Interviews 2004

Long Live the King


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The make-up girl and the Argentine journalist outside Viggo Mortensen's Ritz Carlton hotel room are in a tizzy.

"He's such a nice guy," gushes the first. "And such a hunk."

"He gave me this book of photographs he took on the set of his new movie," giggles the second. "And he writes poetry, and paints, and he even has some jazz CDs out!"

"He also took home the horse from his new movie," adds the make-up girl. "Isn't that sweet? I hear he did the same with the horse he had in Lord Of The Rings. What does he do with them all?"

I decide to have a little fun.

"He eats them," I interject. "It's some sort of Danish tradition, I think. At the end of each movie, he has a barbecue at the wrap party, and he cooks the horse."

The ladies are not impressed.

"That's a terrible thing to say," the make-up girl barks back, not sure whether to take me seriously or not. "It can't be true."

"Yeah, I was only joking," I reply. "He keeps them in his garage. He has about six in there now, but he's going to have to move them, because his car is getting rusty as hell in the driveway."

Inside, I repeat the latter theory to the man himself. He lets out a laugh and nods. "Yeah, it's getting pretty crowded in there, and I do love that car. I'm hoping to shoot a movie with an elephant soon, and I've no idea where I'm going to put him."

Viggo Mortensen can afford to be happy these days. He may have flirted with Hollywood stardom in such movies as A Perfect Murder and A Walk On The Moon (having first made an impression in 1985's Witness), but it was his 11th hour casting as Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy that has finally catapulted him to international stardom. Not that he necessarily welcomes it.

Tellingly, he was absent at the recent Oscar ceremony - where The Return of the King, the Trilogy's final outing, won all of its 11 nominations - despite the fact that he lives only a limo ride away in Topanga Canyon. As his co-stars patted each other on the back repeatedly for three and a half hours, Viggo was sitting at home, watching the event on a borrowed television.

"I don't think I'm quite cut out for the glamour side of this business," the 45-year old, Manhattan-born actor. "I enjoy the working process more than the hoopla that comes once a film is released. For me, it's all about the making of the art itself - whether it's films, or music, or painting, or whatever. Once it's done, I'd just rather move on."

Mortensen's modus operandi no doubt has a lot to do with his upbringing. Born to a Danish father, Viggo Sr., who spoke mostly Norwegian and Spanish, and an English model mum who was fluent in Spanish and Danish as well as her native tongue, the young Viggo spent much of his childhood traveling around the world, living in Denmark, Argentina and Venezuela. By the time Viggo was 11, his parents separated, and he and his two younger brothers moved with their mum to New York. Diane Lane, his co-star in 1999's Woodstock-era love story A Walk On The Moon, has said of Mortensen, "his muse is the tramp".

"There is something of that in me, yeah," he smiles when I mention this. "By tramp, I'm hoping she means someone who travels a lot, as opposed to someone who sleeps around a lot, because I wouldn't really feel comfortable with the latter tag. I just have itchy feet, but it's also a need to see what's over the next hill, what's around the next corner. I want to discover new things, new sensations, and you can't do that if you stay in one place."

Or, when you're an actor, if you repeat your roles. As Peter Jackson's record-breaking adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings began to take over the world two years ago, Mortensen retreated. Not for him the quick cash-in roles, the wham-bam-thank-you-mam blaze of multiplex fodder that would have no doubt made him a very wealthy man. Instead, he waited. And waited.

"I just couldn't bring myself to sign up to the kind of clichéd nonsense that I was being sent," he says. "Especially after an experience like The Lord Of The Rings. I'm not in this to be famous, or to make lots and lots of money; I want every film I make to be a learning experience, something that makes me wiser and mentally healthier afterwards. If I'd signed up for the scripts I was being sent, I'd merely be wealthier, but I certainly wouldn't be healthier."

The script that Viggo Mortensen finally said yes to - after a year of waiting - was Hidalgo, the story of Wild West legend Frank T. Hopkins and his eponymous mustang competing in the Ocean Of Fire, a grueling 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. Written by John Fusco after 12 years of research into the life of Frank Hopkins, like many a Hollywood true-life adventure, Hidalgo isn't always that true to life. Director Joe Johnston (a Steven Spielberg protégé who previously gave us Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Jurassic Park III) fell in love with the idea of creating an action-adventure in the vein of the 1940s and '50s Hollywood classics though, something his leading man quickly warmed to.

"I saw Hidalgo as the sort of film that just doesn't get made anymore," nods Mortensen. "It read like a movie out of time, and I liked that about it. I didn't want it to be some smart, sarcastic take on an old story - which is what you normally get from Hollywood when dealing with heroes these days - but something a little richer, a little more complex. I felt the film's straightforward approach also made it funnier, more human."

With Disney putting up the princely sum of $90 million to get Hidalgo up on the screen, Mortensen must have been a tad nervous about stepping up for his first leading role.

"Despite the fact that when you look at the poster for this film," he says, "what you see first is my big fat head, I always felt that Hidalgo was as much an ensemble job as Lord Of The Rings. I worked everyday, just like on Lord Of The Rings. So no, I didn't feel the onus was on me to make this work; maybe I should look at it that way, but I don't. I don't work on any movie really with the audience in mind in that sense. I'm trying to please myself, I'm trying to satisfy myself, and to feel that I've made a contribution. That I've done my best to work together with these people, and if I achieve that, then there's a chance that other people will like it. And if they don't, I'm not going to feel any more responsible in this movie than any other."

A single father (his 15-year old son, Henry, being, he says, his "best friend, a really smart person", and the person who convinced him to play Aragorn), Mortensen's determination not to follow the Hollywood dollar has meant his lifestyle is far from rich. Or famous. His Topanga Canyon home is an ordinary suburban house. And not only does his house not contain a TV, but Mortensen's car has no CD player either, and he doesn't possess a mobile phone. He may very well be the only person in this LA hotel today who doesn't.

"I've chosen to live a certain way, and I don't want that to change," offers Mortensen by way of explanation. "I like being detached from the constant feed of phone calls and news and entertainment. So much of it is based on selling you something. If you turn on the television, if it's not the ads, it's somebody with an agenda, trying to get some political message across, or force some opinion on you. I know there are some good things on there too - The Simpsons, Sopranos, whatever - but I just feel my time is better spent reading a book, or drawing, just creating something."

That Viggo Mortensen creates quite a few things is well known. His paintings have been displayed all around the world, as have his photographs. His most recent show, Miyelo, debuted at New Zealand in December to coincide with the world premiere of The Return of the King. It features 7 ft photographs of a Lakota tribal dance Mortensen witnessed in South Dakota whilst shooting Hidalgo, the versatile artist never traveling without his camera. With several CDs also released, Mortensen recently joined two of his Rings co-stars, Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd, for a jamming session alongside Japanese guitarist Buckethead. The mother of his son - and ex-wife - being Exene Cervenka, was lead singer with LA cult rockers X. If that wasn't enough, there's also Perceval, a small printing press he runs with a partner, Pilar Perez. With such a myriad of outlets for his artistic creativity, it would seem Mortensen's indifference about becoming Hollywood's favourite leading man might have something to do with the fact that he doesn't actually need acting in his life. During the shooting of Hidalgo, he told one journalist, "Maybe I should just do this one and be done with it".

"It's unhealthy to rely on any one thing for your happiness," says Mortensen, "but I don't think that because I have other creative interests it keeps me from having some sort of desperation of wanting attention or not getting enough of it, and so forth. I think it has to do more with how you look at movies. I'm glad if good work is recognized, but if it isn't, it doesn't mean that I'm going to change my mind about it. I'm not going to suddenly think, 'well, maybe I didn't have such a good time making it'. I did."

And what about the media reports earlier this year that suggested Mortensen was running out of readies? Hidalgo has opened surprisingly strongly in the US, taking just under $20 million in its opening weekend, but the movie's Mortensen's first payday since signing up for Lord Of The Rings back in October 1999. Then again, given his chosen role as Mother Nature's son, Mortensen probably doesn't need all that much money, just enough for food and oils. And hay.

"I feel that I've been very fortunate, and I'm not broke," he says. "And I'm not, you know, unsatisfied about the way things have gone. I have a lot of friends who are good actors or actresses, and they don't have the opportunity to make a good living. I've made a good living recently, and I've had a good run of luck. Two projects in a row that I'm proud of - which is amazing, for any actor - and they're both epic and thought-provoking, and have popular appeal. And I've learnt a lot from both films, which is great. I always just hope I find something interesting, something that will be a challenge, whether it's a small movie or a big one, or that it'll find me."

"And I do wait, as you say, hoping to find it, that it will come along, and it's kinda hopeless doing things that way, it's true. Because you do end up running out of money, usually, and something doesn't come along, and then you have to scramble and do the best you can with whatever comes along. It's just the way I've chosen to live."

Finally, Mortensen's no-show at the Oscars meant he wasn't going to bump into Irish actor Stuart Townsend, there with his girlfriend, Charlize Theron, who walked away with the Best Actress gong for Monster. It was Townsend who was fired from the role of Aragorn just as shooting began in New Zealand, leaving the way open for Mortensen. Has he met up with the Howth-born actor recently?

"Not recently, but over the last few years, Stuart has met up with Elijah, Billy, everyone really," finishes Mortensen. "It was something that we all felt incredibly bad about, and it was something I certainly had to struggle with before accepting the role. It was just one of those things, where Peter felt he'd made the wrong choice - he became convinced Stuart was too young for the role - and he had to make a tough decision. It's the nature of the business, you know, and I would hope Stuart doesn't feel it was anything personal. I have nothing but admiration for him."

Last edited: 20 February 2005 19:44:52