© Armando Gallo.
The Lord Of The Rings brought Viggo Mortensen to the world's attention, but his latest film with David Cronenberg, A History Of Violence, may disarm a few of his fans
Taking time out before commencing our interview, Viggo Mortensen cuts a solitary figure as he quietly sits at a table in the corner of the room. Composing himself, he presses a thin pipe to his lips, half obscured by a bushy moustache that makes him look like a circus ringmaster, and sucks a curious liquid-green health remedy from an ornate gold pot. It looks as if Mortensen has smuggled out a prop from Lord of the Rings, the Oscar-laden movie trilogy that shot him to fame as the dashing warrior Aragorn. It might just be a potion to calm his nerves.
Uncomfortable with the limelight, this temporary respite from the hullabaloo that is the Cannes Film Festival is as necessary as it is understandable. 'I wouldn't come here at this time of year unless I had a very good reason,' he says, 'which I do.' While he might not admit it, it's to prove his days of playing the hero are behind him.
Standing at 5ft 11in, with a jutting, angular jaw and striking emerald eyes, he's fighting against his looks to do so. But Mortensen is a quiet, humble and introspective fellow, one who is bamboozled, bemused and a little frightened by his success. After making his screen debut as an Amish farmer in 1985's Witness, Mortensen's career now spans two decades and close to 40 films. But it's only since playing Aragorn that anyone has taken much notice. He immediately followed Lord of the Rings with Hidalgo, in which he saddled up once again to play a Pony Express courier who takes his eponymous steed to race across the Sahara desert. All of a sudden, Hollywood was setting up Mortensen - who turns 47 next month - as the last action hero. The attention, he says, has not been easy. 'There seems to be more of that now than ever before. I'm a person who likes to be alone a little bit every day, and that makes it harder to be honest with you. In that sense, that's a negative side of it all.'
Wearing a red, blue and white stars-and-stripes shirt that looks as if he's advertising his maternal origins, Mortensen has, at least, come dressed for the occasion. Maybe it's his dry sense of humour, courtesy of the Danish blood pulsing through his veins from his father's side, but he probably finds amusement in sporting patriotic apparel when promoting a film like A History Of Violence. Directed by Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg, this adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke deconstructs the American Dream with alarming brutality. Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a small-town diner owner and married father-of-two who, it is revealed, has a violent past he thought he'd long-since buried with the bodies.
Less immediately cerebral than Cronenberg's recent films Spider and eXistenZ, the film has already been criticised for its bone-crunching bloodshed: a nose is literally panned flat, a jaw quivers uncontrollably after it is half blown apart ... moments that emphasise the pain and destruction violence brings. 'Most directors would make an exploitation movie out of it,' says Mortensen, 'and emphasise the violence. It might be interesting to look at, but not very thought provoking. Obviously, David makes thought-provoking movies, so I wondered why he wanted to make this one. He gave, and continues to give, interesting answers.'
So does Mortensen. 'Violence manifests itself in many ways,' he says, 'and it's usually an impulsive, easy way out, instead of having a communication. Violence is, in a way, the cutting off of communication.' In the film Tom commits savage rape of his wife - Mortensen thinks 'anybody' is capable of such actions. 'In terms of violence, if the film says anything, it's not that violence is typical in America or anywhere else, but that it's a human thing. As long as there are humans, there will be violence - emotional or physical. We're animals too, y'know? Humans also have free will and can make a choice to not behave that way.' So did he ever find himself in fights? 'No, not really. I was someone who kept to himself. I had a couple of situations but not really anything bad. I was pretty lucky. I try to avoid trouble if possible.'
As the film unfolds, Tom's history of violence rises to the surface, as mobsters from his previous life in Philadelphia come back to haunt him. It also plays out the old adage about the sins of the father, as the behaviour of Tom's teenage son Jack (newcomer Ashton Holmes) spirals out of control. Mortensen admits making the film made him think about his own son, 17-year-old Henry, the result of a short-lived marriage in 1987 to Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of cult LA punk band X. He says he worries 'all the time' that his own negative traits have impacted upon his offspring. 'Just like I worry about my own father's bad side. You always worry about that if you have any conscience.'
How would he react if Henry came home from a schoolyard scrap? 'Hopefully, I wouldn't hit him [as Tom does],' he replies. 'I would talk about it. Like any father, I have had moments where I didn't approve of something he said or did. But it's a tricky thing, being that age. My son is the same age now as that character was. You have to continue to give some sort of guidance, but you also have to allow for a person to develop and find their independence. For a parent who is close to their child, you don't always realise that when it starts happening you have to step back and let them make their decision - even if it's the wrong one. It's a balance, always. It's not one way of being.'
While he was shooting A History of Violence in Toronto, Henry was acting in a school play in California, where he stays with his mother when Mortensen is out of town. Despite playing the proud father, he's not sure if his son will follow in his footsteps. 'I don't know what he's going to do. He has a lot of interests. He enjoys doing plays in school. I would never push him to do it, or never push him not to do it.' Mortensen is not one to gush about parenthood. 'Without being overly sentimental about it, I certainly don't regret being a father,' he says, at a push. 'I learn a lot from him.' Does he plan to have more? 'More children? Well, sometimes things happen and you don't expect them, but it's not in my plans at the moment.' The last major relationship Mortensen was in - with Lola Schnabel, daughter of painter and artist Julian Schnabel - ended in 2003.
Even if he has no wish to reveal it in an interview, it's evident that Mortensen is gradually letting his son find his own way in the world. 'Up until Lord of the Rings, he would come with me a lot to sets. Now, for the last two years, as most people do, he's his own person.' Mortensen even gave him his own car - a Toyota. 'In California, you can drive at 15,' he says. 'But he's painfully careful.'
Does he see similarities between the two of them? 'I would say that the first quality that comes to mind, which I think is generally a positive one, is that I am self-reliant. He is too. He can entertain himself and he likes his own company. He's good at drawing. He's very creative. He's probably more socially mature - or adept - than I was at his age. I was much more by myself. He can entertain himself. He also has lots of friends and likes to go out and socialise a lot. I just wasn't interested in that. In fact, I had an aversion to that."
It's understandable when you consider how difficult Mortensen's upbringing was. The eldest son of Grace and Viggo P. Mortensen, his father, who farmed in Denmark, met his mother, a New Yorker, in Norway. They wed and moved to Manhattan where Mortensen was born. Just as he himself would later prove to be, his father was a restless soul, uprooting the fledgling family and moving to South America where he managed chicken farms and ranches in Venezuela and Argentina for a time. But such a life began to put a strain on the clan. After his two younger brothers, Charles and Walter, were born, the seven-year-old Mortensen was sent by his parents to a strict boarding school, isolated in a rural part of Argentina. Four years later, when his parents divorced, Mortensen and his brothers moved back to upstate New York with their mother. It finally provided him with some much-needed stability, as he spent the next decade pursuing his education there, first in high school and then St Lawrence University, where he majored in Spanish literature and US government.
After graduation, he returned to Denmark to discover his roots and find a purpose in life - all the while supporting himself with a series of odd jobs, from dock-worker and truck driver to flower seller, in the process. Speaking fluent English, Danish and Spanish, as well as understanding Swedish and Norwegian, he even worked as a translator for the Swedish hockey team during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. It was at this point that he started writing poetry and short stories, in addition to taking photographs, a hobby he had begun as a teenager. A true Renaissance figure, Mortensen has since published several CDs of music and poetry, as well as four collections of his art and photographic work. Look carefully at the large murals in the artist's studio in A Perfect Murder, the 1998 thriller where Mortensen plays a painter who lures Gwyneth Paltrow away from hubbie Michael Douglas, and you can see his handiwork. With his own publishing company, called Perceval Press, now set up to distribute his own work, as well as support writers from other countries, Mortensen at heart is a man who has dedicated his life to making art.
While he played 'the ass end of a dragon' in a school play, when he was eight, Mortensen didn't get serious about acting until he returned from Denmark in his early 20s. At the time, he had fallen in love with a woman who eventually led him back to New York - not unlike his father's journey 20 years earlier. It was then that he came across an advert for Warren Robertson's repertory company and after signing up and performing a monologue inspired by Jack the Ripper, he decided to continue acting. 'I never thought it would last,' he says. 'I just tried it to see what it was like and it just clicked, I guess.' While he started to get roles, early work - such as a part in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo - wound up on the cutting room floor.
In 1986 he began working on a low-budget art film called Salvation! where he met his future wife. Already an established poet, painter and, of course, musician, it was Cervenka that not only gave Mortensen the inspiration to expand his artistic sensibilities, but afforded him the confidence to present it publicly. 'I hadn't read my work in front of people before,' he says, 'And through her I learned about [the literary centre] Beyond Baroque in LA, where I started in a workshop. She encouraged me a lot. She's amazing that way. And she's an amazing poet.'
They married in a ceremony rumoured to have taken place in an abandoned prison in Wyoming, but it was at this point that Mortensen's career began to flounder. Appearing in Young Guns II and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, these were not the sort of projects that fired his imagination. He began to look elsewhere, finding work in the independent sector in such films as Sean Penn's directorial debut, The Indian Runner, Jane Campion's The Portrait Of A Lady and Philip Ridley's mysterious The Passion Of Darkly Noon. When he did turn up in mainstream fare, it was for the likes of Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way) and Tony Scott (Crimson Tide). As Cronenberg notes, 'He's very picky about the films he does.' He almost turned down Lord of the Rings, after he was called at the last minute to replace Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who was originally cast but later fired from the project. It was Henry, a fan of the books, who persuaded his father - reluctant to leave his son for so long - to take the role.
As soon as he committed to the role, Mortensen reputedly threw himself into the part of Aragorn, the self-exiled heir to the throne of Gondor, like few other actors have ever done. Rumours leaked from the set that Mortensen refused to remove his costume because he literally wanted to 'grow into it'; he spent time in the New Zealand countryside fishing, hunting and riding; he carried his sword everywhere - even to restaurants. One story even had it that one night, he accidentally killed a rabbit with his truck and decided to build a fire, roast it and eat it. While it's the sort of behaviour you can believe from someone as earnest as Mortensen, he prefers only to allude to it now, perhaps embarrassed that in print he will sound foolish. 'The character I was playing was someone who had not only an affinity for living in the wilderness, but by necessity had to be good at it,' he says. 'That was my way of getting comfortable, especially not having a lot of time to prepare. I enjoyed being in the woods.'
He has just wrapped the Spanish-language Alatriste, in which he plays a 17th Century soldier-turned-mercenary, and while Mortensen denies that he has an aversion to Hollywood, he is evidently not keen on the factory-like approach to film production.
'There's a lack of imagination generally in the studio system,' he says. 'By its very nature, it repeats formulas that work. Therefore, there's not a lot of invention involved - even though there's a lot of craftsmanship. You can have amazing cinematographers, set-designers, actors and directors producing unsurprising material that sometimes is quite profitable. So you get what you pay for as an audience member and you get what you deserve if you go and do it as an actor.'
After years of enduring mainstream dross, Mortensen is now in a position where he can be more selective. After A History Of Violence, he does not even need to get back on a horse; bravado and courage are not the only traits he can display on screen, it seems. The summer over, he plans to spend some time at home, working on his books and some photographs he has yet to show.
'I have to pay more attention to this,' he says. 'Just things at home. And my son has one more year at school, so I want to be there all the time for him.' While he may have shed his swashbuckling cinematic style like of armour, Viggo Mortensen can still be a hero to the most important person in his life.