Interview: Viggo Mortensen is lord of all things

Viggo Mortenson. Picture: Getty Images

Viggo Mortenson. Picture: Getty Images

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He’s learnt to ride, brandish a sword and, for his new film, keep bees – Yet for Viggo Mortensen, it’s all in a day’s work

There are some actors who will be forever associated with a single role. It doesn’t really matter when it was, what they did before and after, or what they look like in “real life”. To us they will always be James Bond (Sean Connery), Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) … or Aragorn. Just one word is all it takes, and there he is. Viggo Mortensen: straggly-haired, dark-bearded, mud-spattered, a sword in his sheath and an intense look in his eye. A bit melancholy, a bit determined, a bit scary, and a lot sexy. A look that suggests he’s about to behead an Orc, run across a New Zealand mountain range, or take his rightful place as king of Gondor.

Anyway, that’s all in the past. The final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released an entire decade ago. Since then, Mortensen has played a killer, a Russian gangster, one of the last men on a post-apocalyptic Earth, and Sigmund Freud. Today I’m meeting him to talk about a modest independent Argentinian film, Everybody Has A Plan, in which he plays twins. It really is time to move on.

And yet... when Mortensen enters the cosy library of a five-star London hotel and I jump up to shake his hand, for a split second the disappointment is palpable. I can’t help it. His hair is neat and mid-length, his angular face cleanly shaven. The cleft in his chin is on proud show, as deep and true as if a child had just pressed their pinkie into his flesh. He is wearing faded jeans and a San Lorenzo football shirt. His eyes, at least, are recognisable: piercing blue, steady, and brimming with that tough and tender Aragorn vibe. But the fact remains: this man is definitely not Aragorn.

For once, he is wearing shoes. Mortensen is quite the barefoot philosopher and is also, incidentally, a poet, musician, painter, photographer and publisher, with his own independent press, Perceval, based in Santa Monica, California. Anyway, he frequently pitches up at interviews in or out of his socks. Not today. He smells of woodsmoke, as though he’s just returned from some manly pursuit like chopping logs in a forest. Again, highly possible. He does have a home in the remote mountains of Idaho, surrounded by woods. In fact the scent is wafting from his cup of tea. “It’s called Mate,” he explains in a sweet whisper of a voice. He then proceeds to spell it for me. “M-A-T-E. It’s very bitter but good for you. Would you like some?”

For an Oscar-nominated actor, well-established and in his fifties, Mortensen is surprisingly interested in my thoughts on his new film. When did I see it? Where? What was the crowd like? Were there many Spanish speakers? Did people find it funny? This is typical of him. He is a completely unstarry actor, someone as keen to discuss the tasting notes of herbal tea, existentialism, and the inevitability of death as the film he’s promoting. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master,” he tells me. “He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day but if we do each thing calmly and carefully we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.”

Is he any good at going slow? I’ve heard he always has five books on the go and surely with all his passions, side projects, and globetrotting he doesn’t sit on his behind watching telly much. “I’ve learnt my limits, though some people think I overdo it,” he replies.

“Life is short and the older you get, the more you feel it. Indeed, the shorter it is. People lose their capacity to walk, run, travel, think, and experience life. I realise how important it is to use the time I have. I respect people who want to do that by watching television. I happen to want to read books.” He sighs and looks a bit sad. “But I know I can’t read all the books or watch all the movies in one lifetime.” Does he find that frustrating? Mortensen fixes me with his intense blue gaze. “Mostly no,” he says. “If we could run out of books and movies, then we would be bored.”

We talk about Everybody Has A Plan, a bleak, slow-paced film noir set in Buenos Aires and the ramshackle wetlands of the Parana Delta. Mortensen plays Agustin, a man desperate to escape his bourgeois existence in Buenos Aires, and Pedro, the rougher-edged beekeeping brother whose identity he assumes. Mortensen is brilliant in both roles, able to pull off gruff and taciturn as one twin (he is at his best in roles that require him to say little and feel a lot) and ultra conventional, pretending to be gruff and tactiturn, as the other.

“These men are very different,” he says. “They’re raised together until their adolescence, but then they grow apart. One twin is more comfortable in nature and on society’s fringes. The other is more urban and middle class. Their Spanish is different, their body language is different, their values are different. There is a certain languid, careless and irreverent quality to Pedro’s speech compared to Agustin, who is more measured, discrete, and polite. My main concern was making sure they were distinct. Sometimes you see movies with twins and you’re really conscious that you’re watching the same actor.”

In a story that reveals just how unstarry he is, Mortensen tells me how he ended up working on the film. “We met in a football club in Buenos Aires by chance,” he says of first-time director Ana Piterbarg. “The San Lorenzo club. I’m a big fan.” He tugs on his T-shirt proudly. “Anyway, she came up and said ‘are you Viggo Mortensen?’ I said yes and she told me she had written a script with me in mind, never expected to run into me, and could she send it to me.” Most A-list actors would have politely – or otherwise – brushed her off, but he told her to send it to him. “She did and it was very interesting. So I called and said, let’s do it.”

Mortensen is renowned for how much he gives to his roles. For the Lord of the Rings trilogy he lived as Aragorn lived. He bought the horses he was riding so he could bond with them over time. He spent days hiking in full costume before filming a scene so he would be as exhausted as his character, camped out under the stars, carried his sword everywhere with him and did all his own stunts. The film’s swordmaster described him as the greatest swordsman he had ever trained.

To prepare for playing Sigmund Freud he read everything Freud ever wrote and learnt to walk, talk, and smoke like him too. For Dark Moon, in which he played a mute, he stopped speaking. And to play an artist in A Perfect Murder, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, he painted all the pictures in the film. As for Everybody Has A Plan, he learnt beekeeping.

“It was so interesting. I loved it,” he says. “It was the tremendous noise. You don’t think about that but when you’re in the middle of thousands of bees... well, even one bee buzzing near your face is quite loud, so just imagine. It’s so overwhelming you have to completely relax. It’s like working with any creature – horse, dog or bee. If you’re calm you won’t get kicked, bitten, or stung.” Did he get stung? “No,” he says with a small smile. ”I was lucky. And I made my own honey. I’ve still got a couple of jars.”

This is Mortensen’s fourth Spanish film but his first made in Argentina. He grew up in Buenos Aires and the rural north, where he learnt to fish and ride horses. “This movie is special to me,” he says. “I was raised in Argentina until I was 11 and now I go back there a lot, at least twice a year. It’s a country where I feel very comfortable and it represents an important period in my life. There is a scene where someone shouts at Agustin when he is masquerading as Pedro: ‘You will never be like Pedro. You will never be from here.’ That had a real resonance for me. It made me think of my own experience. You can’t really go back to where you came from. I don’t think any of us can.”

We do go back momentarily. Mortensen was born in New York, the oldest of three brothers, to an American mother and Danish father. The family moved frequently, a habit which Mortensen has inherited, and he grew up in Denmark, Venezuela and Argentina, where his father ran chicken farms. He still speaks fluent Spanish, Danish, and, of course, Elvish. It sounds like an idyllic childhood. “It’s what you make of it,” he says enigmatically. “In order not to torment ourselves we tend to remember the better things. But I did have an interesting childhood. I think fondly of those years. They marked me.”

When he was 11 his parents separated and he moved with his mother and brothers to “somewhere on the Canadian border – a place where no one was speaking Spanish”. It was 1970, there was no internet or cable television and no way of accessing Argentine culture. “I couldn’t stay in touch with my football team, nothing,” he recalls. “I lost touch with everything to do with that culture. We had to adapt. I’ve moved around so much I don’t really have connections to people that go back a long way.”

As a child he was a loner, which is unsurprising considering his peripatetic lifestyle. “I wrote stories and did a lot of drawing,” he says. “It’s why I’m comfortable being by myself and why I yearn for it at times. When you’re on a movie set you’re with people constantly. So when it gets to lunchtime I just go off by myself. I’ve always been like that. I’m self sufficient and I like being with my own thoughts. It prepares me for being around people. But I know others have to constantly check their email or phone messages and if an hour of silence goes by, they panic. I’m just not like that.”

His acting career has been long and varied. His first screen appearance in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo ended up on the cutting room floor. He went on to give scene-stealing performances in such films as The Portrait of a Lady, GI Jane, A Perfect Murder and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. But it was The Lord of the Rings – a series of films he reluctantly agreed to do to please his son with ex-partner, Exene Cervenka, singer in a feminist punk band – that sent him through the stratosphere. It was an aberration in many ways, more mainstream than anything else he had done, and it changed everything. “He was so non-verbal,” Mortensen says of Aragorn. “He was a person absolutely connected to the landscape. A person absolutely at home being by himself.” He grins widely and his smile, surfacing as infrequently as it does, is dazzling. “It was the perfect part. I could wander around, fish, ride, and think my thoughts.”

Does he regret not being part of Peter Jackson’s second trilogy of films, The Hobbit? Why isn’t he involved? He laughs. “I don’t know, ask Peter Jackson,” he says. “I suppose Aragorn is not in The Hobbit, but then again, they’re making three movies out of what is a comparatively slim volume so maybe they could have included him.” Is he disappointed? “Yeah, it would have been fun,” he admits. Then he changes his mind. “No, I’m not disappointed. It would only make sense if Aragorn was part of the story and he’s not. Sure, it would have been fun, but only if it was the right thing.”

After The Lord of the Rings Mortensen could have become an action hero, the go-to man for sword and sandal epics, or a romantic lead. Instead he used his cash to found Perceval Press, publishing little-known writers, poets and artists, and embarked on a thrilling artistic collaboration with left-field director David Cronenberg. They have made three films together now – A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method – which are widely considered to be Mortensen’s greatest work to date.

These days he continues to be a citizen of the world or, on the flipside, a nowhere man. He tells me he can be at home anywhere, but I wonder where he is happiest? “I think how you are is more important than where you are,” he says sagely. “I can be at home walking around London as much as I am in the woods of South Island, New Zealand. But if I had to pick I would choose to be in nature, whether in the mountains, desert, or by the sea. I like places where there are very few human traces, places where I never feel time is wasted. If I’m stuck in a traffic jam in Los Angeles or waiting in a queue for the bank it’s hard not to feel I’m wasting my life in that moment.”

Mortensen tells me that as a child he was unusually conscious of death. “I wasn’t afraid of it. I resented it.” Has he come round to it over time? “No,” he laughs. “I feel the same. You know, everybody fades and becomes decrepit in the end. It’s just the way it is. You can try to rationalise it, brood over it, or become angry. But there’s no getting around it.” He laughs, not because it’s funny but because the publicist has entered the room and he knows this is a morbid way to end our conversation. We shake hands and Mortensen fixes me with that full-beam gaze again. “I know it sounds very negative but for me it’s always been about making the most of life,” he says with a final dazzling smile. “It motivates me. I just want to seize the day.”

• Everybody Has A Plan (15) is released on Friday.

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