Born in New York to a Danish father and an American mother, Viggo Mortensen made his movie debut in Peter Weir's 1985 hit Witness. A steady stream of work followed, including roles in Jane Campion's Portrait Of A Lady, Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, and Ridley Scott's GI Jane. Nothing, though, made the impact of his performance as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. For better or worse, the role changed the intensely private Mortenson's life, elevating him to a level of celebrity which he now feels ambivalent about. Here he talks about violence, America, and the dubious effects of fame.
You had a frank discussion with David Cronenberg before committing to do A History Of Violence. What were your concerns?
I thought this was a script that could be a very interesting movie, or it could be a very uninteresting movie, an exploitation movie with some graphic violence. How many times have we seen that?
You've said that you were both on the same wavelength when you met.
Well I think he's probably quite honest as a rule because he's been around long enough to know that's the best way for him, and for me. I was fortunate enough that I was fairly honest with him [laughs]. I said, "Why are you making this movie? Why do you want to make this movie?" He gave me his reasons and I thought they were quite interesting.
Interesting in what way?
That would be too long to go into. But I would say, in general, he didn't want to take the easy way out. So whether it's a sex scene or a violent scene or a conversation with a child, you're uncomfortable as a viewer. We did it that way not to be interesting, but because life is like that. When you're under stress as a human being you behave oddly and your relationships with people become strained.
Your character, Tom Stall, and his family are living in an American idyll until it is disrupted by violence. Some people have dubbed the film anti-American. What is your take on it?
To me it's universal. I think it is the easy way out for a journalist to say this is about America. Yes, I would agree that America, just like Spain was in the 17th Century, is the main empire of the world and they are the ones who, on the surface, are the most pushy: pushing their language, pushing their culture - or what there is of it - pushing by force their system on others. But this keeps changing, it's not particular to any one race, you know what I mean? So to me this movie could have been made in New Zealand or Spain, anywhere. I mean obviously you could write a book about the parallels you could draw to United States society in this movie. It would be easy to do that. But I don't think David Cronenberg's that simple a filmmaker.
After he kills two men, apparently in self defence, Tom suddenly finds himself being celebrated as a hero by the media. Could you relate to his sudden elevation to celebrity?
Oh yes. For 22 years I was making movies, sometimes making a living, sometimes not, and I never really had to think about that. And it wasn't like I was thinking, "I wish I was more famous; I wish people would stop me on the street." I was just doing my job. It was Lord Of The Rings that changed everything. All of a sudden it was different. Now if I'm in a small town in Spain [he has been filming the historical epic Alatriste there], I think: "Do I really want to go outside? Do I really need to get the newspaper now or do I wait until two in the morning?" On the one hand it's an honour and it's nice that people like your work. But on the other, it's obviously an invasion of your privacy. If I'm sitting having a beer in a bar, I know that someone's going to tap me on the shoulder, and they always say the same thing: "I'm sorry to disturb you but..." And then they disturb you. So it's weird.
Some commentators regard the approval of violence we see in the film as a particularly American phenomenon.
It is lazy for them to do that. I think it's a human thing. We've seen it in Germany, we've seen it in Spain, we've seen it in Argentina, we've seen it in England. We're seeing it now in America where a whole nation will go to war, or will do something, because it's easier. "This person looks like they can make decisions. I'll let him think for me." You know what I mean? I think this is just a mass thing that humans do, it's the first impulse. I don't think it's a specifically American thing.