River Mortensen

Source: Esquire

A dressing room conversation with an actor who continues to construct his starring roles out of clay. A trip along the Paraná in which he speaks of the eternal childhood of actors and of the incurable craziness of the world.

Esquire magazine (Spain) - September 2012
Esquire magazine (Spain) - September 2012.
© Spain Media Magazines.
Viggo enters the dressing room and you don't really know if you've come to consult with a psychiatrist or to speak with a famous actor about his latest film (Todos tenemos un plan, premiering September 14). To fulfil a simple journalistic task or a settling of scores that remains unresolved in a recent film. It could be Freud or a member of the Russian mafia or even Aragorn. All of the faces are this face. Mortensen appears to us as in real life. A ghost with Mortensen's face appears to all of us. But when those clear eyes and ash-colored hair come within a few inches of us, we also enter into the Fellowship of the Ring and follow the ashen road of the end of the world, although Mortensen caresses a San Lorenzo (his beloved community) medal as if it were the Virgin of Carmen, and everything seems to indicate that we're safe. Mortensen enters the dressing room coughing like an old cowboy and we listen to the cough and the mire with a stethoscope, foresee a clinic, the respiratory tracts of that river of turbulent water that won't abandon us along the voyage. The river. The Paraná River. The turbulent Mortensen River.

Esquire: You spend the whole movie coughing like a Russian character from the era of tuberculosis. When they ask me about your latest movie, it makes me feel like coughing myself...

Viggo Mortensen: We filmed in winter and it was very humid on that part of the river, and at night the temperature dropped to five below [trans. note: Celsius - about 23 Fahrenheit]. In addition to that, the character has advanced lung cancer. He has cancer, smokes and spits blood.

Esq: I have some questions in my head, if you'll allow me. Questions that are like the course of a river...

VM: Whatever you like, but if I don't have answers... - He acknowledges.

Esq: I heard a joke once: "Do you know which is the most useless river in the world?" When I said I'd never wondered about the uselessness of a river, the response was, "The Paraná, the Para-Na [trans. note: literally, 'For-Nothing']..."

Mortensen creases the wrinkles in his cheeks slightly, a tense smile in the corners of his mouth like a gunman in a saloon in a Western. Maybe he didn't like the joke, or didn't understand it, but either way I don't explain it to him because this man is capable of strangling me with his cold eyes like Nikolai in Eastern Promises.

Esq: It was just a nihilistic joke for someone who coughs like they were in a Dostoyevsky novel. I'm getting off on a tangent.

Mortensen puts on a poker face. He remains silent. The light in his eyes as cold as a winter dawn in Tigre. Up to the knees in mud. The dirty water of the delta. The scene is like a police station. The Man looks around the room. We're alone, shut in a room. At the end of the road.

Esq: River people are tough, right? These people who gut fish with their hands and make a bonfire among the bushes. These people who spit out freshly roasted duck pellets...

VM: The Tigre Delta, the Paraná that you mentioned in the joke that I can't manage to understand [thank goodness there's irony in his voice], well, at that point in particular, it's crossed by many rivers, many streams; there's a lot of confusion. You could too easily get lost in its meanderings. It's a very overgrown area that has a long literary and folkloric tradition.


Mortensen's references are a wide river of readings and places, of moments and more readings that our character chews on like a solitary man seated on a porch. A taciturn man, rolling a cigarette. He continues.

VM: Criminals and outlaws, people who lived at the margin of the law and had taken refuge in these lands, or people persecuted for political reasons before and after the military dictatorship. Not always bad people. Where the river becomes wider, there also are decaying mansions from the beginning of the twentieth century...

I've promised myself that I would not talk about authors with the publisher of Perceval Press, his literary refuge, with headquarters in Santa Monica, California, but I made my first blunder and referenced Adolfo Bioy Casares, who spoke of the Tigre in some story of his...Mortensen tuned in.

VM: Haroldo Conti, I don't know if you know him. He found refuge in that area but they finally caught him...

Esq: Southeast! I quote the title as if I had reached the shore. I feel saved.

VM: Yes, Southeast, a great novel... Sarmiento [tr. note: Argentinian activist, intellectual and seventh president of Argentina] went out there. And also Enrique Wernicke's The Riverbank [La Ribera]. They are books that talk a lot about that area, that have a lot to do with the film.

Of course. The film. Although he gives the impression that we are on to other things, we are talking about film. Todos tenemos un plan, to be specific, the film in which Mortensen acts under the direction of the newcomer, Ana Piterbarg, which presupposes a full immersion in the turbulent waters of his childhood, in the language of his childhood, in the attributes of that time that he seems to caress like a symbol every time he touches the medallion of his soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro.

Argentina, dulce de leche, mate bombilla, farms... Mortensen agrees without being comfortable with these topics. He's never at ease with anything. Above all with the definition of nothingness. Nevertheless, it's the fourth time that Viggo has filmed and loved and read in Spanish without holding back - before [this] were Gimlet, La pistola de mi hermano and Alatriste - and it gives you the feeling that it's the only language in which he feels completely reassured in this prodigious split, so much his own, where he gives life to the brothers Pedro and Agustín. Two people. The same person. Pure Mortensen.

VM: I read a fragment of Southeast that I had taken note on in my notebook for the shoot....

-- Viggo extracts a big moleskin notebook from his backpack, like a naturalist's notebook, a logbook, in which he notes down his thoughts and everything that passes through his mind with a big, tangled handwriting like the rigging of a schooner. He takes his time. He declares, "Now he was in that which it seemed he had been desiring for a long time..." The words of Conti fill the dressing room with a disturbing echo. Again the coughs. Mine and his.

Esq: "Being another person is more complicated than it might seem..." I say it as if we are rearranging the barbeque on the grill.

VM: Yes, they look at him looking for a sign of the other person. A similarity that they don't find until the dogs sniff him... But there are times when we arrive at the truth by this big lie of impersonating someone else.

Mortensen watches me like the alchemist watches his disciple after finding the philosopher's stone. And continues talking about the Other, the Brother, the invisible friend that perhaps we are already but don't realize it.

VM: Agustín reaches the true essence of his brother (Pedro) much more now that he´s dead than before, when he was alive. Embodying him in front of everybody, he´s closer to his brother but also closer to himself. Finally he opens his eyes and accepts what he is and where he is and that river of his childhood. That river, that childhood he had left behind. That is very beautiful. Everything is very beautiful.

-- His eyes shine, or at least it seems so to me... He declares, with the humbleness of a farmer. His parents were farmers. Horses. Chickens. Farmers.

They All Seem Like Failures

Esq: I always wanted to ask Aragorn whether the knight adventure (that of the epic) is the same as that of psychoanalysis, that of Sigmund Freud (the psyche´s.) I´ve got the feeling he must have pondered it a lot.

VM: I honestly can´t say... This film, for instance, is a film noir but you go and ask a lot of people what film noir is and they cannot say or have a thousand different answers. To me, it´s a story where all the characters, even those who seem innocent, seem like failures: they all have remorse and regrets, they all make mistakes and they all have insecurities.

Esq: You seem to feel comfortable with losers.

VM: In all the characters I played, I´ve always sought to present more than one facet because people are complicated. Each person, no matter how modest they may seem, has their strange side; everybody has that. In film noir , that side particularly stands out, and that´s why I like this kind of genre. There´s no question you can´t ask yourself when you are preparing a character...

Esq: And how do you solve the enigma?

VM: I always do the same, whether it´s a historical character, like Freud, or like Alatriste, which is a whole set of stories. It´s all the same to me. I always ask myself the same thing: what happened to him before the first page of the script? It´s a simple question, but you can spend years trying to answer it. For instance, what happened with these two brothers from the cradle to before the first page of the script?

Those questions, they open the world for you. Then you begin filming, working, and all of the conceptual and psychological apparatus that you've assembled is no longer material that you can perform; it no longer works for you. So when I'm acting, I don't think about it anymore, perhaps because I have already looked at it a thousand ways, because I've thought all that I possibly could about it.

Esq: You are famous for getting down into the mud of a character to unheard of extremes.

VM: Films are teamwork and there are actors who don't mind saying that the film was a piece of shit but I was just fine. I don't like that. If the film doesn't work, there's nothing. It's like saying, I'm the top scorer, but my team didn't make it to the final.

Esq: A very Spanish custom until recently...

A Very Strong Current

Team player, Mortensen the knight - of San Lorenzo, of New Zealand and Peter Jackson, a family, that of the Ring, of Freudian circles or of Cronenberg's intense Eastern mafia and now of the confluence of the Parana, the mud of the Parana, and infinity.

Esq: Was filming in Argentina and in Argentinian [Spanish] a return to your childhood?

VM: When I read the script, it seemed to me right away that it was a challenge to be able to film this, and what attracted me were the contradictions, the dualities, not only with the brothers, but I was also powerfully attracted to the landscapes, the places, the river, the city....

--His speech, slow and seductive, navigates and corrects his position, stopping in midstream and returning to its course (like the Parana) ---

The lie brings Augustín to the truth and the proximity to death, the possibility of death, brings him closer to life.

Esq: Childhood can also be very cruel territory, a fight for survival. We all recognize the school bully at some point in our lives.

VM: Childhood is cruel, a territory of fear and at the same time, of superheroes. But in this story, when the cowardly brother integrates the personality of the other, when he feels calm, he's no longer afraid because he understands that his aggressiveness comes from insecurity. When you are a child, you don't think that the abuser is aggressive because he is insecure, but aggressiveness always comes from fear, prejudices, ignorance, racism, fear of the unknown... But suddenly we grow up and the father who hit us, the football coach, the child that abused you... they don't scare you anymore. He could be dangerous, but that person is also going to get sick and die some day; he's no longer a superhero. All these people who populate childhood, although you hate them, they attract you at the same time, because there's a reason for that. They are like small streams that join together and join together until they reach a much wider river. And in the end, that river has a much stronger current, and carries us all along equally.

Mortensen is no philosopher, but when those cold eyes pour on the interviewer the aforesaid observations about his childhood, when those powerful hands seek a description in the air, when his smile illuminates those seductive predator teeth, one feels that one's living a live presentation of Shakespeare. Although what occupies us is an Argentine river and it's hot in Madrid in early July. Let's return to the riverbank. To the mud.

Esq: In the film, you kill your brother...

VM: I do, he does it out of love. The years go by and you hated that guy because he hit you, and now you're no longer afraid of him, but you don't need revenge either. There are some very eloquent verses of Anna Akhmatova about that. 'Justice that triumphs after so many years is not the justice that your heart aspired to before, nor is your heart the same now.'

I imagine Nikolai from Eastern Promises citing Anna Akhmatova. Nothing feeds Mortensen the gentleman more than books. See if I'm not right.

In the dressing room, while filming, he had posted a sentence from quite a strange guy, Elías Piterbarg (the director's father), a Ukrainian who, at a certain point, wrote a book of aphorisms: "It's impossible not to lie, impossible to cancel out all of our weaknesses; it's only necessary, with painful effort, to know that you have lied." Bioy Casares had his too: "To be at peace with yourself, you have to tell the truth; to be at peace with your fellow man, you have to lie."

Viggos´s quotes are those of an old, solitary and taciturn captain of a schooner who like Jack London´s Wolf Larsen utters them with the conviction that they are part of his boat, of the wind and the rigging, and not that pedantry typical of strangers who pronounce something that neither sounds familiar nor belongs to them. "You have to lie." The echo resounds in the dressing room like diabolical laughter. "You have to lie"...

Lies, justice, childhood, cruelty or the family are rivers that Viggo navigates aware of the mud and the glory, without fear of running aground on meanderings, or falling overboard from delirium. Captain Mortensen makes his way with questions, as in Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, on this Madrid morning Parana that stopped being fiction, turning into incandescent material, into a memory that never falters.

VM: Everyone hides something; we all hide something.

- Viggo takes off on a new monologue.

Esq: Something of ours that we don't even tell our best friend...

VM: It's good for our mental health. Something that is yours and for no one else...

- Finally the door opens -

Your behavior seems to rebel when you try to not reveal something.

Isn´t this search reminiscent of Marlow in search of Kurtz along the Congo river? Don´t they find the echo of an actor who confuses his boat with the one crewed by his characters? Madness or excessive lucidity? Normally actors are not very philosophically inclined; they don´t carry a logbook in their satchel , but this Danish Viking born in New York and raised in Buenos Aires seems to contradict any intellectual doubt (which doesn´t exist) about his training, but about the mysteries of film itself.

Esq: At one point in the film, the female character says, "In the beehive, when the queen doesn´t work, you have to replace her."

VM: (Smiles) It´s not that simple to replace the queen. You have to continue working with what you´ve got; we cannot change who we are. The life of bees is a great metaphor. Yes, a great example, the beehive...

Life Is Chaos

Esq: Is being from so many places like you are, with so many different languages, really an advantage?

VM: As an actor, it may be, but I also believe that a person who always lives in the same place, at some moment of his life, is assaulted by that strangeness that makes him wonder about the name of the street or about that gentleman from the store who he's seen a thousand times and who mistakes him for an extraterrestrial. It happens to all of us; the mind and the body evolve all the time, but for our own mental health, we prefer to think that everything is under control. If we could truly see the world as it is, if we could see it just through our eyes themselves without directing information to our brain, we'd go crazy, because life , and the perception we have of it, is in absolute chaos... - Mortensen launches into a long neurological disquisition. - Maybe people who can't stabilize those images are the crazy people who go along the street yelling and who see things as they really are. If we could really see what's happening, if we really knew what people are thinking about us, we would go absolutely crazy.

Esq: Again we're at the boundary - of drugs, of reason, of monsters...

VM: I don't think that it's necessary to take drugs, but they also are part of the trip. Sometimes you realize something that you hadn't seen before in the same way. You feel different. It's the same when you travel; a foreign language never stops being a foreign language. You have to work with another accent, and that, of necessity, makes you see things from another point of view. Making films, being an actor, is a privilege that keeps you mentally young. Often it's fun to see the world from a different point of view, or from one radically opposed to your own.

Esq: The actor is someone who doesn't grow up. Childhood again...

VM: If you think about it, there's no four or five year old child in the world to whom you'd say "That's not how it is." You have to believe his fantasies; you can't deny him that right. There's no child in any situation in the world that doesn't imagine being someone else, a Viking, or a princess, or Iniesta [tr. note: a Spanish soccer player]... And you believe it. When actors are performing our role well, we do the same thing.

-- Says someone born in New York city to [sic] Scandinavian parents in 1958 -- "Working with fantasy is, in a certain way, a childish activity. However, 'it's childish behavior' is often said in a pejorative way. How many times have we heard that phrase? I think that it's something that doesn't have to be negative. Childish behavior? Yes, thanks! Me, I'm really interested in going to that extreme. Perhaps other actors aren't."

Esq: Symbols, like that medal that you wear around your neck that belongs to San Lorenzo de Almagro, your soccer team, are to ward off the fear of losing yourself. A plank to hold onto in the middle of a shipwreck, I guess.

VM: I suppose that is a little contradictory and certainly childish. My unconditional loyalty to San Lorenzo stands in contrast to my perception of flags and passports, as nice as they may be. Unconditional love is irrational and harmful at times, but I always forgive San Lorenzo, as I do my brothers and my mother.

San Lorenzo´s flag is always in a very visible place in Viggo´s dressing room. As a sign of respect, when he shot the movie, he managed to have an area of more than twenty metres with the flags of all the first and second division Argentinian clubs, to which, during the final stretch of the shooting - already in Alicante - local teams like Hércules, Murcia, Valencia or Villareal were incorporated. The life of Captain Mortensen looks a bit like that. Many flags but only one burning in the heart. Integrity and respect. Mortensen promises not to put Boca side by side with River, Real with Barça.

Esq: After so much sailing around, how did you land in Madrid?

VM: The first time I was in Madrid was for a soccer game at the end of the 70's. A strong guy, a Dane named Henning Jensen, was playing for Real Madrid. Later I came to work as an actor in the mid-90's. So I've known Madrid for a long time. A city in which I've always felt comfortable, at ease; there are always a lot of things to see and the language is not an obstacle. I also like Barcelona a lot... Anyway, I never favor any city. I don't say that I prefer New York, where I was born, or Copenhagen, where I spent important years. I'm familiar with many cities in Europe or in the U.S. and even in New Zealand. I'm from all of them a little, also Los Angeles or the roads of the United States where I like to get lost sometimes.

Esq: But everything alludes to a very Viking, seafaring, fiery temperament...

VM: I have a Danish family; that's for sure. Besides, as we get older, we realize that we resemble our parents more and more. There are expressions, words, phrases...that are there and that are exactly those of our parents. I think I have a more passionate relationship with life than is normal for a person from northern Europe. It's very likely that I owe that way of being, that temperament, to Argentina. When I take my English friends to bars in Madrid, quite normal places, they always ask me why everyone is angry, why they talk loudly, and throw the dishes on the table as they serve you. I always tell them: "They're alive. Alive, that's all."

It's a way of being with which I feel comfortable. In Denmark, those shouts would be from madmen or drunks. It's unimaginable that someone would shout or throw plates when telling a joke. But here, afterwards, people laugh, embrace and cry. To me, that seems normal, but maybe for the other half of the world, it isn't normal. They look at them as sick people. Although it also happens in Spain. It's happened to me entering some village bar in the area of León that seems like something out of a Western.

Esq: How do you keep your stardom at bay?

VM: It's a question of not getting comfortable. For example, I'm proud of having worked with Ana on a film that doesn't look like a first work but that's the debut of an unknown.

Esq: Ana, who's neither Peter Jackson nor David Cronenberg.

VM: Every director is a little different with relationships. With the Rings, for example, we were really a family. There are directors who feel comfortable when you raise a question, a suggestion, and others that simply see that, even if unconsciously, as a threat. There are directors that seem to think, "I don't want them to see me naked." But Cronenberg or Ana are very intelligent and know what they want to accomplish with the story and they usually appreciate any suggestion from the crew or from someone who passes by on the street.


An encounter with Viggo is sitting on a porch, drinking a bombilla of mate and watching time pass in such a way that every now and then new reflections, inquiries, ways of looking at things arise. It can take a whole season. Watching many skies pass by.

At the exit, fans wait, a few autographs, a greeting for a television [camera]... And Mortensen is already a different person than the one in the dressing room. In his rucksack, he carries a few logbooks so he'll know how to stay afloat and a San Lorenzo medal to maintain his faith in this world of crazy people.

I handed him a book that I hope won't be included in the 99% of bad scripts that he says he receives - although it wouldn't be such a bad fate if he were to toss it on the shoulder of a lost back road - and he said he would send me the ones that Perceval Press publishes.

A knight errant's promise.
Last edited: 20 January 2013 14:19:36
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