Superstar Viggo's A Serious Soul At Heart

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

To the world, he's known as the hard charging fighter Aragorn with a history of violence in those Lord of the Rings movies.

In real life, actor Viggo Mortensen really has the soul of a renaissance man.

"If I have a day off, I'm not at a Hollywood party. I'm not the type of actor who lives in the press. I'd rather be home in shorts and a T-shirt surrounded by paint brushes, a blank canvas and have a few candles burning as the day fades into the night," he says.

"I think our true occupation as human beings is to learn as much as possible about life and ourselves," he adds. "You find those answers in the quiet moments."

While the women reading this story and other Viggo addicts might swoon over this image of him, it's time for a wakeup call: It's safe to say that this fall Mortensen won't be celebrated for his romance novel image.

He stars with Naomi Watts in director David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises opening Friday. Viggo plays Nikolai Luzhin, a Russian mobster who has moved to London and hooks up with a Russian midwife played by Watts.

The film marks the second pairing for Mortensen and Cronenberg, who both received critical raves for the 2005 mob thriller A History of Violence.

"It was very good to work with David again," Mortensen says, calling from his home in Los Angeles. "As most of the critics acknowledge, he's one of only a few directors who are considered master movie makers. I've been one of the few actors who are fortunate enough to work with the master twice."

Mortensen says that Eastern Promises is a different sort of Cronenberg film. "He shot it outside of Canada. Spider is the only other movie for Cronenberg that also doesn't have some North American base to it."

Mortensen says that the film is about the blurry lines between right and wrong behaviour. "It's also set in Russia, but it's a peek into a world that most Russians don't even get to see."

Mortensen says his mobster "isn't exactly what he seems to be at first. It takes a while to understand his motives. And that's great stuff to play as an actor because you really get the build-up."

Mortensen says he also studied Russian to prep for the role. "I worked with a Russian translator to get the language right and because I knew that I would go to Russia to do a little research before cameras rolled. There are also a couple of scenes in the movie where I speak only Russian. We actually went to people from the Russian underworld and made sure even the slang is what's used today on the streets.

"Just like David, I'm a monster for preparation," Mortensen says, adding that he spent the better part of six months reading Russian novels and poetry. "I listened to only Russian music, read the history books and prepared notes."

And then he found himself alone on the streets of Russia. "I went for a couple of weeks before we started filming. I didn't bring anyone with me, which was an intentional decision," Mortensen says. "I didn't want my experience to be filtered through anyone else's eyes. I wanted to go and see what I saw, feel what I felt."

The star of all of those Lord of the Rings films didn't find himself mobbed on the streets of Russia. "I kind of mind my own business in life," Mortensen says. "I live my life like anyone else and just keep my head down.

"But in Russia, I could go anywhere, any city, town or village, and just be the most ignored person on the planet. It was perfect and very freeing. I think it wasn't until my very last day that a young boy looked at me, walked over and whispered, 'Aragorn?' By then I was done with my research and it was OK. Anyway, it's not like that kind of thing ever really bothers me.

"I'm glad when people like the work I've done and a little recognition is not a bad thing. The only problem is when you're recognized a lot. Then you can't sit at a table or walk down the street without people looking at you. I want to be the one looking at people. That's my research.

"I live to be a fly on the wall, soaking up everything and anything."

Obviously, Mortensen takes his craft ultra-seriously. "I've never met anyone like Viggo who throws himself into a role body and soul. He will study like he's getting a PhD in the character," Cronenberg says. "He gets under the skin of the story."

"There are some actors who just show up on the set," Mortensen says. "That's not me. To me, every role you play is an endless and open university to educate yourself.

"Sometimes when I shoot a movie, the experience isn't one for the record books. The film doesn't come out well. Or the onset experience is hard. But in the end, at least I have what I learned to prepare for the role."

He says the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise has been very good for the business of being Viggo Mortensen. "Without the success of those movies, I wouldn't be able to work with Cronenberg or play the lead in Eastern Promises. So I'm very grateful for those films.

"The fame I've found from them has required an adjustment, but now that's calmed down a bit," he says. "The good news is there are people who truly love the trilogy. I don't resent it or run from it when it's around me. I'm just aware that without Aragorn, I wouldn't have this life."

Mortensen, 48, grew up all over the world. He was born in Manhattan as the eldest son of Grace and Viggo P. Mortensen. His Danish father and American mother moved their brood to Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark. They finally settled in South America where his father managed chicken farms and ranches in Venezuela and Argentina.

His parents eventually split and Mortensen's mother moved Viggo plus his brothers Charles and Walter back to New York.

After college graduation, Mortensen moved to Denmark where he planned on becoming a writer. He fell in love and a girl brought him back to New York City, where he took acting classes and waited on tables. Three years later, he made his film debut in a small part in Witness (1985). And the rest, as they say ...

Mortensen has also starred in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), The Indian Runner, (1991), Carlito's Way (1993), G.I. Jane (1997), Crimson Tide (1995), A Perfect Murder (1998) and A Walk on the Moon (1999).

Now his life isn't one of running around Hollywood. The divorced Mortensen says what he does mostly is hole up at home.

"I think if an actor goes to parties constantly that he is either consciously or unconsciously making an effort to stay in the public eye. If you're out in this way then expect to be in the news.

"But if you live your life minding your own business and just doing your thing then you can maintain a certain level of privacy and focus for your work."

Next for Mortensen is the film Appaloosa about a guy and his horse. The last time that Mortensen starred with a four-legged actor (Hidalgo), he ended up buying him at the end so the horse wouldn't end up in the glue factory.

Actor. Painter. Animal saver. Does it ever end?

"I did buy the horse, but he probably won't be in this new movie. It will be fun to work with another horse although my Hidalgo is a ham.

"I haven't told him he won't be in the new movie," Mortensen jokes. "I just have to make sure that when I'm painting he isn't watching Entertainment Tonight although he's a big fan.

"I have unplugged the TV," Mortensen says with a laugh.
Last edited: 10 September 2007 06:25:45