Viggo's Box

Source: Fond Affexxions #5, Winter Thaw 1995

Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Image Pieter Lessing.
© Blue Wing.
For a flicker of a moment near the opening of Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, Viggo Mortensen's character, Frank Roberts, appears to have his head screwed on for the first time in his life. Fresh from Vietnam, he arrives at his brother Joe's house, lucid and friendly. On the way to visit their parents, he's chatty and admiring of his brother, his little boy, and his new stature in the local police department. Prior to Frank's entrance, Joe's voice-overs have prepared us for a grownup version of the local hell raiser, coming home shellshocked.

"What?" says Joe from the front seat of the squad car, as "Frankie" grins cryptically at him.

"Nuthin'," he says, "just looking' atcha."

That's the quicker of Frank's three gentle moments in the film. The other two, kissing his nephew and kissing his girlfriend, aren't much longer.

The Indian Runner came and went. My high horse prohibits me from entertaining the possibility that it was a bad movie, rather, it was too good. One can chalk up most of its passing to the public's negative preconception of Sean Penn as a filmmaker (wholly unjustified after one viewing of The Indian Runner), resulting from his public persona: his troubled marriage to Madonna and its ending, and his reputation for having a two-fisted short fuse.

Given the film going public's preoccupation with the "bad boy" archetype, The Indian Runner, by all accounts, should have been a runaway success. Viggo Mortensen played the seductive bad boy to the hilt, "Sam Shepard's evil twin," as he remembers one critical comparison. But, aside from the film's grizzly climax, he rarely strikes anybody (and even then it's off screen). He abuses his wife without laying a hand on her; he drinks, lots, and tends to turn a little green when he does. Where he can't find words, he breaks things, or people, or buries his brain in a shot glass. Toward the end of the film, we find Frank Roberts cowering on a barstool while his wife gives birth to their child.

"Go see my angel be born," he slurs to Joe.

Sure, the public like leather jackets, slick dancers, smooth talkers, fast drivers and sharp profiles. It doesn't, however, like to see people in pain being stupid (though that's what seems to steer most of the goings on everywhere outside the theater).

So, Mortensen played a man in pain being stupid, played it to an extreme I seldom see, and The Indian Runner slipped quietly away. As Mortensen seems content to do.

Any actor who's ever shunned the media under pretenses of privacy always fuels the public eye (it's one of the oldest gimmicks in the book). Mortensen, however, for all his anonymity, agreed to this interview only after much coaxing on my part through his manager, Lynn Rawlins.

So, after a string of calls to Rawlins over several weeks, Mortensen agrees to talk with me.

We meet at a coffee house in Santa Monica, where he's already upstairs with a glass of iced coffee and a notebook. Beside him rests a box, overflowing with sheets of rumpled paper and picture frames, much like one would find in an attic, or on the neglected shelves of Christmas decorations (his manager had asked me if he could make a contribution to the magazine, to which I gave an unqualified "yes").

"I don't know what you're looking for," he says, "but I brought a few things to show you."

We sort through the box, Mortensen showing me poems and photographs that he grabbed hastily before driving out to meet me.


He's got a deep, abiding respect verging on idol
worship for where things end up. There are unopened
letters in his refrigerator, a fake fingernail
in the soapdish, shoes every place. These things,
and many more leavings, fragments, balancing
remainders of a breeze from a slammed door -
configurations of sanctified loose ends - have become the living net
above which he performs the movements that make the clock work.

(from Ten Last Night, 1993)

Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Image Pieter Lessing.
© Blue Wing.
Many of the photos are from trips he's taken throughout the Midwest, snapping stills of whatever looks interesting, and letting the stories, or lack of such, speak for themselves: The bronze deer in the backyard' the bride, veil in hand, walking out of a church alone.

Mortensen asks me which ones I like, and what I think might work in the publication. I'm uneasy, to say the very least, about giving him my "yes" or "no" to his work. In fact, I find it odd that he's looking for my approval in any way at all.

Inside the box is a line drawing, a blast of felt pen marks on torn notebook paper inside a frame, depicting a woman's body straining on the edge of giving birth. He shows me photographs of his ex-wife, his son, random shots of people and scenery. Some are abstract, with an aesthetic slant to them, others are the stray family snapshots that could have come from my own abandoned box in the closet, the kind we all stumble across when we clean out for a move, a yard sale, or sweep up the life of a recently departed loved one.

Mortensen is shy, in a way, and softspoken enough that I nudge the tape recorder closer to him whenever he isn't watching. I have to lean in to hear him over the ambient noise... the music, the steam-engine hiss of the espresso machine and the clattering of spoons. He has no trouble with eye contact , though, a trait I rarely find in people. He looks at me head-on while we talk, which we do for several hours, breaking eye contact only to rummage through his box (at which time I move the tape player, again).

Had I seen photographs of only his hands, not knowing who he was, I'd have made them for one of Richard Avedon's Midwestern carny/ranch-hand stills: dark, rough, and callused along the edges of his forefingers.

Still, for someone ill at ease in the presence of a tape recorder, someone who rarely does interviews, Viggo tunnels through his box, anxious to show me more. This is not a portfolio. Rather, the box contains pieces of his life, what he had on his walls and on his desk, hastily collected and thrown into his front seat.

He tells me that he used to work for a while, save some money, climb into a car with camera riding shotgun and comb the country, taking pictures.

It's the first hint he gives me of his penchant for watching the world.

Last summer, filming Philip Ridley's (The Krays, The Reflecting Skin) latest film, The Passion of Darkly Noon, he played a mute named Clay. As preparation for the role, he spent the entire month on location in East Germany not speaking, scribbling notes to other cast members, crew members, hotel and airline ticket clerks.

"It was fun, as an exercise," he says, "because you listen more.

"We were on location in what used to be East Germany, on the Czech border. I was there on my own, I didn't have anybody that I needed to talk to on the phone, so I thought I'd try to warm up because I didn't have a rehearsal period. I literally worked the day after I got there. When I stepped off the plane I decided not to say anything. I thought 'I'll just do this today' and then I just kept doing it. I did it the whole month I was there, which was really interesting because I did hear more what was being said, and I did watch people's reactions more closely.

"It was also really nice... people basically left me alone because I was a pain in the ass to communicate with. Unless they really, really had to talk to me, they wouldn't bother.

"Some of the people thought I was deaf, too, because I didn't talk. They would talk loudly, or say shit in my presence, to each other, that they normally wouldn't. Some people at the hotel thought I was retarded."

Mortensen, then, was left to his own designs for the most part, to sit in his hotel room, watch soccer games and write. He recalls with fondness his detached feeling of being in another country and not speaking, but listening more intently to everything around him. Able to move anonymously through his surroundings precisely because people assumed he was deaf or retarded, he heightened the 'watcher' role he revels in.

"It's pleasant to go into another city, another place, in an anonymous way, as an observer. Your senses are really heightened, watching people...

"People were a lot kinder, too. I had to get a plane ticket changed on the way back, but I really wasn't supposed to, you know? But this person sort of fudged it, because they felt sorry for me."

Good thing you didn't accidentally drop a bag on your foot...

"Or say 'thanks'." Mortensen laughs. It's an exuberant laugh that contrasts with his reserved demeanor.

The story makes me think of Chief Bromden, from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

After 20 years of playing mute he says 'thanks' for that stick of gum...

"Wrigleys. Wrigleys?" Mortensen wonders.

A stick of gum. I'm not sure what kind it was.

"I think it was Wrigley's."

Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Fond Affexxions - Issue 5, Winter Thaw 1995
Image Pieter Lessing.
© Blue Wing.
So we're back to objects again. What seems to drive his writing is an attention to the minutiae of life, which he likes to chronicle in excruciating detail.

...In an Omaha steakhouse full of Indian summer
sunday dinner feasting families you modestly
celebrated what you knew would be the closest
thing to a goodbye glimpse of home by eating
and drinking as if willing the red-robed walls to
fall on our table without a thought for the candle
flame that would surely get sucked out as the
particle board and plywood left the door frames
and windowsills behind and rushed to the floor
with a last gasp of generations of paint and
wallpaper glue swirling into your lungs...

(from Ten Last Night, 1993)

Collecting things, looking at the details in life, keeping his distance and observing, are his creative well-spring.

When I ask about his formal training as an actor, he relays some of the time spent with the Warren Robertson Theater Workshop in New York City. Still, he draws more from watching... other actors and people in general.

"It's fun to drive around in a small town, and go into a diner, movie theater or a hotel. I like to go high school football games, or see a high school play. It's interesting to see what things people do instinctively and what things they're made to do... you can see some performances that maybe are not the most liked by the audience, or the teachers, but they might be the purest..."

We speak briefly about the candor and honesty of the interview format, which also ties into his feelings of observation and watching.

"I only get a certain degree of voyeuristic, 'fast food' enjoyment out of that kind of revelation of people. You pick up the Enquirer because it's fun... you know it's all bullshit, but it's fun to see what people will make up."

Still, his eyes and ears are his training ground. While studying in New York, the encouragement he received from Warren Robertson was only slightly more important than his love of watching theater and movies.

"I know I was making lots of beginner's mistakes, but I guess he felt there was something promising in what I was doing, and he encouraged me to pursue it. And he would do this in such a way that I trusted him and made me feel good about my acting; he would refer to movies... 'think of so and so in that same scene'...

"So I started watching more movies.

"I think I insulted him one time, unintentionally, but he knew what I meant. The teacher had talked about a certain movie, I think it was a movie with Montgomery Clift... I can't remember. But anyway, I went to see it, and I remember saying, you know, 'I learned as much from that movie as probably a month of going to class'..."

Unlike the subset of the Hollywood elite that has jumped onto the poetry wagon of late (with some truly ghastly verse), Mortensen has been writing for longer than he has been acting. Since moving to Los Angeles, he's frequently read his work publicly, and has been a part of the Beyond Baroque workshop for years, where he was relieved to find that the other participants didn't know, initially, that he was an actor.

When asked, he seems doubtful about which title, actor or poet, to put in front of the hyphen.

"Writing poetry, and reading it, is risky in a way different from acting. You have no one to blame but yourself - for not taking a chance, not following through on an idea or a feeling, for not being specific and original. Often my poems mean more to me because they're completely my art form, for better or for worse. And I like that freedom of expression.

"You're always hearing about this 'renaissance of poetry' or 'rebirth of spoken word.' But it never went away. There are good poets who have been writing, who are seventy, twenty, thirty and fifty years old, and have been doing it for... always. Some of them write really great stuff, generally in total obscurity. And it's inspiring to read and hear their work.

"Unfortunately, on the one hand, you have the overrated but fortunately short-lived MTV-oriented hack poetry; on the other hand you have the chronic, self-important academic infestation that does its best to kill poetry as a pure art form, and keep it from gaining wider acceptance."

While his acting is a labour of love, he acknowledges the practical, bill-paying part of that love.

Mortensen regards his writing, on the other hand, as being selfish, because no tangible good, such as money or fame, comes from it, only his own artistic satisfaction and sense of communion with an audience.

As our conversation, specifically his answers to my questions, meanders, Mortensen forces himself back to the topic at hand. As the evening progresses, though, I'm less interested in his answers to my specific questions, and more interested in his meandering. No matter what direction the conversation takes, he always returns to his ease with being a witness to it all.

"I got to do the final audition for the Actor's Studio in New York two years in a row, and if you were in the finals, you got to be an observer the next year, even if you didn't get in, which I never did.

"So, I would go and watch."
Last edited: 6 January 2009 09:50:56
© Fond Affexxions.