The Appealingly Weird World of Viggo Mortensen
By Amy Wallace
Esquire - 3.2006 Eats Roadkill Speaks Danish
Image Julian Broad.
© 2006 by the Hearst Corporation.
Viggo Mortensen listens to a lot of AM radio. The forty-seven-year-old actor doesn't enjoy this hobby, exactly. But if the vitriol spewed by conservative talk jocks is what tens of millions of Americans listen to, he figures he ought to listen, too. He just likes to hear what's being said.
What was being said late last summer, however, was hard for him to take. In the dead of August, Cindy Sheehan had parked her beat-up motor home on a hot, dusty road outside of Crawford, Texas, not far from George W. Bush's family compound. The California mother and former minister wanted to talk to the President about her son, Casey, a soldier who had been killed in Iraq. So she'd set up camp in the path of Bush's motorcade and vowed to wait him out.
To Viggo (pronounced Vee-go), Sheehan sounded like the kind of person he admires: sincere, courageous, willing to question authority. But on the AM dial, she was getting flayed. Sean Hannity cast her as a nut job, an outcast from her own family, a bad mother. Bill O'Reilly called her 'a radical who does not like her country.'
Viggo has a credo he lies by: Go see for yourself if you can. So he packed a bag, flew from Los Angeles to Dallas, rented a car, and drove ninety miles to Crawford. He came alone and without warning and - as he almost always does when meeting strangers - bearing gifts: fresh vegetables, some bottled water, and a copy of George Orwell's Animal Farm.
You might think that Sheehan's spirits would have been lifted by the sight of Mortensen - his vivid blue eyes, his dimpled chin, square as the end of a two-by-four, his lean-as-beef-jerky frame. Instead, she blanched.
'It was weird for her,' Viggo says now, recalling her stricken face. Only later did he learn what had spooked her: One of the last things Cindy and her son had done together was see The Return of the King, the final film in the Lord of The Rings trilogy that turned Mortensen from a supporting player into a major star. So when she saw Viggo walking toward her, for a moment she saw only Lord Aragorn, exiled heir to the throne of Gondor. And in that same moment, she felt the presence of her dead son.
'I had no idea,' Viggo says, 'I just wanted to talk to her, to see what she had to say.' Besides, he adds, 'I figured Bush wasn't going to come out anytime soon, so she probably could use something to read.'
Viggo bursts through the swinging front door of L.A.'s oldest Irish pub around 11:30 in the morning, wearing a faded blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt and no-nonsense grey pants that a plumber might wear to unclog a drain. To his weathered green jacket he's affixed an American flag lapel pin and a light-blue United Nations patch the size of a plum.
When I admire the patch, Viggo reaches into his pocket and gives me one. Then he points and enunciates every syllable: 'U-ni-ted Na-tions.' He giggles - a surprisingly goofy laugh that sounds more Beavis and Butt-head than leading man - and adds, 'I think it's a good idea.'
Since 1936, Tom Bergin's Tavern has been the kind of friendly, worn-at-the-edges place that smells like sour beer, even now, before lunch. Green cardboard shamrocks are plastered to the walls, each bearing the name of a regular. You get steak fries with your fish and chips, and there's Guinness on tap. Viggo orders both in a voice so quiet, the waitress and I both lean forward to hear.
He has arrived carrying a laptop computer, which he is immediately sheepish about. He is something of a Luddite. He likes to be barefoot, sometimes even at fancy Hollywood functions. Until recently, when he started watching soccer, the one television in his Venice, California, home, was used solely to play movies. He carries no mobile phone.
'I've been portrayed as a cell-phoneless savage,' he says, not unhappily. But today he has got something to show me: galleys of several books soon to be published by Perceval Press, a small company he owns. He flips open his PowerBook G4, shrugs, and says, 'Anybody can be co-opted.'
This comment is ironic, considering that in the four years since his brooding depiction of Aragorn transformed Viggo's career, he has taken just three acting jobs - as Frank Hopkins in the 2004 man-and-his-horse epic Hidalgo; as Tom Small, a small-town man with a big-time secret in last years political parable A History of Violence; and as a seventeenth-century mercenary in the upcoming swashbuckler Alatriste. That last film, by the way, is entirely in Spanish, one of the four languages Viggo speaks. (He's also fluent in French and Danish.)
A foreign film, Viggo? Now?
'If my interest was in being as famous as possible and making as much money as possible, then I suppose I would have done things differently,' he says, sipping his beer. 'If I really wanted to make hay, this would be the time to do it. But I find I'm much too busy as it is.'
Over several hours, and later in a series of conversations, voice mails, and e-mails, Mortensen will repeat this refrain: the shortage of time, the challenge of fitting everything in. Before becoming an actor, he was a published poet, and he still carries a notebook wherever he goes 'just in case a moment presents itself to be stolen.' He also paints and takes photographs, many of which have been exhibited in galleries around Los Angeles. And then there are the music and spoken-word CDs that the actor creates in collaboration with the young man he describes as his best friend - his eighteen-year-old son, Henry - and Buckethead, the reclusive, avant-garde guitarist who recently toured with a short-lived twenty-first-century incarnation of Guns N' Roses.
In a rare phone interview that he agrees to do only because 'for Viggo, I'd pretty much do whatever,' Buckethead describes their collaboration in the recording studio as an often wordless exchange. 'You know when kids play? They're just playing and they don't really have to talk? It's like that, I guess. It feels right. It doesn't feel complicated or weird. There's no ego stuff,' says Buckethead, who is so mortified by the prospect of celebrity that he wears a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head whenever he performs. But Viggo, he says, hasn't been altered by fame.
'He's never different,' the guitarist says. There's a long silence. 'He doesn't seem like he belongs in this time.'
He was a man long before he was a star. Viggo has moved furniture, sold flowers on the street, even worked in a lead-smelting plant. And he's lived all over the world. He was born in Manhattan, but his American mother and Danish father moved the family to South America when he was still in diapers. Since then he's lived in Venezuela, Argentina, Denmark, Los Angeles, and upstate New York. 'I feel at home in a lot of places,' he says.
His chiselled, wide-open face first appeared on the big screen in 1985, when he played an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's classic Witness. Six years later, Sean Penn chose him to play an irresistible, terrifying Vietnam vet in The Indian Runner, Penn's directorial debut. One critic said Mortensen resembled 'a satanic San Shepard' and called the role 'career-making.'
It wouldn't be the first time Viggo would be told he had arrived - but hadn't. In 1992, in a poem called Edit, he described the powerlessness that comes, at times, with being an actor. Acting, he wrote, is 'a job completed for you by others in windowless rooms....The man you were for one short season pruned, removed, to a well-groomed graveyard that smells like popcorn.' For years, he had to fight for good parts. He took a lot of bad ones, too - he was in Leatherface- Texas Chainsaw Massacre III - just to work at all. Not that he's complaining.
'Most actors can't make any kind of living,' he says. 'I've been lucky to make a good living for the last four years, and then for several years before that to make a living of some kind, more or less. Sometimes I ran out of money. But then I would find work. I've been really fortunate in that sense.'
It was Henry Mortensen who talked his father into taking the role of Aragorn. Viggo had never read J.R.R. Tolkien's books. Henry had. Do it, Dad, he said. And that was that.
Image Julian Broad.
© 2006 by the Hearst Corporation.
Henry's mother is Exene Cervenka, the punk-rock icon and lead singer of X, one of the most influential bands to come out of Los Angeles on the 1980s. She met Viggo on the set of a B movie called Salvation and married him in 1987. Henry Blake Mortensen was born a year later. The couple have since divorced but have stayed friendly and raise their son together.
Viggo likes to brag on Henry's discerning cinematic taste. When the boy was a toddler and insisted on going to a theater to see Dances with Wolves, he sat rapt on his father's lap, hardly moving for three hours. Walking out of the theater in Santa Monica, Viggo asked what he thought. 'I don't think the Pawnee are all bad,' Henry said thoughtfully. Then he threw his head back and howled like a wolf. When Henry was ten, his father took him to see Titanic on opening day. They sat, like they always do, smack in the middle of the very first row. When is was over, Henry turned to Viggo and said, 'You know, that movie should have been about the boat, not those stupid people.'
About a year later, father and son took a road trip together from New York to Los Angeles. Viggo let Henry choose the route, and when the boy was done charting out all the friends he wanted to see, the map was covered in zigzag lines.
'Instead of being three thousand miles, it was about fourteen thousand miles,' Viggo says of the resulting journey, recalling how Henry asked to go to Memphis, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle- in that order. 'I looked at it and thought, Fuck it, we'll do it. Because when will we ever have another chance?'
Every week at Beyond Baroque, a literary-arts center not far from Viggo's home, there is an open poetry reading. Viggo has read there. So has his ex-wife, Exene. On this winter afternoon, however, it is their son who is reading for the first time. Henry's mom is here, sitting in the back row. But his father is absent.
At 5:07pm, Henry steps up to the microphone. He's six-foot two, three inches taller than his dad, and his build is sturdier. He has fair hair, but he's dyed it black for a school play. He doesn't look much like his father, but when he reads - his first poem questions the necessity of national borders; his second is called The Revolutionary New Product: Yankee Go Home! - his soft voice and dry sense of humor echo Viggo's own. As Henry starts to read his third poem, this one about unrequited love, Viggo is speeding toward him from the airport, having just returned from a gig to promote A History of Violence.
Twenty minutes after Henry finishes reading, the actor pulls up to the curb and steps out of his car. Immediately, he is surrounded by autograph seekers, one of whom informs him, 'You missed it.' Then he thrusts a pen in Viggo's face.
Mortensen is known in Hollywood as the rare movie star who will work uncomplainingly for months to support a film, travelling around the country and the world to do interviews and make public appearances. Though he isn't paid extra to do it, he has dubbed some of his films into Spanish and French - a service, he says, to his fans. 'I have a work ethic,' he says. 'If I say I am going to do something, I do it'. But when that cuts into his life with Henry, it wears him down.
That night, in Venice, the actor found his son and took him to dinner to celebrate. There, Henry gave him a private recital. But days later, Viggo is still torn up about it.
'It just killed me that I didn't make it,' he tells me on the phone one night. He's calling from a hotel room in New York City, where he's flown in for another History of Violence event. It's after midnight there, but he sounds wired.
It's hard to instil in a child the courage to just be himself, he says. And it's harder still if his father is famous in a way that sends that child the message, no matter how his parents try to protect him from it, that being himself is not enough. When Viggo thinks of the autograph hounds who crashed Henry's poetry reading, he turns fierce.
'It was his fucking day,' he says. 'His private day.'
David Cronenberg freely admits it: 'My goal was to seduce Viggo.' The director had been warned that Mortensen was choosy. So when the two men first met at the Four Seasons hotel in L.A., Cronenberg knew he'd have to appeal to more than the actor's vanity. He launched into a discussion of the political undercurrents of the film he hoped Viggo would star in, A History of Violence.
'We talked a lot about Iraq and Bush, about where America is going, and about America's mythology of itself,' Cronenberg recalls. 'We talked about the image of a man standing alone with a gun - that if he is attacked, anything he does afterward is justified; about how much a part of America's values that is; about how scary it becomes if that becomes the foreign policy of the country.'
Cronenberg offered Mortensen the lead role but left without hearing yes or no. Then his phone began to ring. For five days straight, Viggo called to discuss the project.
'I gradually began to realise,' Cronenberg says, 'that as far as he was concerned, we were doing a movie together.'
The resulting film was nominated for a Golden Globe in the best-drama category and has done well here and overseas. While touring Europe together in support of the movie, the two developed what Cronenberg calls 'our little road show,' which basically amounted to an agreement to nod earnestly no matter what came out of the other guy's mouth. At a press conference in Madrid, Viggo pushed the limits of this pact when someone asked how it was to work with Cronenberg. 'It's actually quite horrible,' Viggo said, completely straight-faced. 'He likes to humiliate and demean and is very hostile. At times we get to drink water, and sometimes we only get to drink our own urine.' The director maintained a solemn air. According to Viggo, one newspaper printed the story as fact.
In that paper's defense, Mortensen has done things nearly that weird. His approach to acting seems borderline pathological. On the set of The Lord of the Rings, he slept for weeks in his costume, often outdoors. When he broke a tooth in a battle scene, he asked for superglue. When his car hit a rabbit, he scooped it up, roasted it, and ate it.
It's all about connecting to basics, he says - to what's real. Which is part of why Viggo objected so vehemently when the marketing department at New Line Cinema airbrushed his photograph on the initial promo posters for A History of Violence. Gone was the scar on his upper lip, the result of a drunken entanglement with barbed wire when he was seventeen. Gone were his wrinkles.
'It became a classic Viggo issue. He was really upset,' Cronenberg recalls, remembering how the posters were promptly changed to reflect reality. 'He's not afraid of what he is.'
'Stardom's come a little late to Viggo,' says Mike Davis, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine and a good friend of Mortensen's. They met outside the glare of Hollywood, when Davis wrote two children's books for Perceval Press. 'Having been a well regarded but not famous person for so long has immunized him.'
But since, The Lord of the Rings, the devotion of Viggo's fan base - much of it female - has ratcheted up a notch. Davis finds it a little scary.
'There seems to be a type: attractive women in their late twenties or early thirties who come up and say things like they've discovered the star gate,' Davis says, remembering a reading at a Santa Monica bookstore where Viggo was mobbed by 'fans out of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. Since I believe the ultimate trajectory of fandom is to kill and devour the celebrity deity, I wanted to hide. He didn't flinch at all.'
Characteristically, Viggo chooses to see the upside of Web sites -Viggophile.net, for example - that mention his 'cute bum' and declares themselves, as one of them does, 'the home of all things Viggolicious.' In part, he says, it is this celebrity that focuses attention on things he cares about. It can help get a movie made or boost the sales of his books, which in turn helps fund books by other authors he admires. In rare cases, it can highlight a point of view that others have sought to silence.
To that end, he dedicated his latest CD, Intelligence Failure, to Cindy Sheehan, whose voice is among many (including Bush's, Condoleezza Rice's, Dick Cheney's, and, of course, Henry's) that are spliced together into a critique of the Iraq war. Sheehan hasn't heard it yet, but she says she is 'honored and overwhelmed' to be included.
I reached Sheehan in mid-December, almost two years after she and her son saw Return of the King, on Christmas Day 2003. 'It was a surprise,' she says of Viggo's visit to Camp Casey. 'Very few people like Viggo came out. It was mostly ordinary Americans.'
Sheehan stresses, as does Mortensen, that support of regular people is more important than that of movie stars. Still, for the actor 'to come and tell me, "Thank you and keep up the good work' - it does help me go on. That's for sure,' she says.
It was a short meeting; they talked for only about twenty minutes. Then Viggo took his leave, explaining that he had to fly back to California that same day. Sheehan recalls being struck by the reason he gave: 'He said he had to go pick up his son from school.'
Esquire - 3.2006 Eats Roadkill Speaks Danish
Image Julian Broad.
© 2006 by the Hearst Corporation.
Viggo and I are talking about sex.
I've asked him about his forceful love scene with Maria Bello in A History of Violence. In the scene, an argument between husband and wife morphs suddenly into rough, bruising sex on the stairs of their bucolic farmhouse. Some have described it as rape, a suggestion that makes both Mortensen and Cronenberg wince. But not since Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland went to bed in the 1970s thriller Don't Look Now has married sex looked so complicated, so urgent, and so real.
Ask any movie-loving woman to name the sexiest scenes on film and, after ticking off the old standbys - Dennis Quaid getting Ellen Barkin off in The Big Easy, Kevin Costner painting Susan Sarandon's toenails in Bull Durham - chances are good that she'll pull out her well-worn copy of the 1999 indie sleeper A Walk on the Moon. In it, Mortensen plays a hippie who rocks Diane Lane's straitlaced world, and when he seduces her under a waterfall, gently but persistently transforming her reluctance into hunger, it is hot as hell.
Viggo says the History of Violence scene transcends lust because it's 'about more than just the physical. It's about jockeying for position. All relationships are. Even when they're going well.'
It's irresistible, after a comment like that, to try to shift the topic to Viggo's love life. 'I don't talk about my personal shit,' he says. 'When I go out of my way to be open, then I fucking regret it.'
The closest I can get to the subject is this:
Me: We have to talk about women, because you are the sexiest man alive.
Him: So there are a lot of dead men who are sexier?
Me: Yes, you are surpassed many times over by dead men. How does that affect your relationships?
Him: Not much.
I try again: How is it to be every woman's fantasy? 'For some people, that would be like, "Great! That's half the reason I got into this!' But to me, that's not exciting. It's someone looking at you and not seeing who you are on most levels. You become some possession to have.'
Eager to change the subject, he passes me the PowerBook and invites me to read an essay about his late dog that will soon be published in Linger, a collection of his writings and photographs. Letter to Brigit tells of his melancholy drive last summer to deliver the frozen body of his fifteen-year-old mutt to a San Fernando Valley crematorium. After retrieving Brigit from the vet where she'd been put down, he headed north on the 405 with her bagged and sealed in blue plastic in the backseat. He was crying. Suddenly, the push and pull of rush-hour traffic forced him to jam on the brakes, sending Brigit hurtling to the floor. He eased the car to a stop on the shoulder and, for the first time, looked in the bag.
'We had taken your collar off,' he wrote. 'I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet.' But this dog had a collar, he saw now.
This dog was not Brigit.
I look up from the computer screen, expecting to see grief on his face, or at least a serious expression. Instead, he is smiling absurdly. 'It was sad,' he says. 'But it was funny.'
Back in 2004, under the headline Actor's Politics Pollute Ring, the conservative film critic Michael Medved attacked Viggo in USA Today, ripping into him for his 'pacifist preening.' Viggo defended himself, pointing out that he'd talked about the political meaning of The Lord of the Rings only after Richard Corliss of Time magazine suggested - wrongly, Viggo felt - that the Fellowship stood for 'Western democracies now besieged by the lunatic faction of Islamic fundamentalism.'
Back at Tom Bergin's Tavern, we talk about patriotism. He touches the American flag pin on his lapel. When he went to meet Sheehan, he says, he stopped at one of the many shops in Crawford devoted 'to Bush and all things Bush.' It was there that he spotted a big cardboard display of dozens of flag pins. He bought every one.
'I found out that anyone can wear one of these things,' he says with mock surprise, handing me yet another gift.
Is he trying to take back some of the American symbols to which conservatives have laid claim? He nods.
But for the next six weeks, he will edit and recompose his thoughts about the flag and its meaning.
'All irony aside,' he writes me at one point, 'one of the most effective tools that the Cheney-Bush junta has used to marginalize dissenting or even mildly inquisitive American citizens has been the accusation of being unpatriotic...Saying you are a patriot does not make you one; wearing a flag pin does not in itself mean anything at all.'
Later, he calls to clarify: 'What matters is how we are, what we say and do - not what we wear.'
But my favorite explication comes in the form of a voice mail.
'Hey, it's Viggo. I'm on the road, as usual,' he tells my answering machine. He sounds tired. 'You said something about "taking it back' - the flag. And I don't look at it as taking it back. It's always been there. But the way it's been used symbolically is that you're either with us or against us. There's no middle ground. It seems to fly in the face of what the country is supposedly about.'
He sighs. 'So you were right,' he concludes. 'But I wouldn't put it that way.'
'Do we have time for a beer?' Viggo asks. We're done eating, done talking, halfway out the tavern door. He asks the bartender for the time: 3:45pm Henry will be home soon. A beer will take too long.
He orders two shots of Jameson's, one for each of us. 'You don't have to finish it,' he says sweetly, throwing his back.
Out in the parking lot, he stops at his truck - a black pickup he's borrowed from one of his brothers - to retrieve a final present: a red rubber bracelet memorialising fallen firefighters. He hands it to me, then says goodbye.
I'm right behind him, waiting to pull into traffic, when he jumps out and motions for me to roll down my window. There's something interesting on the radio, he says, urging me to turn it on. I can hear it coming from his speakers. It's AM talk, and it's playing loud.
Last edited: 4 March 2006 09:34:12