At the LA premiere of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2002, Viggo Mortensen greeted three New Zealand journalists with a perfectly rendered "kia ora", then took a swipe at those in the US media who were treating the movie as an analogy of Bush and Cheney's glorious new mission in the Middle East. "The people under siege in Helm's Deep have more in common with those on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said, turning the neo-cons' comparison around. On screen and off, Mortensen, 47, has an impressive range. Through his Perceval Press, he publishes poetry and photography books and collates environmental and anti-war news. And he still acts: he was promoting his new film, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, when he spoke to the Listener from Sydney.
This is only your second completed film since Lord of the Rings.
As an actor, whether you're well-known or not, the only real power you have is to say no, thank you. There are more things to say no, thank you to if you're in a movie that does as well as Lord of the Rings. I'm not interested in repeating something because it works. You know the writer E M Forster? He said that the best way to get to know Alexandria, Egypt, is just to wander around aimlessly without any real plan. That's the way I go about things.
Cronenberg's the master, but his films polarise people.
Well, after getting to know him, I don't think he minds polarising people. I think he enjoys that. Any artist who is honest in showing human behaviour and the consequences of human interaction is going to be controversial, because people are strange and most people don't even want to admit to themselves how strange they are and how conflicted they are. Without having any choice in the matter, being put into this world is a weird thing and, unlike other animals, knowing that you've got a limited time and having an understanding that people do suffer and get sick and die and that life, depending on how you look at it, can be grim. It's always going to be a tricky subject, if you deal with it honestly. But if you're lucky, and you're working with someone who's dealing with that sort of story and also has a sense of humour about it - and David certainly does ... He's a very funny man, believe it or not. We laughed a lot, every day.
The Cronenberg film Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes, came out as he was preparing this. But it didn't really cross over in the US.
I don't know how it did. I guess not as well as other places. Just like with this movie, he got really good reviews and it was respected, but he didn't win a heck of a lot of prizes or even in the end get Oscar consideration for it. I think History follows from Spider in an interesting way. He continues what he's always done, which is taking people apart, almost like they were a machine or an engine, but now more taking their brains apart than their bodies, I suppose. It's more a psychological autopsy and the results are always a little disturbing. Not because he's disturbing, but because we are. As an audience and as a subject.
It's about power. It's about giving away power. Whether it be the townspeople of Millbrook in the story that suddenly are cheering this guy [Mortensen's character Tom Stall, a mild-mannered man who kills two thugs] for his acts, or the audience watching the movie, who become complicit on a deep level because of the way Cronenberg shows the violence. Even if you're a pacifist, you're sucked in a bit by the moments of, if not justified, at least understandable violent acts, in defence of home and family or home and business. You understand it - here's someone who's taking action in a forceful way. You can draw parallels with that happening in society. Why is it that Howard and Blair and Bush keep getting elected? Because they're men of action. They make decisions. They display "leadership". What is leadership? On a superficial level, it's "I'm going to do something, keep you safe. I have a strong hand. I care."
How involved are you with Perceval Press?
That stuff on the website I update on an almost daily basis. Some days go by with travelling, but I do it from wherever I am, find little bits and pieces. It can be about science and nature, writing or quotes. Then, editing: with all the books, I see them from start to finish, right through to the printing.
One of your own books, Miyelo, documents a Native American ghost dance. How did this come about?
The heart of that book is what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890. I had been interested in that and interested particularly in Lakota history for many years. Working on Hidalgo (2004), I got to learn more about it and meet people on the reservation. I took a series of photographs of people who were performing a ghost dance. Then I thought, well, for those who don't know about the history of the ghost dance, maybe I'll add that to it. I also put together a really comprehensive bibliography about the subject for the back of the book. That was a good project and it's a been a popular book.
So you're busy?
Yeah. If I get 10 minutes, I don't know what to do with myself sometimes. Although I love doing nothing, just wandering around places when I get a chance.
It's a pity you couldn't come over here with this film.
Yeah, I wish. It's great to hear ...
A Kiwi accent again?
Yeah, it is. I'm here now. I got here yesterday and every once in a while I'd hear it. I'd turn and I knew. It's nice.