Gilsdorf: There was a story that you had a run-in with the police who saw you wielding your sword in public and, uh, had a problem with that.
Mortensen: It is true that I once was asked by local law enforcement not to walk around town brandishing my sword. One afternoon I had been spotted in a warehouse district of Wellington, leaving one of our rehearsals for a stunt sequence, darting about with my sword as I was going over imaginary fights in my mind. It seems that my walking down the road waving the sword about, thrusting and parrying in encounters with invisible orc and uruk-hai opponents generated some concern in the community.
Gilsdorf: Here’s a geeky question. Given your love of immersing yourself in your roles, I wondered if you consider yourself an escapist. Did you read much fantasy or science fiction as a kid? Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons or know anyone who did?
Mortensen: [I] never have played Dungeons & Dragons. As a kid I read Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and a few others. As an adult have admired Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and notebooks.
Gilsdorf: You made your film debut with a small part in 1985′s Witness, and your other debut that year might have been The Purple Rose of Cairo, had your performance not ended up on the cutting room floor. You’ve made some remarkable films, but you’ve also spent time in the trenches, acting in TV’s Miami Vice and a couple ABC After School Specials, as well as in horror films like Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Did you ever despair you might not get your lucky break as an actor and be able to do more serious work?
Mortensen: I’ve often thought about quitting, even in the beginning, but that mostly had to do with the irritating, dishonest, disappointing kinds of people you run into sometimes. But that’s probably no different than any business. It’s a question of growing up and dealing with that this is the world. And it’s not always going to be easy, and you’re not always going to have bosses that you like and you’re not always going to have coworkers that you get along with. That doesn’t mean you can’t make an interesting job of it.
Gilsdorf: A couple years ago, in an 2009 interview, it was reported that you’d retired from film acting. You’d been quoted as saying the promotion schedule in the biz was “ridiculous” and “not a healthy way to be.” Is that true, that you’d considered retiring?
Mortensen: I never did do that. That was an English reporter. I’ve had to explain this now hundreds of times, in different countries.
Gilsdorf: Oh, I’m sorry to make you go over this again. My apologies!
Mortensen: It’s OK. I’m just telling you. I guess each time I have to explain it. If I have to explain it, then I’m not explaining it. I’m going to waste some time, yours and mine, explaining [it again]. What I said was: I don’t have plans to do another movie now. Back in 2008 and 2009 I said, “I’m just taking a little break now. I don’t have anything lined up.” Not that it matters.
Gilsdorf: Consider the record corrected.
Mortensen: I wanted to [quit]. [Laughs] But I never had. There are certain things about the business that are really frustrating. But there’s something about it that’s beautiful, too. And interesting. And entertaining. And educational. … I’m still doing it so there must be something about it I like. There’s a lot about it I like, I think.
Gilsdorf: Before Rings, through the late 1980s and 1990s, you logged a series of supporting roles by indie directors such as Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner), Gus Van Sant (Psycho), as well as a a smattering of mainstream films such as Young Guns II, Crimson Tide and G.I. Jane. Do you see yourself making different intentional movie choices at different times in your career?
Mortensen: No. I’ve always done the same thing. It’s a hit or miss thing. You can only make your best choice at the time. Sometimes in my career early on obviously it was more of a question of just doing anything, something, anything. Learning just from experience, and also paying the rent. But for any time it was really up to me and not the landlord, and even then, I’ve always tried to choose the stories that I thought were interesting, that I thought I would learn something from and that hasn’t changed. I wouldn’t say it’s a recent phenomenon. There are other things that go into it: It’s what’s the last couple of jobs you’ve done, what’s your life experience, what’s your outlook, what’s going on in the world.
Gilsdorf: What do you mean by that – what’s going on in the world?
Mortensen: You can’t really divorce yourself and your life from the world you live in. We’re affected by the world we live in, the movies that come out [are affected by] what’s going on in politics and history, the world at the time affects how you look at things, your perspectives.
Gilsdorf: But when you can, you try to choose roles that speak to you?
Mortensen: I’ve tried to find or hoped would come my way, I should say, [good roles]. It’s not like I go and decide what I’m going to do. But I can accept or turn down something that’s offered to me. I can’t just decide I want to do whatever’s out there. Because everything that’s out there isn’t offered to me.
Gilsdorf: So being a part of a gazillion dollar blockbuster like Lord of the Rings – being a key reason why the film was so successful – has not necessarily guaranteed you great, challenging, interesting roles?
Mortensen: I think sometimes people have a mistaken view of how much a relatively well-known actor or actress, of how much opportunity they have. Or the options that they have. You can really only say yes or no to what’s offered to them at the time. So looking at what I get to read, what’s possible, I just try to choose things that are interesting, that are going to challenge me. That are going to make me a little nervous. Because I know, What makes you nervous? What makes you afraid? It’s usually things you don’t know anything about. It’s the unknown that makes your nervous, or in a worst case scenario, hateful or prejudice. It’s ignorance, really, so what do you do with that ignorance? You can either remain ignorant, or try to learn something, niño. [Ed. Note: For those who don’t know, niño in Spanish means boy or child.]
Gilsdorf: Is there a connection between being a child and acting?
Mortensen: That’s how I look at it in a lot of different ways. Looking at acting, in the movies or the theater, and the way I like to look at it, it’s just an extension of childhood play… Kids play and imagine in a very intense fashion and they don’t need any director telling them “You really have to believe in it.” They believe in it completely. No one needs to tell them to make believe in the best that they can. That’s what they do. That’s what they want to do. They enjoy it. When you’re an adult, you’re doing the same activity. You have to believe it. You have to just go for it. Just let yourself go and let yourself believe. There’s a certain jumping off the cliff aspect to it. At least in the way I look at it.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, where Viggo shares his opinion why David Cronenberg hasn’t won an Oscar, his fears while acting for the stage for the first time in 20 years, his thoughts on the Hollywood hype machine and his feelings about not being in The Hobbit.