Since the one-two-three punch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen has largely avoided the limelight.
Aside from 2004′s Hidalgo, Mortensen has mostly shied away from swarthy, swoon-worthy action hero types. His only roles that touch Aragorn/Strider: He played a 17th century soldier in the 2006 Spanish film Alatriste (hardly seen in this country), a deputy law man in the Western Appaloosa (2008), and a character known only as “Man” in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.
Along the road, Viggo has, in fact, embraced his indie spirit. He’s taken roles in three films by quirky, science fiction/psychological drama director David Cronenberg: 2005′s A History of Violence (he plays a family man with a dark past), 2007′s Eastern Promises (Russian mobster), and last year’s A Dangerous Method (Sigmund Freud). He’s played in quieter films like Good, and the upcoming On the Road (based on the Kerouac book). He’s also appeared in the documentaries The People Speak (2008, based on the work of historian Howard Zinn) and Reclaiming the Blade (about cinema swordsmanship, also 2008).
On the occasion of Viggo Mortensen receiving the Coolidge Award from the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, I had the chance to ask him several questions. We touched on his career before and since Rings, his acting choices, his thoughts on Hollywood and his artistic life, his thoughts about not being in The Hobbit and more. Here’s Part 2 of our interview. [Note: Read Part 1 of this interview here.]
Gilsdorf: I’m looking at the citation for the Coolidge Award. It says here that it is given to honor a film artist who “advances the spirit of original and challenging cinema.” Do you feel that, over your career, you’ve done this?
Mortensen: Sounds good. Sounds good. Explain now, explain it! [He laughs.] I haven’t been to the Coolidge Theater before so I’m looking forward to it and I’m going to try to learn a little about it. I know that the previous recipients have been some pretty admirable artists. So I feel like I’m in great company. I was quite surprised actually to be offered that. And I actually thought, well, why are they doing this?
Gilsdorf: Any ideas?
Mortensen: I suppose it speaks to the types of movies I’ve been lucky to be in and the kind of people I’ve worked with. When you look back on it, you’re busy all the time. You don’t think so much about it. As time goes by you’re just taking one foot and putting it in front of the other. But when you look back and you realize, Wow, I’ve been working for a quite a while and I have worked with some pretty interesting people, and went through some interesting challenges on the way. Maybe it speaks to that to some degree. I do feel I’m very flattered to be offered this award. … It was a surprise and an honor to join the impressive list of previous recipients.
Gilsdorf: And those previous recipients have included directors Jonathan Demme and Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and actress Meryl Streep.
Mortensen: In particular, I am proud to be in the company of Meryl Streep, an actress I’ve always admired and who inspired me to try my hand at acting in the first place.
Gilsdorf: Let’s talk more about the roles you’ve played over your career. It strikes me that you’ve chosen characters who are drifters, outsiders, loners – from Aragorn’s tortured, reluctant king-in-hiding; to the “Blouse Man” Walker Jerome in A Walk on the Moon, who arrives in town to upset a marriage; to the itinerant “Man” in The Road, struggling to make sure he and the “Boy” survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Does your desire to play these characters come from your own experience as an outsider — you being raised in the U.S., Denmark, Venezuela and Argentina, and speaking three languages? Being between cultures and countries yourself for much of your life?
Mortensen: Could be. That could be. That probably has something to do with who I am. But it’s not a conscious [decision.] On a conscious decision [level], I’m aware of looking for good stories. And I’m aware of trying to do my best to learn about things I don’t know anything about or know little about. Or was afraid to learn about. Or afraid I wasn’t up to the task as an actor. That’s what I’m conscious of doing. I suppose I am conscious of being drawn to people who are a little different. Maybe. Or [people] who think for themselves. Beyond that I’m not conscious of doing anything else.
Gilsdorf: So you wouldn’t say that you’ve got a master plan?
Mortensen: I don’t have any career trajectory in mind or plan. Maybe I would have been smarter to have written down in a notebook, “Well I’m going to play this part, and this part before I’m too old to play this part, and this part …” and tried to do it.
Gilsdorf: Yet, your career has worked out pretty well, it seems to me.
Mortensen: I feel I’ve had my frustrations like anyone has like in any business for any amount of time… But for the most part I have to say I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky.
Gilsdorf: We hear lots of stories about your total immersion approach to portraying your roles. [Ed. Note: In part I of this interview, he talked about his preparations to play Aragorn/Strider.] To play the gangster in Eastern Promises, you traveled to Russia to study the locals, their speech patterns. To play Freud in A Dangerous Method, you scoured bookshops in Vienna to buy editions of books Freud might have had in his library. What’s your approach to or theory of acting?
Mortensen: Each time [I act], I’m looking at the world or a part of the world from a point of view different than my own. Sometimes radically different. Sometimes from a point of view I would never care to have or identify with. But that’s the job. How are you really going to learn something if you don’t have first hand experience? I’m not going to be these people really. I’m not totally psychotic. [He laughs]. I understand I’m never going to be completely be this Russian character in Eastern Promises, or I am not some Freud, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to come as close as I can to it. In the same sense that we’re never going to learn everything there is to know from science, but there’s no reason not to try, for each generation not to try. We’re all going to die. Does that mean you stop washing, and reading books and stop trying to do anything? No. I mean you can. Some people do that. But other people figure, Well, I’m never going to learn everything. That’s no reason not to learn as much as you can. That’s my approach to it. And my approach to fun. I enjoy it. The things you enjoy you tend to learn more quickly and retain.
Gilsdorf: Since your first movie roles in the 1980s, you’ve seen a lot of change in the industry. Has the blockbuster mentality taken over, or is there hope for smaller, more serious films? This relates to the Coolidge Award, which is not only about your work in smaller films, but the effort to make sure small, art-house movie theaters like the Coolidge survive. Is any of this in danger?
Mortensen: I’ve been acting since 1982. I think in the essential areas there are no changes. There is still an effort, which I think is a worthy effort, to keep people seeing movies on movie screens in movie theaters. But that’s something that’s at peril. Just as people thought in the ’50s that movies were an endangered species, owing to the advent of television. There will be a way to figure it out. People like to see movies, movie stories, in a good format, on a decent screen and decent quality. Enough people do.
Gilsdorf: So the essential movie-going experience will remain.
Mortensen: Movies aren’t going to die. Movie tastes change. You look at old movies and there’s a pace that different than now. Tastes evolve. But I don’t think storytelling through the movies is in danger of dying any time soon.
Gilsdorf: Do you feel the Hollywood movie-making machine has changed?
Mortensen: The essential thing about the business, from when I started and from when movies started, in terms of fight, and promotion — although they’ve become greatly exaggerated – there’s just a plethora. Every year there seem to be more award shows, and prizes and recognition. In the ways of promotion — some ingenious, some not so ingenious – [they’re] promoting to the point that you get sold things and a lot of people buy it. That same hyping of the product is done in different ways now. And there are different people who are skilled at it. But that was going on in the beginning of movies. Like that old saying, “the more things change, the more things remain the same” applies to movies. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to refine the thing, refine the art of acting.
Gilsdorf: Do you ever lose hope, in the face of Hollywood and how it keeps churning out largely the same, low-quality product?
Mortensen: Every once in a while, every year, there’s one or two movies that really surprise you, because there is innovation. It’s still possible. Or people just do such honest work. Or such pure work or such interesting original work every once in a while. That it is the real thing. And it makes you hopeful.
Gilsdorf: But …
Mortensen: But for every one of those there are 400 that are sold to you as that [interesting or original], and certainly are not. It happens every year. The smartest critics and award-voting crowds seem to eat it up every year. That never seems to change. Are you kidding me? That’s in your top 10 list? Those people nominated in those movies? People complain about it every year but it’s always the same to a large degree. That hasn’t changed. There’s a more frenetic quality to it. There’s more money at stake. People are going for ratings, going for products, they’re wanting to put on their movie poster [such and such award, nomination]. There’s a smaller slice of the pie. People have lots of entertainment options. People are going to go to a movie theater once a week or twice a week, they’re going to look at those ads, those that got all those nominations. I’ll go to that. That’s why.
Gilsdorf: Looking at your roles since Lord of the Rings, you’ve chosen not to act in lots of action-oriented films. In particular, you’ve worked a lot with David Cronenberg. You’ve been in three of his films over the past seven years. How does he fit into this Hollywood system?
Mortensen: It bothers me that David Cronenberg’s never been nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe, or British Academy Award. Because A, he deserves it way more than many who have won and more than half of those who get nominated every year. But B, because his movies, I think, are good and are worth seeing. And more people would see them in the theater and eventually get around to seeing them on DVD, and say, Wow, that was good. Why did I see that? I know he’s in the pantheon of greatest living directors, unquestionably, and he’s never been nominated. People complain about Scorsese, O’Toole, or about Hitchcock never winning. But at least they were nominated. Cronenberg has never even nominated. It’s absurd. I’ve complained about it before. It’s probably getting a little old to be talking about it. Feel free to scratch that! [He laughs.]
Gilsdorf: Tell me about The Hobbit, now shooting in New Zealand. Aragorn isn’t in the book, but there was talk of Peter Jackson making a “bridge” film to link events between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Were you disappointed to learn that there was, in the end, be no role in The Hobbit for you?
Mortensen: My character’s not in The Hobbit so it didn’t surprise me. If they started making a bridge movie that connected Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and they thought I was right for it, that would have been an interesting thing to do. I enjoyed working on Lord of the Rings and I loved in particular working in New Zealand.
Stay tuned for Part 3, where Viggo talks what makes him happy as an actor and creative person, whether he is considering directing movies, as well as who his heroes are, past and present.