The Other Side of Viggo Mortensen

Source: Variety Life

Image Viggo Mortensen.
© Variety Life.


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Where's Viggo?

That seems to be the question on everybody's lips as they wander through L.A.'s Stephen Cohen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard. It's the opening night of Viggo's photo exhibition and the room is packed with his friends and associates. They're all here to see the debut of his haunting, abstract images, the ones shot during the making of "Hidalgo", Disney's upcoming $90 million epic in which Mortensen stars as the first American to race across the Sahara Desert on horseback.

More to the point, everyone's also here to see the man himself, yet no one seems to know where he is.

As it turns out, the reluctant "The Lord of the Rings" star is out back with six or seven spiky-haired youths in the parking lot. He's the tall one in the center looking uncharacteristically polished in a charcoal suit and black leather shoes. At the moment, everyone's huddled around his dirty blue Toyota Prius, listening to some loud, swampy, guitar noise pumping out of his dashboard.

"Is that Buckethead?" asks the guy in baggy jeans, the one standing next to Elijah Wood.

"Yeah, that's him," says Mortensen, referring to a certain guitar wail. "I'm not sure about the mix, though. What do you think? Should it be brighter?"

This is vintage Viggo. While crowds of people are anxiously waiting inside to talk to him about one thing, he's already on to the next, in this case his next album with the Japanese experimental guitar legend known simply as Buckethead.

"I'm not really a musician," he confesses later, as a half-dozen people line up to shake his hand. "I play a little piano, harmonica, whatever. I just like to experiment."

"A half soul in transit/the man you were/for one short season/has been pruned/removed/to a well-groomed graveyard/that smells like popcorn." -"Edit" (1992)

For the better part of the past 10 years, casting agents, magazines and Hollywood insiders have been predicting greatness for Viggo Mortensen. So much so that he once joked, "I've arrived so many times, I don't know where I went."

But he's already achieved greatness - or almost that - in certain art circles. To date, Mortensen has produced a half-dozen solo exhibits, including shows in such diverse places as Cuba, Denmark and an upcoming museum show in New Zealand; he's authored more than nine books, some through his own small press, Perceval; and he's recorded three experimental rock/jazz albums with the aforementioned Buckethead. That's to say nothing of the numerous poetry readings he's given, where lustful teens routinely wait hours just to catch a glimpse of him. And while his prices may not be shaking up the auction block (his large-scale photographs tend to sell for a modest $3,000 to $5,000), his work has been bought by a number of A-list collectors, including Handprint's Jane Berliner, CAA's Beth Swofford and Whoopi Goldberg.

But is it any good?

The sort answer is yes, especially his photography. Some of his best images, such as "Chris' Dogs" (2001), "Red #5" (1998) and "The Low Countries" (2001), could be compared to the likes of Robert Frank or Danny Lyon. In fact, his New York gallerist, Robert Mann, claims he didn't even know who Mortensen was when he chose to represent him.

"The connotation of celebrity art isn't very good," Mann says. "It implies dilettante. I wouldn't put Viggo in that context. He doesn't have to paint, that's not the point. I think he really needs to make art, really needs to."

And he does make art, lots and lots of it. To enter into his modest suburban home in Venice, Calif., is to step into a virtual warehouse of photos, paintings and notebooks. They're everywhere, stuffed in boxes and heaped into stacks. "It's like a giant compost pile," says critic Kristine McKenna who wrote the introduction to his book "Recent Forgeries". "It provides an inexhaustible supply of mulch."

Not everything's a masterpiece, of course, not by a long shot. But when Mortensen's good, when he's firing on all cylinders, he has the ability to produce some truly breathtaking images. According to Dennis Hopper, it's because Mortensen's instincts "come from the right place, from the subconscious."

Whether he's shooting around the fringes of a set or among the people who populate his personal life, Mortensen's best photographs capture the partial, the fleeting and the unnoticed with surprising ease. One critic described them as "perfectly colloquial." In other words, he makes great snapshots.

"Basically everything I do, whether it's photography, painting, poetry or acting, all comes from the same place," says Mortensen, "and that's to tell a story. They're all offshoots of the same thing, which is communication."

And that's almost funny coming from a guy who avoids interviews and face-to-face interaction like the plague.

"Shorthands present you. I am exposed. It's not personal, you say, it's art. It's defense I say. I'll put on my clothes." -"Cursive" (1998)

It's hard to know Mortensen through his art, at least his visual art anyway. His images feel too accidental, too obtuse, too fragmentary to reveal any genuine information about his personal life. Having said that, upon closer scrutiny his photographs - and more so his poems - do reveal something about his worldview.

"Great artists," writes critic Kevin Powers, "tell us the task is to train and polish the attention within the brilliance of our small shipwrecks. Viggo does that both insistently and obsessively; he trains his eye to find small wonders and flashes of surprise, and these things are polished by the way he frames them. It is this framing that clearly - both formally and unconsciously - corresponds to his sense of how things are."

And this is the real Mortensen. For all his easygoing, keep-it-loose, keep-it-real posturing, he's also a tough, even rigorous, workaholic. His workmates for instance, both on and off the set, say he's utterly obsessive when it comes to his projects. In fact, despite the extraordinary demands of running his own publishing house, producing art, and being an A-list star, he's never had a personal assistant. He won't, he says, because he just can't let go.

"I guess it can be rightfully construed that I'm sort of a control freak," he confesses. "But that's only because I like to do things myself and sorta stay hands-on. That's just how I am. Cuz otherwise I think you sorta lose touch."

Luckily, he's less controlling in person. When he arrives at a family-run Mexican restaurant (of his choosing) a few days after the art opening, he steps out of his car carrying a pair of clogs in one hand and walks barefoot through cigarette butts and gum to get to the front door. Again, this is quintessential Mortensen. His penchant for going shoeless is now legendary in some circles, though he's polite enough to slip into his clogs to respect restaurant policy.

Standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall, he undoubtedly an outdoorsy guy - all weathered skin, callused hands and easygoing gestures. One could easily see him at home on the range - he even has that "ah shucks" cowboy mumble. Granted, the Mexican corridos playing over the cheap stereo system are loud, but he speaks in such a low-key, staccato voice that you find yourself having to lean in to hear what he has to say. Controlling? Perhaps. But it's probably more out of shyness than anything.

"I'm sorry it's been so hard to pin me down," he apologises. "But ... there's just a lot, you know, so much going on ... the photographs, the book, you know ...I... "

His voice trails off. He sits back, his reddish-blond hair falling in his face - the movie idol, the art star, the cool guy. He could be an ad for a beer company if her were more of a frat guy, but he's not. He apologises again and suggests dinner, or maybe some beers, on him, then trails off again.

For the next two hours, the conversation ebbs and flows through a variety of subjects, from the need for more compassion in the world to his son's insatiable curiosity; from the value of art in culture (imagine that monologue!) to his need to be alone.

"If I don't get a little time by myself every day," he says, frustrated, "it makes me uncomfortable. I really need that. Even if it's a minute or two."

Such idiosyncrasies - his sensitivity, his love of nature, his "old soul" - have made him the perfect candidate to play Aragorn, the self-exiled heir to the throne of Gondor. And much has already been written about how he went further than anyone could have ever imagined to inhabit that character - about how he refused to take off his costume because he wanted to literally "grow into it." About how he accidentally hit a rabbit with his truck one night and decided to build a fire and eat it a la Aragorn. How he carried his sword everywhere - restaurants, his car, even ADR sessions months later.

Mortensen won't comment on those stories, at least not now. After all, the idea that he may have accidentally fostered a legend is the kind of thing that makes him smile. He will say, however, that he "related" to Aragorn's persona of a "brave and honorable man plagued by self-doubt and insecurities."

"The thing I like about The Lord of the Rings,'" he explains, "is that it's an ensemble piece. I mean, the next one is called 'The Return of the King,' but it's not about that so much as it's about the whole group. That's important."

"Kids are God; Pay Attention." - "Recent Forgeries" (1999)

But one cannot discuss Mortensen's art without touching upon his personal journey and the women who shaped his destiny. His father, Viggo Sr., a Dane, met his mother in Norway in the late '50s and followed her to New York a short time later. Viggo Jr. was born Oct. 20, 1958, the first of three boys, but his father was a restless soul - a trait Mortensen now obviously shares - and for the next decade they bounced around from Argentina to Venezuela to Denmark.

That put a strain on the family, however, and by 1969, when Viggo was 11, the marriage was over. That same year, he moved with his mother an d two younger brothers to upstate New York, and that's where he spent the next decade pursuing his education, first in high school and then St. Lawrence University, where he majored in Spanish literature and U.S. government.

Those early, anxious years had a profound impact on him. Being sensitive by nature, that constant change in his life fostered a strong curiosity on one hand and, perhaps, a deep-seated need for love and acceptance on the other.

It's no wonder then, as an adolescent, he felt comfortable behind the lens of a camera. Mortensen says he started taking pictures as a teenager, although he wasn't "really serious about it." For him, the camera not only offered a sense of control over his surroundings but a kind of veil to help him feel invisible from a world he found both intimidating and inspiring.

As an 8-year-old, Mortensen played "the ass end of a dragon" in a school play, but he didn't get serious about acting until he reached his 20s. As he tells the story, he graduated and returned to Denmark shortly thereafter. That's when he fell in love with a woman who eventually led him back to New York - not unlike his father's journey 20 years earlier.

There he came across an ad for Warren Robertson's repertory company and after signing up and doing a monologue inspired by Jack the Ripper, he decided to continue acting. "I never thought it would last," he says. "I just tried it to see what it was like and it just clicked, I guess. Now here we are, 20 years later, and I'm still doing it."

Surprisingly, Mortensen landed studio projects right out of the gate, although his first appearances in "Swing Shift" and "Purple Rose of Cairo" ended up on the cutting-room floor. In 1986 he began working on a low-budget art film called "Salvation!" with Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of seminal L.A. punk band X. By the end of the production, he and his co-star were in love.

Cervenka was already an established poet, painter and, of course, musician, and she not only gave Mortensen the inspiration to expand his artistic sensibilities, but afforded him the confidence to present it publicly.

"I hadn't read my work in front of people before," says Mortensen. "And through her I learned about (the literary center) Beyond Baroque in L.A., where I started in a workshop. She encouraged me a lot. She's amazing that way. And she's an amazing poet."

Mortensen moved to L.A. in 1987 and married Cervenka in a ceremony rumoured to have taken place in an abandoned prison in Wyoming. (Actually, it was held in Nebraska.) She then gave birth to a son, Henry Blake Mortensen, the following year, an event Mortensen says set him "on the right path."

This was also around the time that Mortensen's acting career was beginning to stagnate. (He was doing such mediocre fare as "Prison," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre III" and "Young Guns II.") This, along with his mounting ambivalence about the industry, pushed him into more personal projects.

"Anyone who's anywhere near the film business knows that the chances of you having little or no control over anything is extremely likely and extremely high," says Mortensen. "That can be frustrating, to say the least."

He pretty much stayed under the radar until the mid-'90s. There was a standout performance in Sean Penn's 1991 "Indian Runner," but it was his work in movies such as "The Prophecy," "Portrait of a Lady," "G.I. Jane" and "Walk on the Moon" that led him to where he is today.

During the '90s, he also began to approach his acting in the same economical way he approaches his poetry. As he says, both are about "provoking a lot of thought within a very limited space." But that same paring away of emotion, that same refusal to not telegraph so much, can also work against him in some cases.

"He's deadly earnest, and that can be a problem," says New York magazine film critic Peter Rainer. "He's always been very effective, but there's a sort of one-note earnestness that you get."

That earnestness is evident in person, too. He's nothing if not generous to his friends and associates. (He's been with the same manager, Lynn Rawlings, for years.) And when he goes outside to roll a couple of cigarettes - three in fact, one for him and two for his interviewer, "just in case you want one later" - it's hard to see that earnestness as a fault.

Of course, that, too, is quintessential Mortensen. Pretensions aside, he's a fascinating contradiction: a man who's at once utterly carefree and mercurial yet also deeply resolute.

"I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said this," Mortensen says, "it was about meandering through a career, or the arts in general, without seeming to have a deliberate plan. He said, 'To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.' That's a great line, 'To travel hopefully.' That's what I'd like to do."

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Last edited: 4 May 2005 09:33:41