Interview: Viggo Mortensen
Interview by Clint Morris
Interview with Viggo Mortensen
Star of the movie A History of Violence.
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.
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
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.
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".
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.”
the script grabbed him from the get-go, the Manhattan-born actor says
his interest peaked in the project when Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead
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
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.
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
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.
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
"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”.
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”.
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”.
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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