A Man Of Many Parts

Source: Ottawa Citizen

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You never know which Viggo Mortensen you're going to meet.

Four years ago, when the first Lord of the Rings movie was being presented to the press in the south of France, Mortensen walked barefoot in the grass high above Cannes. He was part of a fellowship of actors who got matching tattoos to commemorate their 15 months of filming the epic trilogy. This was Aragorn Viggo.

This year in Cannes, Mortensen was promoting A History of Violence, the new David Cronenberg film about a small-town man who becomes a reluctant hero, and he met journalists carrying a small carafe of tea. He had just finished filming Alatriste, a Spanish-language movie - Spanish being one of the languages in which he is fluent; his Swedish is so good he was a translator for the Swedish hockey team during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid - and he spoke barely above a whisper. This was the Mortensen who is also an accomplished writer, painter and photographer.

Meet artistic Viggo.

At the Toronto film festival this month, still on the History of Violence tour, he arrives wearing a soccer sweater - he's a fan of the Argentine team San Lorenzo - and ready to talk about hockey. This is Viggo Mortensen, hockey fanatic.

Mortensen, 46, was raised in upstate New York, became a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan and recognizes hockey as the lingua franca in Canada.

His support of the Canadiens became a problem during the filming of A History of Violence, which is set in small-town America but was shot in small-town Ontario. Mortensen said he arrived one day with his Canadiens jersey, and shocked the Toronto crew.

"I walked in and there was this weird vibe. And a guy said, 'I can't believe that you did this.'" Realizing he was tormenting a roomful of Toronto hockey fans, Mortensen wore the jersey every day until filming wrapped up and the crew presented him with an autographed Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.

"I said, 'I'll wear it if I can wear a red Canadiens cap.'" And that's how he looks in the group photo that commemorates the end of shooting: the Habs man trying to make peace with Leaf Nation.

It was a provocative position from a man who is soft-spoken, thoughtful and unusually talkative: several times during an interview he will apologize for his long answers. It's just that the subject of violence interests him.

In A History of Violence, Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the owner of a small-town diner who overcomes two hoods trying to rob his cafe. The resulting media coverage brings him to the attention of a group of criminals who insist Tom is "Joey," an associate from a violent past.

The movie combines bucolic small-town life with scenes of unexpected aggression, and Mortensen says the combination is effectively handled by Cronenberg because it was so plainly done. "It was obvious he wasn't going to just make an exploitation movie to show that he could or something," the actor says. "In other words he wasn't salivating or nervous, you know, about those few days when we'd be shooting actual physical violence."

He says the violence in the movie is thought-provoking on several levels, "just in terms of real tremors of potential violence or aggression in normal, mundane relationships."

"Just to get through the day, everyone struggles with their own, quiet private sufferings: physical, mental or whatever. There is violence, if that's the word for it, or pain, destruction, damage ... that's part of life. And we want to not think about it. We distract ourselves, we anaesthetize ourselves in many ways: watching TV, drugs, alcohol. Distractions. And in a lot of positive ways. I suppose, making movies."

Mortensen, who was born in New York City, has been making movies since 1985, when he played an Amish farmer in Witness, opposite Harrison Ford. He starred in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's directorial debut, and as the love interest in A Walk on the Moon before he was cast as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, which saw him become a movie star.

However, he is an unusual one. The subject of violence, for instance, reminds him of other ways of dealing with everyday torments that seem far removed from the Hollywood mentality.

"Singing, being with your family, making the most of life, like an animal does, like a plant does," he says, warming to the subject. "From the beginning a plant has to push its way through the dirt, and that's the struggle, and then they live, and they have their day, and they decay and die. Life is that way, and in this movie I think you see a lot of instances where there's a potential for shame or pain, or disappointment, betrayal: all those things are violent, I think.

"In the end, I think this movie's as much about power or free will, I suppose, of individuals, that may be trampled on a little bit or it comes to the fore in spite of circumstances. Obviously, the character I play makes certain decisions. In spite of his history he does attempt to reject, to turn away from a certain kind of behaviour."

He goes on to discuss several plot points that would spoil some of the movie's surprises, before he concludes, "So it's a question of power: how we control each other. You know, how we censor ourselves. Long answer, sorry."

The long answers are, ultimately, what Mortensen says he doesn't like about his job.

"I'm tired of the movie business in a way," he says. "Because it becomes what we're doing now. Which is interesting when you have an interesting story to talk about."

However, he got tired doing Lord of the Rings interviews, which were followed with promotion for his followup film, the western Hidalgo. After a while, he says, the process outweighs the enjoyment of the shoot.

He says his faith was restored in the making of A History of Violence and Alatriste, both of which were made by calm, well-prepared directors (the Spanish movie was directed by Agustin Diaz Yanes) who had a sense of humour and allowed for collaboration.

"But now I'm going into the promotional thing," he says. "But you get energy when people seem to like the movie."
Last edited: 24 September 2005 11:44:09
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