The star of Lord of the Rings brings life to Arturo Pérez-Reverte's character in the most expensive movie in Spanish cinema
All the Alatriste actors have at least one story to tell about Viggo Mortensen, whom they'd follow pretty much anywhere without blinking. He gave fellow actor Eduardo Noriega sausage and cookies from the Leonese mountains, where King Aragorn wandered for weeks. Unax Ugalde let slip one day that he had a penchant for sugus (tr. note: they're like Starburst candies). When Ugalde returned to his room that night, he found hundreds of candies lined up on the floor, spelling out his name.
An aura of Zen radiates from the New York actor, the figurehead for the most expensive Spanish movie of all time, which is counting on his popularity to pull in international box office sales. Mortensen speaks Spanish with a slow Argentinean accent. He drinks maté, wears a cloth bracelet that reads "I carry you in my heart" and a San Lorenzo de Almagra necklace. On a promotional stint in Barcelona, he's grateful when the conversation moves from Alatriste on to his multifaceted artistic pursuits: he's published five books of photography, paints and writes poetry.
What did you find in the mountains of León?
Many things, including some which I'm probably not aware of yet. I create my characters instinctively, without knowing where I'm going with things. Arturo says in his books that Alatriste is from Castilla la Vieja. I asked him whether Alatriste could be from the north of León, and he said that fit perfectly. That's where I found people who sounded like Alatriste to me and seemed to reflect his way of being, somewhat dry and terse. I saw humble houses with the family crest embedded in the front. People who lived there sent their children to fight in the Americas, to Flanders. To do the dirty work of Olivares and Carlos V.
Do you see parallels between Spain's power in the 17th century and your own country the United States today?
Unfortunately, the same thing is still happening and the people in charge still refuse to acknowledge that they're doing things wrong, spending the country's money and spilling its blood. We are, like Alatriste, in foreign countries with foreign people who fear and hate us. Alatriste could be in Iraq today, invading Fallujah, knowing that the next day the city will be taken over by the locals. The American empire, like its Spanish counterpart, refuses to fall with elegance and compassion. It prefers to die out while destroying its surroundings, like a child throwing a tantrum.
What would you say to the Alatristes of today?
I wouldn't speak to them. Nor would I look them in the eye. I know soldiers who are my age, sergeants in the first Iraq war. And I know they think the conflict is ridiculous, but they're over there for their friends.
Do you understand Spaniards better after filming Alatriste?
They're as proud as they were in the 17th century. They're lying when they say their country and theatre is humble. Yesterday I wandered around Barrio Gótico. What architecture! What artwork! Alatriste begins a new era in Spanish cinema, but it's not meant to bring the country a bunch of expensive movies, done American-style. Economic means aren't everything. Take advantage of your history, your art.
Where does a world traveller like you call home?
I feel comfortable in many places. I travelled as a child and as an actor, and I continue to enjoy travelling. For a long time now, I've been certain of one thing: there are more things that connect me to others than there are things that divide us. We should be able to all understand each other. I've proved it. It was amusing to think that, as we were filming the Flanders battle scenes, I could have been fighting against one of my ancestors. Among my father's five brothers there are both fair-skinned and darker-skinned individuals. I'm a mixture.
You've worked with directors like Ridley Scott, Brian de Palma, Peter Weir and Gus Van Sant. What is your perception of Hollywood?
I don't think about it. I go there somewhat cautiously. I've made many movies that I recognize weren't very good, but I have to earn a living. Unlike other excellent actors, these last few years I've managed to work more or less regularly. People have the idea that once you're somewhat well-known, you can suddenly have your pick of anything and the only option that I really have is to say "no". But, even if I want to make a movie, if the director isn't interested...
Do you exercise that option of saying no frequently?
Your friend Dennis Hopper paraphrases Rilke and assures us that you couldn't exist without being able to continually create.
I hadn't thought of things that way, but it could be. There are people who don't like being alone, but a solitary life suits me. Now, while doing publicity there are less opportunities, but you can always escape at night and take a walk. When I'm alone I don't want to sit on the beach and do nothing. I observe and want to communicate with the world, and my way of doing so is to interpret it, to recreate it, not because I want to capture it, but to remember it.
Do you think it's presumptuous to consider oneself an artist?
No. All people can live artistically, even if they never paint a picture or make a movie. For me, to be an artist is to live as one, to remain open to your surroundings. To observe things and accept that they are impossible to replicate. It's worth understanding, even if it's to describe it to yourself. To be an artist is to remain conscious of your surroundings, and I believe that we all have that capacity. Children have it and, as they grow up, they lose it.
So does chance guide your life?
Like everybody's. What you hope for isn't worth anything. I complain and protest: my son has to go to school; I have to finish reading this book, go shopping, wash the dishes. Sometimes you have to skip those chores for a change. Not too long ago a friend visited me and asked if I was free to go to dinner. I had a lot of work: my publishing house takes a lot of my time. I was on the verge of saying no, but not sleeping enough one night isn't the end of the world. Sometimes, you have to say no. To trust in chance and in destiny, because it's the unpredictable, strange events that shape our lives. It's better to travel with hope than with the intention of reaching a specific destination.
Are you afraid when you work?
Always. Without that fear I'd be nervous. I was terrified that my accent would be a problem for Alatriste. I would have to live for the rest of my days hearing, "The movie was good, but that accent of Mortensen's...."
Why are you an actor?
To fight against forgetting. Thoughts and feelings have a great deal to do with how our memory perceives things. I have relatives with memory problems, and that scares me. I don't want to forget things, I want to appreciate them and have them remain present in my memory. I'm publishing a book of my photographs. I was in Tehran and saw a tourist bus with a slogan on the back: I forget you for ever. Forever was written that way, misspelled. How are they going to attract clients? Nice cover. That's when I realized that the things that concern me - my sick relatives, how old I am, what's happening in the world - had to do with the fear of forgetting. You know? As a boy I woke up every morning not afraid but angry that I had to die one day. Now I wake up and think "go for it, we only live once."