In this final installment, he and I discuss what drives him as an actor, his creative life, and the power of art. I also asked Viggo whether he expected The Lord of the Rings to be such a hit, whether he’d consider directing movies and whether he thinks directors even like actors. He also reveals his fears acting on stage for the first time in 20 years, as well his feelings about sports teams.
Finally, you won’t want to miss his extensive (OK gigantic) list of heroes, past and present (so wait all the way to the end of this Q&A to read them).
Gilsdorf: What makes you happy as an actor, or in any of the work you do? You have so many interests — acting, writing, painting, making music — so how do you know when you’re spending your time well on worthwhile projects? What matters most?
Mortensen: Making connections, you know, in something. I make connections with another actor or the words on the page, and it’ll come alive. There’ll just be something that happens there. … You connect with another actor, a story, anything, any kind of job or any kind of life. You can wake up feeling so-so about the world and then because of what happens as soon as you get out of bed, something happens. You connect with someone, you connect with something, a book, and something happens that’s bigger than just you. It’s a connection with nature, a connection with people, a connection with a story that you are part of telling. … That’s what’s great about it. I think that all art, media, it doesn’t matter which artistic endeavor you’re involved with. Whether it’s writing, whether it’s reading. Whether it’s watching a movie. Whether it’s painting, whether it’s going to a gallery and looking at a painting, whether it’s going to the theater. Whether it’s just walking down the street. How you listen to a conversation when you’re standing in line in the supermarket. All these can be artistic activities because they all have to do with the same thing, which is, paying attention to what’s happening to you as you’re going through life. At any given time. Filtering it, and making up your own mind about what it means. Which in some sense is reinterpreting it. That is what all art is about.
Gilsdorf: For you, then, art is an everyday experience. What does art do? Why is art important?
Mortensen: Because when you don’t feel any connection to anybody or anything, then an emptiness can come that can sometimes make people feel like, well, what’s the point of going on living? A lot of people commit suicide, or become despondent, or angry, or hateful, or mistrusting, and nothing’s fun anymore. It can happen to people gradually without them realizing it’s happening and suddenly it’s like, Why am I so unhappy? Or someone just says to you, “Why are you so unhappy?” And you’re like, “Am I so unhappy?” “Yes, you’re unhappy.” “Shit, I didn’t realize that.” That can happen gradually.
Gilsdorf: Art combats that feeling?
Mortensen: What art does is it makes you feel alive and makes you feel like you’re connected. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to live beyond death or that you’re not going to be afraid to die. …. It just means that while you’re here, for whatever reason that you’re here, for however long that you’re going to be here, you have a choice to make something of that experience. And looking at the world artistically has to do with making something of being alive. Making things. Making things can be looking at a movie. How do you have a conversation? Do you engage with others, with the world? Does it matter on any level to you? And if it does, then you’re doing something artistic. Just by considering that it might matter.
Gilsdorf: It strikes me that given your passion for these issues, that you’d have a lot to offer as a mentor. Have you ever done any teaching?
Mortensen: I thought about it. Only thing I’ve come close to in terms of teaching, aside from teaching people to swim when I was young, is poetry workshops. I suppose a good director is like a teacher. I think that someone like David Cronenberg was very much like a teacher, because there’s an openness, but a certain set of rules of behavior, and a certain conduct expected. But there’s an atmosphere that’s relaxed and conducive to exploration, and that is created by someone like Cronenberg. Which means he’s a good teacher. Directing can be like that. That might be interesting.
Gilsdorf: Have you ever considered directing films yourself?
Mortensen: It would be interesting. Obviously, I like writing. I like photography. I like actors. Which is more than I can say for a great many directors that I have known. They don’t seem to like actors or want to come to know them. They’re afraid of them or threatened. But I know it’s a big task. Who knows? It would be interesting to try sometime.
Gilsdorf: If you don’t mind, let’s talk some more about your career before and after Lord of the Rings. Did you have any sense how much of a hit the trilogy would be?
Mortensen: I’d been working for quite a while before Lord of the Rings. And while we were making it, no one had any idea it was going to be a huge smash hit in terms of box office. The degree of success it had was I think surprising, even to those most intimately involved with making the movies. I’m sure that the producers were hopeful. There was a lot of money invested in it. But that it would be that big, that successful, that much of a cultural landmark at the time, I didn’t know that. And it gave me lots more options. And that was great.
Gilsdorf: And while that did open more doors for you, it seems also you’ve consciously chosen smaller films to act in since Rings. What has that transition been like?
Mortensen: Obviously [Rings] gave me a lot more options. But I’m also aware of the fact that by looking at what’s most interesting in terms of a story, or a role in terms of the things that have been available to me since Lord of the Rings, by choosing in terms of quality rather than the size of the budget or the notoriety of the project, I’m aware that’s led me towards smaller, more independent movies in a lot of cases. And those need a lot of luck and lot of good promotion and good distribution. The movies I’ve been in, as good as they’ve been in recent years, have not benefited from great distribution or great promotion, unfortunately. And nonetheless, they’ve been made. And the acting’s very solid and I’m proud of many of them and they were good experiences and I don’t regret anything. But because they’re not blockbuster movies, your level of recognition tends to ebb a little bit. But I’m still offered studio movies, and interesting things. All kinds of movies. I have no complaints. It’s been a very interesting ride. And I feel there is still a ways to go in terms of learning new things.
Gilsdorf: I understand you just finished a theater production in Madrid. What was the experience like acting in live theater, in Spanish no less, in Ariel Dorfman’s two-person play Purgatorio?
Mortensen: We finished the run. I’m happy to say that it went very well. … It worked out.
Gilsdorf: I heard you had not acted in the theater in some time.
Mortensen: I was terrified. I don’t know if I said that but that’s how I felt. First, because it I hadn’t done a play in more than twenty years and second, the text was pretty difficult. It was a complicated play. The writing is tough to get your head around and make conversational, I guess. But once you figure out how it works … you want to make people understand what you’re talking about and you want to add some emotional weight to it. Not just be pronouncing a lot of interesting sentences. And so it was a challenge. I was mostly worried just because I had not done it for such a long time. I had to be on stage for an hour and forty-five minutes with another person, no intermission, and just had to go for it.
Gilsdorf: What were you most fearful of?
Mortensen: What’s it going to be like on stage? Will people hear me? Will I remember the lines? Will it be interesting? Will people will be bored? All the usual fear. But it ended up being great fun. And, as usual, the thing you are most scared of — the amount of work, the emotional challenges, the audience being there live on three sides, very close to you — those were the things I ended up liking the most. By the end of it, by the end of the run, [it] was really an inspiration to have people right there in your face, to be able to be in their faces, too. To be able to play with your voice. It was a small theater, probably a little under four hundred people, and on three sides. We didn’t use mikes. So it was very intimate, in a way, and very raw, and a lot of fun. The name of the actress [I acted with] is Carmen Elias. A very good actress with lots of stage experience. Just a real pro. It was fun. I learned a lot.
Gilsdorf: Do you see yourself doing more theater?
Mortensen: Yeah, I would like to do more. The closest thing to it I’d done in twenty years is poetry readings. It’s not unlike doing a play … reading a script, singing a song … there’s that immediate connection with the audience … There’s something that happens between your mouth and their ear, some chemical thing that happens. That allows you to help understand the poem better. Sometimes I’ve rewritten the poem as a result. That’s something that happens. [In] the play, much more so. In this play for both characters it’s really raw, you’re emotionally exposed. You’re very exposed. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s not like there is a lot of furniture, or other characters or a lot of distractions or walls. You’re just right there, in the middle of the audience. There’s something that happens with you between you and the audience. It’s an intense experience. … very raw emotion.
Gilsdorf: We talked some about your work as an actor, painter, poet and musician. It seems to me that they are all linked by story. So I’m wondering what you think is the significance or power of stories. Why are they so important?
Mortensen: We are the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell about others, the stories we read about everyone and everything.
Gilsdorf: So you’re headed to Boston to accept the Coolidge Award. We’re very excited that you’re coming. What’s your previous experience in Boston?
Mortensen: I’m happy to go there. The last time I spent any time there was I did a reading of Howard Zinn’s great book, The People’s History of the United States, which was then made into a documentary called Let the People Speak. That was fun. That was done in the Majestic Theater I think it’s called, in Boston. We did that over two or three days. There were some rehearsals and then we shot for three days. We did a lot of the book. Most of the book. Had a lot of fun. A lot of what we did made it into the final documentary. That was a good experience.
Gilsdorf: Had you visited Boston much before that?
Mortensen: I’ve been to Boston quite a bit. I spent my adolescence in northern New York up on the Canadian border. And went to New England quite a bit. I have a lot of friends that are from there as well.
Gilsdorf: And rumor has it you’re not a Boston sports fan. You even wore a Montreal Canadiens jersey under your Aragorn costume when filming Lord of the Rings.
Mortensen: I’m a Montreal Canadiens hockey fan. Sorry to say to the sports fans in Boston. Montreal is a pretty feisty historical enemy, opponent, and let’s say adversary. I’m also New York Mets fan and New York Giants fan. So it probably couldn’t be a worse combination: Canadiens, Mets and Giants [He laughs.] And Knicks!
Gilsdorf: Be careful of what gang colors you wear when you come to Boston.
Mortensen: There you go.
Gilsdorf: Only being a Yankees fan would be worse. Well, I see our time is up. It’s been a pleasure, Viggo. Thanks so much for giving me your time.
Mortensen: Thanks for your time. I hope you got enough information.
Gilsdorf: Absolutely. Enjoy Boston. I’ll see you at the Coolidge Award ceremony.
Mortensen: Please introduce yourself.
Later, via email, I asked Viggo a few follow-up questions, including who his heroes were. Here are his replies.
Gilsdorf: Who were your heroes growing up as a child, and who are they today?
Mortensen: Okay, you asked for it… As a child — say, before age eleven — I suppose they were my father, my mother, various horses and dogs, soccer players for San Lorenzo de Almagro (a club founded in Boedo, Argentina, in 1908 by salesian priest Lorenzo Massa) like “Lobo” Fischer, “Loco” Doval, “Bambino” Veira, “Sapo” Villar and too many other legendary players from that club to mention — viking Leif Eriksson, fictional gaucho cowboy Martin Fierro, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Odin, Thor, Jesus of Nazareth, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, the character Don Quijote, his horse Rosinante and his trusty servant Sancho Panza, Achilles, Odysseus, Theseus, Joan of Arc, explorer Roald Amundsen, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Thor Heyerdahl, Roger Bannister (the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier), marathon champion Abebe Bikila, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), long jumper Bob Beamon, Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Emil Zátopek, Wilt Chamberlain, Cassius Clay, swimmers Don Schollander and Dawn Fraser, Peter O’Toole’s impersonation of T. E. Lawrence, the crew of Apollo 11, the recently-deceased rock legend Luis Alberto “El Flaco” Spinetta, Carlos Gardel, Bela Lugosi, Greta Garbo, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Edith Piaf, Beethoven, Mozart … I could probably name more, but surely that gives an idea of how and where I dreamed back then.
Although as an adult I have come to see that no human being is perfect, I now would place at the top of the list the many unheralded people whose small acts of selfless kindness and courtesy, of grace under pressure that we come across every single day are there to be noticed and emulated if we simply pay attention. In terms of individuals who are relatively well-known, I would single out Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Helen Caldicott, Dennis Kucinich, Baltasar Garzón, Aung San Suu Kyi, Julian Assange and anyone who speaks truth to power, stands up against injustice and cruelty regardless of any consequential risk of ostracism or personal physical danger. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, my father, my mother, and some of the others previously mentioned, are still heroes to me.
I can also add, among other diverse sorts of heroes, my son Henry, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, Heraclitus, Kierkegaard, Lao Tzu, Epictetus, writers Marguerite Duras, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Albert Camus, Jonathan Swift, E. E. Cummings, Julio Cortázar, Mario Benedetti, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Francisco Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Haroldo Conti, Oscar Wilde, Knut Hamsun, Saxo Grammaticus, Schopenhauer, Ludvig Holberg, Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova, Johannes Ewald, Euripides, Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke, Lewis Carroll, Joseph Conrad, Osip Mandelstam, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Heinrich Heine, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, William Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Campbell, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, directors Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, David Cronenberg, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Luis Buñuel and Yasujirō Ozu, actors Richard Jenkins, Sandy Dennis, Geraldine Page, Meryl Streep, Maria Falconetti, Ghita Nørby, Ariadna Gil, Jessica Lange, Paco Rabal, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Dirk Bogarde, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Federico Luppi, Montgomery Clift, and Robert Duvall, stuntman Mike Watson, sculptors Bertel Thorvaldsen, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, painters Giotto, da Vinci, Juan Gris, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Andrei Rublev, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Edvard Munck, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Utagawa Hiroshige, Minerva Chapman, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Diebenkorn, Per Kirkeby, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and , photographers Jacques Henri Lartigue, Jacob Riis, André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Julia Margaret Cameron, Martin Munkácsi, August Sander, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Garry Winogrand and Dennis Hopper, tennis champions Rafael Nadal, Björn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, skiers Bill Koch, Juha Mieto, Jean-Claude Killy and Bjørn Dæhlie, newer San Lorenzo players like “Beto” Acosta, “Ratón” Ayala, the heroic 1982 San Lorenzo team that came back from the club’s only descent to Argentina’s second division breaking national attendance records along the way, Guy Lafleur and the great Montréal Canadiens teams from the 1970s, the 1969 and and 1986 New York Mets, Tom Seaver, “Doc” Gooden, New York Knick stars Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Bernard King, Oscar Reed, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, “Magic” Johnson, the U.S.A. 1980 Olympic hockey team, the ’87, ’91, 2008 and 2012 New York Giants teams, Danish soccer stars Allan Simonsen, Michael Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel and Denmark’s 1992′s soccer cinderella-story European Champion team, Johan Cruyff, Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, Real Madrid’s/Schalke’s Raúl González Blanco, Leo Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Zinedine Zidane, Bob Dylan, Ada Falcón, Leonard Cohen, Chet Baker, Gustav Mahler, Arvo Pärt, Carl Nielsen and so on… Sorry to give you such long lists. Could have been even longer…
Gilsdorf: What are your favorite films, or films influential on your career, and/or what actors do you admire, and why?
Mortensen: Movies, to name a few: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Godfather I & II, A Separation, The Fog of War, The Conformist, Los Santos Inocentes, The Deer Hunter, Casino, Lawrence of Arabia, Tokyo Story, Autumn Sonata, Sunrise, Andrei Rublev, Citizen Kane, A Place in the Sun, City Lights, Casablanca, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Greed, The Night of the Hunter, The Third Man, Gallipoli, Mother and Son, Stalker, Ivan’s Childhood, Red River, Taxi Driver, Frances, Network, Grand Illusion, L’Atalante, Throne of Blood, The Seven Samurai, The Sword of Doom, Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, Carnival of Souls, Solaris (Tarkovsky’s original)…
Actors, to name a few: Montgomery Clift, Maria Falconetti, Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Richard Jenkins, Sandy Dennis, Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Page, Robert Duvall, Anna Magnani, Peter O’Toole, Toshiro Mifune, Dennis Hopper, Jessica Lange, James Dean, John Hurt, Dirk Bogarde, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Pickford, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Bergman, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Ulrich Thomsen, Max von Sydow, Bruno Ganz.
p.s. [you] can also add Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins to my second hero list.