Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
Celebrities generally come in two sizes: large and small. Either they suck up all the oxygen in the room or you can't imagine how they take up so much space on the screen.
Viggo Mortensen somehow occupies a middle ground. He's dressed down for an interview, looking at ease in a blue soccer shirt and blue jeans, but at the same time it's easy to imagine him wielding a sword (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), a lethally hot pot of coffee (A History of Violence) or a pair of sinister sunglasses (Eastern Promises).
Which is what makes Mortensen's newest film, Vicente Amorim's Good, such a change of pace. Based on the play by C. P. Taylor, it's about a literature professor in 1930s Germany (Mortensen) who allows his academic work to be co-opted by the Nazi government. He soon follows suit, abandoning his wife and family for a younger woman, donning the uniform and allowing a Jewish friend to be swept away.
In other words, Mortensen is neither a hero nor even cool, as he has often been no matter what he's playing. This is particularly the case at the beginning of the film, where he's the harried husband and distracted academic.
"The basic difference between his performance in Good and his most recent work is that it's very layered," Amorim says. "There's a lot going on in his mind, and through the first half of the film, which is the more domestic portion of it, he's very physically busy."
"It seemed right," Mortensen says of this choice. "But there is a point, as he's building this new persona for himself and buying into his new status, that he becomes less distracted, flustered, stuttery. And it's this edifice that he's constructing that at the end is probably going to crumble."
Mortensen says he was attracted to the role not only by the acting challenge it presented but also by the message.
"I thought it was an interesting story and different from other Nazi pieces because there wasn't really a grand gesture at the end, suicide, redemption, or some kind of catharsis," he says. "It's not about Hitler or a general or some great rescue or plot or salvation. It feels more immediate, feels more like us."
By "us" he means Americans who, over the past eight years, have allowed policies they oppose to go unchecked because of inertia, self-interest or a sense that things will come out all right in the end.
When asked if Bush administration supporters might object to being compared to Nazi enablers, Amorim says, "I hope they are. But we (compromise) every day. Every small decision is actually a political decision, and we just don't think of it that way to protect ourselves."
It's hard to think of another leading man who would get behind such challenging ideas, especially someone who has slogged through years of supporting parts in middling and not-so-middling movies - Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Carlito's Way, Crimson Tide and G.I. Jane - before finally achieving success. Once he became a star in the Lord of the Rings films, the idea should have been to cash in, but Mortensen, 50, is not interested in that.
"It's not that I could care less," says Mortensen, whose diffident manner, small-bore post-Rings selections (such as the Ed Harris Western Appaloosa) and obvious ambivalence about the business suggest otherwise. "But my goals aren't the same goals that other people have that are perfectly justifiable on their own terms: wanting to be famous, wanting to make lots of money, wanting to win Oscars or something. It's not my main reason for doing it. My main reason for doing it is because I am drawn to it."
Part of the appeal of moviemaking for Mortensen, as it is for many actors, is process. In the case of Good, which he first saw onstage in London 25 years ago, he wormed his way into the professor's head by looking at period photographs, reading the works of academics of the era and borrowing mannerisms from the professorial types he knows.
He also became a pianist. While staying in a hotel in Budapest, Hungary, where the film was shot, Mortensen rented a piano and had it hauled up to his room. There, after work, he would play.
"I don't read music, and I didn't have any plans to play anything in particular," says Mortensen, who nevertheless picked it up, which is not surprising because he's one of those maddeningly accomplished people. In addition to speaking English, Spanish, Danish and French, he's a horseman, publisher, poet, painter and photographer. He became an avid surfer while shooting Lord of the Rings.
"I would look a little at the script," he continues, "but mostly I would think about what I'd done that day, what I was doing tomorrow and the next day, and I would play. It was really interesting, because in the later part of the story different kinds of melodies would come. They were more confident, less hesitant, sometimes louder, played harder, just more fluid. Whereas there were nice, lyrical, but strange rhythms to the beginning."
Now he plays wherever he goes, although these days that doesn't include movie sets. He has an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road coming out this year, but that's it for a while.
"Because of History of Violence and Eastern Promises being nominated for awards last winter, I've been offered a lot of interesting things," he says, referring to the best actor Oscar nomination he received for Eastern Promises. "But I've turned them all down, no matter how good they were. I need a break. I want to think about what I want to do."
One of the things he wants to do is a thing he feels least secure about: act onstage for the first time in 20 years. Next fall, he'll be appearing in the world premiere of Ariel Dorfman's Purgatorio, to be staged in Madrid. According to Mortensen, it couldn't be more challenging: There are only two characters, there is no intermission and there aren't any props to speak of. Never mind that it's in Spanish.
"A little bit of fear is always good," he says, sounding as if he's trying to convince himself.
While Mortensen is not about to announce his retirement from film, he is at pains to say that he's had a good run, regardless of what does, or does not, happen next.
"I'm much more lucky than most, first that I've been able to make a living for quite a few years without having to revert to another line of work," he says. "And second, which is even more rare, I have at least one, and I think several, movies that I would want to see in 10, 20 years. I can hardly complain if it's taken away now."