If Viggo Mortensen has anything in common with Tom Stall, the diner owner/everyman he plays in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, it's a hankering for privacy. 'I don't know if I could be any more of a hermit,' Mortensen tells press while sipping tea in the Regency Hotel. 'Aside from talking to you guys, you know, I don't get out a hell of a lot.'
In person, Mortensen seems more cut out for Bohemian living than movie stardom. A modern day Renaissance man, the actor best known as Lord of the Ring's Aragorn is also a poet (and founder of the independent Perceval Press), an artist (he designs clothing for his co-stars), and a photographer (with past exhibitions in galleries across the world). Decked out in a "good luck' San Lorenzo t-shirt and several medal necklaces, he enters the Regency holding what appears to be the country's smallest bong (he doesn't smoke it).
The actor/writer/artist may be a hermit, but he opened up to press about working on Violence, an aptly titled film featuring characteristic Cronenberg gore and a staircase sex scene (with co-star Maria Bello) that could acquire cult status.
We heard you got pretty banged up during that stair sex scene...
No more than Maria did.
When you're filming a scene that's so physically tough, are you very protective of the woman?
It varies. I mean just as protective as I would be of a man. (Laughs). And she was that way toward me too. I mean, I think that ideally, that's the way actors work. And David we had protecting us both. If he wasn't protecting us, you still felt that you were in good hands, and that there was good reason to go for it, you know what I mean? And when we were doing that scene in particular, he didn't call cut, he rolled for a long time, which is how it evolved, in the few takes that we really did on that. The meat of it, once it got going, on the stairs, it was uncomfortable, but I think both Maria and I recognize that that was right, and that the longer it went on, the more changing back and forth in terms of who was running the show, you know. Which was interesting, it was kind of a microcosm of their relationship in a way, on some level. You know, that power struggle.
Is the character's complexity what attracted you to the film?
Something like this needs to be handled with a light touch if you want to get all the layers and psychological stuff going on between all the characters. You need someone like David Cronenberg, and that's the thing that drew me first. If he's doing this, it's gonna be interesting. And right from the get go any questions I had about things in the script, he was already asking himself. It really felt like a collaborative effort, an exploration that we all undertook, and he was so ready, and we all felt so ready by the time we started shooting, that there was a lot of room to sort of play with things, within that really tight structure that he'd set up for himself, in terms of telling the story. There was a lot of room to experiment and try things and go a little too far sometimes and so forth, and see what happens. If nothing else, he's a terribly efficient director. I guess he always does this, but on this movie, it finished right on time and I think a little under budget. He's really, really organized, and that's nice to have that. I mean there are some directors who I suppose can be really very efficient but maybe their work doesn't have the same amount of heart as his does. He hasn't really gotten a lot of awards, but he has kept on his own path, and always exploring new ground and trying things. And you know he's the kind of director you wanna do really good work for, you wanna test yourself for, you feel safe in his hands. That's why you'll see over the years someone like Jeremy Irons, or even in this movie William Hurt, someone who we've seen a lot and you think expect a certain thing; they give you something completely different in a David Cronenberg movie.
How has your career changed since Lord of the Rings?
I wouldn't have gotten this role if it wasn't for having been in that popular project. So that's just a practical thing. And it was nice to work on this movie, and the one I did after, I did a movie after David's movie, called Alatriste in Spain, and it was a similar kind of director in the sense that, you know, very well prepared, very organized, and he didn't waste a lot of time and energy. I don't give a lot of thought, to be honest with you.
I read that you found a lot of the props for the house and the diner. Do certain objects help you build your characters?
Yeah, I mean I always do, I think a lot of actors do that, they just have thoughts, and that's just how you present it. I don't assume that they're gonna use any of that, it's just food for thought, to bring things to the table to show the director and then the people working for him, the wardrobe, the art department, you know, the prop guys. It's your point of view and whether you use it or not it stimulates conversation, hopefully. Sometimes people don't welcome it, and that's the way it goes, but I don't try to push it. On this one there were certain things that they used and it just helps me to feel comfortable, like to believe, oh yeah, that is my home, that these are all my clothes, and all that sort of thing. It helps.
Was there a particular prop or object that was really useful to you in this film?
No, I couldn't really say there was anything in particular. It was more of trying to be honest, and David helped me do that, obviously. And the other actors did. But just to be really mapped out, I wasn't able to - nor did I want to, hide behind any disguise or any prop or anything, it's just kind of right there, and if it doesn't work (laughs), right there for my character and for others then it's not gonna work, you know. David was very good at creating a situation where you could do that.
Does your acting inform your poetry? Are they connected in some way?
They're all connected, to me, it's all about the storytelling, you know. And they're just different ways of doing the same thing. It starts with observation, and then taking what you have and adding that to the storytelling, trying to contribute, so I don't see it as different. I mean, yes the director controls it in the end, and the final product, but especially with someone like Cronenberg it feels very similar, it feels like you're exploring something and really telling secrets of your own.
Was your character in A Perfect Murder a painter or did you ask to be a painter?
No, no, no, it was in the script. I mean he was pretending, it was sort of a - he was pretending to be that, that was his cover for just trying to get money off of people really. But I thought, I mean, obviously he needed to be convincing enough so that her character and her husband's character actually thought this was an original artist, or original enough to be legitimate, I suppose. And so I just asked who was gonna do it, because usually on those movies, especially studio movies, they'll go rent a bunch of pictures, or get someone to paint a bunch of fake ones, copies that look like somebody else's work, and I just said 'who's doing it?' And they said 'we're gonna rent this or that,' and I said, 'well can I try it?' And they let me do it. It was a little bit unusual, but it was fun. That helped me, definitely, get into it, even though he isn't really a painter, he obviously has enough ability or is determined enough in his cons.
Was there a scene that was cut that you thought was critical?
There's a few things, very little though, because he was so organized. His script is so tight by the time we shoot. That there's not gonna be a lot that's left out. But there's a few things that I think he'll include on the DVD that'll be fun to see.
Well I don't want to distract from the movie. There's nothing that I missed, because I understood more than ever why he - why the director did that. To me the movie is, like most of his movies, especially his recent ones, the first few minutes are almost like music, and getting these little - this foreshadowing, it's sort of very slow, and you're thinking - I was thinking it too, even though I was part of the project, I'm watching it going, 'I don't know about this, what the hell is going on?' And then after a few minutes, I stopped asking that question, because I was sucked in and the pace increased. In the end, I look at it as a perfectly crafted story in every way. Performance, storytelling, music, visually, tone, it's just - I wouldn't change anything. And you know the bonus stuff will be fun to see, but it wasn't necessary.
The gore is pretty intense. Was that tough to see up close?
David made it so that people can see what that is like- not pleasant. But it's shown very briefly, there's not much of it. It's memorable because it's very matter of fact, and he gives it strength.
Maria told us about a waterfall sex scene that was cut. Was that like A Walk on the Moon all over again?
No, it was a lot colder. (Laughs). It was at night in Canada. It was cold, and it was - it was fun, it was just near a gorge, and we got to jump off this cliff into the water. And frolicking in the water was - I mean, because we were in it together, and she's such a good sport, as she was the whole way, you know, it made it kind of fun. But it was not physically very pleasant, it was really, really cold. But yeah, that'll be fun, to see that scene. I can see why he didn't use it. It just wasn't vital, that information got across anyway without it. It was a sweet scene though, it's nice, I think that'll be fun for people to see. If it had been in, it wouldn't have hurt, but I think they already established what the family was and what the community was, and Tom Stall's place in the community, and then you needed to have those guys show up.
Do you ever think about not doing movies?
Oh yeah. All the time, for years. Because sometimes it can be very frustrating, it's very unusual, at least it has been for me, to have an experience like I had on History of Violence. Where the director doesn't just say he's a collaborator, but he actually is. He's - I think it's probably the reason he makes movies, I guess, instead of staying in whatever ward they keep him in, in between shoots (laughs). It's because he constantly seems to be looking at finding something absurd in the way people are and how they relate to one another. That's why I think his movies, no matter how bizarre the subject matter, there's always something about the behavior that makes you a little uncomfortable, that feels very real. He gets naturalistic performances from people in odd situations because he allows for the rough edges to be there within his tight structure. You just don't always have that experience, you don't feel like you're telling a story together, you feel more isolated. Then it's just not as much fun.