Whenever Viggo Mortensen is in Japan, he invariably signs his autograph for fans and adds the kanji character "wa" meaning peace. "'Wa' is an idea that never goes out of fashion," the 47-year-old star said quietly during his 5th visit to Japan recently. "Peace is something to aspire to."
There is very little peace in his latest film, A History of Violence, which has been called everything from a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy to an indictment of gun-crazy American society. Whatever Canadian director David Cronenberg meant his film to be, it has been both a critical and box office success and garnered two Academy Award nominations this year (best supporting actor for William Hurt and best adapted screenplay).
Based on the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall, a family man who runs a diner in small-town Indiana. One night, two lowlifes threaten to rape and murder his staff. Tom turns into Dirty Harry, blowing away the assailants and becoming an instant media celebrity overnight. His national fame brings him trouble when hoods (led by Ed Harris) from Philadelphia show up, positive that Tom is an old comrade who ran out on them years ago. His wife (Maria Bello) and children are left to wonder who Tom really is.
History is one of Cronenberg's most normal films, in terms of human behavior. "Before I met him, I thought he would be the weirdest guy on Earth," said Bello, 37, "but he has a great sense of humour, a gigantic heart and offers a guiding hand like a firm father."
The central question the film poses is what do you do if the person you love turns out to have a dark secret? Does love conquer all? "Yes," said Bello. "I'm a hopeless romantic. If you can embrace your shadow self, with its anger, fear and pain, you are a better person as a whole." Mortensen, on the other hand, is a little more vague. "All relationships struggle, even the good ones. If you don't acknowledge that your partner is changing, you'll be disappointed. But I think there are different ways of keeping secrets," he said.
Mortensen speaks quietly, yet has a very magnetic presence. "I can't speak for David, but I doubt that he intended the film to carry any specific message. Like many of his movies, you are left with a lot to think about. I've heard people say it's about U.S. foreign policy since 9-11 or that it's about gun violence, but it's too challenging a film to say that it is just a political statement. Actually, when I first saw the script and heard David's vision, I wondered if anyone would like the movie. But we worked hard on it, we had a great cast. The movie has done well and got good reviews, too. These days, that's almost a miracle."
Born in New York City, Mortensen spent much of his youth in Argentina, Venezuela and Denmark. Also a painter, poet and music composer, he made his film debut in Witness in 1985. Since then, he has alternated his time between the theatre and films, often cast as a sleazy or morally ambiguous character in such films as The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito's Way (1993), The Prophecy (1995), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), G.I. Jane (1997) and A Perfect Murder (1998). His recurring role, as the warrior Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, cemented his fame.
Bello is perhaps less known to audiences. Born in Pennsylvania, she started off in TV, including several episodes of ER, and has appeared in such films as Payback, Coyote Ugly, The Cooler and last year's Assault on Precinct 13 (currently showing in Japan). The success of A History of Violence has also taken her by surprise, she admitted. "I'm thrilled that so many people have enjoyed the film." However, Mortensen chipped in with a mischievous smile, "Of course, everyone is so polite here in Japan that even if they hate the film, they wouldn't tell you."