There's nothing conventional about Viggo Mortensen - not his quiet committed career, not the pictures he paints and definitely not the way he looks at the world. Chris Heath rides with the slightly strange star of "Hidalgo" as he deflects praise from his fans, squares off with his right-wing foes and explains his lust for the East German swim team.
They're always keen to tell you that with great power comes great responsibility; what they never get around to mentioning is that with great success comes month after month of annoying obligations that can really mess with your head. Recently, without the solitude Viggo Mortensen values and needs, he has been struggling. "I'm forgetting things in a way that someone who's 70 or 80 would do," he says. Finally, last week, it its toll. Cruelly so.
Viggo, in a rush as ever, left his car on the street for five minutes. When he returned, the window was smashed. At first he thought he had been lucky. His computer was still there and so was his money and...his rucksack was gone. He had just gathered together all the writing he had done during the past three years-maybe a dozen short stories, about seventy-five poems, many written by hand at night, when he would stay alone in his trailer in the Sahara while shooting his most recent movie, Hidalgo. All gone.
He had no copies.
Evening after evening, he searched the area, hoping he might find his discarded words. But no. He hasn't been able to sleep. Flashes of poems fly into his head, briefly remembered fragments that serve only to taunt him about what he has lost for good. "It just made me feel like, 'You're not paying attention to the things that matter to you,'" he says. "It's a sign."
For a while now, Viggo Mortensen has been thinking that this is all too much. That whatever it was he wanted and whatever it was he intended, it wasn't quite this.
He has been talking and promoting and talking and talking for months on end-whenever the demands of the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, recede, those of Hidalgo step in-and he has several more months of this to go. Viggo Mortensen is solicitous and thoughtful in the days we spend in conversation, but forever looming in the background is the strain he feels he is under. One Sunday evening in January speaking on the phone as he drives back to Los Angeles after snatching a few hours in the countryside, he cracks just a little.
"My life is completely fucked until the end of April," he despairs. "I mean, today I was out driving in the desert, and I was with a horse for a little while, and that was good. But by giving myself a couple of hours, I completely screwed myself for two days. Endless bullshit, really- that's what it's become. I can't blame anyone. I'm the one who's said yes to do these fucking movies, and now I'm having to, you know, pay the price for it. I mean, if I had my druthers, I wouldn't do any movies anymore, frankly. That's the way I feel right now."
We meet, for the first time, over lunch at a Los Angeles empanada restaurant he likes. He sweeps in with style, a bundle of stuff in his arms: a scarf from San Lorenzo, the Argentinean soccer team he supports (for the restaurant owner); a pile of photography, art and poetry books (for me); a small round bowl of maté tea with an old silver-color tube through which he will drink in the traditional manner (for him); a bottle of Argentinean wine, nearly but not quite full, with a cork stuck halfway back into its mouth (for both of us). He orders a selection of empanadas and shares each one, eagerly describing its contents; Argentina plays its part in the tale he tells. The story will not remain simple, so perhaps it is best to begin it that way.
Viggo Mortensen's American mother and Danish father met while skiing in Norway, where his mother worked in the American embassy. The eldest of three brothers, Viggo was born in New York in 1958 and given his father's name. Viggo is, he says, considered in contemporary Denmark to be a slightly archaic, eccentric name for a young man. "It would be like being called Herbert," he says. "Oscar. That sort of name."
When Viggo was an infant, his father moved the family to South America. They spent a year in Venezuela but were mostly based in Argentina, where his father did various jobs, including managing a farm where crops grew and cattle grazed. That was where Viggo learned to ride. As a child, he loved comic books and was obsessed with adventure stories, tales of Vikings and explorers. If he was not going to be a soccer player, he wanted to be a gaucho. "I liked the whole cowboy thing, I suppose," he remembers. "Being self-sufficient, living off the land. You know, a knife in the back of your belt."
That is part of what appealed to him about his latest movie, Hidalgo - that it is just such an adventure, the story of Frank Hopkins, an American long-distance horse racer who is invited to enter Arabia's most famous horse race on his mustang. It has many of the classic ingredients Viggo learned to love in his youth: the underdog, the person who has lost something in his past and hopes to redeem it in his future; the heroic journey through strange places, facing unexpected obstacles. The movie also allowed him to use the riding skills he learned as a child.
He rarely rode, though, after the family left Argentina. One night, when he was 10, his mother told him that she and his father were going to part. "I remember very clearly the day of leaving." he says, "and that was pretty ugly. I mean, it didn't need to be. It just was. The behavior. The words. That's unfortunate." He and his brothers landed in upstate New York in 1969, in a country still reconfiguring itself after Woodstock and the moon landing, and it was several months before he saw his father again.
Toward the end of the '80s, Viggo would marry and have a son, Henry, with X singer Exene Cervenka, whom he met when they acted together in the messy televangelist satire Salvation! Some years later, they would split, and he was very aware of the echoes of his own childhood. "It bothered me a lot:' he says. "It reminded me." And he was determined that even as the marriage failed, the other things would be different. "We have a good relationship and friendship," he says. "It's good for him." Henry splits his time between his parents. 'And, I mean, it's good for us as well."
Henry exists in the background of many of our phone conversations: practicing his bass guitar in the back of his father's car (he plays on Viggo and Buckethead's most recent album, Pandemoniumfromamerica), being consulted on scheduling, advising his father on how to use his cell phone. Emptying Henry's pockets to wash his clothes, Viggo is used to finding the detritus of his son's imaginings: rocks and pebbles and bottle caps. Like father, Viggo concedes. He has always collected rocks and stones. He speaks to me of that dilemma you face when you have collected thirty or forty stones in a hotel room and you have to decide which one or two are special enough to take home with you, as though it is a quandary every guest routinely faces before checkout. Only two days ago, he found a particularly interesting small rock by the road in Topanga Canyon. It is almost perfectly round, except for a single small dent. The rock now sits outside his back door, and other chosen rocks litter the house. A few more favored rocks are in the corner of the kitchen, next to where Aragorn's sword leans against the wall.
The story has been endlessly told of how Viggo Mortensen accepted the role of Aragorn after the Lord of the Rings shoot had already begun and it had become clear that the original choice, Stuart Townsend, wasn't working out; how Viggo had to commit to more than a year in New Zealand without even having read the script of the book, doing so partly because of his son's enthusiasm for Tolkien. What appealed to the actor going in, as with many of his roles, including Hidalgo, was the ordeal. "Ordeal has a negative connotation, I guess," he says, "but I think mostly it's a positive. I think of ordeal in terms of a test. The challenge of a long and difficult journey. I do think that when you go for a walk by yourself or travel, when you test yourself, all the distractions fall away. Everything gets focused. Whether ordeals are brief or long, they clarify; the purify your life."
That side of his Lord of the Rings experience - how he thought nothing of sleeping outdoors and called for superglue rather than a dentist when he broke a tooth in a battle scene - has been well documented and perhaps, Viggo suggests, overmythologized. But he has another, very different, side. On the set, he was king not only of Gondor but also of one makeup trailer, a hive of subversive activity Viggo christened the Cuntebago. By then, in the topsy-turvy behind-the-scenes world of these movies, the word cunt had become an obsession, used so often and so inappropriately that within their circle the cast and crew believed it to be drained of all offensiveness. "Everything had cunt," he reminisces. "It was 'cunt this' and 'cunt that.' We had a cuntmas tree and we had cuntmas angels."
As the trilogy appeared, this was not the side of him the audience most noticed. Amid the praise his portrayal of the detached, self-possessed, darkly dreamy Aragorn has drawn, he has been pinpointed by many as an object of desire. "That passes," he says, in the most Aragorn of ways, "and they move on to another object." (But if your interest in Viggo Mortensen is purely of this kind, my apologies for all these distracting details. You may instead want to know that you can most thoroughly ogle his naked rear when he seduces Diane Lane in a waterfall during A Walk on the Moon. You can best see his penis when he stands naked on a bed for quite some time in The Indian Runner. And you may go now.)
As a child, Viggo Mortensen was unusually curious about injuries. In lieu of bedtime stories, he would press his mother to describe any injuries she knew of in her family. Then, when she'd exhausted her tales of damaged kin, he'd ask her to tell him of injuries to anyone she knew. Then even of any injuries she'd merely read about. "One person in the family was swimming and accidentally got too close to the propeller of a boat," he recalls. "I always think of that."
In time he would have many of his own - for instance, he has broken both legs twice; playing soccer, skiing and in an accident at a Danish smelting plant where he once worked. But the most visible evidence of injury is the scar that runs between his nose and lip, above the left side of his mouth. He was 17 and drunk and at St. Lawrence University, and it was Halloween. "It was just one of those things," he says. "Just sort of clowning around. I grabbed somebody's deerskin rug from his house where this party was, and I think I grabbed some beer. Like, a six-pack. Maybe it was a case. It was just for a lark. And I was running through the bushes and being chased. Then I got shoved into a barbed-wire fence. Stupid, really. Nothing very spectacular or glamorous."
Once the barbed wire had done its work, there was just a film of skin holding his lip together. His friend took him to a clinic, where the doctor realized Viggo was too drunk to need an anaesthetic. He was quite a sight. For Halloween he had dressed as David Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane, with a red-and-blue lightning bold painted down the centre of his face where the barbed wire had done its damage. "It made a fucking mess," he says. "The blood and the smeared lightning bolt."
The early days of Viggo's film career were marked by an epidemic of raised hopes and false starts. He was flown to England to screen-test for the lead role of Tarzan in Greystroke, "in a loincloth, sitting up on the tree branch, pretending to be a monkey," and flew home believing that he had the part. He didn't.
He was cast, however, in Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift, playing a brash young sailor trying to pick up an emotionally fragile Goldie Hawn in a movie theatre. He felt it went well, but when he saw the movie he discovered that they had reshot the scene with Goldie Hawn in the movie theatre alone.
Onward he went. In Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, he was given the role of a young movie actor just starting out, chatting to another actor at a Hollywood party in the '30s. Woody Allen whispered some instructions to the other actor, then said, "Let's shoot it."
"Well, what am I doing?" Viggo remembers asking. "What do you want me to do?"
"Whatever you want," Allen told him. "Just react to whatever he's doing."
The other actor asked Viggo what he'd been up to recently.
"I sort of made this joke," he recalls: "Oh, I've just been working on this movie, a big break, a Cecil B. DeMille movie,' and he asked, 'What were you playing?' And I said 'Oh, this guy, he's got this beard and he's on a cross and stuff...' Some silly fucking thing where the actor's so ignorant he doesn't know it's Jesus that he was playing." (By way of clarification, I ask him: "Let's get this straight. In one of your first roles you were cast in a Woody Allen movie, and you tried to do the jokes?" "He told me to," Viggo shrugs, laughing.)
Woody Allen seemed happy enough, so this time Viggo suggested to his family that they see the movie - and their son - when it opened. So they did, and they reported back that the one did not include the other.
There would be further disappointments along the way. Oliver Stone cast Viggo as a sergeant in a war movie that he was making. Platoon. Then the financing fell through but Viggo knew that Oliver Stone would get the movie made in the end, and he would be ready as an actor had ever been. For the next year, Viggo read every book on Vietnam he could lay his hands on. "I researched that part as thoroughly as I fucking could," he remembers. "Mentally and in every way. Physically."
One day he heard that the film was going into production and that Oliver Stone had recast his role, giving it to Willem Dafoe. About ten years later Viggo met with Stone again, when the director was looking to make a movie about Manuel Noriega.
"Oh, it's great to meet you," the director told him. Viggo pointed out that they had met several times before (Viggo had also auditioned for a part in Salvador, in Spanish, for Stone).
"He didn't seem to remember much of any of it at all," Viggo reflects. "Pretty shocking because I took it pretty seriously."
Slowly, in between the letdowns and heartaches, a career took shape. From the beginning - a small part in Witness, as the brother of Kelly McGillis's Amish suitor, which offered him only modest time on-camera but six weeks of freedom to cycle around Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania - he has been more interested in the experiences that a role could offer him than in the finished film.
In some of the leaner years, this may have been wise. For a while, he seemed fixed in place as the rough bad guy - the vengeful con in Renny Harlin's trashy psychodrama Prison, a jovially homicidal lunatic family member in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and the no-good older husband in the ill-fated Molly Ringwald-Andrew McCarthy post-teen mess, Fresh Horses. (This is how long Viggo Mortensen has quietly been around: long enough not only to have threatened Molly Ringwald's '80s innocence but also to be blown to pieces on an episode of Miami Vice.)
Fresh Horses was at least where Sean Penn supposedly spotted him and cast him as the bad brother in The Indian Runner, the first film Penn wrote and directed and the first place many people noticed Viggo. Of the many movies that followed, as Viggo's star gently waxed and waned, the ones he mentions off the top of his head as sources of pride are his persistent wooer of Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady; his wheelchair-bound snivelling ex-con in Carlito's Way; his two turns in Philip Ridley's pair of haunting fables, The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon; a small Spanish-speaking role in La Pistola de Mi Hermano; the breezily seductive garment seller in A Walk on the Moon; his nasty mustached Demi Moore-assaulting Marine master chief in GI Jane; his brief heart-chewing appearance as Satan in The Prophecy; and his most recent work. "I mean, there are aspects of Aragorn that are interesting, I suppose," he says, "and, I hope, in Hidalgo."
But he is honest about not always having been able to pick and choose. "I mean," he says frankly, "I'm someone who has done a lot of mediocre movies." For years he repeated the pattern, waiting and waiting for something special he could cherish and embrace, but then, if nothing arrived in time, accepting whatever he could get when his money ran out.
One day we are driving down the freeway together, and I am quizzing Viggo about girls. Suddenly, he asks me: "Were you someone who, as a teenager, if you liked a girl or were dating a girl, then you'd automatically think of being together, that you had those romantic ideas about?" Viggo says he did. "A lot. Almost every time."
As for the physical side of things, "I was pretty eager to try it," he recalls when pressed. "I was really young. Too young."
When you first did it?
"Well, sort of tried to, yeah."
How young is too young?
"I don't know if I want to get into that."
"Oh, way pre-legal, yes. Years pre-legal. But it didn't amount to much."
He shares a different thought instead. "In high school, I remember thinking the East German swimmers were quite attractive," he says. "Seriously," he says. after he sees that I seem slightly amused by this. "Not all of them. Maybe it had more to do with their Lycra bathing suits. Do you remember that? I mean, it's probably just an adolescent thing for a boy with heterosexual inclinations, seeing women in bathing suits that until that time had been one way, and then all of a sudden these Germans were wearing quite sheer suits. Do you remember any of their names? I remember one." The name rolls of his tongue, echoing with half-buried memories. "Kornelia Ender," he says.
Last year, a stiff disagreement blew up between the Lord of the Rings cast and the film company New Line Cinema over the issue of the actors' compensation, particularly regarding the many months of promotion the actors were expected to devote to each new film in the wake of the movies' huge success. Viggo took a primary role in banding the cast members together and spearheading their collective negotiations for an across-the-board payment, though he is reluctant to confirm or discuss his leadership role in this. "I don't know that I did," he says uneasily. "I made it easier for everybody to communicate. Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was someone else." (He characterizes the discussions as simply persuading New Line to stop dragging their heels over something they had already committed to and says that in the end "they were generous.")
Elijah Wood supplies a broader context. He describes how, in New Zealand, Viggo "became Aragorn before our eyes" and captivated them all with his approach and manner. "It's interesting, because Viggo is such a humble individual...We sort of viewed him as our king and as an inspiration, and I think that he certainly wouldn't see himself as that. There is quiet leadership to him, and it's not intentional, and I think it's simply because he takes care of the people around him."
Wood points out that their negotiations were "a team effort, but certainly it was...I won't say led by Viggo, because I think he'd hate that. He would absolutely hate that. But we looked up to him in that situation, as I think we always have." Wood points out that by banding together and demanding a group settlement, Viggo (along with Wood) was negotiating for a smaller personal settlement than they, as two of the film's main stars could have demanded. "We definitely sacrificed," he says, "but that didn't matter because it meant that everyone was going to be honoured in the way they deserved, and that mattered most to Vig and to everyone else."
Wood praises Viggo for quite some time, in these and other ways. Then he interrupts himself, concerned that he is not doing justice to the full complexities of his colleague's character. "We're talking about how much integrity he has and how brilliant he is," says Wood. "He's also completely insane."
In his life, Viggo looks for those moments, happened upon through ordeal or trance or accident, when "you are right where you are and there isn't a need to explain anymore - you are just there. I mean you're never very far from it," he argues. "You can just sit and be looking at a curb stone, and all of a sudden that's the whole world. I think five minutes can be an eternity if it's well used, you know. There are periods of time that are gems, but you don't have to go into a blizzard in South Dakota or into the rain forests of New Zealand or the middle of the Sahara. You can find that just walking down the street. You can do it in a roomful of people. There are times during these press days when I'm just answering the question and I'm sitting there and I'm looking at the person...and I see that the rug is blue or yellow. God knows what I'm saying to the person at that point, but I don't really care."
One day he suggests we go to a beautiful place he knows, Huntington Botanical Gardens, in Pasadena. He picks me up in his hybrid, clearing a scattering of CDs and a small ornamental dagger of Henry's from the passenger seat. Only later, when we park, do I notice the full-size fencing sabre across the shelf by the back window.
We wander our way to the Japanese garden, where the cherry blossoms bloom and sit on a steep grass bank. As is his won't wherever and whenever possible, Viggo wears no shoes. He spots an oval-headed balding man, with wisps of gray hair, walking with two younger women.
"Is that Arthur Miller?" he whispers. "Wait till we see his face."
We watch, and even before we see his face, we agree that there is something about the way this man walks that is not the way we somehow know Arthur Miller would walk. And the women are somehow not the women Arthur Miller would walk with in a Japanese garden.
"Let's just say it was," Viggo says, and by this I don't think for a moment he is suggesting that we should conspire to lie about it. Just that, with some willpower and a creative refusal to join the dots and draw a line we will no longer be able to cross, we can delay even this small disappointment and keep alive our moment in the park with Arthur Miller a little while longer.
At Midnight Special bookshop in Santa Monica, Viggo is the final, unadvertised attraction at a series of readings from the book Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation, a compendium of reports and photos concerning post-war Iraq, published by his own Perceval Press. He talks briefly, littering his remarks with phrases like "Bush-Cheney junta," and then reads a poem called "Back to Babylon" that he completed in February 2003. His delivery is soft but firm and low on theatrical flourishes.
"We make bad ghosts, and are last to know or believe we too will fade... "
When he finishes, there is applause, keen enough to show appreciation but muted enough, I think, for the audience members to prove to one another that they are more impressed by the serious business of ideas than by the silly congratulation of celebrity.
Viggo is wearing a green jacket on which he has stitched with light blue thread a vintage United Nations patch. "I just like both the words," he says to the audience, explaining this clothing choice. "United and Nations. I think they go well together. A lot better than separately." There is some laughter.
These can be harsh and judgmental times for anyone who chooses to express contrary political views, particularly if you are primarily known as an actor. (One of the many finely tuned contradictions thrown up by today's overheated celebrity culture is the way entertainers are revered beyond all sense and yet are readily assumed to combine ignorance and arrogance in monumental quantities.) As an interview subject, Viggo certainly doesn't go out of his way to impose his political opinions - we only talk about such matters when I bring them up, and he doesn't encourage me to come to this event - but he is clearly interested. He had planned a visit to Iraq in Winter 2002, to take photographs and see for himself, but under pressures from movies and family life he ran out of time.
Earlier in the week, he was attacked on the editorial pages of USA Today by the conservative film critic Michael Medved, in an essay titled "Actors' Politics Pollute Ring." Medved argues that Viggo has been spoiling the movies' pure entertainment by using his role "to trumpet his antiwar and anti-Bush views." Taking him to task for his "pacifist preening," Medved says Viggo has turned up "for numerous interviews wearing a NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL t-shirt" and appeared at an antiwar rally in Washington, DC, where he "read an interminable original poem about exploding bombs, burning flesh, flattened huts and American guilt" (this is a farcically inaccurate characterization of the poem Viggo has just read).
Mortensen counters that the rally had nothing to do with his film career and that he doesn't conflate the two. Ironically, Mortensen considers the one occasion on which he deliberately did bring up current events in the context of the movies - hand-making the NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL t-shirt with a Sharpie to wear on The Charlie Rose Show (and his other interviews on that one day) -- as a response to others imposing what he considered an unacceptable political interpretation on movies he felt should be left free of such pollution. The particular instance that fired him up was a review by Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss:
It is hard to miss connections with a new struggle. The Fellowship can be seen as Western democracies now besieged by the lunatic faction of Islamic fundamentalism. (Saruman, as played by the tall, lean, bearded Lee, looks eerily like Osama bin Laden.)..." "So much death," King Theoden says, "What can men do against such reckless hate?" Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."
Incensed, Viggo wrote to Time, taking issue with what he considered a crass and inappropriate interpretation. In his letter, which Time did not publish, he replied, in part:
"Your comparisons display the simplistic, xenophobic and arrogant world-view that often makes the government of the United States of America feared and mistrusted around the globe. Please consider the following from Tolkien himself: "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much as in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
That was more than a year ago. Viggo is clearly a little perturbed by this recent attack, which he characterizes as both crude and shoddy. "I mean, it was very clear what he was saying to me: 'Shut up. And do what you're supposed to do. You're an actor. Act.'"
He's not too bothered, no matter how he may be branded. "I've been around a long time," he says. "I'll probably still be able to make a living if I feel like being in movies of some sort. That's not the reason to say or not say something. The reason to say something is as a human being. If I can remember it, Joyce said something about the time he was living in and the place he was living in that can certainly be applied to the time we are talking in and the place we are talking in. Something to the effect that: When a man's soul is born in this country, nets are flung at it to hold it back from flight. You speak to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly past those nets."
Viggo Mortensen has a TV he watches videos on, but he watches no TV. To take a measure of his detachment from modern popular culture, I give him a brief test. He can name two Simpsons: Homer and Bart, from reading his teenage son's comics and catching the odd moment on TV at his ex-wife's house. Unprompted, he also mentions King of the Hill. But he can name none of the characters on Friends.
"I know it's Brad Pitt's wife," he says. "What's her name?"
"Yeah. I mean, I know what they look like." (He asks me whether I know their character names and seems slightly disappointed that I do.) He has never watched an episode of The Sopranos, though he's heard it is good and thought highly of James Gandolfini when the acted together in Crimson Tide.
He last watched the Academy Awards TV broadcast in the mid-'80s in New York. For a couple of years, he went to a friend's house for pizza and Oscars, but he found that the spectacle troubled him, the wrong films being nominated and the wrong films winning in a weird business-driven popularity contest. Later, he would also learn to dislike the way some actors did their job opposite him, grabbing attention for themselves to the detriment of the scene, the story and the character.
A couple of years back, at his brother's house, he was curious enough to watch a little of the ceremony once more, but after ten minutes he had had all he could take and retired to the kitchen. "It just seemed absurd," he says.
The opportunities and rewards he seeks lie elsewhere. And if they do not readily present themselves, he will find them, and find within them the ordeal that makes them of value to him. That is but one more of Viggo Mortensen's many diverse talents.
"However simple the task," he says wryly, "I always turn it into an ordeal. "