Los Angeles -- Barefoot and clad in a pair of sweats that have seen better days, Viggo Mortensen walks over to introduce himself. His hands and arms are covered with names and phone numbers he has scribbled on himself after checking his answering machine. And his hair is tousled and flecked with tiny bits of paint. None of this can hide Mortensen's deadly good looks. And his 11-year-old son, Henry--who is shyly standing by his father--seems to be very aware that the gaggle of young women cruising through Track 16 Gallery are just as interested in sneaking peeks at Mortensen as his art exhibit, which includes photographs of co-stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Paquin and Diane Lane.
'I know that some people are curious to see if an actor can do anything else. And I don't really blame them. But I can't not do something because I'm worried about what people will think. I don't ever want to do that.'
Mortensen's latest film role is in A Walk on the Moon, which opens Friday. Produced by Dustin Hoffman, the movie was favorably received at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Mortensen and co-star Diane Lane were singled out for their acting. Mortensen portrays Walker Jerome, a sexy blouse salesman who woos repressed housewife Pearl Kantrowitz (Lane) during the summer of 1969.
'I was 10 that summer, so I don't remember thinking that period in time seemed really weird,' Mortensen said. 'At that age, you're a kid on the periphery so you just accept what's in front of you. I ended up basing my character a lot on my stepbrother, Jeff, who passed away some years ago. I know that some people are describing Walker as a hippie, but he really wasn't. He was a little older than that generation and probably more influenced by jazz and the beat generation, so that made him maybe a little more open to things. It wasn't just about Woodstock for him.'
If anything, Walker sounds not unlike a less sophisticated version of Mortensen, who has such an easygoing personality that it's not difficult to believe that he is great friends with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka of the punk rock group X. Or that another of his friends is John Doe, who not only is Cervenka's former bandmate but another ex-husband. He also lived his own free-spirited life after graduating from college. Living in Denmark, where his father was born, Mortensen sold flowers on the street and lived an idyllic, tax-free existence before returning to the United States to become an actor.
'I was selling roses on the street,' he said. 'I loved interacting with people, which I'm usually not that good at. I would also get to the farmers market in Copenhagen at dawn and buy sweet peas for wholesale. Then I would sell those as well. It was a great way to live." Laughing, he added, 'Until it rained.'
Mortensen, who has won critical acclaim for his work in movies such as A Perfect Murder, GI Jane, Carlito's Way and The Portrait of a Lady, is a modern-day Renaissance man. He is an accomplished poet, musician, painter and photographer. The well-traveled Manhattan-born artist also happens to be fluent in Danish and Spanish.
Almost apologetically, Mortensen said, 'My house is a mess. I'm always working and I never seem to have the time to clean it.'
Anyone who has his book Recent Forgeries (Smart Art Press, $27), which features his paintings, photographs and poetry, as well as a CD of his poems and songs, can see what he means. There is a picture of his very untidy home featured prominently at the front of the book.
Mortensen also painted the cover for the current issue of Flaunt magazine, where he is interviewed by his good buddy Dennis Hopper. The two co-starred together in The Indian Runner and Boiling Point. And when Mortensen decided to create all his own paintings for his role as a shady artist in A Perfect Murder, Hopper lent him his studio.
Mortensen, who recently gave a poetry reading at San Francisco's City Lights bookstore, said he hopes to do more this fall--perhaps even a tour of universities across the country. And an art show in New York early next year isn't out of the question.
But for now, he's concentrating on his next film role in Sandra Bullock's 28 Days, which will be shot in North Carolina and New York.
'Sandra plays the main character and I play a baseball pitcher, which is pretty interesting,' Mortensen said. 'I don't know a lot about it. I mean I like baseball, but I'm not really well versed in it, so I've been going to Spring training in Arizona and Florida. I know it's kind of a tense time at the end of Spring training because some people are getting cut and others are getting sent down to the minor leagues. But the players were really nice and took me under their wing.'
Given Mortensen's track record, it's just a matter of time before 'athlete' is added to his impressive resume.