In Conversation With Viggo Mortensen
By Dorian Lynskey
Viggo Mortensen arrives at Empire's Boston hotel bearing gifts: his latest CD (he makes music, as well as art and photography), a campaign badge supporting longshot Democratic Presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, and a copy of the US Constitution, with a passage about impeaching the President decisively circled.
Politics are very much on the 49 year-old actor's mind. He is in Boston, along with the likes of David Strathairn, Josh Brolin and Danny Glover, to read passages for a televised stage production, The People Speak, conceived by revered US historian Howard Zinn. He flew up early so that he could drive back and forth to New Hampshire to drum up support for Kucinich in that state's important primary. "The idea was getting a little bit more media attention, even if they say, 'Well, Oprah Winfrey's out there for Obama, and that weird actor's there for Kucinich," Mortensen says, smiling through his thick beard.
Such activity is an example of why "that weird actor" is far from your typical Hollywood star. Since entering the big league as Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy at the relatively late age of 42, he has exercised rare discretion and imagination in his choices: Spanish-language historical drama Alatriste, Ed Harris' forthcoming Western Appaloosa, and Good, an imminent adaptation of C. P Taylor's play about the rise of Hitler.
Most prominently, he's formed one of the decade's great director-star alliances with David Cronenberg on A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. And even cutting the fingers off a corpse, as he does in the latter, hasn't dented his status as the thinking woman's heartthrob.
Born in New York to a Danish father and American mother, he spent his childhood in South America, his adolescence in the US and his early 20s in Denmark. His movie career began ominously, when his first two roles (in Woody Allen's Purple Rose Of Cairo and Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift) both hit the edit-suite floor. During the next 15 years he took what jobs he could find, some good (Witness, The Portrait Of A Lady) and some not so good (Young Guns II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). He turned in great work, but not the kind that makes you a leading man - until Peter Jackson came calling.
Mortensen's thoughtful, heavily researched performances have earned him many admirers. David Cronenberg says he has "the charisma of a leading man, and the eccentricity and naturalistic presence of a character actor". Elijah Wood reflects, "The more I got to know him, the more I realised how insanely brilliant and crazy he is."
Over black coffee and bacon ("a big bunch of it") in the hotel restaurant, he seems tired but focused, fuelled by sheer enthusiasm. After this, he starts work on John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. As usual, he says, he's overstretched and underslept. "It's like when you've got to go to Boston and talk to this idiot in some fucking hotel," he tells Empire with a wry smile.
"Viggo likes to talk," says Empire's Dorian Lynskey. "He's articulate, intense and unusually self-effacing. Of all the subjects that animate him - politics, history, travel - I suspect that the least interesting thing to him is his own CV. I felt almost guilty having to pull him back to movies when there was clearly so much else on his mind..."
© Focus Features.
EMPIRE: David Cronenberg said that when he first met you to talk about A History Of Violence, his goal was "to seduce Viggo". How did he go about it?
MORTENSEN: He was honest. I think the most seductive or interesting thing is when people are honest. The relationships that I remember are the ones where people were honest with me, especially when they might need to say something that isn't pleasant to hear. That's why I like Dennis Kucinich, because that's what he does. Honesty is the best way to make a relationship grow - or a democracy. And that's what Cronenberg did. 1 said, "This script, I don't know. I gotta say I don't know why you're doing it. It's an exploitation [movie]. I'm concerned about this and that. I'm just being honest with you." And he said, "Well, I'm glad. This is how I feel about it." And I realised right away that he was concerned about the same things, and a script that was 115 pages ended up being, like,75 pages long. I started calling him and talking every day, and asking him about the story. At one point, a week or so in, he said, "So Viggo, I just need to ask you: are we doing this movie together or not?" And I said, "Yeah!" Which was funny, because he thought I was testing him.
EMPIRE: Are you willing to do things for Cronenberg that you wouldn't do for other directors? Like the scene in Eastern Promises where you battle Chechen gangsters in the nude, or the sex scenes in A History Of Violence?
MORTENSEN: Would I feel more willing to take a chance? Yeah. I trusted him more than I would other directors. I've had experiences where I've played scenes or moments - they can be subtle things, like how much you give away of yourself - and I've felt more cautious, and therefore self-censored. My gut feeling was I didn't trust that these people had the intelligence, or the good taste, or the decency to be direct and honest with me. It was easier to do it with David because we were just talking about what needed to be done.
EMPIRE: And is that rare?
MORTENSEN: I've mostly worked for people who don't know how to talk to actors. [They] may or may not be nice people, but you're kind of on your own, and hopefully you're working on scenes with actors who are like you and want to collaborate. If you're not, then you're even more on your own. You get used to that as an actor - it's just the way it is. You have to create the illusion of a real moment. If you have a director who is shepherding that well and watching every detail and making you feel like your opinion matters, it's just easier and more fun. You make better movies that way.
EMPIRE: Researching Eastern Promises, you spent two weeks travelling alone around Moscow, St Petersburg and the Urals...
MORTENSEN: I know the production would have been a little more comfortable if I'd gone with someone else. But it forces you to deal with the immediate surroundings, and to pay them a lot of attention. That's what I wanted to do. I realised I would have to be on my toes. Certainly if you've travelled a lot, it's not a big deal to drop down in some city where you don't understand the language and you have to figure out the subway map or how to get to the airport. If I hadn't travelled, I don't know if it would have occurred to me to go there. But I've always been curious about going to places. If I'm in New Zealand shooting The Lord Of The Rings I want to learn about the countryside, so rather than fly I'm going to drive around and see as much as I can. Maybe you're driving down a road and it says, "This is where Jesse James took a bath and someone took a shot at him." If you think, "I'll go there next time I come through here," you may never come through there again. Turn left.
EMPIRE: Is that what you do? Take that left turn, see what happens?
MORTENSEN: If possible. (Greek tragedian) Aeschylus said something to the effect that, "Fortunate is the man who knows the causes of things." And the only way you can find out about the causes of things is to go and look: ask yourself questions and ask other people questions by travelling, mentally and physically.
© Estudios Piccaso / Origen Producciones.
EMPIRE: By your early 20s, you'd lived in Argentina, Venezuela, Denmark and the US, and you spoke four languages fluently. Does that kind of upbringing give you a certain fearlessness about entering new environments?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, maybe so. I don't think it's uncommon for actors to have had that kind of background where you move a lot. Maybe it allows you to jump into someone else's skin a little more readily, or be inclined to want to see the world from other points of view. Also, if you learn a second language when you're young, it's easier to learn a third, and learn a different sound, a different rhythm, a different cultural background to the way you're communicating. 1 don't know what it would be otherwise. Maybe it would be my nature to be curious about the world even if I only spoke English and had never left the United States. There are people like that.
EMPIRE: You had a lot of different jobs before you started acting: waiter, dock worker, translator... Which did you enjoy most?
MORTENSEN: A little about each of them, and about the friends I made in them. I like being outdoors, so driving around the Danish countryside, delivering sacks of flour to remote village bakeries for a mill, and another job selling roses on the streets of Copenhagen, were particularly enjoyable.
EMPIRE: Do you feel American?
MORTENSEN: Probably as much as anything. I feel like just a person in the world. I have US citizenship, so I can vote here, and I do. I'm also a citizen of Denmark, and I have opinions about that. I try to stay informed, not just about what's going on here, but about what's going on anywhere. I'm curious about what goes on in life. Certainly as a US citizen if I were not to take an interest, inform myself and vote, it would be hypocritical of me to go around saying my President sucks.
EMPIRE: Your next film, Good, follows Germany's slide into Nazism. Why did you want to do it?
MORTENSEN: One of the things that's really different from the hundreds of movies made about that period is that it's told from the point of view of people then, knowing what they knew, learning what they were learning, as things were rapidly changing - it happened in this country, it happened in England under Blair. You're intelligent and you're following the news, and you're talking about it and yet it's all happening so fast - the destruction of civil liberties - that you can't quite keep up. You're selling out but you don't realise it until later. Little by little you're permitting this thing to happen as a citizen, as a people, and it's very interesting to look at how that happens, rather than in hindsight. I think it will be unsettling for people. What I like about Good is that, without making any obvious parallels, you draw them. As I did doing the Spanish movie Alatriste, which is about the decline of the Spanish Empire. I thought a lot about the George W Bush era [while making Alatriste]. I was playing a character who could have been an American sergeant in Iraq, who's been around long enough that he knows it's kind of bullshit, but he's looking after his mates. There are parallels.
EMPIRE: Do you sometimes take on films because they have a political message?
MORTENSEN: No, generally it's the story. I think of those things as I go along. I mean, with Alatriste I thought it was a great story first of all, and I knew that the cast would be made up of the best theatre and movie actors in Spain. But I also felt, because the Spanish weren't as good as the British at promoting themselves, even people in Spain are somewhat ignorant of their own history. The English told the story of what the Spanish Empire was: cruel, untrustworthy, scheming, torturing - all of which happened, but it's a very simplistic picture. Even in great movies like Elizabeth, the representation of the Spanish is that same old cliché. I thought that it would be great to right that wrong. I wish it had been seen more outside of Spain, where it was a huge hit, but, y'know...
© New Line Productions Inc.
EMPIRE: A lot of stars have a one-for-me, one-for-them policy...
MORTENSEN: Do a big cheesy movie, make lots of money, and then do an independent so I can be legitimate as an artist?
EMPIRE: Right. But you've not done that since The Lord Of The Rings made you a marquee name...
MORTENSEN: I've tried not to. You know, I've been doing this for 25 years and I've done a lot of movies that weren't very good, but I've always done the best I could with them. There are some actors where everything they've done has been chosen carefully, and whether it worked or not, at least the intent was quality. I'd say Sean Penn, with a few exceptions, has had a remarkable record from the beginning 'til now for being in things he wanted to be in, rather than, "I gotta make a living." I may be wrong, but that's what it looks like to me, and I haven't had that. After The Lord Of The Rings I had the chance to do more things, but I've always tried to do things that would be challenging and that I would learn from.
EMPIRE: Presumably you could have cashed in...
MORTENSEN: Certainly I could have made more money if I'd done what you're talking about, but I mean, how much money does a person need? I can help my family; I can give money to certain organisations; I can travel on my own. I don't need more than I have. I've been really fortunate. I don't judge people who do that, but I don't have a need to. [When you think], "This movie's only paying me two per cent of what this other one would, and this other one would take half the time and I wouldn't have to research as hard, I could just be myself and make a killing," it's easy to be tempted by that. But I'm just not interested.
EMPIRE: So what kind of scripts came your way after Rings?
MORTENSEN: Mostly they're bad. People want to see a repeat of what works.
EMPIRE: You were asked to wave a sword about?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, bastardisations. That's what happens. A certain kind of movie is popular and then they make a whole bunch of them until they run that genre into the ground temporarily, and then ten, 20 years later that genre resurfaces.
EMPIRE: Is typecasting something you constantly have to fight against?
MORTENSEN: When I first started out in my early 20s, I looked younger than I was. I wouldn't get offered the bad guy or someone psychologically complex - just the nice boy. And then, the first time I played a bad guy, people wanted to see it. Say with The Indian Runner, suddenly I'm getting all these scripts for playing snarling, tattooed psychopaths. Because that's what people do - they go, "Oh, that works. He can probably do that." But that's all they're thinking. Then, you do Lord Of The Rings and they go, "Oh, so you want to be this heroic, epic movie character."
EMPIRE: How do you think people perceive you now?
MORTENSEN: I have no idea. It doesn't matter. When I did A History Of Violence people said, "Are you concerned that people can only see you as Aragorn?" And I said, "No, I don't see myself that way, and if I was concerned there's nothing I could do about it. People are going to see what they want to see, or what they're told to see." I'm not going to be able to shape that, nor am I interested in shaping it. I can understand why you want to project a certain image of yourself as an actor or a human being, but don't think it's possible to manage it, no matter how much money and how many handlers you have. Eventually people, on some gut level, will know that it's not real, the presentation, so I think the best thing you can do is just mind your own business, show up on time, be prepared, and, if you're lucky, it turns out to be a good piece of work, and maybe people go see it and you get a chance to do another.
EMPIRE: So a lot of what happens in your career is out of your hands?
MORTENSEN: There's a lot of luck involved. The thing is that when luck comes your way, as in the success of Lord Of The Rings, it was like, "Well, okay, now I have a chance to do something else. I can either broaden what I know and what I want to attempt, or I can just make a killing." That's luck, but then you have to know what to do with it. Sidney Lumet said something I really like - about making movies, but you can look at it as a way of living your life. He said something like, "The work consists in making the best possible preparation for accidents to happen. Because they will." I would say a piece of good luck is an accident. You never know where it's going to come from. There are plenty of movies and performances that were great that never got the credit they were due.
EMPIRE: Let's talk some more about The Lord Of The Rings. You came on board at the last minute when Stuart Townsend was deemed too young to play Aragorn. None of your prior roles made you the obvious choice for a mythological warrior. Did Jackson ever tell you why he chose you?
MORTENSEN: Not that I remember in any direct way. It wasn't necessary. We clearly seemed to be on the same page from the start in terms of what sort of man I was playing, and he seemed to approve of the manner in which I was building the character. He was particularly gracious with me and the other actors, especially on the occasion of completing our final scenes in that long and winding shoot. It was a very emotional family journey and send-off for each one of us.
EMPIRE: Was it a wrench saying goodbye to The Lord Of The Rings cast and crew at the end of the trilogy, or were you very much ready to move on?
MORTENSEN: It's always a wrench. You get to know each other really well and quickly - if you want to. You can isolate yourself as well, and just prepare your role and show up on set. A lot of people do it that way, and they're technically gifted enough to just do their job and not get emotionally invested in it, but I always get involved, and I think most people do. You make friends, and you fall in love with the landscapes, and the people, and the world you're creating. So it's always a wrench. That was just a longer experience, but not that different. What I learned there was I re-read things with more attentiveness, and then read a lot more - history and mythology, Celtic and Nordic literature, all kinds of stuff. I thought a lot more in terms of mythology, and the idea of compassion, and the double-edged sword of violence and war. So it was like an Open University in all those subjects that I got a lot out of, so I kept going with it.
EMPIRE: Five years after it finished, how do you feel about the trilogy?
MORTENSEN: I don't feel like I have this pang of loss. And I don't reject it like, "Oh, that was some big cheeseball thing, and I want to make sure people don't think of me as that." No. I'm not working with Cronenberg because I'm rejecting Lord Of The Rings at all. It's just something different. I just do what's interesting to me, and I've been lucky to do a lot of interesting things and work with a lot of interesting people. I can't complain about that. I have had frustrations and will continue to do so as long as I remain open to being hurt and frustrated and learning. Being open to learn means you're open to, y'know, suffering in some way. And that's life.
EMPIRE: Are you surprised Peter Jackson wants to do The Hobbit - to go over old ground, in a sense?
MORTENSEN: Hmm, no. I didn't think he would do King Kong. [After Rings] he was thinking about doing a movie about New Zealanders and World War I, a subject he's very interested in. He's a collector of memorabilia about that period - has been for years. And he didn't do that movie. He went and did another big huge thing, maybe so he could finance other ventures. Now he's doing The Lovely Bones, something which on paper is more of an intimate drama but it's still a huge budget and it's going to be, to some extent, a special-effects-driven movie. So it's not really Heavenly Creatures. I'm not surprised he wants to do The Hobbit. Businesswise it's a bonanza, but artistically I think he wants his signature to remain somewhat intact. I would hope that he'd direct, but if he's producing it hopefully he'll be hands-on enough that the look and the feel will be true to what he did.
© New Line Productions Inc.
EMPIRE: You often talk of thinking hard about each character's back-story before you start filming. Did you do that even with your smaller roles over the years?
MORTENSEN: Oh yeah. It's funny because people talk about 'Method acting' as if it's something in particular, and I don't think it is. A method is whatever works. [While doing Good] I ended up playing a lot of music at night. Instead of looking at the script I would play the piano. It was the first time I'd prepared for a role that way. If you like your work, even if you're dealing with people who are frustrating, as you do in this business more often than not - people who are beneath the material or have the wrong reasons for doing what they do - it's still something I enjoy and I learn from, and if you like your work it's easier to do your job and you get more out of it.
EMPIRE: You're famous for immersing yourself in a character - sleeping outside in costume for nights on end during Rings, or learning to paint your own murals in A Perfect Murder...
MORTENSEN: The thing I always do [when preparing for a role] is ask myself the question: what happened between the cradle and page one of the script? And there you've got an entire life of study if you want. You could spend the rest of your life learning about Nikolai's background in Russia, and making all that up. That's always enjoyable and satisfying. Obviously it helps me and the director because if I believe it, there's a better chance you're going to believe that I am this person, as much as I can be. That's always valuable. Most of the movies I've been in, on some level, it's been not as satisfying as that research, but you take what you can from that experience. You learn things even on bad shoots. I've always done that. I've probably refined it. I've got piles of books and ideas on the table and I know how to more quickly go, "That's good, I don't need that..." I can cut to the chase quicker, but it's the same idea.
EMPIRE: Do you do that kind of research at the audition stage?
MORTENSEN: Yeah. The problem with that is it's an ongoing process. I mean, I never stopped working on Nikolai during Eastern Promises until the end. Even in looping there was fine-tuning to make it as perfect as you can. But when you go into an audition, more often than not what they want to see is a finished, smooth [performance], not somebody who's still working on something. They're like, "That's interesting, but I'm not quite sure what he's doing." One of my first auditions was for Greystoke and I was told, "Okay, you're going to go to London to do film tests in a studio, go do some monkey training. It's down to you and Christopher Lambert and maybe one other guy." After that, at least two dozen times in the first couple of years I tested for the lead role in a movie and it always got down to me and another guy, and I never got one of those. I think it was because I was still processing and working.
EMPIRE: In G. I. Jane, you made your Master Chief character more interesting by having him quote D. H. Lawrence. As a supporting actor, did you often get that kind of chance to change a character?
MORTENSEN: Although it is not always allowed, and is not always appropriate or necessary for an actor to contribute or even suggest changes of any kind, it is good if a director remains open to his actors and crew, that he seriously consider their ideas to be of potential interest. Open lines of communication are helpful and productive in the team effort that is moviemaking. In my own experience, there has usually been something, a feeling, a shared approach. Objects that have been presented and sometimes accepted, the odd word changed as necessary, or removed, an adjustment in tone of voice or detail of characterisation, costume ideas, bits of set-dressing, music - any number of potential small contributions that various directors have been kind enough to consider when they seemed useful to the overall effort to tell movie stories. I have been quite fortunate to nearly always get to a place with directors and their teams where some sort of understanding is reached, based on mutual trust that we are in fact telling the same story.
EMPIRE: Is it true you were originally chosen for the Willem Dafoe role in Platoon?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, well, at that time Oliver Stone wasn't such a big deal, and it was going to be a smaller budget. He was going around raising the money using my videotaped audition. Then he was able to raise more money with the requirement that he had someone known, and I was completely unknown. I can totally understand on a business level why it didn't happen. It's just that I laboured for a year or more under the illusion that I had the part, and so I spent a year reading every paper, every book, every essay, watching every film, every documentary about Vietnam. I don't regret it because I learned a lot, but I was so ready to play that part. I prepared for that as rigorously as anything I've ever worked on and it didn't happen. It was frustrating. I even called Oliver Stone and said, "What happened?"
EMPIRE: It must be strange being in demand now after almost two decades of facing knockbacks...
MORTENSEN: It's opening yourself to pretty much regular rejection, being an actor. It's a difficult thing. And I can understand why people get so hardened that they become almost callous. They get this Teflon coating to their personal presentation, and even, finally, their acting. Because it is, in some ways, psychologically injurious as an occupation. I understand that, but I don't think it's good for the work. You have to leave yourself open to be hurt, just as you do in life. You have to be willing in life to suffer, even if it's in subtle ways, if you want to grow as a person. You have to be willing in personal relationships to sit there and take it, or get upset when someone tells you something you don't want to hear. You can close yourself to it, but then you're going to stop growing, and you see that a lot in acting and directing.
EMPIRE: How do you mean?
MORTENSEN: Most directors, especially ones that have a niche as an artist - and you can talk about Scorsese or Coppola or certain famous European directors - they become, if not stale, then repetitive and self-referencing, and it's just not as good anymore. Whether it's conscious or not, they stop taking chances instinctively. They start trying to be who they think they're supposed to be. My personality changes all the time. I'm in flux all the time, like the world is in flux, and I want to ride the wave and see what happens. One thing I respect about Cronenberg is that he's been doing this for 35 years and he seems to improve as he goes along, in part because he doesn't reference himself. He's like a kid out of film school, and he's probably the brightest kid just graduated from film school, and he has that excitement now. Making Eastern Promises in London, every day on set, even if he was tired, he was excited: "Look what we get to do today!" That's unusual.
EMPIRE: But he doesn't attract the same degree of reverence as, say, Scorsese...
MORTENSEN: He once again was left off the Directors Guild nominations list, ridiculously, and I knew that would happen. For A History Of Violence he was totally invisible, as the movie generally was. And the same with Eastern Promises. I know that Eastern Promises and A History Of Violence will be studied in film schools much more than - I don't want to name names - some other directors and movies that are quite mediocre and on these top lists. He never really gets the credit. He'll get credit historically.
EMPIRE: Would you do a third film with Cronenberg?
MORTENSEN: Yeah, probably. We've talked about it, just as we did after A History Of Violence. We have an unusually strong connection, personally and artistically. I get along with him, he gets along with me. I make him laugh, he makes me laugh. We talk about all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the movies - current events, politics, history, tasteless jokes. We move in our own worlds, but he's someone I count as a good friend, and someone I might ask about something that has nothing to do with our work together. Yeah, we've talked about doing something else.
© New Line Productions Inc.
EMPIRE: Do you have any long-cherished projects that you'd like to see materialise?
MORTENSEN: The only thing, and that would be a way off, is there's one story in particular that I would like to direct. I don't want to talk about it specifically because I don't want to jinx it. Then there's the books I'm publishing with Perceval Press. That's something I have to plan ahead, but otherwise I try not to plan too much.
EMPIRE: And you're about to start work on The Road...
MORTENSEN: Yeah. That's the thing that happens when you say, "I finally have to stop." I mean, I shouldn't even be doing that, but it's kind of too tempting not to. It's a hard story, but interesting in what it says about compassion and human nature.
EMPIRE: Why do you want to stop?
MORTENSEN: Because I need to get some sleep and I need to attend to my family and lots of other things. I'm really stretched thin and I've been wanting to take a considerable break for quite some time. It's like trying to turn a big ocean-going liner. You have to decide miles in advance because it takes that long to slow down and make that turn. It's the same with a movie career that involves pre-production, production, post-production, doing PR months and months after the fact. So I've had to say, "No," but right when you say, "No, I can't consider anything for a while," you get offered the best things you've ever been offered. When you don't want to work it's there, and when you desperately need it you can't find anything. That's the way it is.
Have you ever spoken to Stuart Townsend since replacing him as Aragorn?
"I wrote to him when I arrived in New Zealand to start work on the trilogy, but have never met him. I did finally come across him one night in Los Angeles in late 2001. Driving on Santa Monica Boulevard - with Orlando Bloom as my passenger, as fate would have it - I pulled up to a red light. It turned out that Stuart was stopped next to us. Orlando, who knows Stuart fairly well, spotted him. We rolled down our windows and greeted each other. He seems a very good person and is obviously a serious artist."
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