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Interview: Viggo Mortensen

Interview by Clint Morris

Interview with Viggo Mortensen
Star of the movie A History of Violence.

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen

It was a relaxed, almost flower-powered, Viggo Mortensen, complete with bare feet and decorated wrist bands, that strolled into his top-floor apartment at a high up Melbourne hotel.

Put it down to his personality – though softly-spoken, it’s immediately obvious, since he makes a point to check your tape recorder is recording properly before speaking, that he’s one heck of a nice guy, and far from the egocentric player that he could’ve easily been – or put it down to the fact that it’s a genuine honour to talk about a movie he’s proud of.

After all, says Mortensen, it’s a lot more difficult traveling the world promoting the hell out of a movie that’s rubbish. “Oh hell yeah…there aren’t too many good movies, so this is a small miracle actually”.

Mortensen, 46, best known these days as the burly hero Eragon in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, seems genuinely satisfied with his latest film, the David Cronenberg directed History of Violence, even going so far as to suggest – and despite having starred in such classics as Rings, Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way, Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, and Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner – that it’s his best film to date.

“If not the best, in terms of the overall process, it’s one of the best”, Mortensen gladly admits. “I’ve never had a more satisfying time working with a group of people".

In fact, says Mortensen, it “reminded me of the first movie I was in, the first move I didn’t get cut out of, and that was Witness, directed by your countryman Peter Weir. A good time was had on that set but everyone took their job seriously. It was well organised and prepared - there was no shouting, no panicking - just an enjoyable process of telling a meaningful story in a meaningful way. 21 years later I had a very similar experience, so that was nice.”

Though the script grabbed him from the get-go, the Manhattan-born actor says his interest peaked in the project when Cronenberg (The FlyDead Ringers) signed on to direct. In another director’s hands, the project might have went off the rails, but Mortensen believed Cronenberg could be the man to really open this baby up.

“When I read it, I could see obviously the potential, in it’s unrefined state. I could see that the character was potentially pretty interesting - there were a lot of interesting relationships in the story and an interesting central dilemma. But I also had misgivings about it because I felt that most directors would take it and make something of an exploitation movie of it, without being thoughtful and layered as David was. 

"I didn’t know David was going to direct”, he says, but Cronenberg was the icing on the cake this complex film so dearly called for. “When I found out he was going to direct I thought that was interesting. When I sat down with him I was honest with him and said ’I was worried about certain things - what is this that you’re going to do?’ Towards the end the story took more of a pulp-novel approach - it was a little mindless, a little gratuitous. But that changed. We agreed, it felt like we were on the same page from the beginning - I think most of the actors felt that way.

Mortensen believes every actor Cronenberg has worked with, has become a better actor because of it. “Again and again you see actors like Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, any number of people - they tend to give some of their best performances. Because he knows how to work with actors - he’s a great storyteller, but above all, he’s a great communicator. On one hand he’s very scientific in his approach, very organised and analytical about it. By the time he starts shooting, everyone is on the same page, everyone is very clear on what the blueprint is - it’s very lean and refined.

Cronenberg took the film’s storyline of a mild mannered man whose hidden past comes back to haunt him and used it to really fleshed out the mechanics of human behaviour, without trying to influence his audience into any particular way of thinking.

“He’s not trying to manipulate you. He just shows us how we are. We’re strange. We’re all strange. He just peels away a layer of so-called normalcy and shows that we’re all very unpredictable”, he explains. “No matter how strange his movies are - the behaviour, generally speaking, is very accurately human”.

"What’s great about Cronenberg is that he’s a director that’s not afraid to take risks", says the actor, and it reflects in his catalogue of vastly different films. “He’s not pigeonholed [as any particular type of filmmaker]. Some directors just do the same thing one after another, he doesn’t.” Says the actor, finding it hard to pick a favourite of the Cronenberg back catalogue, because “they’re all so different”.

“He doesn’t really repeat himself, and like a lot of directors with long and respectable careers, he continues to grow. A lot of directors don’t. But I think he takes very seriously what he does but he doesn’t take himself that serious. It allows him the freedom to roam and try new things. He said at one time that the reason he makes a movie is to find out why he wanted to make it. The only way he can find out what the movie is really about is by making it.

It was also good, says Mortensen, to get back to films that were a little more intimate, after working on the “sprawling” production that was Lord of the Rings. “We had all these units shooting on that one, on this, it was just the one unit”.

With Violence, Mortensen could concentrate on really examining a character again, and it gave him the chance to share scenes with some of today’s best actors, including William Hurt, Ed Harris and rising star Maria Bello. “She is fantastic. Just the way she opened herself up so emotionally, like that. It could’ve gone either way”.



Though he admits that the finished film didn’t exactly grab him until about 20 minutes in (“I thought it was a bit strange”), he realised that, by the end, he had just watched one of the best films he had ever seen, one that he believes “they’re going to study it in schools” in a few years time. “There’s some films that you watch and think they’re great, but when you revisit them, you realise they don’t really stand-up. This is one of those films that will stand up".

“What I would say about this story is it’s called A History of Violence but in a sense it’s A History of Anti-Violence. You realise the man I’m playing is someone who, in spite of his upbringing and the social pressures on him, has been trying to find another way of living. He’s made any number of approaches and while they may not have been effective at least he’s always tried to find another way than violence in resolving conflict. What I think is positive about the story is that he continues to try. What it says to me is that anyone, no matter what their history is, what their behaviour has been, not matter how badly they’ve screw things up, can always change. It’s never too late to make amends. And that can go for nations and governments as well as people.

He continues, “It confirms to my mind that if you want to tell a story or make a work or art that has universal application, that’s understood by everyone, deal in specifics. Be very specific. And that’s what happens here. Some people say it’s about America, about violence in America. Well, we can talk about that but it’s so little a part of what this is that it’s no accident people have understood it and related to it all over the world. Generally speaking, there’s an approval and a gratitude when it comes to the movie because...well, it’s a good movie. And that’s a small miracle because it doesn’t happen all that often. A good script, a good director, the appropriate cast. Then it turns out well. Then it gets overwhelmingly good reviews and it makes money - all those things don’t come together very often.”

Mortensen has praise for most of the people he has worked with though, even when some of the films haven’t made money, well…all but one. Renny Harlin, who the actor worked with on the little-known 80’s dud Prison, was a “screaming, authoritarian….and when someone behaves like that, I just assume that they’re insecure.”

The latest director he worked with was Agustín Díaz Yanes on a Spanish film called Alatriste. Due for release in America in September, it’s the story of a Spanish soldier-turned-mercenary who was one of the heroic figures from the country's 17th century imperial wars.

The film re-teamed Mortensen with legendary swordsman Bob Anderson, who worked with him on the Rings films. The Spanish loved the “old pirate”, smiles Mortensen, who Anderson claims to be one of the best actors he has ever worked with, who apparently taught him a “different style of fighting” this time around. “I’m really looking forward to this one. It’s a good film”.

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