He is one of the most talented (not to mention charming) actors that Hollywood's dream industry has to offer, identified for many people as Lord of the Rings' Aragorn. But Viggo Mortensen has participated in more than 40 movies, with the most recent one Alatriste, based on Arturo Perez Reverte's famous books, on the big screens as from last week.
This exclusive phone interview was the ideal opportunity to learn more about his multi-talented artistic nature: he is also a photographer, a painter and a poet - and his immense political concerns.
Why did you decide to walk in the footsteps of Alatriste in 17th Century Spain?
The whole project intrigued me, because I grew up in Latin countries and I was well aware of the Spanish history. Alatriste is a unique character. Through his eyes you can see one culture's ups and downs. I believe that the greatness of the Spanish empire is not widely acknowledged. That happens partly because of the British empire, which comes second of course, and its capability to show and promote its achievements. Spain has five Shakespeares, great artists and poets coming from all over the country. And that is obvious during the movie. For the first time someone can see the beauty and the ugliness, the poetry and also the stupidity of the nation during its decay and the false struggles of a few to keep the empire alive.
The same thing happens today to the empire that I happen to be a citizen of. I, at least, can see some parallelisms: Alatriste is confused whenever Olivares, today's Dick Cheney, gives him orders. In the battles that the Spaniards have in Flanders, the enemy are some strange people that are scared and hate the Spanish, nevertheless they will never surrender. Isn't that the way that people from Iraq feel about the American soldiers?
Talk to us about the artistic side of the movie, in which there is a very obvious influence from Velazquez's paintings.
The director knows many things about Velazquez, but his goal was not just to reproduce his work. Along with Paco Femenia, the director of photography, they organized the movie as if it was a series of Velazquez's paintings in motion, not something dead and static, but vivid. You don't see that often in those kind of movies. There are amazing details not only in the astonishing costumes, but also in the dirty and ugly streets.
Although the film had tremendous success, especially in Spain, I think it deserved more, much more and I believe that its value will be greatly appreciated in the future. Just like David Cronenberg's A History of Violence that had no Oscar nominations, these are movies ahead of their time. Many people that loved the books told us that we kept Reverte's spirit authentic. Like, for example, Tolkien's spirit in the Lord of the Rings movies, despite the changes that had been made.
When do you feel more comfortable, playing an action hero or working in an artistic film?
When the story is good. You mean, do I prefer an expensive Hollywood production or an independent European film? Generally, I believe that the on screen result, in both cases, depends totally on the director, his wisdom in storytelling. Those things matter the most and not the budget or the origin of a film.
You have worked with many different directors, from Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg to Jane Campion and Gus Van Sant. In your opinion, what does it take to make a good director?
In my first movie, Witness, I was amazed by the organized and calm way that Peter Weir shot the film and how he listened to his actors opinions. I really had fun. Since then I've realized that most of the time it's not like that. Working with people like Agustin Diaz Yanes and David Cronenberg reminded me of my experience with Peter Weir. They are calm, brilliant, with a good sense of humour, they come everyday fully prepared to shoot and they acquire that special kind of zen calmness. When they think of you as a good actor, as a good worker, and they don't treat you like a monkey telling you to jump over here and there, then you work under good conditions. That's the kind of people I like to work with.
Your passion for horses is widely known. What is the most precious thing that someone can gain from his relationship with horses?
Friendship. In practice, horses are very sensitive animals. If you are not relaxed, calm and totally focused on the horse, you are not going to enjoy it, you are not going to ride well and you might put yourself in danger - especially if you annoy the animal. The reward I get is the liberating sense of concentration and the ultimate connection that I have with another being.
Many people in Greece are not aware of the fact that you are also a photographer, a painter and a poet. And also that in the year 2002 you established your own and very active publishing house, Perceval Press. How do you select what to publish?
We publish books that I too am interested in. When you follow your curiosity there is a chance to meet a photographer, a poet, a historical time that interests you and you hope that this might interest other people too. I decide basically on personal criteria. Afterwards, along with the people from Perceval Press, we try to make good books that express the author's essence to the utmost.
Since we haven't read any of your poems, can you read us some lines from one of your choice...or something else?
Hmmm...it would be better if you choose something from the books that I'm going to send you.
There are lots of women reading our magazine (and not only them) that are extremely jealous of me right now.
Say "hello" from me. I was invited last year to go to Greece for the film festival in Thessaloniki and I would have come if it wasn't for the promoting of Alatriste. Who knows, maybe I will be there with my next movie that I just finished with David Cronenberg. "Thank you" (he replies in a perfect Greek accent!)
Do you speak Greek too?
No, I understand your alphabet a bit, because I learnt Russian.