© Macall Polay/Dimension Films.
A word Viggo Mortensen uses a lot about himself is "fried." By his account, he's been fried for almost two solid years, ever since 2007, when his performance in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, which entailed, among other things, stubbing out a cigarette on his tongue and wrestling nude in a Turkish bath, earned him an Academy Award nomination as best actor and required him to do an unaccustomed amount of publicity junketing. By the time he began shooting the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road, the day after the Oscars ceremony, he was really, really fried.
The Road, which also stars the Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was then 11 years old, and features performances by Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron and Michael K. Williams (Omar on The Wire), is finally opening nationwide on Nov. 25 after a delay of a year while the production team tinkered with it, refining the special effects and trying to emphasize a note of hopefulness in a story that takes place at the end of the world. In the meantime Mr. Mortensen, still fried and about to turn 51, has yet to make another movie.
In the Mortensen lexicon fried doesn't mean baked or stoned; it means frazzled, weary, worn out. When he was sent the script for The Road, he recalled recently, he was so exhausted from Oscar fuss -- and from making two other films, Good and Appaloosa, virtually back to back -- that he almost didn't read it. "But then I read the script, and I thought, if I don't do this, it will be one of those situations where I'll probably think I should have," he said. Referring to the movie's themes of loss, mortality and imminent doom, he added: "People in my family are getting older. I have aunts and uncles who are dying. I had been thinking about those sorts of things: fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, friends, children, the future -- all that. And add the fact that I was just bone-tired. So I thought, well, that part's taken care of -- which is kind of foolish. It's a better idea to play tired than to be tired."
What accounts for Mr. Mortensen's weariness is partly that he is famous for obsessive overpreparation. For Good, which is about a German literature professor who becomes a Nazi, he visited all the concentration camps in Poland, listening to Mahler in the car. For Eastern Promises, in which he's a Russian mobster, he traveled alone to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Urals just to pick up the accent. To get ready for the role that made him a star, that of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he slept in his cloak, practiced sword fighting and probably would have studied Elvish and Orcish had grammars been available. For The Road he slept in his costume again --not much more than filthy rags-- and lived on red meat and dark chocolate to lose weight.
Mr. Mortensen also has several nonactorly lives. He is a political activist: a friend of Representative Dennis Kucinich, to whom he has dedicated a book, and a drop-in visitor to Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar protester, when she was camping outside President George W. Bush's ranch. As anyone who has made it through to the end of Lord of the Rings knows, he sings, sort of. He also writes and translates poems, and paints and takes photographs, composes and records music. Buckethead, the former Guns N' Roses guitarist, collaborated on his most recent album. A friend once compared the suburban Los Angeles tract house where Mr. Mortensen used to live to a "giant compost heap" filled with artworks of every sort. "I do a lot of things at once," he said. "But I try to do one thing at a time. I've learned the hard way."
And if all the art making weren't enough, Mr. Mortensen also owns and runs a small publishing house, Perceval Press, which seems to soak up most of his time and energy. Perceval publishes art books mostly, including a collection of collages by the punk rocker Exene Cervenka, who used to be married to Mr. Mortensen and is the mother of his college-age son, but there are also novels; poetry anthologies, including a couple in Spanish; and some lefty political books.
The best sellers on the list are works by Mr. Mortensen himself, which reliably get a bump whenever he comes out with a new movie. His poems and prose poems are not terrible, even if they subscribe to the aesthetic of literary magazine surrealism:
A half-soul in transit,
the man you were
for one short season
has been pruned,
to a well-groomed graveyard
that smells like popcorn.
And his photographs are often quite beautiful. They're not unlike Mr. Mortensen himself: earnest, softspoken, fascinated by fragmentary or elusive perceptions, a little hard to make out.
"Viggo is a fearless character actor who has the charisma of a leading man," said David Cronenberg, who has directed him in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. "There's an exotic quality, even though he's an American."
Mr. Mortensen has bladelike, Slavic cheekbones, the most jutting movie chin since Kirk Douglas's and icy blue eyes that can seem soulful one minute and menacing the next. He also has a compact, chiseled physique that looks great adorned with Russian mob tattoos.
John Hillcoat, the director of The Road, said: "The thing about the book is that there is such a huge range of emotions, from rage, fear, paranoia, all the way to tenderness. So what made Viggo appealing was his unbelievable range And then there's something iconic about the book. It's about an American Everyman, and Viggo has some of that. You have to buy that this guy has what it takes to survive the end of the world. Viggo has this incredible physicality.."
Despite all his gifts Mr. Mortensen is a somewhat accidental movie star. The first two roles he landed, in Swing Shift and Purple Rose of Cairo, were both cut from the finished films, though no one told him. When he took his family to see the movies, they thought he was delusional. Mr. Mortensen's résumé also includes clunkers like Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. The part of Aragorn didn't come his way until he was in his 40s and then only because the director, Peter Jackson, decided that his first choice, Stuart Townsend, was too young.
Mr. Mortensen is also a reluctant star, who probably more than most dislikes "shilling," as he calls the publicity process, even as he delivers more than the customary sound bites. And he has never really cashed in on his Lord of the Rings fame, preferring instead to work on small, quirky films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
"I sometimes think he could walk away from the whole business," Mr. Cronenberg said. "He doesn't feel the need to be in the public eye. He spends a lot of time alone, and doesn't have an entourage."
When Mr. Mortensen is not working or traveling, he lives by himself in the Idaho boondocks. He has what Mr. Cronenberg calls a "deep personal culture," part of which comes from his complicated upbringing. His mother is American, his father is Danish, and he grew up in Argentina, where he became fluent in Spanish and developed a lifelong fondness for the San Lorenzo soccer club, the Chicago Cubs of South America. When Mr. Mortensen was 11, his parents split up, and his mother took him and his two brothers to live in Watertown, N.Y. He went to college at St. Lawrence, in nearby Canton, and after graduation moved to Denmark to be with his father. It was there that he began to pay attention to movies -- Japanese films, Italian films, the silent films of Carl Dreyer.
"I went from watching in a disinterested way, someone who might get involved or not, to wondering how it was done," he said. "How was it that certain performances made you feel so much and believe so much. There were so many. Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film from 1928. And then from wondering how, I made the transition to thinking, maybe I'd like to try that."
His greater interest was writing, however, and he probably would have become a writer when he moved back to America in the early '80s if only he had typed well enough to get a job on a magazine. Instead he looked in the Yellow Pages, saw an ad for an actors' repertory theater and called the number. "They said prepare two pieces, and I was so clueless I didn't know what that meant," he recalled. "I put together a monologue from a short story by Isak Dinesen, and I also did an Irish poem. I don't know if I read it or sang it. They must have thought I was insane. Anyway, they said come back next Wednesday, and so I said. O.K. I didn't realize it was a school and that I'd been accepted."
Mr. Mortensen plans to appear next in Ariel Dorfman's play Purgatorio in Madrid, and beyond that, except for Perceval Press, his plans are vague. "I have some books to do, some family things to do. If movies were all I cared about, if that was my obsessive thing, I'd have made one or two more by now, but I'm not in a hurry."
He added: "I actually like the social aspect of moviemaking. I like to spend a lot of time by myself, but on the set I invariably make a lot of new friends. That feeling of group effort is something I find very worthwhile. It gets me out of myself."
The Road was deliberately filmed under often horrific conditions, mostly in Pennsylvania and Katrina-hit parts of Louisiana, and the actors were frequently cold and wet. The script at a couple of points called for Mr. Mortensen to take off his clothes and plunge into freezing water. He had to look exhausted, which wasn't hard, and also take care, both on set and off, of his movie son.
"Being a father myself, being a son, I connected with Kodi right away," he said. "He kind of reminds me of my son at the same age, and even a little of myself. If I know anything, it's about being a dad, and that freed me, I think, to be helpful and emotionally available to Kodi. Not many child actors could do what he did every day. Just on a technical level, he reacted the way a veteran actor would, seizing on an obstacle and befriending it. I told him, 'You're doing things that are revolutionary -- things that Brando and Montgomery Clift did.' He said, 'Who's Montgomery Clift?' "