MORTENSEN PLAYS KILLER BUT ADVOCATES EDIFICATION, NOT EXPLOITATION
Despite the fact that we saw Viggo Mortensen swinging a massive sword in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's still a bit disconcerting to think of the thoughtful, soft-spoken actor as someone who could do any harm to anyone. If there were any doubts he could pull off such a role before, there will be none after audiences see him in A History of Violence.
Guess that's why they call it acting.
History, which is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, is study in brutality and its ramifications.
Mortensen portrays small-town diner owner and devoted family man Tom Stall. Stall's life is ripped apart when two thugs show up at his business and attempt to rob him and rape one of his employees. He acts with laser-like precision, killing one man and seriously injuring the other. He's immediately called a hero, and the attention the incident generates brings visitors to his town - ones who believe that Stall is a former hit man for the New Jersey mob.
It's not exactly like fighting in Middle Earth, but what is? Mortensen found the project interesting initially and grew more intrigued when he learned that David Cronenberg (Spider, eXistenZ) would direct.
"I thought it was pretty interesting and potentially could be a thought-provoking movie, but it just depends on whose hands the script is in," the actor says during a recent phone conversation. "A lot of directors would have made it skillfully, I think, but they would have made more of an exploitation movie. It would have been superficially satisfying to a certain crowd in terms of the violence."
Cronenberg "obviously mined it for a lot of other layers."
Indeed, there is a lot more beneath the surface than a case of mistaken identity and brutality. Much like the Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven, it uses violence to espouse the belief that it is absolutely horrific. But Cronenberg acknowledges in the movie that it is human nature, Mortensen says.
"Violence is always going to be there, but what's also always going to be there is our ability to reason and the fact that humans do have a conscience. Well, most of us do," he says in a way that you could almost envision the cocked eyebrow of a deeper thought. "I think it's an anti-violence movie, and one can make a choice no matter how one has been raised or how used to reacting with violence in stressful situations or threatening situations one is. One can always say no and walk away, even if it is difficult."
Mortensen's thoughtful demeanor is a trait anyone would normally associate with an artist. It's a testament to his talent that he's able to bring a character such as Stall to life with such conviction. In addition to acting, he is a published poet and successful artist.
"To me, whether it's painting, writing or acting in movies, it's all storytelling," he says.
However, the serenity of his other artistic endeavors doesn't make him immune to reality.
"I don't think I'm any different from other people, in that I definitely have moments within my family and a lot of moments I regret where I've lost my temper or acted or spoken before I thought something through," he says.
Mortensen's humanity is reflected in his role as Stall and others throughout his career, but he can thank Lord of the Rings for giving him flexibility he'd never really had before, allowing him to consider roles carefully.
"I've always tried to be thoughtful as much as I could. You learn, and your tastes change, but like most actors who have had a career that is relatively long - even after Lord of the Rings - there are more options which you can say no to," he says. "But saying yes always depends on someone wanting you. I acknowledge that if I hadn't got to be in Lord of the Rings, I wouldn't have got this part. I don't think business-wise the studio would have found it wise to entrust this role to a relative unknown."
But he isn't an unknown. He realizes that The Lord of the Rings trilogy will always be a cultural phenomenon and that to a legion of fans he will always be Aragorn. Director Peter Jackson even made a gift to him of the sword he used throughout most of filming.
But you can't help but believe that this talented actor will be remembered for the part of Tom Stall and others sure to be in his future.