Interviews 2004

Finding Viggo

Source: Vanity Fair magazine

Image Bruce Weber.
© Vanity Fair.

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Viggo Mortensen is waiting for me in a parking lot on the Pacific Coast Highway near Topanga Canyon.

He thought it would be nice to walk along the beach, watch the sunset and the deepening pink clouds and the dolphins at play in the surf, and talk, you know, maybe have a drink or two. He is barefoot on the asphalt, in jeans. His hair is sandy-red, floppy-perfect, the provocatively dimpled chin brushed with stubble. He kisses me hello on the cheek. My vision goes blurry for a second, then--steady, steady--rights itself.

"I brought you some things," he says, sitting down on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

He opens a large cardboard box at his feet. There are about a dozen books: one of pictures by a Cuban Santeria practitioner turned photographer; one of poetry that comes with an owl-shaped pewter trinket; one containing sketches by Lola Schnabel, an ex-girlfriend; and then several by Mortensen himself - of paintings, poetry, and photographs. All are published by Perceval, a small press he runs with a partner. Then he pulls out a DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent movie. He informs me that the original negative was destroyed in a fire, and that the filmmaker died believing his masterwork had been obliterated. But a complete version was found in a closet in a Norwegian mental institution in the early 1980s and was restored.

"You published this too?" I ask.

"Nah," he says. "You should just see it."

This barefoot guy in a parking lot talking to me about Santeria and Norwegian mental institutions inhabits a realm far, far outside the one most people think of when they think of Hollywood actors, yet he is fast approaching a celestial syzygy of fame. In December, New Line releases The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which showcases Mortensen as the reluctant ruler Aragorn. And in March he will be seen in Disney's $90 million epic, Hidalgo, in which he plays an endurance rider who takes his humble mustang horse to compete in a 3,000-mile race in the Arabian Desert. After 20 years of making movies, Mortensen, at 45, seems on the brink of becoming a star - a word he rolls around in his mouth with scepticism.

"I've been told that I'm back and gone so many times," he says, "it just ceases to concern me. I mean, I don't really give a shit or not. You wanna walk?"

He leaps like a mountain goat down the rocks to the sand, and shouts, "Watch out for the broken glass!" I've got my purse and my flip-flops and my notebook, and my jeans are on the tight side, so I try to do a modified body roll down, futilely attempting to manage a landing that looks remotely casual. Mortensen waits at the bottom, his eyes politely averted.

Along the beach a boy follows us for a stretch, biting his thumbnail. He clearly wants to approach his hero from The Lord of the Rings. When Mortensen turns around, smiling, the kid sprints away. That didn't use to happen when Mortensen played the conman lover of Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, or the D. H. Lawrence-spouting drill sergeant in G.I. Jane. It was not until the Lord of the Rings movies - The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and The Two Towers in 2002 - that people really began stopping him on the street.

The Lord of the Rings movies are among the biggest moneymakers in history: Fellowship earned $860 million globally and Two Towers $919 million. The third has the potential to be the most lucrative of all, and Mortensen saturates the film.

It's a long way from Mortensen's role as Tex, the good-natured cannibal who delivers soliloquies about the savory qualities of roadkill in 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. His film debut had actually come in 1985 as one of the Amish farmers in Peter Weir's Witness. He then got a part in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, but it was cut. In 1988 he co-starred in Fresh Horses - a massive, pretentious flop-with Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald. His son, Henry (with then wife Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the art-punk band X), was born the same year. After Henry learned to read, he had the good sense to become a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's.

By 1990 it looked as if Mortensen was headed for the Where Are They Now? file, and fast, with roles in Young Guns II (one critic called it "double-barrelled cowpuffery") and Leatherface ("The best that can be said of it is that it runs for less than 80 minutes").

"If I really think about it, there isn't any one movie I would wipe off my slate," Mortensen says, however. "Even during the worst experiences, there was somebody I got to know, or something about the place we were in, something memorable. A lesson." Happiness or satisfaction, to Mortensen, is not something that one can actively seek. A sense of well-being does not depend on outside events, but rather on how we interpret them, he explains.

"Seek not the favor of the multitude," he says. "It is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of the few, and number not the voices but weigh them."

Kant, he says. I am wildly impressed.

In 1991, Sean Penn cast Mortensen in The Indian Runner, as a tormented Vietnam vet. Dennis Hopper, who starred in the movie with him ("I'm an old barkeeper he murders at the end," Hopper explains), calls it one of Mortensen's best roles ever. "He's not a good actor, he's a great fucking actor," Hopper says. "I'm not a fan of Sean's other two movies, but this is a hell of a movie. Don't live another day without seeing it. Mortensen is it. He's the real deal."

Next came Carlito's Way, with Mortensen as the cringing, wheelchair-bound informer, Lalin, then a brief macho period, doing Boiling Point, with Hopper and Wesley Snipes, and Crimson Tide, and his role as the menacing drill sergeant in G.I. Jane.

Around Mortensen's 40th birthday, he made two movies playing the siren lover who liberates wives suffocating in domesticity. In A Perfect Murder, he was the artist boyfriend of the patrician Paltrow, a fashionably greasy-haired bad boy whose overripe physical presence you could practically smell coming off the screen. If you're a woman you will remember the way he slid his hands backward over her cheeks as they made love in his grimy loft. The canvases in the film were his own, painted in Dennis Hopper's studio. And in A Walk on the Moon, Diane Lane had to choose between her television-repairman husband (Liev Schreiber) and her hippie boyfriend, played by Mortensen, who makes love to her under waterfalls, introduces her to pot, and takes her to Woodstock.

"I knew I wanted him for that role in such a way that I was saying, Please take some of my money and give it to him," Lane says. Pass up money? "Because he gives immeasurable depth to what he does, full commitment, full conviction.

"He's a man of mystery, for sure - that's rule No. 1," she adds. His exotic lack of ego, her theory goes, won't hurt him in Hollywood. That mystery acts like a narcotic on a community of people who always chase the one thing they cannot have, and as with a spurned lover any distance only increases their ardor.

"He's being true to himself. And people here are not really used to that or comfortable with that. And I love the fact that, as far as I have been able to see, he has not given away any of his mystery. People want to figure you out so they can move on. But he's the one who moves on." His muse, Lane says, is the tramp. "He can be as debonair as he wants. For that afternoon. But then the tramp will call him again."

Working with such women as Lane, Paltrow, Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady, and Julianne Moore in Psycho didn't faze him. "In the end, when you go to work, it's about the person you're playing, not who is next to you," he says. "It could be someone's first movie, and some people are harder to work with than others, but a lot of the times you find the same problems and work through them."

What the career lacked was a monster hit, until The Lord of the Rings. In the fall of 1999, Peter Jackson gathered the cast and crew in New Zealand to begin work on a marathon 15-month shoot that would form the backbone of all three movies. He had cast 26-year-old Stuart Townsend in the role of the warrior human and reluctant king Aragorn, but Jackson soon realized the actor was too young to convey the brooding, displaced monarch. When Mortensen got a phone call asking him to be on a plane the next day, he hadn't read - had barely heard of - the J. R. R. Tolkien books. But Henry, then 11 years old, assured his father that it was a good part, that the books were great, and that Tolkien was a genius. The next day Viggo was on his way to New Zealand.

Elijah Wood, who plays the hobbit Frodo in the films, says that Mortensen is one of the strangest and most charismatic people he has ever encountered. "When I first met him, we sat down in this real crusty place, the Green Parrot, and I remember not being able to hold a conversation, because I was so intimidated," Wood says. "There is something beautiful and quiet about Viggo, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized how insanely brilliant and crazy he is - how he has this insane wild side." Like when Mortensen's tooth was knocked out during a scene and he asked to have it put back in with Super Glue. Or when his car hit a rabbit in the road and he decided to roast it and eat it. Or when he slept in his costume for weeks at a time.

"Yeah, he's mental," Wood says. "But in a good way."

Life is short, Mortensen says. "And this is all a big crapshoot. I'm lucky. I've been in a good movie once in a while, if I hadn't been in Lord of the Rings, or that movie didn't do well - well, who knows what might have happened?"

Mortensen's peripatetic childhood may have had something to do with his resilience. His parents met in December 1957. His father spoke mostly Norwegian and Danish, his mother mostly English, but somehow everything sorted itself out, and Viggo was born in October 1958. His father's various jobs took the family - which included Viggo and two younger brothers - from Denmark to Argentina and Venezuela. By the time Viggo was 11, his parents' marriage was over, and the three boys and their mother went to live in upstate New York.

"I didn't have friends when I was little that I know now - there wasn't any sense of continuity like that," Mortensen says. "But I got to see a lot of things and learn a lot of things. And I learned to rely on my imagination, and on myself."

Even Mortensen's memories of early childhood are deeply spiritual. He tells me about the time he crawled into the woods and fell asleep. "I was sleeping under a tree, and it was very peaceful," he says. "And then a dog started barking, and that's how my parents found me."

You are always escaping, I say.

Yeah, he says. He calls his mother - on my cell phone, because he doesn't have one - to double-check his recollection. "Hi, it's Viggo. Sorry to be calling so late," he says. "Oh shit. You're in the middle of it? That's funny. Is it the tape? [She was watching a tape of The Two Towers.] O.K., sorry, it's just a quick question and then I'll let you get back to what you're doing. Remember there were a couple of times I ran away? And the time the dog came and found me in the woods? How old was I then? About one and a half. O.K. But, anyway, the dog came and found me and I was sitting under a tree? Happy? Sleeping, right?"

Big look of consternation.

"I was sitting in the middle of the woods crying? I thought I was sleeping. Are you sure?"

Although Mortensen's marriage to Cervenka lasted only a few years, they remain close. She still performs with some of the original members of X. "It's interesting for Henry to see that," says Mortensen. "He grew up with her, and to see her performing and to see Billy Zoom [the original guitarist for X] play, it makes him conscious of his parents' life."

Mortensen hasn't ruled out another marriage, even though his relationship with Lola Schnabel, 23, the daughter of painter Julian Schnabel, ended last year. "You never know. It could happen," he says. "It's always the thing you think won't happen that does."

Mortensen's circle of friends consists less of Hollywood actors than of writers, poets, artists and musicians, although he remains close with Lord of the Rings cast members Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd, who played Pippin. The two joined him last year in a jam session with the Japanese guitarist Buckethead, who has toured with Guns N' Roses and has a cult following, but is otherwise known chiefly for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket over his head during performances. ("He's very shy, and he doesn't want people to see him," Mortensen explains.) "I did some percussion, and Buckethead had this bag of masks, which we all wore while we were playing," Wood says. "It was wild."

Mortensen's best friend, he says, is Henry, now 15 years old.

"Now you read something like that and think, Oh, this guy. His best friend is his son. Right. He's playing the father card. But Henry's just really smart - a great person. He's so curious. When he gets into things, whether it's music or movies or art or history, he gets really into it."

Mortensen lives in a nondescript suburban house in Topanga Canyon packed with art, drawings, photographs, clippings - an environment constructed for creative ferment. L.A. has long been criticized as being void of culture, but, he says, that's a misinterpretation by people who don't know the city. "You've been hearing that refrain for 50 years," he says. "But that's wrong. There are a lot of artists making very interesting things here, but it's not presented to you on a platter."

Not surprisingly, Mortensen has strong political beliefs. On The Charlie Rose Show, while promoting The Two Towers, he wore a T-shirt that read, NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL, and he is happy to be wound up and set loose on the subject of Iraq. "I think we're in a very dark period," he says as surfers glide and dolphins leap in the waves in front of us. "At what point do you admit it was a mistake and get the hell out of there? How much damage has to be done? How much damage has to be done to the credibility of the United States? This is a disturbing time, and you don't have to be of any political persuasion to be disturbed or troubled by it. I think we're in a time of deliberate cruelty and deliberate lying, and, frankly, I think it's the very bottom of humanity."

The fact that some viewers and critics have interpreted the Lord of the Rings movies as a triumphant metaphor in terms of the U.S. conflict with Iraq upsets him. "I mean, movies are entertainment. This is a story. It bothered me how some people misapplied the story to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. It's like the way Hitler misapplied Norse mythology and literature to validate the Third Reich."

The sand has gotten chilly and damp and is no longer pleasant to walk in, so we scramble back up the rocks to the chain seafood restaurant next to the parking lot. Mortensen walks through the restaurant barefoot. I order a margarita. He orders a whiskey and a beer. The waiter sees a notepad on the table and his celebrity antennae pop up like Ray Walston's extraterrestrial ones in My Favorite Martian.

"So just who is interviewing who?" the waiter asks us. This is a formality. He's pretty sure that this is the guy from The Lord of the Rings. I start to reply, but Mortensen holds up his hand. "She has just set the world record for the longest distance windsurfed by a human being," he says, tilting his head in my direction.

"No!" the waiter gasps.

"She windsurfed from Hawaii to the mainland," he continues. "Sure, there was a boat that followed her, and she slept at night, but still. That's what, how many miles?" He looks at me.

"Um, thirty-seven hundred?" I say. I have no idea.

"And not even a man has done that yet," Mortensen tells the waiter. "Isn't that cool?"

The waiter asks me to sign a menu.

A few whiskeys, a couple of beers, four margaritas, and two tequila shots later (the last, courtesy of the waitstaff to congratulate me on my incredible athletic achievement), we're sitting in front of the pounding ocean in my rented LeSabre listening to Mortensen's new CD, an activity that serves two purposes: I get to hear his latest songs (his car doesn't have a CD player), and we both get to sober up before the drive home.

The music is dark, spooky stuff. Most of it comes from a jam session with Buckethead. We smoke American Spirit cigarettes as Mortensen, on the CD, recites over ominous guitar tracks a poem in Danish about a warrior who must leave home to avenge his country. We get into a long, boozy discussion about why he does so much stuff, why he is so bursting with creative energy that he can't just be an actor.

"People who are creators create," he says. "People say to me all the time, 'Why don't you just focus on one thing?' And I say, 'Why? Why just one thing? Why can't I do more? Who makes up these rules?"

Dennis Hopper, a good friend, gets mad about the same thing. "Why does everybody have such a preconceived idea that an actor can only be an actor?," Hopper asks me on the telephone a few days later. "I am just a farm boy from Kansas, but I always thought poetry and art and acting were ... not exclusive to one another. Creating is creating. And when you're an actor you have time to do other things besides sit and wait for your next job." If Mortensen were locked in a box in a prison in total darkness, with no pens, no tools, no books, Hopper says, "he would make something amazing out of it."

"There's this quote from Rilke," Hopper continues. "He says to the guy - this is Letters to a Young Poet; are you familiar with that book? - he says to the guy something like: You must ask yourself in the stillest moment of your night, If it were denied you to create, would you die, and if the answer is yes, then you have no choice. If your answer is no, then please go do something else."

O.K., but the Lord of the Rings movies - Dennis? Did you like them? "I'm waiting for the third one" is all he will say.

The next day Mortensen and I meet at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, in West Hollywood, where his show "Miyelo" - consisting of seven-foot-long photographs of a Lakota tribal dance he took in South Dakota while filming Hidalgo - is up on the walls and sold out. He has mounted a half-dozen solo exhibitions in Cuba, Denmark, New York, and Los Angeles. His New York dealer, Robert Mann, says he had no idea who Mortensen was when he first met him four years ago.

"The Lord of the Rings wasn't out, and I was clueless about that part of his life' Mann says. "I saw the work and responded to it on its own merit. There's a lot of volatility to it, a lot of emotion, a lot of subtext and sensitivity." Mann says that, typically, celebrity art implies an underlying dilettantism. But Mortensen "is not a dabbler. I consider him a very lucky and talented person. Most artists are lucky to express themselves in one avenue."

Mortensen's new Disney movie, Hidalgo, is an epic Western, the story of Frank T Hopkins, a cowboy and a dispatch rider for the United States Cavalry. In 1890, a sheikh - played by Omar Sharif - invited Hopkins and his horse Hidalgo to participate in a race (called the Ocean of Fire in the movie), which was run on a 3,000-mile course across the Arabian Desert. Typically it was restricted to Arabian horses, which for centuries had been bred to win. The movie manages to be Hollywood enough - with its uplifting underdog message and celebration of American grit and tenacity - but Mortensen is excited by its political subtext.

"I like the idea of being in an American movie, and the American character goes to a Third World country, in this case the Middle East, not to destroy, not to punish, but to challenge them in this contest, and in the end they learn something and he learns something. And then he goes home," he says. "I think that's kind of healthy."

Rex Peterson, the horse trainer who worked with Mortensen on Hidalgo, calls him his favorite actor. "And I have worked in this business 25 years. I like Nicole Kidman, I like Tom Cruise. Some of them, though, I'll never work with again." On Hidalgo, Peterson says, "we had an actor I was going to spank like his mommy had never spanked him. But that's another story.

"You know, every actor you work with, you ask them, 'So, how do you ride?' And they always say, 'I ride excellently.' Viggo says to me, 'I ride O.K.' He gets on the horse, and he rides better than me. That's what I mean when I say the guy has no ego problems. He does not exist on the Hollywood plane - do you know what I mean?"

Mortensen arrives at the Stephen Cohen Gallery caked in mud, having just been riding T.J., who plays the title role in Hidalgo - Mortensen bought him after filming was over - and then washing him and giving him a conditioning treatment. "We don't do that all the time," Mortensen says. "He's not a pretty-boy horse."

Mortensen has arrived at the gallery alone, as he does almost everywhere. He has no group of hangers-on. No personal assistant. No factotum to address him by a snappy set of initials.

"Well, it's not like anyone has ever forced me to have a personal assistant," he says. "I have a partner, Pilar Perez, in Perceval Press. And I have a manager [Lynne Rawlings] who I trust. No matter how many people say, 'Oh, this movie is such a great idea,' she wants me to do things that feel right. Her motives are pure. They're not based entirely on money."

Come on, man. This is Hollywood.

"No, really. She'll say it's not worth it. It's a silly approach in one sense because you always run out of money and then you're in a position where you can't borrow money anymore and you've got to do the best thing at the time for the money."

He isn't hungry to play any particular person or role. "Joseph Campbell said the privilege of a lifetime is being yourself. That's his feeling. And I guess it's mine too."

After leaving the Cohen Gallery, we go next door to Grace, a glossy place with uplighting and women in little black dresses perched on banquettes. I ask him what he'll be doing in five years. "I can't even tell you what I'll be doing in five months," he says. "I don't feel like I need to know."

Are you religious?

"My answer would be what Walt Whitman said in Leaves of Grass. Um, something to the effect of 'I hear and behold that God is in every object and yet I understand God not at all."

How long would he like to live?

"Forever." Without hesitation.

Really? Wouldn't you get bored?

"There's no excuse to be bored," Mortensen says. "Sad, yes. Angry, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there is no excuse for boredom, ever."

A pause. "Of course. Henry says, 'Yeah, well, Dad, if you were in my science class you'd know what it is to be bored.' I guess that's something a little different."

Note: All images were taken 11.23.03 on Eluhu Island, Stonington, CT.

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Last edited: 2 April 2005 13:59:11
© Vanity Fair.