Ahead of the release of the bleakly beautiful Everybody Has a Plan, the Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen tells Sheryl Garratt why he prefers poetry, photography and music to the trappings of global fame.
Image Adam Whitehead.
© The Telegraph.
We've only just started talking, but suddenly Viggo Mortensen leaps up from the sofa and dashes out into the lobby of his London hotel, wearing nothing on his feet but multicoloured striped socks. I've told him that his latest film, Everybody Has a Plan, is bleakly beautiful, and since he has just been talking to its first-time director, Ana Piterbarg, he rushes out to find her so that he can introduce us. Sadly she has already left, but this simple act tells you quite a lot about Mortensen, who shot to global fame via the Lord of the Rings films in 2001. He doesn't send a lackey. He doesn't think the interview should be all about him. And he has padded down from his room without bothering to put his shoes on.
This is a flying visit to London. He arrived a few hours earlier from Athens, where he's shooting an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's taut thriller The Two Faces of January. 'It's similar to the Ripley books in that in the main it's about Americans behaving badly in Europe in the early 1960s,' he says. 'They're good characters. It's been fun. It's another first-time director, Hossein Amini, who's very well-known for his screenwriting. But this is a movie that he's been trying to get made for going on 10 years, so he's very well prepared.'
Tomorrow he'll be off again, to continue shooting in Istanbul. He loves the travelling, he says. 'Two days ago, I had the opportunity to film inside the Parthenon. It's all roped off usually, and I'm just wandering around, looking, picking up little bits. I've been to many places in the world that I would not otherwise have seen. When we shot The Lord of the Rings, we had special permission to film in wild areas of New Zealand that could be accessed only by helicopter. They would drop us off and we would work all day, and they'd pick us up and take us out again.'
Famously, he wore his sword constantly and camped out in the wild while getting into character as the warrior king Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but despite this, he says he is not really a method actor, just meticulous. And quite fond of camping. 'I came to it later than the other actors. They were already filming when I was cast. So I was making up for lost time, trying to be familiar with the weapons and the clothing. But I happen to like fishing and camping anyway, and being outdoors. So it was mainly that: making the most of it all.'
Everybody Has a Plan is his fourth film in Spanish, but his first set in Argentina, where he spent most of his childhood. His mother is American; his father was Danish and an agricultural manager, work that took the family to South America when Mortensen was three. They lived mainly in Buenos Aires but also in the rural northern region of Chaco, which is where Viggo learnt to fish and to ride, a skill that has served him well in several films. When he was 11 his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother and two younger brothers to upstate New York, near the border with Canada. It was a shock, he says. 'At that time - 1970 - there was no cable TV or internet, so there was no radio, no TV in Spanish, and no Argentine football any more. And my brothers and I spoke only Spanish. But you quickly adapt. I somewhat replaced it with French. We were not that far from Quebec, so I [replaced] my football team with the Montreal Canadians hockey team, which has the same colours.
'I was old enough that I kept the Spanish and kept the accent, but it was years before I ran into other Spanish speakers, and I was surprised to find they had different accents. When I heard Puerto Ricans in New York City, it sounded very strange. And the first time I heard someone from Spain, I thought they had a speech impediment!'
As well as English and Spanish he is fluent in Danish, says he can get by in French and understands several other languages. Everybody Has a Plan is the first time he has been able to use the Argentine accent he uses naturally when speaking Spanish, but even here there were complications, as he plays identical twins who have taken very different paths in life: Agustín has become a middle-class paediatrician in Buenos Aires, while Pedro has chosen a more basic life on the edge of the law on an island in the Tigre delta. 'The accents are different, the rhythm of speech, the vocabulary,' he says. 'But I like those challenges. You learn doing it.'
He met the director, Piterbarg, when she was taking her son to use the pool at San Lorenzo, the Buenos Aires football club he has supported since childhood. She told him about her idea for a contemporary film noir in which an identical twin takes over his brother's identity, and they kept in touch as it developed, with Mortensen's name helping to raise funding to get the film made. It was shot on a limited budget and mainly in the delta, with all the cameras and equipment having to be ferried in by canoe.
'I'm proud of it,' Mortensen says. 'It was a good decision to shoot in the winter because it gave character to the movie. But it put us under more pressure, too, because there were fewer hours of daylight. It was cold, and the weather was quite changeable. But it was beautiful.'
One of the skills he had to learn for the film was beekeeping. 'We got to make honey,' he says, smiling. 'I have one jar left. It's pretty good. What was surprising - and what probably distracted me from the fear of being stung - was the noise. One bee buzzing close to your head is quite loud, but imagine thousands. Your world closes off and you become very focused on what you're doing, because you can't really hear what other people are saying.'
Since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen has shied away from mainstream blockbusters, choosing roles that are challenging, often dark. 'Those are the stories that interest me,' he says. 'I don't really look for movies based on the budget or the nationality or the language, necessarily. I just want to be in movies that I wouldn't mind seeing 10 years from now.'
He's 54 now, and if he's vain, he hides it well. When his face was airbrushed on the US poster for his 2005 film A History of Violence, he asked for it to be remade. 'My face was completely unlined. It was impossible. It just looked fake.'
Clothes are an essential part of creating character for Mortensen, but when it comes to his own style, he's indifferent. 'If I was playing a fashion designer, I would make a full study of it. But if I'm not doing that, to be honest, I have no desire to be part of that whole circuit. I've got used to the red carpets. The first time I really had to do that sort of thing was Lord of the Rings. Until then I'd more or less made a living as an actor, but I'd never really had to go to premieres. Or if I did, nobody would care what I looked like, or had to say. So I hadn't had much experience until quite late. But it's not a world I would go into unless I had to.'
He enjoys some of the costumes he has worn in films ? he says the suits he wore to play Sigmund Freud in the 2011 film A Dangerous Method were beautiful, and he loves the handmade 60s suits in Two Faces of January. But off-duty, he'll wear pretty much what he's wearing when we meet: faded jeans and a San Lorenzo T-shirt. He still follows his childhood football team avidly, writing a column for their website with his friend the Argentine poet Fabian Casas; since moving to Madrid two years ago he has also started following Real Madrid.
When Mortensen isn't filming, he paints, takes photographs, writes poetry and makes music, mainly in collaboration with the former Guns'n'Roses guitarist Buckethead. Much of this comes out into the world via Perceval Press, the independent publishing imprint Mortensen founded in 1999. It started with a catalogue to accompany an exhibition of his visual art, in which he accompanied the pictures with some of his poems. 'I really liked the way it turned out, it was interesting,' he says. 'And there were other poets and artists that I liked who hadn't been published, or not in the way they wanted to be. I thought I could maybe help them. I try to tailor each one to the expectations and the vision of the artist, or the author. We take a lot of care with it: there's no point doing it unless someone is going to be really happy with the way it turns out.'
While we are talking about Perceval, he asks for my address, and says he will send me a few things to look at. A week later, a crate arrives from Los Angeles, filled with books and CDs. Some of the books are beautiful: poems in Russian, Spanish and English; collections of work by different artists; and more political publications such as an atlas of global imperialism, or the most recent Perceval release, It's Not About Religion, an essay looking at the roots of Middle Eastern conflict.
He is hoping to have an exhibition of his photographs in Spain soon, of pictures he took while in Argentina shooting Everybody Has a Plan. Given his interest in visual art, it is no surprise that Mortensen is also planning to direct, next year. 'I would like to try it. I like photography, and I like actors, and I like the process, the collaborative aspect of it.'
He collects cameras, and still uses his two 1903 Kodaks, but says he has gradually started shooting most of his photography digitally. He has been a late convert to the wired world, only relatively recently starting to carry a mobile phone. 'It's antiquated, just a flip phone. I don't have a BlackBerry or whatever you call it. And there is something to be said for being isolated and out of phone range, because you can fall into a habit to such a degree that you don't even realise that you've lost something: silence.'
When he longs for silence, he has a remote house in the mountains in Idaho, surrounded by woods. One of his brothers - a geologist - lives not too far away, and checks on it for him occasionally when he's not there. His other brother lives in Los Angeles, and helps him to run Perceval Press. As he travels around the world for work, he keeps in touch with his scattered family via Skype.
'Computers used to be just bewildering, and I resisted a laptop for a long time as well, but then when I founded the press I had to use it. I use it for editing pages, for my photography, and it's helpful. And I use it to stay in touch.'
His mother is slipping away into the twilight of dementia, but he still talks to her often. 'She knows who I am, but she gets things mixed up. She always loved movies, and she probably instilled that interest in me. There are a couple of channels that show old-time movies, and she watches those a lot. But now she thinks that's what's really happening, and she thinks I'm in every single one. Which leads to some very funny conversations: "I watched your movie. I can't remember what it's called, but Ingrid was very good, as she always is. You - not so much." Then I'll ask her questions about it, and it was Notorious, or something. Or she'll say, "It's a nice day here, but the house next door exploded." And I know that's something she just saw on the TV. She seems happy, and she laughs a lot. But I do miss the conversations we used to have.'
Mortensen has a 24-year-old son, Henry, with his ex-wife, Exene Cervenka, the singer in the LA punk band X. Having recently graduated from New York's prestigious Columbia University, Henry will soon be moving to Britain to pursue post-graduate studies in anthropology. That may lead to an academic career, his father says proudly, or to something else entirely. 'It's up to him, and up to fate to some degree,' he says. 'I got a degree in political science, and now I'm an actor in the movies, so who the hell knows!'