The Renaissance Man

Source: SX

A Russian criminal, a German professor, the swashbuckling saviour of Middle Earth - there's no pigeonholing the work of Viggo Mortensen.

Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
The thing about renaissance men is that they're hard to pigeonhole. Take Viggo Mortensen. Born in New York and raised in Argentina, he's lived in Denmark and is fluent in Spanish, French, English and Danish. He writes jazz music, is a published poet, rides horses and has an Oscar nomination. As an actor he has worked with everyone from Peter Weir to Peter Jackson, David Cronenberg to Jane Campion. Women, and men swoon and offer him gifts wherever he speaks. Mortensen is the template for Renaissance Man, yet mention his name and people struggle. Although his performances leave an indelible mark, each appearance is so different, so intense that it's hard to believe they're all Mortensen. Remember the naked guy fighting for his life in Eastern Promises? Or Sandra Bullock's love interest in 28 Days? What about Strider in Lord of the Rings?

You get the picture.

Never one to make the same movie twice, Mortensen shrugged off his Middle Earth robes to become John Halder, a German literature professor juggling family responsibilities against a rising tide of Nazism in the new film Good. When asked to join the SS, Halder doesn't see a cloudy horizon, only a bright future in an energised society. Halder eventually moves up in the Nazi ranks and when he does, things become clearer. It is a tale of what is right against what is wrong. As the film's tagline asks - 'Anything that makes people happy can't be bad, can it?' And according to Mortensen, it can: "With Good, there is no catharsis, no finale, no conventional ending. It's a just a slow, terrible, avoidable descent down the wrong road. It's much more like real life, much more unsettling".

Unsettling indeed, especially for viewers, many of whom have said they connected, to some degree, with Mortensen's Halder. "People are actually saying that they're uncomfortable because they identified with the character." Mortensen's got them thinking, which is where he likes them.

Mortensen's long, meticulous answers are softly delivered in a circular, meaningful way. He doesn't waste words, nor does he need to speak up - everyone is paying attention. He's not exactly sure that a thread does unite the diverse characters of his broad career, though secrecy might be one of them. From his breakthrough role in the Broadway production of Rent [sic] and a brutal killer in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, to his Academy Award-nominated role as a double-agent in Eastern Promises and Aragorn, the role that made him a household name, each character has an element they're trying to hide.

"I think everyone has had those moments and made a decision not to fully disclose something to a partner, a friend," he said. "But it builds up. I like these stories where a character suddenly realises that everything they're doing is wrong. I like movies where the screen goes black and the audience is left with, 'and then what?'"

As with the dilemma that faced Hanna Schmitz in The Reader ('What would you do?'), Good wrestles with the morality of weak-minded compliance. "It's about denying reality," Mortensen says. "[Halder] is representing the people of Germany, or any society, including Australia and the United States. There have been times when it's easier to go along as a citizen, regardless of your moral inclination. But it's not unique to Germany, and I think it's easier to understand when the story is not about extraordinary people."

Appaloosa is also in cinemas, a western that is, among other things, a love story between two men. Starring opposite Ed Harris, Mortensen plays another contemplative figure.

"A human always has some secret," he says. "Something we keep for ourselves, something the audience wants to know about. It's what creates the dramatic tension." He pauses to consider his answer, suggesting that no moment is wasted. Every experience on or off screen will probably surface in a new character, piece of music or poem. Probably while riding a horse. Danny DeVito, it's time to step aside. We have a new renaissance man.
Last edited: 22 April 2009 02:57:33