Selecciones Magazine (Argentina)
Image Rudy Waks.
It's summer in Buenos Aires, and there are numerous passengers at the American Airlines counter. Suddenly, they all turn to look towards the first class area. Viggo Mortensen is there, Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings, the rider from Hidalgo, the man with a dubious past in A History of Violence, and the Russian double agent from Eastern Promises. Just a few minutes go by, and Viggo manages to make everyone feel comfortable around him. With a perfect Argentinean accent, he jokes in Spanish with one of the airline employees about the soccer match between Boca and San Lorenzo de Almagro, his favorite soccer team. He gladly accepts to have some pictures taken with some of the people in the VIP room, and keeps his sense of humor when dealing with people that are not used to seeing Hollywood stars around there. It was just a short trip to Buenos Aires to see the San Lorenzo soccer match. A few days before, Mortensen had shared some time with Selecciones in New York, where the actor discussed his new movie, Good. The Vicente Amorim film tells the story of a university professor who, in spite of not agreeing with the Nazi regime, gets carried away until he ends up visiting a concentration camp. He also talked about the soon to be released movie The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy that describes the relationship between a father and his son in a post apocalyptic world. He explained that it was his son Henry who convinced him to accept the role in Peter Jackson's movies and to decide overnight to move to New Zealand for a year to film the Lord of the Rings, the film that changed the direction of his career. He also talked about his special connection to Argentina and to the Spanish language.
Many of your recent characters are men faced with extreme circumstances. Do you look for that type of role or is it just a coincidence?
I think it is a coincidence. In my opinion, the foundation of a good drama is that something out of the ordinary happens. It can be something that threatens your life or your well being. Or, for example, in Good, when a person realizes that all the decisions he made were wrong, that he has chosen the wrong path, and that everything he thought was adequate, is not.
In Good, your character goes along with his circumstances, whereas in The Road, the protagonist tries to rebel against what is happening.
My character in Good rebels up to a certain extent to some things he has to do: having to ban Proust, having to join the party, having to attend a military parade... All these obligations create certain moral conflicts, but he does it anyway, like saying "I don't really approve of this, but well, just this time."
It's interesting how he gradually gets trapped in the Nazi machine...
At the beginning, he seems to wonder "Is this all they want from me, to write an essay, to use the badge? Well, I can do that". He knows it is wrong, but these are just small things that anyone would do; the social pressure is tremendous and besides he thinks: "My mother is sick. I need to take care of my children and my wife, who is not making any money. I have a ton of papers to grade tonight after dinner. There is a lot of pressure, and it wouldn't hurt to get some extra money, would it?"
After the Lord of the Rings, you could have become the new action hero, yet it looks like you chose your roles carefully.
It's because I have other interests in life apart from movie making; for example, my family, who live all over the world. I also have a publishing house that requires some attention, and in the last years, I have put together some photography exhibitions. I also like to write. I do many things, and with time I have learned that if you are not obsessed about money and if you are not in debt, you have more freedom to make choices.
Is it true that you almost turned down The Road?
Yes, I was very tired, and I did not want to accept the role unless I felt I was capable of giving it my best. But then I changed my mind because the story was really good and the topic is one everybody can relate to. Besides, my being exhausted fit the role perfectly. It is about a man who, in some sense, is dying of exhaustion, so the result was very interesting.
It is a very sad story...
Yes, but in the end, it is a beautiful story about compassion and life's lessons. The son becomes the teacher, as often happens in any father-son relationship. One day your son comes and tells you: "You say such and such a thing, that doing this or that is not OK, but then you don't do what you ask others to do". At that moment, he is teaching you a lesson...
Could you say that your relationship with Henry is a bit like that?
Yes. Henry is a very intelligent and compassionate kid. He is a great example for me. Out of all the people I know, he is the most patient and kind. Besides, he writes poems and short stories. He can read, write and create music... as a matter of fact, that's what he does. He tried some theater and acting, and he did well; he could do that if he wanted to, but I think he has other interests. He likes science and he is specializing in archaeology. He is very mature and talented.
You were born in the US, and you have American, Danish and Norwegian [?] blood. You grew up in Venezuela and also in Argentina, but for some reason it looks like you identify more with the latter...
I feel at home in many places, and with time, I learned that in life it is more important who you are, what you do and how you feel than where you are. It's true that I feel a special connection to the places where I lived, especially as a child, like Argentina or Denmark, where a huge part of my family lives, but I also feel a deep sentimental and nostalgic connection to other countries that I have very much enjoyed visiting.
I'd love to go back to Iceland, New Zealand, Spain, Russia... I have dear memories of many, many places. Though lately I have discovered that when I want to write something very intimate, which can take the form of a poem or a piece of prose, I don't write it in English like I mostly used to do. Now ninety per cent of the time I write in Spanish.
Do you know why?
Lately there have been circumstances in my family, in the relationships I had, that lead me to discover certain feelings I had never had to deal with before, and I instinctively felt that I could express them better in Spanish. I'm sure that this change is related to the fact that the stage of life that goes from 3 to 10 or 11 years is very important, and you never forget it.
Do you feel the same in all Spanish speaking countries?
It's slightly different in Argentina. I feel very comfortable there, and they treat me as one of them. Yet, every time I go, something odd happens. In spite of the fact that, especially in Buenos Aires, there are lots of people like me, even in physical appearance, there's always people that look at me and say: "You are not from here. You sound like us, but you are not one of us. How much do you really know about that soccer team you talk about so much?" But then, after they get to know me, they realize that in fact I am like them.
Why do you think you kept that special connection to Argentina?
I left Argentina in 1970, shortly after my parents divorced, and I did not return until 25 years later, in 1995. Yet, when I went back, in spite of the fact that my vocabulary was a bit old-fashioned, I had kept my Buenos Aires accent almost intact. Besides, I always managed to find my way around, in Buenos Aires and in the provinces.
Does your capacity to become a different person when you act have anything to do with the fact that you also had to become someone else when you were 11 and moved to New York?
To become someone else is a way of adapting. When I went back to the US, I had an American passport and American cousins, and besides, it was not the first time I'd visited the country. When I was very young, we travelled very often, and we stayed there for a couple of weeks during the summer. Yet, I remember being shocked when I moved to the US and saw that all the TV shows that I used to watch in Argentina in Spanish were the same, but they were in English! I thought that Batman and all the cartoons were in Spanish...
How did it feel to turn 50?
For my birthday, and at the end of the year, I tried to have some time alone to reflect on the fact that another year had gone by. Turning 50 does not worry me more than turning 40 or 30. I don't feel particularly moved about it. It's just another number. I don't feel older or anything like that. It does not worry me, and besides, I can't do anything about it. I think that being an actor, an artist in general, helps.
When you tell stories through acting, if you do a good job, what you are doing is looking at the world through somebody else's eyes, very often from points of view completely different from yours, and in some cases you can't even identify with them or you don't agree. You are forced to feel them as your own, to understand them. It is what kids do in a very natural way when they play: "I am a cowboy, I am a princess, I am going to be a great soccer player". It's their dreams: fireman, policeman, thief... they don't even think about it, they know they can do it. When we become adults, with our own set personalities, we lose that ability. Only lunatics and actors continue to do it. It is a very healthy practice. It keeps you young and open minded.
Is there anything you regret not having even attempted?
Yes, many things. But it's never too late. I wish I had learned music at a younger age, but I did many things and I was very lucky about the people and places that I got to know in my travels, the experiences I had, the people I loved and the ones that loved me. I cannot complain.