There was much talk around the time of Lord Of The Rings about the arrival of Viggo Mortensen (the sultry Aragorn), even though he'd already starred in over 30 films. As a character actor, Mortensen's place as a leading man isn't so much about his identity in the film industry, but the portrayal of a persona that most can't help but sit up and take notice of.
Travelling the world's publicity circuit for A History Of Violence with director David Cronenberg and co-star Maria Bello, Mortensen "finally made it to Australia" last week. Visiting alone, with only a short amount of spare time to catch up with friends in Melbourne from the Lord Of The Rings, he laughs that he's a little tired of talking about himself, but he can't complain too much. Although he admits it's an easier task with Cronenberg by his side.
Mortensen complements his work as an actor with a number of additional artforms, producing acclaimed works of poetry, photography and paintings, not to mention establishing his own independent publishing house. Born in New York to an American mother and Danish father, Mortensen travelled extensively with his family growing up, and speaks at least three languages.
Mortensen is pensive, but not so that he offers little in conversation. His thoughtfulness is coupled with an articulate nature and passion for his work. He truly believes in this film. Above all, A History Of Violence was an opportunity to work with David Cronenberg, a man who has a vision he clearly respects and draws inspiration from.
I read that you took a while to consider the character of Tom Stall before you accepted the role. What was it in the end that swayed you?
Well, mainly it was just that David Cronenberg was doing it. And I've long respected him as a filmmaker, and as an artist I really like the fact that, just as he does with A History Of Violence, he respects his audience, and that he doesn't try and manipulate and he doesn't try to push any kind of message, he just tells a story really well. Better than almost anyone, really, I think. Among directors today in the world, he's as good as any and better than almost anybody at studying and revealing human behaviour. And no matter how strange his movies sometimes are there's always something very human about them. Very accessible and, consequently, because it's an honest depiction of people and people are strange (laughs) they're disturbing in his movies. And this one is no less disturbing than his previous ones, even though a lot of people feel it's most accessible. It's more... it really isn't mainstream, it's just a story that's, you know, it's a combination of things really. I mean, at the heart of it, it's a complicated love story between Maria Bello's character and mine, and it is as it's called 'a history of violence'. But it's also a history of anti-violence, or of at least one man's effort to find another way to deal with his problems. And just because you want to change the way you are, doesn't mean it's going to be easy, and it certainly isn't in the story. But there's one thing that the story says that I think is valuable and true, and that's that it's never too late to change the way you look at the world, the way you behave, the way you treat others. Whether you're an individual or whether you're a nation, you can change your ways, you can improve always. And any relationship takes work.
Did you immediately understand Tom Stall when you read the script?
Well I was attracted to...especially after I spoke with David and it seemed that we were on the same page, I was attracted to how complex the character was. It's not often that you get a character that has so many layers and so many levels, potentially. But even if it's there, you also need a director who is subtle and who is attentive and who looks for and takes care of, not just with me, but the other characters as well, the subtleties of the interpretation. The little details, the little reactions, which he takes such good care of in the story. I mean it's a movie that has an unbelievable taste to it, a real tempo. A movie that, by the end of it you're left kind of reeling (laughingly) emotionally and mentally, you've got so much to think about. But during the course of the movie, which moves at such a breakneck pace, in a lot of ways, there are plenty of still moments, plenty of reactions, you know. He holds on people and their faces and there's a lot of looks exchanged that he hasn't cut out in the editing room, thank God, because he understands that the audience wants that, wants to see that, and don't usually get that. You know, because most directors don't have that skill and don't have the courage to dwell on some of those strong moments between people.
Something I really noticed was how uncomfortable I felt during some of the darker scenes, which I found quite surprising...
I think part of it is, the reason isn't... 'cause people say, 'Well, it's just shown so much that we don't care anymore'. But the problem is, how is that shown? Whether it be physical or emotional violence. In this story it's very little screen time that shows physical violence, but it's so effective and so shockingly real seeming, and feeling, that it resonates and it feels like there's a lot more than there really is, if you add it up in terms of time. It's because he doesn't glamorise it, he doesn't make it beautiful, he doesn't use the depiction of violence, physical violence, as an excuse to show what he can do with the camera or with multiple cameras in slow motion and splatter. He doesn't make a biolytic sequence out of any of that, he just shows it in a very straightforward, matter of fact, brutally quick and terrible in its consequences, its immediate consequences, you know, kind of situation. And that makes it much more disturbing when it's straight ahead and just right there in front of you. It's not made pretty in any way (half laughs). It's also very intimate, the violence, and in that way there's parallels to the sort of sexual intimacy that you see in some scenes. Because it's very direct, it's unmannered, it's not glossy or beautified, it's just people being intimate with each other. And when people are intimate, they know each other well and trust each other, there's a strangeness always, there's an awkwardness, you know, of one soul reaching out to another, or one soul rejecting another. It's always gonna be different, it's always going to be particular to that situation and to those people, and when that's portrayed honestly, it can make you uncomfortable, because it's almost too real seeming (half laughs) you know. And he's really a master at doing that, David Cronenberg.
Talking about honest portrayal, in particular with the sex scenes, did it take long to establish a trusting relationship within the cast?
Fortunately not, really, because Maria and I had a good partnership, you know. She was brave, I think, and she was committed and she also was able to laugh at herself, as I would at myself (half laughs), and we laughed at each other and we... the first thing to do, I guess, is to acknowledge that you're uncomfortable and that you feel silly, and just as soon as you do that you're in it together more and it makes it easier. It's always going to be uncomfortable, but if you're up front about that, it makes it go easier because you feel you're in it together, you're a team. And David certainly, I guess he encouraged that by his example, which was that he didn't take himself too seriously, and the cards were on the table, you know. And he didn't (half laughs) make it a tense situation because of his own discomfort. I think he enjoyed himself and tried to help us enjoy ourselves as much as possible. And the rest of it, you know, there was an unspoken...I guess, feeling or agreement for all of us, that we were in it together and if one person felt silly, the other people also felt silly and we were going to get through it together (laughs). Which is a much better way to do it, you know. That's true I think in real relationships, too, when you're with someone that you can be honest enough with and you can have a laugh and you can laugh at your own, you know, frailty (laughs) I suppose, you can act much more strongly with that person than you would otherwise, if there's a distance or an aloofness...
Yeah, if the mask comes off and, yes, you are vulnerable and you can get hurt quicker and more deeply, but, you know, the benefit is that you can also connect really strongly.
You seem to be someone who really immerses themselves in whatever craft you choose. In your experience, is the movie business more unstable than other artforms?
I think it depends on your attitude. I take any form of artistic expression that I engage in, equally seriously. And I don't differentiate; I think they're all similar in principle. It's really about, as far as I see it, observing the world around you and trying to be in the moment, and then... unavoidably you filter that, you put your own spin on it, you know, without even trying to, you just do, because we're all different. And then you express, even if it's just for yourself, what you think you've just seen and what you think you're just now feeling about it. I feel that same way when I go to the movies. And once in a while I'm rewarded as an audience member, like I think people have proven to have been by seeing A History Of Violence, anywhere that I've gone in the world to talk about it. They've been affected, they've been engaged and it's made them, in some way, reflect on their own lives, you know. It's rare that it happens, but every once in a while there's a movie like this one that really, really gets to you, you know?
Did it get to you, as a viewer?
Definitely, yeah. I was uncomfortable and I was surprised at my feelings sometimes. And I felt uncomfortably complicit in the violence at times (laughs). Kind of like there's an exhilaration, when, I suppose, you can allow yourself to believe that it's justified or understandable. But then you kind of feel strange a little bit afterwards, if you're open about it. It's like, yeah, that's kind of messy though isn't it. But life is messy, and I think that Cronenberg's constantly showing us that people, people's real thoughts and real feelings are complicated and messy and (laughs) after any of his movies, especially this one, you're gonna feel like it's a miracle that people get along at all, and find a way to communicate. But it's a good thing that it happens, in spite of all the obstacles.
What are your thoughts on the world's current obsession with celebrity?
I don't know if it's a new thing, I think people a lot of times project their own desires, you know, sometimes their own negative thoughts on people who are in the public eye. It's understandable and healthy to some degree I suppose, normal, whatever that is (laughs). But it's also, sometimes, you can give up too much of your own identity if you become too obsessive about that. You sort of replace or deny aspects of your own life when you put all your thoughts and feelings in the hands of someone you don't even know. It's a complicated thing. I think you see that in this movie a little bit too, when the townspeople put my character up on a pedestal because he's committed some acts of mayhem in self-defence. There's that thin line there when, if you go too far, you're giving up your own power to think. You say, 'Oh, you think for me, you're a man of action, you're forceful. Yeah, that's good, I don't even want to think about it'. And, you know, there's an apathy potentially involved in that, and you can see that in, certainly, speaking for my country, and maybe it's true here, you see people voting for certain individuals repeatedly, in spite of the fact that if you stopped to think about it, there's a lot of reasons to have misgivings about their track-record, and their forceful decisions, let's say. It's tricky that, you know, because people can become lazy, we all can, and it's like 'Well, somebody else make the hard decisions that's fine, you take care of me and I can just get along and just do my thing and hang out with my friends and watch TV and go to the movies and watch some sport and go fishing, whatever you like to do, go surfing, and don't worry about it, somebody else will take care of it. I can't do anything about it anyway'. Well, the thing is, you can do something about it and as this story tells you it's never too late to change your way of looking at the world and to actually become involved in your life. Because your own life is connected to other people's lives, whether you want to admit it or not, and that's, I think, what being a responsible citizen is about, is acknowledging that. It may not be easy, but you can do something.