but laugh, which is very healthy. I´m an optimist, and I think that little by little people will get to know and will get fed up with the existing inequalities."
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Last edited: 3 April 2012 10:29:52
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