First of all, run, don't walk, and watch A History of Violence. It is one of the best films of the year.
There. Now we can be trivial. Here's what the film's star, Viggo Mortensen, said when asked by my colleague about being labeled a sex symbol and the attention from femmes that came with it: 'A gentleman doesn't talk about those things in depth.'
On a day in New York that was threatening to rain, Viggo - forever Aragorn to Lord of the Rings devotees - was shy, soft-spoken, and yet he gave long and thoughtful answers to journalists' questions. When he smiled and broke his serious mien, he revealed small teeth like a boy's. The green jacket that he wore reflected the artiste (he paints, takes beautiful photos, writes poems and composes music) in the man - it takes an adventurous, creative spirit like Viggo to opt for that color instead of the safe, boring black or brown. A necklace with a pendant of San Lorenzo de Almagro, the Argentinean soccer team he's a fan of, hung over his checkered shirt.
With the blue eyes and cleft chin seen up close, Viggo is more imposing onscreen. It's a tribute to him as an actor that, up there on the big screen, he registers more
strongly. In A History of Violence, this sheer physicality comes to the fore as he plays a seemingly simple owner of a diner in a small town until several thugs arrive and say that he is not who he claims to be. Do not let the formal or heavy sounding title put you off. A History is a gripping drama of a family upended by a mistaken identity - or maybe the men in black are telling the truth.
Directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), A History was received with a rapturous standing ovation in last May's Cannes Film Festival. This is Viggo's best performance to date, but his co-stars, Ed Harris, William Hurt, the sensuous Maria Bello and a young unknown, Ashton Holmes, who plays Viggo's son, are also terrific.
Viggo and Maria figure in one of the rawest, most compelling lovemaking scenes we've seen in recent cinema. And it's not because this intimate sequence bares a lot of flesh. It's because of the conflicting emotions that the two actors express while engaging in a sudden, confusing sex right by the house stairs. I just had to ask Viggo about filming this scene (read below).
Born to a Danish father and an American mother, the 46-year-old actor grew up in Argentina, and then in New York. He is divorced from punk singer Exene Cervenka of X, the mother of his teenage son, Henry, who also acts and is into music.
Below are excerpts of our press con with Viggo.
Are you comfortable about being dubbed a sex symbol? Do female fans come on to you?
I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy was such an overwhelming success that every single person who played the principal characters in that movie, and even some of the very small characters, have gotten an unusual amount of attention. With that sometimes comes not unflattering attention of the kind you're talking about.
But I think it's not a strange thing in this business. I don't have much to complain about, although sometimes it can be weird. As for people coming on to me, I think a gentleman doesn't talk about those things in depth.
Your lovemaking scene with Maria Bello at the stairs is one of the rawest and most compelling in recent cinema. Would you say it was a unique experience?
Yes. For a scene like that to work, you need trust. We had a lot of trust in each other. Maria was very brave and willing to do the work. David created an atmosphere that felt relatively safe. But no matter what, you're going to be uncomfortable doing a scene like that.
But David . . . communicates so well about every scene that, before we start shooting . . . everybody is clear about the structure. So then you can fill it with interesting behavior and take chances.
Everything about this movie, whether it was the fight scenes or sex scenes, we knew quite well what was expected. And within that structure, we were free to do anything. We wanted to try things not just for ourselves and for the story but also for David. Because of the way he is as a person and the respectful, comfortable atmosphere he creates, you want to please him. You want to help him tell his story. That's the best possible working environment. I've never had a better one than on this movie.
What do you think of man's fascination with violence?
It's something that we recognize as an impulse or a feeling. We can relate to it, especially because it's in the hands of David Cronenberg and not of a less intelligent or a less subtle director. In this film, you see violence in very small ways, in the daily mundane . . . interaction of the family. Violence or the potential for violence or struggle is part of life. There's violence to being born.
This is as much an anti-violence movie as a movie about violence. To me it says on one level that people, as opposed to other animals, have the ability to reason. They have the ability to reject violence, to say no, or to struggle to reject it, which my character does.
Are you the reasoning or the impulsive kind?
I'd rather reason; I'm not a fan of getting into physical fights or even into verbal or emotional, stressful situations. But it happens. I'm human. I can get angry and raise my voice. I can say things that I later regret.
You seem to be a gentle, peace-loving man. But your job often requires you to portray doing very violent things. Do these scenes give you a thrill because you can act out what you can't do in real life?
On some small level, because yes, I've not ever killed somebody with my bare hands and I hope I never do - I don't know that I could really - there's something interesting about it. I don't know if it's enjoyment, but it's interesting. But I don't get any more or less satisfaction from playing a scene like that than it is to do a love scene or a dialogue scene.
When you were 11, you had to leave your life in Argentina and go to New York and start over. Did that prepare you to portray the identity problems that your character faces?
It's possible. It's also possible that it helped me develop a shortcut just as an actor in general, to try to see something from another point of view. If as a child you move from one culture to another with its own sets of values or points of view of the world, it gives you an extra advantage to explore that or maybe an interest in exploring it.
You've been called a renaissance man. Do you compartmentalize your life - actor, poet, photographer, composer, book publisher?
I don't really separate them. To me, it's basically all the same thing in a way. It's about telling stories. And the way you tell stories, at least the way I do, whether it's taking a picture or painting or writing a story or a poem, or working with a group of people to tell a movie story, is, I observe. I take in what I see and I process it and then I put it out there.
[As for] publishing other people's work, words and photographs, I have definitely enjoyed being able to help someone present his work. It's not so many books that we make. It's a small company called Perceval Press.
What's your daily life like? How do you find the time to pursue your other interests?
These days, I'm a little busy. But I steal moments here and there. You don't have to take a picture of something. You don't have to write about it. Or even talk about it. You can just appreciate that it's there. If I don't have moments once in a while where I try to do nothing and think about nothing, so that things can come in, then I'm not very effective in that way.
That's why I like to spend time by myself sometimes, even just to go and see a movie. Or go on a camping trip. It's nice to share it with people. But if you go with someone, let's say you're going for a walk in the woods, you are seeing their point of view. Which can be interesting. And you're discussing it. So you're putting things out.
But if you were by yourself walking through the woods or seeing a movie or whatever it is, it's all coming in. That's why I like to spend time by myself and recharge.