Interviews 2005

The Other Mortensen

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Mystery 908/Argentina 2005
Mystery 908/Argentina 2005.
Before becoming an international star through his role in Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen starred in cult classics for years, and had minor roles in larger studio movies. But big or small, all his roles have been notable. Now, when he is allowed both the luxury of appearing in a San Lorenzo shirt on the cover of Vogue and of choosing what he does and how much he charges, he hasn't lost his knack: he finances his own publishing house, publishes left-winged North American intellectuals and is criticized for his political opinions. On his way through Buenos Aires to promote A History of Violence, he spoke with Radar about this new movie with David Cronenberg, in which he demonstrates once more how to be intelligent and a good guy all at the same time.

It's barely noticeable in pictures and even less on screen, thanks to makeup, but Viggo Mortensen has an impressive scar on his upper lip. It's so deep and dark that it seems recent. But it's not a souvenir from Lord of the Rings. 'The story of the scar isn't glamorous. Okay, maybe it is, a little, because of the costume,' he says in that slow, Spanish, slightly robotic drawl. 'I hurt myself at a party in St. Lawrence University when I was 17. I was really drunk, dressed up as David Bowie from the Aladdin Sane era. I fell face-forward into some barbed wire. They tell me the lip was hanging off my face, but I don't remember. They didn't even anaesthetize me before sewing me up, but that also wasn't heroic. I was incredibly drunk.'

His wrinkles, or expression lines, are only noticeable when he laughs. At 47, Viggo Mortensen is some kind of genetic miracle: he looks at least 10 years younger. His appearance adds to the general confusion surrounding Personality Viggo Mortensen, who is truly strange. Between his mate gourd - which he takes everywhere, not just his room in the Intercontinental Hotel where he greeted the Argentinean press, but also in Cannes and interviews with GQ and Vogue - and San Lorenzo, his friendliness and tranquility mixed with melancholy are incongruous given his Nordic profile, inexpressive, beautifully cold, as appealing as it is repelling.

And it's also hard to decide who Viggo Mortensen is when thinking about his career. On screen he was the epic hero (Lord of the Rings, Hidalgo and, soon, Alatriste), but also military action hero (Crimson Tide, GI Jane). Of course, super short hair and a uniform suit that hard face. But it's also ideal for an idealist hippie. (A Walk on the Moon, with Diane Lane), villain (A Perfect Murder, unsuccessful remake of Hitchcock with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow), failure (the degraded quadriplegic in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way) and black sheep with post-traumatic stress syndrome (Indian Runner, the excellent Sean Penn directorial debut and an unforgivably forgotten role.) He was even in the bizarre The Prophecy where, with beard and long hair, he ate a human heart. 'Sometimes, when money runs out, one has to make the movies that are offered,' he says, shrugging. 'Now I can choose, but it wasn't always like that.'

Nevertheless, it's easy to guess which movies he's always dreamed of making. He began his career with Peter Weir's Witness, where he didn't say a single word. Shortly thereafter he met famous punk diva Exene Cervenka, leader of X, cited in Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, whom he met while filming Salvation. They moved to Idaho, and the LA punk world complained because their biggest star had left for the middle of nowhere with a 'blond country boy.' Retirement didn't last long, and the bohemian pair returned to LA and to the 'do it yourself' ethic. Now a millionaire, Viggo Mortensen is happy because his fame allows him to expand his independent press, Perceval Press, which publishes art and photography books, and lately, political essays. Such things clearly impassion the Lord of the Rings more than talking about Lord of the Rings. Not strange, then, that somebody like him would be delighted to work with David Cronenberg. When he talks about A History of Violence, he seems like a little boy whose dream has come true.

Why was it so special for you to finally work with David Cronenberg?

Because he's a nonconformist who takes risks - and he does it better every time. He's interested in life and the complexity of human relationships, and because of that he made a complicated and interesting movie. At the beginning, A History of Violence appears very simple: the photography, the story, the acting, the music, are all fairly conventional. But, as always happens in David Cronenberg movies, when he takes the lid off and shows what's underneath the surface, he's almost the best at showing how strange we human beings are. And he's like that deliberately. David Cronenberg is fanatic about cars. He used to race cars and is one the best directors at managing technical aspects. He takes care of you during filming and also when he shows the movie. He has an almost perfect rhythm: he's like a musician. And he looks for reactions in actors: many directors don't go looking for that, and if they obtain it they don't take advantage of it.

And is he easy-going?

Very easy-going. And a lot of fun, with an extremely funny black humour, which suits me well. He gave us a lot of freedom while maintaining a rigid script structure. He's not paranoid. Not only as a director but as a person. He has an assuredness and confidence in himself that is contagious and positive; he's not 'I know it all and you guys shut up.' And he was very careful with the casting: he didn't know William Hurt or Ed Harris, but it turned out they were similar to David Cronenberg and me. We talked before filming and invented a common history. When those scenes are viewed together, beneath what is said and between words, in the eyes, you can see that the characters know each other and have a history. You can work without speaking to others, and things often still turn out well. But it's more enjoyable when that kind of communication is possible.

The movie has a lot of Western elements. Did you talk about that?

A lot. Not only the themes of a condemned man or impossible redemption, typical of Westerns. We talked a lot about High Noon, the movie with Gary Cooper which is very different but was filmed in a time period that is very similar to today's USA: conservative, with a chrome surface and great tensions beneath. It was a movie about problems and questions, and also appeared very normal and generic, with a well-known actor. It was a very subversive movie and I think this one is as well. Because, apparently it is generic, but then you start noticing that it's something more. Such common ground allows you to enter, and then suddenly you're confused and disoriented.

And what is the monstrosity, so typical for Cronenberg?

Depends on the point of view, but it could be that it's in that normality at the beginning. The Stall family is monstrous because it's too normal. That effort to make everything work well, of being extra careful...there's always a little power game. There's a great deal beneath what one appears to be as a parent, a couple, a son. The effort to conceal that is disturbing.

The two sex scenes are also disturbing, the first so playful and the second so brutal.

If you were to join the two, it's a very interesting short film in the style of Scenes from a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman. Another director would have spoiled it, as they would have spoiled the violent scenes, creating great displays of blood spatter. David Cronenberg took advantage of the opportunity to show the psychological game which is normal in the relationship of a couple. There's always a handle of power and control. And we survive, it's not bad. It's not bad to have personal secrets. I don't even tell a person I know really well everything. Never. And those who tell all...sometimes they're funny, they entertain you, but you don't want to spend every day with them.

Did you get hurt filming the sex scenes?

Quite a bit, both of us. Because of the stairs, Maria Bello got more hurt than I did. She only bit my mouth, but she almost ripped off her back. She was very brave, very fierce; without Maria's such ferocious attitude wouldn't have managed it.

And how did Cronenberg behave?

Oh, he laughs all the time.

The King of Indies

There are various excellent movies with Viggo Mortensen that have been forgotten or never even were released commercially. A short while ago, the re-edited DVD of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, brilliant and sincere; his work in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady is impeccable. And it's almost impossible to find two sinister jewels called The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), from British writer Philip Ridley, almost unique examples of the southern gothic; the first in particular is simply terrifying. 'They're interesting movies that had some critical success, but if I'd made them now...' he sort of laments. 'They were extremely cheap, filmed quickly, and it was difficult for Philip, who is an original artist.. Now, the public and critics have become accustomed to watching strange movies, but back then nobody understood.. They weren't even shown in theatres and still scare people. Ridley works differently from Cronenberg, but he has the capacity to create an environment that both attracts and repels; that enthralls. Also, now they would be more interesting as a commentary on North American society and isolation."

You've also worked with Gus van Sant and Sean Penn.

I vindicate the Van Sant Psycho remake as exercise. It's an obsessive work. The search for the literal in this remake interests me. I had a small role, but I enjoyed working him. He's an intelligent man with a strange sense of humour. With Sean Penn it was almost a hand-crafted job. It's a very different movie from others; a homage to 1970s Hollywood cinema.

Not too long ago, like Sean Penn, Viggo Mortensen got a lot of press for topics different from his job as an actor. In August he visited Cindy Sheehan's camp, the Iraq soldier's mother who protested in front of George W. Bush's ranch in Texas. Years before he was on Charlie Rose's program with a t-shirt that read 'No More Blood For Oil.' Since then, from his publishing house's website,, he posts news related to North American politics, and publishes books of political essays like Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation, with a prologue by Howard Zinn, the most celebrated leftist intellectual in the US after Noam Chomsky.

Your publishing house sells t-shirts that read 'Impeach, Remove, Jail."

I painted them to use in a lecture for a book by Howard Zinn, where a lot of people participated, including him. I read in Spanish from Bartolomé de las Casas and some other things in English. Many people asked me for the shirt, and I duplicated it. We sell it as inexpensively as possible. We don't make anything, we lose, I think, but it's what's necessary. It's ridiculous what is happening in the USA; the whole world sees it; fortunately, people are beginning to notice. 62 percent of North Americans no longer believe Bush, according to what I read. In any other country there would be new elections, or they'd kick him out, but that's not going to happen. All governments lie; it has to be that way. We shouldn't be naive. But the Bush administration broke all the records for dishonesty. They're artists, these guys - the control of information they wield is incredible. They're geniuses, better or worse than the Nazis. And they do it brazenly. I hope they can't change the tendency toward distrust from people. Hopefully, because they're dangerous people, amoral, who wouldn't have trouble in creating another war in September of next year, before the elections, to throw people off.

You're criticized a lot for talking politics.

Of course. I don't tend to mix art and politics, I don't find it necessary, although I believe they are related. I think a piece speaks for itself. But sometimes there are parallels and moments in history when it's necessary to speak up and tell the truth. Not speaking something that you know or think is the truth is complicity. And, yes, they squash you and make fun. It has always been that way; it was like that in Vietnam, with the Cold War. They say, 'You're an actor, an artist, you don't govern, you aren't in Congress, you don't have a right to an opinion. We're the law, we know, we're aware.' But democracy is based on everyone having the right to an opinion, and if it's not working we have a right to say what we like and kick them out. That won't happen. But if I want to, I can make a t-shirt.

Memories of the countryside

A week ago, Viggo Mortensen was on the Late Show with David Letterman, promoting A History of Violence. David asked him about his Argentinean childhood - which in the US is viewed as the pinnacle of the exotic - and Viggo Mortensen, sincerely obsessed, told him about San Lorenzo. But afterwards he offered a small anecdote on how it was growing up with his father farming in the Chaco. 'We lived in Buenos Aires, but most of all in the Chaco, where I learned to ride with my three brothers. My father, who is Danish and a farmer, would take us fishing and hunting. I shot a rifle for the first time when I was three years old. It's one of my first memories. He took me duck hunting, didn't have any luck, and when we were leaving I think that to amuse himself he asked me whether I wanted to kill a duck. It was dark and he said, "You're going to hear the flock pass over us. That's when you shoot.' He held me in his arms, if not the rifle would have made me go flying. The flock flew overhead, I shot and a dead bird fell out of the sky. My father was so shocked that he didn't stop me when I went into the lake to get the dead duck. It was very cold. He noticed, followed me shouting, and pulled me out of the water. We walked for a couple of kilometers. I remember I was trembling, soaking, and carrying the duck. I didn't want to let it go for anything in the world. At a nearby house, a family lit a stove and then dried my body a little; my clothes were soaking. My father carried me almost naked, wrapped in a towel. When we arrived home, my mom didn't understand at all. "Why is the baby blue? Why is he naked and trembling? Why is he clutching a dead duck?' She decided to give me a warm bath so I wouldn't get sick, but I wouldn't let go of the duck. She complained, but my dad convinced her to let me keep the duck. So that's how I took my bath, with the dead duck in my arms, I was towelled off with the duck, I had dinner without letting go of the duck and I finally fell asleep hugging the dead duck in my bed. When I woke up, it wasn't there anymore. I complained to my mother and she told me that we were going to eat it for dinner, because it was going to go bad. I think I didn't understand very well. But anyway, those are the kind of things that happened to me in Argentina with my father.'

Viggo in Castilian

Alatriste will open soon, the adaptation of Pérez-Reverte's novel, in which you speak ancient Spanish. How did you feel?

I went a month early to practice not just the language but with swords. Because, of course, it's not the same styles as in Lord of the Rings. That was easy for me. With the language...even though I felt comfortable and thought that I was doing well during rehearsal, what was hardest for me was rhythm and pronunciation. Spain Spanish is completely different from Argentinean Spanish. I watched a cut, three or four minutes, and it was incredibly strange to hear myself speaking like that. I hope it worked, I don't know, it's strange. I was the only one who wasn't Spanish, and I play the lead role, who is well-known because Arturo Pérez-Reverte's books are very famous in Spain. I don't want to disappoint people, but most of all I don't want to disappoint myself. I think that it's going to be a great movie and be successful, but I would like to know whether it will work in the USA. It's important in Spain because the Golden Ages are taught in school and of course scholars are still studying them, but the history was told by the next empire, the British. And in Hollywood, for example, in a movie like Elizabeth, which is very good, Spaniards are a joke, an overly fat cliché. People think it was that way, all dark, black, the Inquisition and the usual places. But the truth is that in that period, for every Shakespeare there were 4 literary geniuses in Spain. And painting geniuses as well. But it's almost been erased. It can be interesting for the Spanish-speaking people around the world, and in the USA it can serve as an art film. But we shall see, because in Los Angeles 60% of the people are Hispanic. Maybe it will go well for us.'
Last edited: 25 November 2005 15:29:54
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