An Old-Fashioned Hero
Agustín Díaz Yanes sharpened his sword to masterfully portray 17th century Spain in Alatriste (2006), the movie based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novels, which, in addition to being the most expensive movie in Spanish history (almost 40 million dollars), gifts us with the splendid acting of the enigmatic Viggo Mortensen ... with sword in hand, once again.
© TFI/Estudios Picasso/Origen Producciones.
From the Turk's Tavern
After seeing in one of his daughter's textbooks that only a page and a half had been dedicated to Spain's Golden Age, Arturo Pérez-Reverte decided to write the adventures of Captain Alatriste, a series of novels in which he retells the history through the course of a fictional narrative, in an entertaining trek through an era in which Quevedo's verses flooded the streets and Góngora's poems overtook the academies. A time in which the Inquisition continued to shine, Velasquez' paintings hadn't yet dried and the splendour and decadence of a great nation crossed paths in the same instant.
The story is told by young Iñigo Balboa, who, upon the death of his father on the battlefield, is left in the protection of Captain Diego Alatriste, a veteran soldier of the Flanders Regiment who has decided to dedicate his life to fighting for Spain while moonlighting as an assassin-for-hire. Alatriste educates Balboa beneath the shadow of his sword, which has traversed the hearts of hundreds of men and has fed him.
Alatriste represents all of Spain. On his shoulders, he carries the weight, suffering and pain of a tired nation, but also the pride, loyalty and courage which he displays with each brandishing of his sword, turning him into a hero who is easy to admire, but difficult to imitate. A superhero who, with his mysterious silence, says more than 1000 preachers, and who, since arriving a decade ago, has become one of the most extraordinary characters created in contemporary literature, as though he was written with the same pen Dumas used to create D'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.
A novel with a silver screen destiny
With seven of Pérez-Reverte's novels transported to the big screen, among them the outstanding The Ninth Gate (1999) in which the polemic Roman Polanski directed a stupendous Johnny Depp, the legion of readers who have devoured The Adventures of Captain Alatriste eagerly awaited its appearance on the silver screen. And it's not a coincidence that this happened. Pérez-Reverte's narrative style is cinematographic; he writes his novels while thinking of how they would be viewed in the theatre, and, following the success of Captain Alatriste, (who immediately became a very popular character, spawning comics, board games, action figures and even postage stamps), his appearance on the big screen was long expected.
Director Agustín Díaz Yanes (Nobody Will Speak Of Us When We're Dead, 1995, and No News From God, 2001) wrote the script and directed this period film which earned the most nominations at this year's Goya Awards. Even though it only took 3 awards, (Best Costume Design, Best Artistic Direction and Best Production Design), it is the most-talked about movie in Spain in a long time, because of the monumental production, the enormous budget and the participation of Viggo Mortensen, who plays Alatriste with such force and passion that all who have read the books will be very satisfied, and those who have not read them will discover a fascinating character.
After playing Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Viggo ceased being a mere mortal: he demonstrated that he is made of the most pure talent that a human being can aspire to. So when the phone didn't ring on the day I was supposed to receive my call for this interview, I felt very frustrated. But that night when I arrived home, the first thing that I noticed was that my answering machine had 3 messages. I don't know if you feel the same way, but I get excited when I receive 1 message and if there are 3, so much the better. And even though they're usually from the refrigerator technician or some insurance salesperson, when I began to listen to the messages the first one paralyzed me. It was Aragorn himself speaking in perfect Spanish, saying: "Hello, this is a message for Daniel Ritz from Viggo Mortensen. I got confused, I thought it was Mexican time and not London time where I am. I apologize and hope to locate you soon to do the interview on Alatriste, it would be a pleasure."
The other 2 messages were also from him, each an hour apart. I wanted to tell you this story because, apart from the fact that I now have something to brag about to my nephews (who are probably already on their way) it's important to emphasize the human quality of this artist. In the first place, actors never talk directly to journalists, the connection is invariably made through publicists who, on the whole, are usually very angry and, when there has been a mix-up in times, always - and I'm emphasizing the word ALWAYS - blame the journalist. So if they called you 3 hours late or 2 hours before you had arranged and you don't answer, it's still your fault and you lose the chance for the interview. Viggo Mortensen not only spoke to me directly, he also apologized 3 times for the time mix-up and he continued to try until he got hold of me and he gave me almost an hour of his time (something which definitely had never happened to me before.) This is what we talked about:
© 20th Century Fox/Estudios Picasso/Origen ….
Had you read The Adventures of Captain Alatriste before beginning the project?
I knew other books by Pérez-Reverte, but when Tano (Agustín Díaz Yanes ) showed me this story, I liked it immediately. Tano made a compilation of the 4 novels that had been published at that point and he extracted the most useful material, adding some details from his own personal knowledge of the subject because, before being a director, he was a professor of art history, specializing in the 17th century. Arturo liked the adaptation a lot, he even used some of the details from the script in the 5th novel, El Caballero del Jabon Amarillo, and I imagine that he did the same for the 6th (Corsarios de Levante), so it was a symbiosis, a very interesting collaboration between those men. And what fascinated me about the script is that it corrected and added interesting details to the true history of 17th century Spain, in addition to being a fantastic story with an incredible character.
Your Spanish is excellent, but with a very Argentinean accent. Was it difficult to talk like a real Spaniard?
I asked the director whether he thought people would be opposed to my playing the role even though I'm not Spanish. He told me no, that "you're a professional actor and you will learn what you need to learn in order to appear Spanish." Many people have said that I wasn't able to master the rhythm of Spanish speech but what I was looking for was a specific manner of speaking: the pace and the rhythm, as they would have been spoken by a terse Northern Spaniard. I found that way of speaking, a little slow, very cautious, without revealing too much, because that's how they speak in the mountains of Leon in the north of Spain, near Asturias. There I found people who speak the way I did and they have said that I did it very well, differently from how people in Madrid or Andalucia speak, who speak more rapidly and more easily. If I had wanted to be from Madrid or another part of Spain, I would have spoken differently. And well, you can't please everybody, but I think that we did what we needed to do.
I read somewhere that Pérez-Reverte was concerned with having the spirit of the character of Alatriste respected.
I think that we achieved that. He liked it and thinks that we kept the spirit of the novel. And he has told me to my face that he liked me as the main character and, according to him, I succeeded in portraying the character as he had imagined him: his way of being, of walking, of behaving, of confronting obstacles. In some Spanish newspapers, Reverte also said that I represented the image of the tired hero that he always had in his head, like the characters he based the character of Alatriste on, or soldiers of the era, like Captain Alonso de Contreras.
I've heard rumors about how you become so submerged in portraying your characters that you even start talking and dressing like them off camera ...
In this case, yes, absolutely, because I was afraid and I didn't relax until the end of filming. I speak just like you're hearing me (Spanish with an Argentinean accent sweetened with a little Spanish accent) and in Spain, especially in Madrid, there are Argentineans and Uruguayans all over the place and I was afraid to hear them. When I heard an Argentinean, I went somewhere else (he laughs). There was a nice guy from Rosario who was working on the production and from the beginning I asked him to please not talk to me until I was comfortable, so as not to influence me with his Argentinean accent. Both he and I like mate a lot, so we drank it every day, but silently (he laughs) and we weren't able to chat until the end of filming.
At the end of filming, do you keep something from the characters you play?
The physical part is the least important part, even though it's nice. For example, on Lord of the Rings they gave me the sword: it wasn't that I asked for it, but they gave it to me and I treasure it as a unique memory. I also kept the handkerchief I used in Alatriste, which was like another character, and I gave it to Ariadna when we were at the Toronto Film Festival. But beyond the material stuff, the most valuable thing is memories, like the camaraderie and everything I learn. That's the nice part of movies, what I really get to keep from each character. In this business, as in life, if someone wants to they can learn a great deal, it all depends on attitude. For me it was very interesting to learn about 17th century Spain: the paintings from the period, the relationships of the Spanish Empire and the Spanish citizens with the rest of Europe, the culture, the history, and that's why I'm taking a lot from Alatriste.
After having played great heroes on the big screen, do you believe that Aragorns and Alatristes exist today?
There are Alatristes but, just as in that era, it's rare to find them. There aren't many and, if there were, they wouldn't be as interesting or as notable. They're people who keep their word no matter what the cost and they aren't perfect. Every now and then they make mistakes because of their temperament or pride, and many times heroism is as simple as recognizing that one was wrong and trying to rectify the error. One of the things that I like about the script and the books is that all the characters revolve around an idea, which is pride, be it the empire's or the person on the street, which can carry you to do magnificent things, but can also destroy life, can destroy a country, as can be seen in the last battle of the film, as can be seen in the relationship between Maria de Castro and Alatriste, between the soldiers or in Olivares' behaviour; there's a mixture of avarice and stubbornness but also of pride, which is the most important part of the story and of the Spanish identity.
It was rumoured that Gael García was going to play Iñigo. What happened?
Yes, I met him in Madrid with Tano a long time before filming. We went out to have a beer and we were planning what everything was going to be like, but because of other work commitments and responsibilities Gael finally couldn't join us. But I would really like to work with him; he's a fantastic actor. The last time that I was in Mexico, promoting Cronenberg's movie, I still thought it was going to be Gael. But Unax Ugalde did a very good job, so there wasn't any harm done because Gael wasn't available, even though, of course, it would have been an honor.
The majority of critics consider you one of the best actors around. What does it mean to be a good actor?
To be attentive and collaborate with others. And, if the actor does a good job, he'll come to be closer to the character than the director or the writer, but you can't do a good job without the help of the others and you'll always do a better job if you pay attention. In the case of Alatriste, since I wasn't Spanish I owe a lot to the others on the film set. I always get a lot of from those who surround me, from the climate of the day and the set, from the clothes, the boots, the sword and all that. Somebody who doesn't pay attention to the smallest details will never become a good actor. You also have to know how to use what you have learned and that's a question of experience. Experience is a fundamental ingredient to being a good actor.
Besides being an actor, are you involved in other areas of production?
I'm a photographer and I've written some books. I'm very interested in how photography is done, how they set up the lights and, in general, everything that helps to create the illusion of a story and its characters. Besides, it helps me: if you have an idea of what the camera is doing, what the lights are doing and what everybody who is involved is doing, you can help the director to tell the story better.
What do you enjoy more than acting?
The journey. The internal and external journey, but you have to make an effort, because there are actors who accept a role, they film a scene, and they shut themselves in the trailer and maybe they haven't learned so much. It's like everything in life: you have to give to receive something.
Last edited: 9 May 2007 05:43:48