A reporter tells Viggo Mortensen in a phone interview that A History of Violence is the best movie of 2005. The actor shrugs it off with a little chuckle.
"It's kind of unfair to compare movies," Mortensen said. "When people try to have a list of the best movies, I kind of laugh. They're so different. But I do think that this movie was well prepared, well executed and well presented."
Mortensen, 46, is not the type to congratulate himself or put much emphasis on awards or fame.
Having worked his way up through auditions and bit parts over the past 20 years, earning a reputation as a serious performer committed to his art above all else, the shiny promise of Oscar holds little appeal. Nor is he concerned about the fame that was heaped upon him after starring as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"I'm grateful for that," Mortensen said of the trilogy. "It's odd to me when any stranger recognizes me, much less hordes of people who think they know me really well but couldn't possibly, of course. They're just projecting their ideas on you. That kind of reaction is understandable when a movie is that big and is a cultural phenomenon on top of it, which is rare."
All that matters to Mortensen is living and breathing through his characters. The dedication is obvious in A History of Violence. Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a small-town family man who earns unwanted notoriety by stopping the armed robbery of the diner he runs with an outburst of decisive violence. Mobsters descend on the town, convinced that Tom is a former thug in hiding. With his safety and that of his family in danger, Tom confronts the demons of his past.
The role allows Mortensen to show his greatest range yet, alternating among a reserved diner owner, an impulsive dispenser of vengeance, and an unsteady soul torn between the two personae. It should come as no surprise that Mortensen excels in the role, one of his few leading parts, because the actor tends to live as his characters even when off camera. Multiple news reports say director Peter Jackson would refer to Mortensen as "Aragorn" in daily life during the shoot, and Mortensen would respond without a pause.
"I don't remember that happening, but I suppose it did," Mortensen said. "It was Peter maybe doing it out of mischief. I'm not someone who's gonna go out and get in a bar fight to get into a character I'm going to play. I've heard some people say things like they didn't have any trouble getting into the character, or it's always hard to step away from it and go home at night. I have a feeling that basically our lives are finite, and our memories are certainly finite. Any movie I worked on, good or bad, I learned something. So why would I be in a big hurry to forget about it after filming?"
Mortensen said A History of Violence was the most collaborative project he's worked on. Director David Cronenberg encouraged his cast to improvise and interpret their characters in their own way. They would discuss motivations and back-stories in between scenes.
"We all understood that within the structure of the storytelling, anything goes," Mortensen said. "We all had some sense within the structure of those characters."
Mortensen heaps praise on Cronenberg, calling him one of the few veteran directors whose talent hasn't plateaued.
"David was like a kid fresh out of film school on set. Like, 'Hey, what are we doing today?' So eager," Mortensen said. "It was though he was this young guy who just tricked the studio into giving him some money."
A History of Violence has emerged as a possible awards contender, a fact that doesn't surprise or intrigue Mortensen, although he did say he "really hopes" Cronenberg gets nominated for a best director Oscar.
"If I get nominated, sure, I'd be flattered, but it's not going to change my feeling about the movie," Mortensen said. "I think it's a really good movie; pound for pound, as well executed a movie as I've ever worked on, with the most satisfying results. But it's not going to affect how I do my job either way."
Mortensen said he's seen the film three times, and each viewing has given him a deeper understanding of its themes.
"It doesn't embrace violence on a superficial level, and it also doesn't shy away from it. It kind of accepts inherently that it's going to be that way at times," Mortensen said.
"There are problems that always need to be worked on, such as in relationships. If people don't remain somewhat aware and capable of change in themselves and their partner, the relationship's going to wither and die. You have to work at relationships. You have to work at democracy. At marriage. At society. You have to work on yourself. That's where it begins."