For one of Hollywood's leading action heroes, Viggo Mortensen cuts a still, soft-spoken figure in person. The man who slaughtered a thousand orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy speaks in a gentle murmur, but retains a steely presence that hints at sterner stuff on the inside.
If that suggests a certain duality to his character, it may be appropriate for the actor's latest role. In A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg, Mortensen plays a gentle family man who may have a darker side to his nature.
Making the character work meant convincing audiences that two very different people could coexist in the same man. That implies a Jekyll-and-Hyde plot, but this understated work takes a more subtle approach to portraying a multifaceted character.
"We all have limitless ingredients - how we put them together, that's how we present ourselves, that's how we behave," Mortensen says. "And I think that people naturally have an instinct to make some compromises with all those ingredients that are inside us, just to be able to function in the world socially and to be able to feel OK, and when those ingredients aren't put together well, then you suffer mentally, sometimes physically."
Mortensen's character, Tom Stall, runs a diner in small-town America. He lives a seemingly ideal family life, supported by a loving wife (Maria Bello) and sensitive son (Ashton Holmes). All that changes when two thugs attempt to rob his restaurant. The hitherto mild-mannered man fights back, killing both would-be robbers. Stall makes the TV news as the town's vigilante hero, but his fame only attracts some sinister characters who claim to have known him in his younger days.
Soon he has to defend himself and his family and, in the process, come to terms with his own nature. "I think this is the struggle for this character...To make things work, to function in a way - not just to be a decent person, but to feel whole," Mortensen says.
Born in New York to a Danish father and an American mother, Mortensen made his film debut in Peter Weir's 1985 hit thriller Witness. The next two decades saw him in a succession of small to medium-sized parts in films including Crimson Tide (1995), before he was catapulted onto the A-list by the Lord of the Rings.
Like many actors indelibly associated with smash-hit blockbusters, he now faces the challenge of carving out a new identity for himself post-Rings. His first attempt was the underwhelming horse-flick, Hidalgo, which flopped critically and at the box office. That raised the grim prospect that Mortensen's fate would be less Harrison Ford and more Mark Hamill. (I defy anyone to name three movies made by Hamill after he ceased to be Luke Skywalker.)
A History of Violence seems to have ended that danger, at least for now. The movie has been critically acclaimed in the United States and a commercial success. For Mortensen that didn't always seem a sure-fire thing, with the actor initially unimpressed by the screenplay.
"I read the script and thought it was a fairly well structured, but not terribly original thriller," he recalls.
What made the difference was learning that Cronenberg was to direct, with Mortensen attracted by the Canadian director's track record of original, provocative filmmaking.
The actor also praises Cronenberg's on-set demeanour and open-minded attitude toward cast members, which he likens to Weir's way of making a movie.
"It was similar in that he's very organized, very technically adept, has a very good crew, and there's really no shouting on set," Mortensen says. "It's unfortunately rare that you have that kind of calm approach, and a lot of it has to do with the director feeling secure about themselves, not being threatened by collaboration."
The end result is Cronenberg's most conventional film to date. From the man who brought us murderous identical-twin gynaecologists (Dead Ringers, 1988) and accident-victim fetishism (Crash, 1996), A History of Violence is startlingly normal.
For all its critical acclaim, however, the movie is far from flawless. Gaping plot holes include the fact that Stall can kill numerous people and never be subjected to more than a friendly chat with the local policeman. A subplot about the media vanishes as soon as it ceases to be necessary as a plot device. And the decision to cast William Hurt against type as a gangland boss backfires badly. Intended to be menacing, his character comes across more as a camp parody of movie mafiosi.
Some viewers will also be bothered by the strong sex and violence - sometimes sexual violence - featured in the movie.
Given its title, and its preoccupation with the way that violence is passed down through the generations, a degree of bone-crunching is to be expected. The graphic sex is more controversial, though the idea seems to be that sex and violence stem from the same primal urges, and cannot be as neatly separated as we like to think.
Whatever the movie's flaws, there's not much Mortensen could have done about such directorial issues. His quietly dignified performance provides the movie with its still centre, and for now the actor is entitled to enjoy the acclaim.
"It's so difficult to achieve what was achieved with A History of Violence... A good script, good cast, good director, successful shoot, an overwhelmingly positive critical response - and it makes money!" he says. "It's almost miraculous."