Viggo Mortensen Faces Violence

Source: Acción #161

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Viggo Mortensen is a star with a past, as it's well known by those who have followed in his footsteps for years through a varied range of characters plunged into all kinds of situations, in and out of the independent cinema, and occasionally with some special appearance in the commercial cinema. Peter Jackson, Aragorn and Tolkien's Middle Earth could have changed his life definitively thanks to the commercial success that The Lord of the Rings achieved all around the world, but that didn't happen at all. Those who thought that from now on we would only see the actor involved in mammoth productions with an enticing salary for the actors involved or tirelessly looking for a commercial reward in the box-office were wrong. His latest movie, A History of Violence, proves it.

Viggo Mortensen is open to all kinds of offers, he doesn't feel he's a star at all, he doesn't behave like one and when it comes to choosing his next work he keeps on being as unpredictable as always. A good proof of that are his three latest choices: Hidalgo was an adventure film totally intended to walk the path of commercialism. A History of Violence is an auteur film marked by its director's independence of opinion, and Alatriste is a Spanish story, played by Spaniards, filmed in Spain, in which Mortensen has become immersed with the same tenacity and perfectionism when it comes to polishing up his performance as in the rest of his works. And to complete the move, his professional occupations haven't impeded him to give a hand in the field of documentary, in two causes he considers to be fair. Wild Horse Preservation is an eight minutes-long film devoted to spread the word about the preservation of wild horses, guaranteed by an Act of the US Congress in 1971. Spirit Riders is a 90 minutes-long documentary, with music by the band U2 and narrated by Peter Coyote, in which Viggo participates as an interviewee by narrating his personal adventure with the Lakota Indians while he was preparing and filming Hidalgo, in an attempt to spread and preserve the culture of this American tribe among their youth.

In view of his steps after getting the stardom that has certainly kept him waiting too long considering his merits, showed in his extensive filmography previous to The Lord of the Rings, and taking into account his behaviour as a person, perhaps we would have to define Viggo as something more than a complete and versatile actor. His record provides us with a profile certainly full of not many commonplaces among Hollywood stars. Born in Manhattan, New York, in 1958, Viggo Peter Mortensen Jr appeared for the first time in front of a camera playing a young Amish in Peter Weir's Witness, but by then he already had a personal experience able to shape a singular personality: son of a Danish father and an American mother, he lived the first stage of his infancy in the city of New York, and one fine day, the real adventure came into his life when his parents started a long journey that would lead him to spend his childhood in Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark. So that it isn't strange he had so much life on his back, including a large experience as a stage actor and an interest in poetry, painting and photography, when finally cinema began to give him some characters which he usually enriches with his performances, maybe because finally the cameras, besides being purely a technical tool, also have a sort of magical quality that gives them the possibility of picking up all that vital experience when Viggo Mortensen plays a king fighting in Middle Earth, a tough cowboy riding through the desert, a Spanish captain of the Golden Century, or an apparently peaceful man who faces his shadiest past bringing the drama of violence to his new family, as is the case in the film that the actor has starred in under David Cronenberg's direction, and about which the specialized critics say it's going to surprise the director's followers, who are more accustomed to his skill at tackling the horror genre and the roughest and near-to-gore-cinema scenes, but they also know, without a doubt, that when the director is determined to profit the most from his characters by directing the actors he can achieve some certainly impressive effects.

The character Viggo Mortensen plays on this occasion is Tom Stall, an easy-going head of the family, an apparently ordinary man who is married to a lawyer (Maria Bello), has two children with her and runs a diner in a small town in Indiana. However, all that peaceful and quiet appearance breaks down when one day he prevents a robbery at his diner, saving the lives of his customers as well. So he becomes a hero...to his regret.

The first meeting between the actor and the director took place in Cannes in 2001, when the first one went to the French Festival to launch The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Both of them were convinced that they wanted to work together, so when Cronenberg had the script for A History of Violence in his hands, he didn't hesitate as to whether he thought of Mortensen as the leading man. Cronenberg doesn't keep any compliment to himself for Mortensen's contribution to the project, and he says the actor has definitely contributed to design and creating the character he plays beyond what was written in the script, and that he is his type of actor, because "he isn't afraid of anything because he doesn't want to protect his image as a movie star, which allows him to have a much bigger palette to paint his characters. Not only is he a charismatic leading man, but he also has other qualities that made me think he could deepen in a much more complex role".

And the actor, who is undoubtedly happy for that pictorial comparison with his way of understanding the performing art, returns the compliments he received by saying: "I have never got on so well with a director as I did with David. And I think that's the best way of telling a story. He not only shows a complete collection of tricks to entertain the audience with a good psychological drama, but he also makes the viewers ask themselves some difficult questions about the nature of violence and mistaken identity". Apart from the comments to the mass media, when the shooting was over the actor gave Cronenberg a 3D card of his character in The Lord of the Rings, autographed and with the following sentence on it: "Thank you for the best cinematographic experience of my life".

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For Viggo Mortensen, one of the essential qualities of the film he is now launching in Spain is the way the director has tackled the story. "David has found more layers that allow us, as viewers, to find out more things than those that were in the script. In this story you really have the chance of contemplating the complicated effects that a violent incident has on a group of characters who live in a small community".

The actor was especially interested in the changes that become apparent in his character's development, showing his evolution as if we were contemplating the fall of a mask, which could also be useful as a metaphor about the situation our western society is suffering with the episodes of violence that have happened lately and that have forced us, as the scriptwriter of the film says, to ask ourselves a lot of difficult questions about us and about the relationships we have established with the people who surround us. According to Mortensen, "it's about finding out the other face of the characters, the other face of Tom and his wife, and also the other face of his son"

In order to complete his performance and to give the character he plays a believable undertone, Viggo contributed to the set of the house in which the character lives with his own collection of souvenirs of travels he has made through the Mid-west of the United States, all sort of things that a guy like Tom could have at his diner and his home, and which somehow allow him to identify even more with the character, because, as it's well known by those who have worked with him in the cinematographic version of the Adventures of Captain Alatriste created by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Viggo Mortensen isn't content to perform, but he also aspires to integrate his own person with the character he plays, a complex process that lead him to travel for a time to the place where the character of Alatriste would have been born supposedly, to grasp the way of speaking Spanish he would have, a language that Viggo speaks but with an accent that is more characteristic of the Latin American countries where he spent his childhood.

Mortensen not only thinks about how to develop his character, but also about how Tom's acts have influence on the development of his cast mates, as well as providing an essential clue on the real meaning of the film with regard to the course of our world in these times. "What happens to Tom and his family does change his wife. When those people come to the Mid-west small town where Tom and Edie live in, when they go into Tom's diner, you know everything is going to change within that couple, things are not going to be the same any more, their idyllic lives have vanished, their relationship will suffer when Tom gradually feels he's incapable of dealing with the situation he has created. They should have reconstructed, taken up again, re-examined, if they had intended to do it. But they don't want to. That's the other option. David says: if you're not open to re-examine or re-design again any relationship, whether it's in a couple, a family, a city or a country like, for example, the United States that will have ill effects. Eventually you will pay the price of not having an honest look at yourself. I think that's what David has done with this film, without the need to be too obvious about it. I think he shows the roots and consequences of violence, but without giving a superficial or puerile treatment to the violence he shows on the screen. He doesn't want to take delight in violence or make it glamorous in any way. And that makes the film even more disturbingly real. The physical action is abrupt, unexpected, and has very ugly consequences. I think David wants to tell us that violence is never valid, but that doesn't mean that violence can be completely eliminated. In that sense he's just showing us how our lives as human beings are on this planet".

The actor, who repeatedly shows his pacifistic mood, and on some occasion has stated that the United States "devotes time to bombing innocent civilians without even capturing Osama Bin Laden", adds another facet to the prism that A History of Violence is, when he points out that the film "is not only about violence or mistaken identity in a society within a nuclear family, but also about the problems that the celebrity culture causes. Tom reacts instinctively and becomes a local hero, being publicly extolled for having committed an act of violence. In that sense, David Cronenberg deals with a universal problem that is particularly prevalent in the United States: people are very excited by the violence related to celebrity".

Mortensen, who is convinced that "friendship and fraternity are always the essential topics in the best films and novels", has made good friends during the shooting, even with the veteran actor who, in a way, represents the nemesis of his fictional character, Ed Harris, who plays Fogarty, a gangster who insists on making Tom's life a misery : "In Ed's hands, Fogarty is terrifying. He had to be menacing, even Ashton Holmes, the actor who plays my son in the film, was a bit frightened of him at first. So Ed was a great help, not only for me, but also for Ashton and the rest of the cast. He's that kind of actor that really gets you to bring out the best performance you're capable of, your best work as an actor. And I also liked the fact that he can do all that with a great sense of humour, as also William Hurt does".
Last edited: 1 February 2006 08:07:30
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