Cronenberg conquers international heartthrob Viggo Mortensen in the name of Canada
Much has been said about actor Viggo Mortensen and his star turn in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, in which he kills a man (several men) with his bare hands. So now we know that the handsome hero of Middle-earth and the jaunty horseman of Hidalgo is also a mean motherfucker in his actor's soul. But one day last week in Toronto, I made another, possibly more thrilling discovery: He is also a diehard fan of the Montreal Canadiens.
When I go to meet him for a sit-down, he has spent the morning entertaining journos from the States and Western Canada, but mostly from Toronto - the whole time proudly sporting a Habs jersey. When I enter, he greets me in pretty good French too.
Seems the Danish-American, who was born in New York, likes the air up here - he's thick as thieves with Cronenberg, with whom he has spent the last few months exploring the dark, messy side of human nature. Cronenberg has him playing against his leading-man type (and moving into decidedly David Lynchian territory) as Tom Stall, a small-town restaurateur and family man who, it turns out, is also a killing machine named Joey Cusack. When Stall kills a set of intruders with his bare hands, he gets on the news, and a one-eyed guy from back home in Boston named Carl Fogarty comes looking to get even for past crimes. Is Stall Cusack? Can one man live two such different lives? Mortensen inhabits the creepy dichotomy with a roiling enthusiasm that will keep you up at night. But it's a new thing for him.
"It's not that I deliberately find heroes or antiheroes," he says. "I look for storytellers. This film, depending on who was doing it, could be more or less gratuitously violent and shallow. But in David's hands, the physical violence turns into all sorts of other things - a sexual struggle between man and wife, a battle of wills, a penetration beyond the surface of things."
"People say this is David's most mainstream film, but for his last few movies, he has been slicing underneath the layer of normalcy, which is basically a state where everything is chaos. Last night, at the premiere, people were laughing their asses off - it's like everyone recognizes where David is going with this, and it's like a combination of embarrassment and relief when they recognize themselves."
It's interesting, though, that a Canadian director aiming for universality would put so much muscle into the film's hyperrealistic, American texture.
"I never looked at this as an American movie, though it is set in a specific place. David was interested in the Machiavellian rule, which is that great art always makes the universal specific."
"I know David had westerns in mind when he was making this - think of a movie like [Fred Zinnemann's 1952] High Noon... a well-known actor in a white hat, everything makes perfect sense on the surface... it's a very thought-provoking western. On the surface, we are all about good manners and social graces - why are people so set on maintaining that? When Maria's character says to me, 'Is even your name real? Where does your name come from?' it gets at the heart of the thing. That all we are is constructs, and underneath we are all crazed animals."
After Aragorn, the human king from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen went on to play Hopkins, a drunken show cowboy who wins the longest distance race in the world astride his trusty horse Hidalgo (turns out he bought the horses he rode in both LOTR and Hidalgo). Aside from his pas-de-deux with Cronenberg, is he planning his career to win the hearts of 12-year-old girls?
Mortensen grins. "Hidalgo was very thought-provoking stuff - it showed a lot of stuff that American kids are not used to seeing, like what happened at Wounded Knee... and the plight of endangered wild horses. Besides, I had a lot of fun. That's important, right?"