Interviews 2004

Lone Star

Dorchester, UK,

Source: Sunday Herald

Image Perou.
© Sunday Herald.

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You starred in the Lord Of The Rings movies, which made you very famous. Your new picture is accused of being anti-Muslim, which makes you very angry. You'd rather be taking photographs than acting. Your name is Viggo Mortensen and you find life a little confusing. Peter Ross meets a reluctant idol.

Some Hollywood stars squander money on hookers; Viggo Mortensen spends his on TJ. To clarify: TJ is the horse who plays the title role in Hidalgo, Mortensen's first movie post-Lord Of The Rings, his chance to prove that he can cut it as the star of a film that doesn't require him to kick orc butt. He and TJ got along real well during the four-month shoot, much of which took place in Morocco's Sahara Desert; so well, in fact, that he bought the horse when the film wrapped because he wanted to 'continue the relationship'. TJ now lives near Los Angeles, where he enjoys regular shampoos and hangs out with the horse Mortensen rode in the Rings trilogy.

Adopting horses is typical of the man who is, arguably, the hottest American actor of the moment. You might even call the gesture Mortensian. It has all the right ingredients - loyalty, manly sensitivity, a pinch of mysticism. When Russell Crowe yaks about his herd of cattle, you accept it as part of his tough guy shtick; when Mortensen buys a horse, you just know it's because, somehow, the animal spoke to him, that he had to have it. Mortensen puts the 'must' into Mustang - untamed compulsions drive him.

'Viggo is just the coolest guy,' says Billy Boyd, the Scottish actor who played the hobbit Pippin in Lord Of The Rings. 'It's hard to say too much about how cool he is. If you spend enough time with people they will do something to piss you off, or that shows them to be just a normal human being, but I think Viggo does like to push himself to be just the best person he can, and that comes across. If you believe in reincarnation, he does seem to be quite far along his line. He does seem to have learned a lot of lessons, and seems quite old and wise. But he's not a serious fuddy-duddy. He'll go surfing with us, and he likes to go out at night and have some drinks.'

Right now, the old, wise, surfing, drinking, reincarnated 45-year-old super-dude is lying on the couch in London's Dorchester Hotel. It is late on Friday afternoon, and while Mortensen talks, at least one small corner of his brain is choking to finish the interview and go for a beer. He had been out the night before with Sean Bean, but the sight of both Aragorn and Boromir from Lord Of The Rings sitting in the pub (Mortensen, a committed polyglot, actually uses the word 'pub') was too much for the capital's autograph-hounds and they advanced en masse. Eventually Mortensen gave up and went back to his room. 'It can be a drag sometimes,' he says, then, worried that he sounds like a whining movie star, qualifies it, 'but mostly it's not a drag. I don't mean to be elitist or weird.'

He is not a man who can walk into a room unnoticed. His father, also called Viggo, is Danish, and Mortensen has inherited his northern European features - the bowed brow and arrowhead cheekbones. His blond hair is neatly parted and he is clean-shaven; there is a jagged scar on his upper lip, a streak of lightning against his tan, the relic of a fight during his teenage years.

A weird mix of cowboy and playboy, Mortensen gives the impression of Indiana Jones going to a fancy dress party as Bryan Ferry. He hates shoes; a pair of scuffed hiking boots are discarded on the floor beside the couch, but otherwise his clothes are suave - light suit, white shirt, pale silk tie. On his right wrist, peeping from beneath a crisp white cuff, there is a tattoo - the letter H for his teenage son, Henry. On his left lapel he wears a UN badge and a black ribbon out of respect for those killed by the Madrid bombings.

He had been in Madrid less than 48 hours before the attacks. On the day they happened he flew to Sweden, and went straight from the airport to a TV studio for interviews, unaware of what was going on in Spain. 'Then I finally got back that evening to the hotel, I turned on the TV and I was shocked. I instantly felt embarrassed and silly. Here I had been making jokes and talking about Hidalgo, and this had happened. It seemed so insignificant and stupid to be talking about a movie. I thought about it for a bit, and it bothered me, but after while I started to think, well, the reason why I was interested in the story in the first place was valid, and maybe even more valid now.'

Hidalgo, set in the 1890s, is the story of Frank T Hopkins, a celebrated long-distance horseman fallen on hard times, who accepts the challenge to enter the Ocean of Fire, a 3000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert, the first non-Arab to ever enter the competition. Although Disney is pitching Hidalgo as being based on a true story, some sources have cast doubt on its authenticity, even suggesting it is anti-Muslim. This makes Mortensen furious, and he spends a good chunk of our interview ranting about it.

The underlying message of Hidalgo, he says, is that life would be better if we made the effort to experience and tolerate other cultures. It's an anti-bigotry, anti-colonialism film disguised as an old-fashioned adventure movie, a Trojan horse bearing good vibes, and thus perfect for our paranoid, mistrustful, hate-filled times. While reflecting on this in Sweden, he says: 'I made the transition to thinking that it wasn't completely ridiculous, and I wasn't a complete ass to be talking about a movie when this is going on.'

It's typical that Mortensen would have such uncertainties. Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson calls him 'no ego Viggo', and everyone who knows him says that a key part of his character is a complete absence of vanity. He certainly seems modest in person. Weirdly, for an actor, he mumbles and slurs his words, giving the impression of being very shy, very inarticulate or very stoned. Yet when I listen back to my tape, I'm amazed to notice that he almost always speaks in complete sentences, which places him in a very small minority of interviewees. Clearly, he saves such fripperies as enunciation and projection for when the cameras are rolling, but he must have been terrible in the days when he had to audition for things. No wonder it took him so long to become a big star.

He made 36 films before Lord Of The Rings, some good (Sean Penn's The Indian Runner), some bad (Young Guns II) and some downright ugly (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). He's not ashamed that he made movies to pay the rent; that's what you do when you've got a kid to raise. But it must have hurt him to some extent, and it goes some way to explaining his parallel life as a visual artist; when you are painting or taking photographs you have control over the end result.

'Even if you produce stuff that's interesting to nobody but yourself, the activity justifies itself,' he writes in the foreword to Recent Forgeries, one of his art books. 'Making things is a way of finding out.'

Mortensen was born in October 1958. His parents met in Oslo but his mother Grace, an American and a descendent of Buffalo Bill Cody, gave birth in the United States. Viggo senior was an economist; his job took him round the world, and the family spent time living in Denmark, Egypt, Argentina and Venezuela, with the result that Mortensen is fluent in Danish and Spanish, speaking the latter with a Buenos Aires accent. By the time he was 11, his parents had split, and he went to live with his mother and two younger brothers in New York. The impulse to act comes from this peripatetic childhood.

'I've met lots of actors who have had that kind of itinerant upbringing,' he says. 'I guess on one level being an actor is a way of not growing up because you can make believe. But there's something healthy about it too, in that I don't get stuck in looking at the world in one way all the time. At least not in my approach to acting, which is to try and investigate what it would be like to be you, if I'm playing you. I'd learn what your upbringing was and ask "How would he look at things? What's it like to look at things like that?''

He pauses, frowns a little. The lines on his cheeks look like knife-wounds, his chin-dimple a bullet-hole. 'It keeps me from getting set in my ways but it also potentially makes me schizophrenic.' He picks up a cushion and puts it on his lap. 'Mildly psychotic, I don't know.' He laughs. He's joking.

Mortensen does seem to have a crazy side. Elijah Wood, Frodo in Lord Of The Rings, calls him 'mental in a good way'. Once, during a fight scene, one of his front teeth was knocked out. He demanded to be allowed to glue it back in and carry on with filming, and was upset when the producer insisted that he go to the dentist.

He regards the lengthy shoot as 'going to school for two years'. It gave him a chance to bone up on subjects that already interested him - 'Celtic mythology, literary tradition and history, and especially the Nordic sagas'. He has a degree in Spanish and government but displays exactly the kind of bulimic desire to stuff himself with facts that you get with the most insecure of autodidacts.

'Interesting' is his favourite word. He treats films as research projects, which is how he approaches his art, too. One recent photo-book, Miyelo, is a series of spectral images of a Ghost Dance, the Native American religious ceremony which prompted the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, depicted in Hidalgo. Mortensen pulls a copy of this book from an All Blacks bag and talks me through the photographs. He's much more animated when talking about length of exposure than when discussing his movies.

According to Stephen Cole, whose Los Angeles gallery exhibited the Miyelo photographs, 'his acting work is what subsidizes his ability to continue his art'. As well as photographing and painting, he writes poetry and plays music with the former Guns'n'Roses guitarist Buckethead.

Mortensen was into all this stuff long before he became famous. Now he worries that his celebrity may colour the way the public respond to his art. At a recent poetry reading, 1000 people turned up, and you can't help but feel that most of them were there to see Aragorn in the flesh rather than hear what that mumbly guy with the weird chin had to say. 'That does concern him,' confirms Cole, 'and that's why he keeps his artistic life separate, although he is the same person so they can't be totally separated. He is very clear about not publicizing the art in celebrity publications, although most do reference it.'

For the most part, Mortensen's friends are not famous. He is easier in the company of the artists, writers and musicians who inhabit bohemian Los Angeles. His former wife Exene Cervenka, mother of Henry, used to sing in the LA punk band X; a recent girlfriend, Lola Schnabel, is the daughter of the painter and film director Julian Schnabel, and an artist in her own right. Mortensen published a book by her.
He co-runs the independent Perceval Press with editor Pilar Perez, its mission to publish books by artists, poets, writers and photographers that might otherwise have trouble getting into the public arena. Perceval has a political edge. One recent release is Twilight Of Empire: Responses To Occupation, a collection of essays about the war on Iraq and its aftermath. According to the Perceval website, the book is 'an unflinching look at the corporate greed and manipulation at the bottom of what may be the most bungled foreign policy project in United States history.'

Mortensen is certainly no fan of the Bush administration and its policies. He was alarmed that some people were inclined to regard the story of the third Lord Of The Rings film, The Return Of The King, as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, and thus a perfect metaphor for the conflict between America and Iraq. He felt the film was being hijacked as a propaganda tool and started appearing on chat shows wearing a T-shirt with the slogan 'War is not the answer'. He is not unaware that Hidalgo, which was made before war was declared, could be equally wilfully misread: a cowboy goes to Iraq and shows the natives a thing or two; what could be clearer?

'Hidalgo could have been an exercise in jingoism. It could have been the American goes to Arabia and kicks ass,' he admits. 'That would have been repulsive and exploitative. But on a lot of levels it is gently subversive. Just the fact that you have an American heroic protagonist who goes to a third world region and behaves himself. First of all, he is more or less welcomed, and then it's clear that he doesn't know much about the culture and its points of view, but he doesn't dismiss it out of hand or fight against it. He shows a little curiosity.

'Most Hollywood films which have an American going into a region like that usually have him trying to edify the poor people. I don't know if revolutionary is the word, but Hidalgo is certainly unusual in Hollywood.'

It's easy to understand why Mortensen finds American nationalism and imperialism alarming. His multicultural background has left him with an instinctive mistrust of the us versus them attitude. To Mortensen, there is no 'them'; we're all mongrels. 'I've always felt that I've got a mother and father, and that's two blood sources right there. There is no such thing as a racially pure animal or person. That's illogical to me, and it's certainly been harmful down through the ages and the centuries. Thinking in terms of racial purity can lead you into all kinds of trouble. Just like religious purity, or the idea of separateness in general. And in the end, the one who loses the most is the one who thinks of himself as separate. You are imprisoning yourself.'

Mortensen enjoys his freedom. He likes time alone, likes to go back to Denmark, where he once worked as a truck driver and which he still regards as his home. Most of all, he likes hanging out with his son, whom he calls his best friend; his film contracts stipulate that he must have Hallowe'en off so he can go trick-or-treating with Henry.

The trouble with starring in a film trilogy which has now grossed more than £1.5 billion (not counting DVD and video sales) is that the resulting fame can be imprisoning in its own way. Nothing travels faster or respects fewer international boundaries than Hollywood; no matter where Mortensen goes now, people recognize him, and he is called upon to be the guy from the posters, not who he really is - the guy with paint under his fingernails and dirt on his bare feet and last night's beer on his breath.

Even in the middle of the Sahara, between scenes on Hidalgo, he would have to use someone's mobile phone (he doesn't own one) and make calls to promote Lord Of The Rings. It's a disorienting thing, standing in the desert and being an artist, who is pretending to be an actor, who should be pretending to be a cowboy, but who is too busy talking into a borrowed hunk of plastic and computer chips about the time he pretended to be a king.

'There are people who love the attention,' he says. 'I'm not one of them. Like anybody, I would rather be liked than not, but attention for attention's sake, or just to make money, or just to meet girls, there are people for whom that's the biggest reason they are into acting. I know people who are like that, and more power to them if it works for them and they aren't hurting anyone, but I've got more attention than I could have wanted in ten lifetimes over the past two years. It's absurd. But it's happened to me late enough that I know it's just freakish luck.'

His next film, Alatriste, is set in 17th-Century Spain and will require him to speak the language of the period throughout, just the sort of challenge he enjoys. After that, who knows?

Joe Johnston, the director of Hidalgo, compares Mortensen to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Johnston is getting at the way his acting is all about intense minituarism, subtle facial expressions that the eye misses but the camera sees, but there is a further similarity; Mortensen's career may turn out to be as erratic as that of Brando or Clift. He doesn't seem temperamentally suited to being a famous film actor, with all that entails and, at this point, it's anyone's guess whether he goes on to become the most celebrated star of our time or retreats into character parts and cameos, making enough money to pay for his photography books and Hallowe'en candy and counting himself lucky that he didn't turn into Tom Cruise.

There may not even be another film. Sick of all the promotion, Mortensen wouldn't care if he never acted again. I'm the last journalist he has to speak to today, and right now there's a pint with his name on it. As I leave the room, he is lacing up his hiking boots, zipping up his All Blacks bag, already looking forward to a beer. Have a good time, I tell him. 'I'm gonna,' he smiles, sending his scar wonky. 'Come hell or high water.'

Last edited: 2 March 2005 19:36:38