Interview: Viggo Mortensen, actor
His wry, dry Freud in A Dangerous Method may just be best thing Viggo Mortensen has done to date. Siobhan Synnot finds it’s all down to knowing his subject inside out
Few Hollywood actors, even ones who have fought the evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, or cut off fingers and pulled out teeth in Eastern Promises, can carry off a handbag, but Viggo Mortensen is doing pioneering work in this area. He arrives in our hotel room carrying the kind of white over-the-shoulder macraméd conversation piece last pictured on 1960s go-getters such as Jean Shrimpton or Mary Tyler Moore. However, like everything to do with this Danish-American actor, the manbag has glam, vaguely New Age baggage.
“Some Indians in a south American tribe made it for me when I was staying with them,” he says, as he fishes out some herbal teabags. “They knew my team was Argentina so they got me to draw the badge and copied it onto the front.”
He flashes a rather pixelated version of a football emblem. “It isn’t quite right. Do you like football?” Not as much as Viggo it seems, who wants to know the latest about Rangers’ travails, and admits he has adopted teams from all over the world. This is partly down to a peripatetic childhood growing up in Norway, Denmark, Venezuela, Argentina and America. Mortensen speaks five languages, and seems happy to discuss football in all of them. He’s also a part-time musician, a published poet, and a photographer and an exhibited painter. “Have you heard Billy Boyd, though?” he says eagerly of his Scottish Lord of The Rings co-star. “He has a great voice, and a really good band. I’m not a great singer but when I was playing Sigmund Freud, I would sing beforehand to loosen up and get the playfulness of Freud.”
If you were to analyse a Mortensen interview, you might conclude that Viggo is keen on deflection. He’s certainly happier asking questions rather than answering them, and talking about his friends rather than his work in A Dangerous Method. Mortensen gives one of his most unexpected performances, and his wry, dry Freud is arguably the best thing he’s done to date.
“I was happy to find he was renowned for his ironic tone and his sense of humour,” says Mortensen, dreamily. “He could say very profound things but he was also capable of saying things like ‘time spent with cats is never wasted’.”
His first instinct, however, was to turn down the role when director David Cronenberg first approached him. “There were problems with my parents’ health,” he says. He was also uncertain how his lanky, blue-eyed reserve could square up to playing the chatty Jewish father of psychoanalysis. Besides, Christoph Waltz was lobbying hard for the role too. Then at the 11th hour Waltz pulled out in order to make Water For Elephants, and Cronenberg was in a jam. He asked again, and this time Mortensen said yes. “I knew he wouldn’t miscast his movie but if it had been another director I would have turned it down. It seemed like such a stretch, the look of the character and the way he spoke.”
Mortensen is notorious for his immersive approach to research. As Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, he went out to restaurants with his sword, and for The Road, he approximated a father taking his son through a dangerous post apocalyptic wasteland by living on chocolate and small rations, and sleeping rough. For A Dangerous Method, he arrived on the set with antique books he’d purchased in Vienna, and when he writes a letter on screen, the penmanship is Mortensen’s, the actor having learnt to write in German in Freud’s handwriting style.
Mortensen’s own experience of analysis amounts to a brief couch trip when he was 24: “Just for a short time. If someone feels that way inclined, I think the idea of being free to speak in total confidence about your most profound desires and fears and insecurities with someone who isn’t going to talk about it, and isn’t going to judge you, is not a bad idea at all. If you don’t find some way to discuss or recognise what’s going on inside you, it can come out in other ways that are self-destructive.” He also took up Freud’s 20 cigar a day habit. “Oh they made me sick,” he says. “They were very fine cigars but I don’t really smoke and I had to get used to not inhaling. Also it’s hard to be understood with a big cigar in your mouth. I had to think about that. In my trailer I had a box of real cigars and some chocolate cigars a friend gave me. And the day I was preparing for a scene with Keira Knightley, I reached into the wrong box, and bit off a chunk of cigar. By the time I got on set, I was sweating profusely. I ended up having to throw up in a wastepaper basket.”
Researching Freud through his writing, Mortensen uncovered a man far warmer and less acrid than his cigars; an intellectual whose wit and fluency reminded him of no one so much as David Cronenberg; “When I had to reach for irony and intelligence and warmth, they were on set with me, every day.” The two men first paired up on A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and theirs is not just a screen partnership but a friendship of fierce loyalty. Mortensen is softly spoken and pacific, but he gets indignant when reminded of the furore that sometimes blocks some of Cronenberg’s releases. The controversy that surrounded Crash, a movie that used car accidents as a sophisticated metaphor for sex, so upset Crash’s distributor that they tried to kill the release of their own film.
It’s ironic, I say to Mortensen, that nowadays when most of us think of Crash, we’re referring to the later Paul Haggis film about discontented Los Angelinos. “Oh, I met Haggis at a party when I was with Cronenberg,” says Mortensen cheerfully. “We went up to him and I said to Haggis, ‘Oh you’re a Canadian director.’ Then I pointed at David and said ‘No, you’re the Canadian director’.” He points back at an imaginary Haggis. “And you made a movie called Crash.” Mortensen points back at Cronenberg’s spot. “No, YOU made a film called Crash.” “I enjoyed that, but I don’t know how much Haggis enjoyed it. That was the year Haggis won an Oscar for Crash, and David had asked him why he had to call it Crash. The reply was ‘it couldn’t have any other name.’ Which is bullshit. I don’t know if Paul Haggis could ever be able to approximate the end of David’s little finger in terms of a body of work. Yet he’s never been nominated for an Oscar – yet Paul Haggis took the name of his movie and won.”
He’s equally baffled why A Dangerous Method has been shut out of this year’s awards season. Mortensen got a Golden Globe nod, but the film was overlooked by both the Baftas and Oscars. “Awards for arts, where you make comparisons, don’t make much sense,” he says. “But I would love to see David get an Oscar for best director. He deserves it.”
Mortensen was Oscar nominated for Eastern Promises, but his other decorations include a Danish knighthood from Margrethe II in 2010. “I’m not a great fan of monarchy in general but I have to say the Danish monarchy is closer to the people, it’s not as stuffy as the English one,” he reflects. “She walks the streets, she went to university and studied archaeology. So you go to the palace and wait your turn and before you go in, they tell you that there will be no cameras or microphones. It’s just her and you. She was very friendly and kind, and because she had a photo exhibition on, we talked about that. I didn’t know what else to say, and really I was relieved to leave the room without being beheaded.”
• Despite working with David Cronenberg twice before, Viggo Mortensen wasn’t his first choice to play Freud. He initially wanted Christoph Waltz. Alas, the Inglourious Basterds Oscar-winner opted to play a circus owner in Robert Pattinson tear-jerker Water for Elephants instead
• A Dangerous Method is in cinemas from tomorrow
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