Viggo Mortensen turns up to interviews with no shoes on, is happier fishing and hiking than playing the Hollywood star and, even after his success in Lord of the Rings, still answers all his own fan mail. Anna David meets him.
Dennis Hopper calls Viggo Mortensen the 'real deal', and it's no wonder. Not only has Mortensen turned in consistently sharp and touching performances in the 40-odd movies he's done, he has also published more than five books of his photography, poetry and paintings along the way. Even though he admits to being an intensely private person, Mortensen claims to derive much of the same pleasure from acting that he does from painting and writing. 'Performing in a movie, apart from being my livelihood in large part, is a way for me to communicate,' he says. 'The difference in movies obviously is that I don't own the finished project - I'm one colour on a director's palette. He'll use as much or as little of that colour in combination with the other colours as he wants.'
This 44-year-old renaissance man, whom I encounter while he's pacing a hotel suite pondering various eating options, isn't just unaware of or indifferent to his appeal; he seems truly baffled by it. He's genuinely surprised that I know details about his life, culled easily from the internet, asking - with curiosity - where I read certain facts.
In his faded blue jeans, long-sleeved navy T-shirt and bare feet, his trademark sandy hair blonder than usual and sticking out in tufts, he sounds naive when he explains that he tries to respond to all of his fan mail, admitting it's 'getting pretty time-consuming' these days. Likening the enormous crowd at one of his recent art shows to 'a subway at rush hour', he adds with typical understatement, 'That certainly has a lot to do with Lord of the Rings.'
Ah, yes, Lord of the Rings. The epic fantasy tale, directed by Peter Jackson, shot over a period of 15 months and divided into three parts, the second of which, The Two Towers, will be released this month. (The first, The Fellowship of the Ring, smashed box office records, grossing more than $300 million.) Playing the noble warrior king, Aragorn, required Mortensen to bring to life a character that was both convincingly authoritative and intrinsically quiet - while at the same time appeasing the legions of JRR Tolkien's passionate fans. Of course, Mortensen was blissfully unaware of the enormous responsibility he was taking on. 'I'm not someone who's on the internet all the time so I didn't really know [how ardent the Lord of the Rings fans were],' he admits. 'There seemed to be a lot of interest [while we were shooting] but it didn't really have much to do with what we were doing there.'
Mortensen almost didn't get a chance to take the role that has transformed him into a household name. The story, which would sound made up if it weren't true, is that Jackson was already two weeks into shooting after several months' rehearsal when he decided that the Irish actor Stuart Townsend looked too young to play Aragorn. A call was placed to Mortensen, who consulted his 14-year-old son Henry (then 11) - a Tolkien fan. 'I thought if I didn't do it, I would always regret it,' Mortensen tells me. 'Not because it was probably going to be a big deal movie or something but because I knew it was a one-time chance.' (He read the books for the first time on the plane on the way to New Zealand.)
On the set, Mortensen made good friends with the other actors - he happily recounts a fishing trip he arranged for a group of 'hobbits, elves, dwarves and men'. The media picked up on rumours that he took his role a bit far by sleeping with his sword and camping out in the woods, but he shrugs it off, explaining that he did those activities because he enjoyed them, not as some sort of attempt at deep characterisation.
'I really didn't have days off on the movie so when people saw me, most often I was either in character or trying to fit [fishing or hiking] in,' he explains. Being away from home for that long was clearly a strain for Mortensen but he dealt with it both by flying Henry out for several visits (his ex-wife, Henry's mother, Exene Cervenka, is the former lead singer of the punk band X) and by relishing the benefits of such an extended production. 'The harder it got, the tighter we were and everybody had bad days and good days but you could always rely on someone,' he says. 'The feeling of family, of camaraderie, was genuine.'
He speaks expansively of the generosity of New Zealanders, half-jokingly explaining that anybody who had a driving licence in the country worked on the film.
Though the ties he created were strong, on set Mortensen kept primarily to himself. 'In environments around people, your mind wanders and you think, well, I wish I was doing this [other thing],' he says, resting one hand behind his head and inadvertently showing an 'H' (for Henry) tattooed on his inner wrist. 'Walking around by myself, whether it was in an urban environment or a completely natural environment, I've never felt was a waste of time.' He coughs - a smoker's cough, as confirmed by a bag of tobacco and blue lighter nearby - and adds, 'But it's a fine line. There are things I like to do that involve people - and I do care about family and friends. So you just have to find the balance somewhere.'
Others notice Mortensen's eccentricities. 'He's a really? I don't want to say strange - let's say unique - guy,' says Hopper, no stranger to the label himself. He first became friends with Mortensen when they worked on The Indian Runner together in 1991. 'He'll show up at your door barefoot. It's real with him - it's not an affectation. He is very much of the earth. He's relaxed and in the moment and he brings real emotions to the table. He's very human with great artistic sensibilities.'
In analysing the reasons he became an actor, Mortensen repeatedly mentions the fact that it allows him an opportunity to 'communicate' with an audience. He says, 'My connection with the audience is easier and feels more comfortable to me than, let's say, emailing people or picking up the phone.' Philip Ridley, who directed him in 1990's The Reflecting Skin and 1995's The Passion of Darkly Noon, observes, 'All great artists reveal themselves more in their work than in interviews. Every time Viggo's in front of the camera or picks up a pen or a canvas or a camera, he's opening the door to his heart. This is where he's telling you the secrets of his life.'
Born in New York to a Danish father, an economist, and an American mother, Mortensen was raised from the age of two in South America, where his father's job took the family. When Viggo was 11, his parents split up and he and his two brothers relocated with their mother back to the States. After graduating from college, Mortensen spent time in Denmark, where he sold flowers on the street. Returning to New York, he found various odd jobs - as a waiter, furniture mover, bartender and ice-cream salesman.
The entire time, he was indulging in all of his creative pursuits - he began drawing as a child and was writing short stories as a teenager and in his early 20s - and eventually won small roles as a sailor flirting with Goldie Hawn in Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift (1984) and as an actor talking about Cecil B DeMille in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Though he can recount his scenes from those movies fairly vividly, unfortunately moviegoers cannot - both ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.
But Mortensen wasn't discouraged. 'I was sort of learning on the job,' he says, and he soon landed the role of an Amish farmer in 1985's Witness.
While he was slowly making a name for himself as an actor, Mortensen was winning acclaim for other creative endeavours, particularly his poetry. A book of his poetry, Ten Last Night, was published in 1993 and he has since published Hole in the Sun, Sign Language, Recent Forgeries and Coincidences of Memory - books containing his paintings, photographs and poetry.
Though Mortensen has grown ever more popular with each role he has taken, the actor has steadfastly avoided the quick road to fame. 'The attitude that Viggo has towards his work is the attitude of an artist,' says Ridley. 'Many actors tend to think of their work in terms of career - this strange sort of concept that acting is like climbing up a mountain, that they get bigger with each job - and art doesn't move like that. Viggo knows that instinctively.'
Even though he stole the show in films such as Carlito's Way and Daylight, it was playing a suitor to Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion's 1996 film The Portrait of a Lady that really began to attract attention to Mortensen. Demi Moore cast him as Master Chief to her army lieutenant in GI Jane. He gave a fairly memorable performance, snarling lines such as, 'The best thing about pain is it lets you know you're not dead yet' while quoting DH Lawrence poetry (Mortensen's idea). When MAD magazine, which Mortensen loved as a child and still reads today, lampooned the character, he thought it was hilarious. 'It could have been kind of silly,' he says of the dichotomous character. 'And, I don't know, maybe some people think it is.'
Ultimately, however, other people's perceptions don't matter. The fact is, Mortensen can portray a cocaine-sniffing double-crosser (Carlito's Way), a struggling artist (A Perfect Murder - and they were his paintings that were used), a rehabbing professional baseball player (28 Days) and the protective and silent Aragorn in Lord of the Rings with equal conviction. 'Viggo cannot strike a fake note,' says Ridley.
'I say with absolute experience that if he doesn't believe it, he won't do it.' Mortensen is about to finish filming Hidalgo, a Western based in the 1800s. It's about a man who competes in a 3000-mile desert horse race (Mortensen has a fondness for horses himself, having bought two of the ones he rode in Lord of the Rings). He hasn't committed to any other future projects - or maybe he's just not saying. After all, the man's speciality is his mysteriousness. 'Every character, every person, has something that they're keeping from you,' he says in describing a role he played, before adding, 'We all have certain things that we keep to ourselves.'