All in his stride

A decade on from his star-mak­ing turn in The Lord of the Rings tril­ogy, Viggo Mortensen re­mains non­plussed by fame. “I have reg­u­larly con­sid­ered do­ing some­thing else. I have al­ways had an un­easi­ness about it,” he tells Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

It’s not gen­tle­man­like to bring up a man’s age. But how the hell did Viggo Mortensen get to be 55? Heck, he’s old enough to be my slightly older brother. Of course, Mortensen has the sort of Scan­di­na­vian fea­tures that wear the years lightly: sharp cheek­bones, green­ish eyes, chisel chin. So we shouldn’t be sur­prised that he’s kept mid­dle age at bay.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­con­nect has more to do with his rel­a­tively late ar­rival as a ma­jor force. Mortensen has been act­ing reg­u­larly since the early 1980s. But it wasn’t re­ally un­til Lord of the Rings, a lit­tle over a decade ago, that he be­gan prop­erly shak­ing the earth.

“Many times over the years, right from the start, I’ve had thoughts about the work be­ing em­bar­rass­ing or frus­trat­ing,” he says. “I have reg­u­larly con­sid­ered do­ing some­thing else. I have al­ways had an un­easi­ness about it. One of the re­sults is that I keep think­ing this hasn’t been go­ing on very long. I am shocked to re­call that it started more than 30 years ago.”

All that noted, in his lat­est film, the fine The Two Faces of Jan­uary, Mortensen is def­i­nitely play­ing the “older man”. Hos­sein Amini’s adap­ta­tion of a 1964 Pa­tri­cia High­smith novel could hardly be more deeply mar­i­nated in that writer’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sour juices. Viggo and Kirsten Dunst ap­pear as an Amer­i­can cou­ple trav­el­ling through Europe who, af­ter be­com­ing caught up in a mys­te­ri­ous death, en­list the help of a cyn­i­cal drifter, played by the sud­denly ubiq­ui­tous Os­car Isaac.

As in other High­smith adap­ta­tions, such as The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley and Strangers on a Train, Amini’s gor­geous pic­ture in­vites us to root for ap­par­ently amoral people as they at­tempt seem­ingly un­for­giv­able acts.

“A lot of the best movies are like that,” Mortensen says. “They deal with bad guys, thieves and mur­der­ers. But you want them to get away from the cops. That’s of­ten the way with film noir, for in­stance. You know they prob­a­bly won’t get away with it, but you hope they do, be­cause they are in­ter­est­ing. There’s also a vul­ner­a­bil­ity about them.”

High­smith’s sto­ries tend to trans­late well to the screen. Cin­ema en­joys teas­ing its con­gre­ga­tion with moral co­nun­drums and, of course, the post­war Euro­pean set­tings are easy on the eye. Mortensen di­rects us to­wards René Clé­ment’s ear­lier adap­ta­tion of The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley, Plein Soleil (1960).

The new film is, maybe, more like Plein Soleil than any of the oth­ers, he says. “But, of course, it looks a lit­tle like Anthony Minghella’s 1998 ver­sion of The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley. But that film cost about three times as much. Add in in­fla­tion and it cost maybe five times as much. But there is a virtue to a tighter budget. Ours doesn’t call at­ten­tion to it­self the way that did. With­out that, you can get closer to the story.”

Viggo Mortensen thinks deeply about his art. A slow talker, at home to the odd ram­ble, he comes across as the sort of sober fel­low who will only make a joke when ab­so­lutely cer­tain the sit­u­a­tion de­mands it. He’s a hard man to con­cisely as­sess (a good thing for an ac­tor, one as­sumes).

Born in New York to an Amer­i­can mom and a Dan­ish dad, he moved to Ar­gentina with his fam­ily when he was just a boy. He also spent some time in Venezuela and the old home­land of Den­mark. To raise a triv­ial point, his com­pli­cated back­ground must kick up dif­fi­cul­ties when, be­ing a se­ri­ous foot­ball fan, he has to de­cide whom to sup­port in the World Cup.

“I’ll be sup­port­ing Ar­gentina,” he says with a hint of guilt.

Would he have sup­ported them even if Den­mark had qual­i­fied?

“Yeah. I would, to be hon­est. But they’re not there. They just tied too many games. I hope the US does well, ob­vi­ously. I wouldn’t mind if Spain won just be­cause no­body thinks they can do it twice in a row.”

That sort of back­ground must be use­ful to an ac­tor. Ev­ery time a child or young per­son moves he has to learn new con­ven­tions. He has to find more masks to pull on.

“I run into a lot of ac­tors who seem to have had itin­er­ant child­hoods,” he says. “Maybe that is im­por­tant. It’s about tak­ing dif­fer­ent po­si­tions. It’s about tak­ing dif­fer­ent points of view. That may be part of it.”

He is about to go off on one of his ver­bal ram­bles. These are usu­ally worth heed­ing.

“When you travel and be­come com­fort­able in dif­fer­ent places, it’s the best anti-war tool we have. You are far less likely to be con­vinced by a pres­i­dent, king or prime min­is­ter to bomb hell out of some­where if you have been there and re­alise those places are full of or­di­nary people. People on buses, dis­abled people, school kids. If you think of them as ‘other’, they are that bit eas­ier to hate.”

Mortensen stud­ied Span­ish and pol­i­tics at St Lawrence Univer­sity in up­state New York and then set off on an­other se­ries of trav­els. He sold flow­ers in Copen­hagen. He drove trucks. He tended bars. Then some sort of nag­ging de­sire to act fi­nally took over. As Viggo tells it, he was swayed by

ex­po­sure to a se­ries of clas­sics from Euro­pean cin­ema. Watch­ing Dreyer’s The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc and Bergman’s Au­tumn Sonata, he be­came fas­ci­nated with the me­chan­ics of act­ing.

“Yes, I was trans­ported. I be­gan to think: how do they do that? How do they make that so real? Do they think of their mother and fa­ther or what­ever? How does this work?”

There were a few lean years. But, de­spite not achiev­ing high-end fame un­til his 40s, he seems to have worked fairly con­sis­tently. You can see him in Peter Weir’s Wit­ness, Sean Penn’s The In­dian Run­ner, Brian De Palma’s Car­l­ito’s Way, Jane Cam­pion’s The Por­trait of a Lady and Gus Van Sant’s Psy­cho.

We can­not, how­ever, es­cape

dis­cus­sion of the ele­phant in the room for­ever. The story goes that he got the part of Aragorn in The Lord

of the Rings at the very last mo­ment when our own Stu­art Townsend dropped out. Is that myth based on fact?

“I only know what I have been told,” he says. “Stu­art was cast and I think he would have been ideal. I think maybe he was a lit­tle sim­i­lar in age to some of the Hob­bits – a bit too youth­ful. I don’t know how it went down, but I heard that Stu­art re­alised that and that it was a mu­tual de­ci­sion. He was do­ing tests where they were try­ing to make him look older. But they felt they’d al­ways be wor­ry­ing about that. So, they just went for an older ac­tor.”

It seems hard to be­lieve now, but Mortensen didn’t im­me­di­ately jump at the role. He was aware that the rest of the cast had a head start on their sword-fight­ing, ca­noe train­ing and elvish lan­guage lessons. This no­tion of mak­ing three films in one go con­sti­tuted, at that point, a very

“My son knew the story and he started quizzing me on which role I was play­ing. He said: ‘That’s Strider! That’s the guy who be­comes king. You’ve got to do that’”

con­sid­er­able gam­ble. What’s more, he’d never read the books.

“I’d just got back from a long trip af­ter shoot­ing a film,” he re­mem­bers. “I said no. I wouldn’t be pre­pared. My son over­heard me talk­ing. He knew the story and he started quizzing me on which role I was play­ing. He said: ‘That’s Strider! That’s the guy who be­comes king. You’ve got to do that.’ Ha ha! I might have de­cided to do it any­way. I don’t know. But he pushed me to­wards it.”

Mortensen took a sin­gu­lar ap­proach to his newly minted su­per­star­dom. He re­tired to his sec­ond home in (why not?) Idaho and set to work on po­etry, pho­tog­ra­phy and mu­sic projects. He has pub­lished well over a dozen books and re­leased nearly as many al­bums. When he came back to cin­ema, he steered away from blar­ing block­busters and formed a durable part­ner­ship with David Cro­nen­berg on A His­tory of Vio

lence, East­ern Prom­ises (for which he was Os­car nom­i­nated) and A Dan­ger­ous Method.

Later this month, Lisan­dro Alonso’s Jauja, in which he stars and which he co-pro­duced, will screen in the Un Cer­tain Re­gard sec­tion at Cannes. So it doesn’t look as if there were too many down­sides to his be­lated suc­cess in the Tolkien tril­ogy.

“Well, it was great that people liked the work,” he says. “But it was a bit un­set­tling be­cause it was every­where. Un­til you ex­pe­ri­ence that you don’t know what it’s like. But you have to be aware that it even­tu­ally is go­ing to go away. The thing is to not be­come too en­am­oured with it. I don’t have any prob­lems with that fame de­clin­ing.”

Af­ter all, as Viggo said ear­lier, he still feels like he’s only at the be­gin­ning.

“I’m still fig­ur­ing it out. I’m still fig­ur­ing it out.”

From top: Mortensen, Os­car Isaac and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of Jan­uary. Mortensen in The In­dian Run­ner, The Lord of the Rings and A His­tory of Vi­o­lence

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