The following is a transcript of the audio interview done by ZDF for their German Dream Project.
WH: Mr Mortensen, welcome to the German Dream Project.
VM: Hello! It's nice to talk with you.
WH: Thank you! Mr Mortensen, many times when an actor makes it to global stardom like you did in Lord of the Rings, the next thing you hear from this actor is that he or she uses their new wealth to buy a jet, a bigger villa or an island in the Caribbean. You however started a publishing company to support alternative writers. What dream drives you?
VM: Well, with regard to the publishing company, Perceval Press, you know it's a small company that tries to publish artists and writers who wouldn't maybe be published otherwise and might have something of interest to say or show us. It's the same Parsifal that you have in Germany or Monsalvat originally supposedly in Wales and it's the idea of finding your own way. You know, making a new path for yourself in the forest. That doesn't mean that billions of people in the world need to go hacking literally new trails in the woods as there wouldn't be too many trees left if everyone was doing that every day, but you know, metaphorically people need to do that to challenge themselves.
WH: You were born in New York to a Danish father and an American mother. You grew up in Argentina then Venezuela, Denmark and the US and you are of course still travelling the world for your roles in film. What gives you the strongest sense of belonging?
VM: I think you can belong anywhere. I think you can make yourself at home anywhere. It makes very little sense now to speak about outsiders, about the other in the sense of not being connected to them. I mean it was once possible because there were less people and peoples of the world were more isolated. If I return to Manhattan, just visually where I was born, or if I go to any number of places I've been; Buenos Aires. If I see the skyline of Copenhagen and its church towers, if I fly into Wellington, New Zealand, there is a certain comfort. There is a certain nostalgia. All that. I mean the world is becoming more mixed and you know, obviously there have been a lot of problems in Germany and also in Denmark as a matter of fact with Turks and Pakistanis and Moroccans and you have people that look like they are from New Delhi in Denmark and who are third-generation Danes and who probably have a better Danish vocabulary that I do, because they speak it every day. But there is something that they have that they know probably that you could talk to them about, rather than fighting it. You can make all the restrictions you want and build all the fences you want, but I think the idea that the more walls you build, whether it be rules about import, export and tariffs in terms of culture, in terms of religion, race. The more you build these walls, the more you call yourself special as a people or as a race or region, you know and try to keep the others out. I mean a wall has two sides. What you are really doing, you know, you are really building your own prison.
WH: You said many times that acting is your way to communicate with the world. What do you think is missing in our communication with each other as people and as nations these days?
VM: Well there is a lot of communication that goes on, but what is the communication? You know, I think that as we have seen for centuries, the danger in organised religion is that people take what is meant to be metaphor, what is meant to be fable or examples for living and they take it literally, in many cases word for word. It ought to be part of everyday life to walk quietly and not break things, to speak respectfully and not harm other people. I hear from my own Government in the United States, the words peace and compassion and hey you know [laughs] neighbourliness and moral values. I hear a lot of good words that are communicated, but there seems to be very little behind them. Life is to some degree about struggle. Just like any relationship between two people, to have a democracy work, just to say the words compassion and democracy and freedom and liberty, fraternity, equality, all those things doesn't mean its so. It's a process you know, that never ends, ideally and as soon as you say about your own country or about your wife or your husband, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your son, your daughter, your friend. As soon as you assume that they are what they are, they are a fixed thing, then you are inviting your relationship to that person or to that community to wither and die, you know just as when words are written in a religious guide or holy book. Just as soon as you write something down, those words are dead and they have to be revived, they have to be reinterpreted, they have to be reapplied all the time. Just like you need to feed yourself, you need to have water, you need to walk if you can. You need to exercise your mind as well and your heart.
WH: Do you think a collective dream or collective promise for the future or hope is an important thing for a nation to have?
VM: Yeah, if you can be clear about your ideas and open to others perhaps having a different idea, you know that's the beginning and the end of all good communication and civil society. You know the writer Gore Vidal?
VM: He said we are beyond law, which is not unusual for an empire. Unfortunately, we are also beyond common sense and I think that that seems to happen to all empires and great powers. It seems to be that the decline is always accelerated with every empire, whether it be the Spanish empire or the Third Reich or the Roman empire or even the English empire and now with the American empire, the decline is always accelerated by a complete dismissal of common sense. I mean back to your question, the United Nations, those two words, that phrase is an excellent idea. It's probably the core example, the best idea that the world has ever had [laughs] really. It certainly has not been run in a perfect fashion and I think it is a lot better [laughs] clearly to continue to try to fix and improve on what is as I say, the best idea people have had in a long time, United Nations, than to destroy it, you know.
WH: With all that you know, or not know about Germany and us Germans, what would be your most optimistic, idealistic and also maybe challenging dream for Germany's future or if a young German comes to you and says "Hey, I want to have a dream for my country and I am not into this old kind of patriotism' what would you tell that person?
VM: Try to be as Chinese as possible. [host laughs] You know, try to be as Jewish as possible. Try to be as Apache as possible. Try to be as Argentinean as possible. Try to be as French as you can be. You know, I am not saying that necessarily literally, but to some degree, I am. When you stop trying to be as French as possible or as Chinese as you can be, that's where the problems start to creep in. It's like not changing the oil in your engine, you know. Its seems like such a simple idea, but then people don't do it. Even sometimes people that talk about it, like I am talking about it now. There are times where I realise, you know what, I haven't been paying enough attention. I haven't been putting into practice things that I know I believe, in my heart. So the German nation, the German people forget about that. That's what I would say. Where do most of the problems for Germany in its history come from? They come from trying to think about the German nation and the German people. I'd say forget about it. Learn about the Chinese people and then forget about the Chinese people. Learn about the Jews and forget about the Jews. Learn about the Africans and then forget about it. You're not going to forget about it. What I mean by forget about it is, don't make it be the only thing because it's not the only thing. And Germany is not nor should be the only thing anymore than the United States should be.
WH: Many accomplished artists tell their students to always follow their dreams
VM: Well how can I tell someone to follow their dreams when I can't even come up with a good one for you. [both laugh]
WH: Which is true, so I ask also sometimes that sounds like such a hollow phrase because especially as a young person how do I even know what my dream is?
VM: I think an easier thing, because that's like sort of a concept, don't forget your dreams, follow your dreams and the kid's thinking, yeah yeah and then they're what is that? I guess what is that, is the thing you need to do. A better piece of advice would be listen to yourself, because that's where the dream is eventually.
WH: Is there something specific that you would like to see Germany do in the world?
VM: I personally think that Germany doesn't have on its own a responsibility to free the world from anything. I don't think any nation or any people does. Germany has always been a complicated collection of peoples and tribes and migratory civilisations that have been changed by climate and war, but that what is within the borders of Germany is a group of people that is another version of the world and the more you look at each country that way, the more you see that we are really not just in some idealised non-realistic, non-practical way, you know we are all one. It just makes sense. There has to be ways to reapply that notion, we are one. What really speaks louder is action. It's the people that have led the way by practicing the ideas of neighbourliness and self-sacrificing compassion in the sense that Schopenhauer talked about it, where you, for no logical reason, you help someone that you don't know, because its in you to do so and the reason that you do this is because whether you are conscious of it or not, when you help someone who needs help and you don't even know them, you help someone across the street or whatever. A dog, a bird that's wounded, it's because you are understanding in that moment that you show compassion that you are connected, that you are one, that you are inextricably linked. I mean compassion is made of two words. It means feeling with. You know whether you be German or Chinese, unlike other animals as far as I know, people have the capability to reason. I mean they can imagine doing noble things, just as they can very dark things, but they can certainly reason and reason with each other as difficult as it might be, that there is a better way to do things than to just destroy what we don't understand or what we find annoying or inconvenient.
WH: You are a published poet and a songwriter and if you could write a poem for the spirit of Germany or the people who just happen to live right now in that piece of land in the middle of Europe, what might the first line be of that poem?
VM: Hmmm .. that's a good one. Listen.
WH: That's it?
VM: I think that's it.
WH: Do you think pride is an important thing?
VM: The main thing that I probably keep coming back to is that it is important to struggle past local limitations. I know this is a German programme and so what can the Germans do? And that's a good intention, but I think the best thing they can do is forget that they are German. You know, just like Americans should do. You know remember that you are human. Struggle past local limitations and try to expand the local to the universal. You know what I mean? There's nothing wrong with being proud. I mean I am certainly when I go to Denmark I feel a connectedness to family and to the land and all that. I mean I am speaking to you now, I am wearing a soccer shirt from San Lorenzo which is an Argentine team who almost always loses, only now they are winning and I feel very good about that, which is crazy, [host laughs] but there is a way of liking your team or your country where you don't hate the other team you know? Maybe soccer is a good thing to talk about because the World Cup is going to be in Germany next year and you're going to see a lot of craziness. I mean I really do like my team, but I would never want to beat up another. It is only a game. I think that it is a great sport and it is interesting when you see really good play and co-operation and I would rather my team win than lose certainly. I don't want to destroy the other team, I just want them to lose. [rather maniacal laugh from Viggo] It's a matter of degree and a matter of restraint and good manners, but whether it's the European Union or the United Nations, there is nothing wrong with having self-interest as long as you are conscious that others will have that as well and that there has to be a place in which to meet. You know, you got to work at it [slight laugh].
WH: I guess the question today is how do you even find out what it means to be French, to be an Italian, to be German? What is being German?
VM: You know, when you say you start from "what is German' and "how does Germany fit in?' yes, I agree with that. I think you look at yourself and you know, if you don't know yourself, it's hard to know the world. But sometimes you get stuck and you can start repeating the same phrases, I am, I am this, I am that, I am that, I am that, I am that. When in doubt and looking inside yourself just seems like a pointless exercise and you are not getting anywhere.
VM: You know listen. Just stop, just stop doing it. Stop trying. It's something that should come naturally, understanding oneself as a German. It's not something that should be forced and if it is not coming naturally, then you need to stop trying. Go do something else, go talk to a Chinese person if you can, or don't do anything. Go, you know, pull some weeds in the garden, whatever. Take a walk.
WH: That's why we called you. [Viggo laughs] Mr Mortensen, thank you so much for daring to dream with us.
VM: Well, I am very flattered that you wanted to speak with me.