Image Walter McBride.
Viggo Mortensen is a serious guy. You could see it in the intensity and focus of performances going all the way back to his earliest roles: the Amish farmer in Witness, the reckless brother in Sean Penn's criminally underseen The Indian Runner and the unhinged thug in Boiling Point. Mortensen might have remained one of Hollywood's most quietly reliable actors had Peter Jackson not plucked him from practically nowhere to take over the role of wandering warrior-prince Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, the heroic backbone of the trilogy. Mortensen made Aragorn the soul of the series, and the films made Mortensen a star. He's been a busy man ever since and currently stars in Eastern Promises, his second collaboration with director David Cronenberg following 2005's acclaimed A History of Violence. We talked to Mortensen about his work with Cronenberg, the legacy of Lord of the Rings and, of course, what's he's been watching on DVD.
What's in your DVD player?
"The last thing I saw was a movie I've seen many, many times: The Criterion version of The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer. If you've ever seen that movie, it's beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. That actress [Renée Maria Falconetti], it's the only movie she did, is in close-up so much. When you compare her performance to the performances of other movie stars of the silent era, it's just in another league; it's way out there in terms of believability."
Do you have a favorite DVD?
"I like a lot of movies; I like a lot of DVDs. I couldn't pick one. But The Passion of Joan of Arc I have watched many times and I'm a big fan of Dreyer's work. There are very few directors that I would say I like everything he's done - he's definitely at the top of the list. He was so ahead of his time in a way and he was so subtle in a lot of ways. He broke rules in obvious and not so obvious ways and he had such a searing realism to his work."
Lord of the Rings made you an international action star. How do you feel about that?
"I haven't seen the movies since they first came out, but I know that it was about all more than just action, or at least I was trying to have [it] be. There are a lot of emotional things going on with a lot of complicated feelings. I was trying to make it human."
Was there pressure to continue in that vein?
"No. I have to say that A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Alatriste, Hidalgo...I would not have gotten any of those roles if it wasn't for Lord of the Rings. It's opened a lot of doors for me."
Has it given you a pick of roles?
"People have this idea that you can write your own ticket, but that's not really true. You need to be lucky. David [Cronenberg] needs to say, 'Viggo, do you want to play Tom Stall [in A History of Violence]?' or 'Viggo, since A History of Violence did well, do you want to play Nikolai [in Eastern Promises]?' I don't know that I was the first choice in A History of Violence, I really don't, but it was certainly because of Lord of the Rings that I was somebody who the studio would say [to] accept."
Nikolai in Eastern Promises, like Tom in A History of Violence, is a man who lives his life under a mask hiding his true self, or at least his past self.
"Even at the end with both guys, I think you wonder how much is true and how much isn't. At the end of both movies, I cared about the people and wondered what will happen to them next. And that's unusual. And you know, you just know, that tomorrow, the next day after the last scene, is going to be complicated..."
Violence is almost instinctual to both men.
"It's a learned thing. In both cases, in different ways, their upbringing and their training is to be able to take care of themselves physically. But you're right, there gets to be a certain moment and there is no hesitation. There is no room for it."
Because that violence is such an integral part of their identity, does that change who they are as people?
"I never judge the characters I play, before, during or after. I can sit with you or someone else and talk about central ideas and analyze it a little bit afterwards. But during, I never think about it. This is what these people were supposed to be able to do. There is a remorse in both cases, but there is a different kind of remorse about going back into that world of violence for Tom Stall. Whereas for Nikolai, it's part of a job, it's a means to an end. It's justified. Or is it? Those are things you ask yourself at the end: Is it ever justified?"