Acclaimed actor Viggo Mortensen talks to Matthew Turner about filmmaking, football – and fighting in the nude for David Cronenberg…
Born in 1958 to American and Danish parents, and raised in Denmark and South America before settling in the US, Viggo Peter Mortensen, Jr is an actor, poet, musician, photographer and painter.
He made his film debut in Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller Witness, but it was his role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that really brought him to the attention of audiences. He’s since drawn critical acclaim for his collaborations with director David Cronenberg, including A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method.
His latest film is Jauja, an existential period western set in South America, in which he plays an engineer who journeys into the increasingly surreal wilderness after his 15 year old daughter goes missing.
What attracted you to Jauja, and how did you get involved?
“It sounded like a good story and knowing that it would be told by Lisandro Alonso, I knew that it would be very unique. I’d seen some of his movies before accepting the role and I thought that the ingredients of it, at least at the start – a father goes looking in Indian territory for his adolescent daughter – was a classic start to an adventure story. So it just seemed like the kind of movie I’d go and see.”
You have a producer credit on the film. Does having that creative influence affect the way you perform on camera too, or the way you think about the film?
“I hope not. There’s nothing wrong with just preparing your lines, showing up, doing them and leaving and maybe having no interest in what anyone else is doing. But for me, from my way of doing things, I can’t help but be interested in what other people are doing. As a photographer, I’m interested in what the cinematographer does, how he lights, how he frames shots. I’m interested in the director’s point of view. I’m trying to help him get across his vision, basically, and I like to work with other actors and see what happens. I’m interested in the costumes, I’m interested in all aspects of it. I just want the director to be happy and have the movie he wants.”
Has your own understanding of what the film’s about evolved, from first reading the script to acting in it and now seeing the final film?
“I’m still working it out. I’m still working out what the movie’s about [laughs]. And I like those kinds of stories. I like those kinds of directors who tell a story or make something that provokes questions but resists answering the questions. I think Cronenberg is that way as well. I like artists that do that, whether they be poets or painters or musicians or film directors. Each time I’ve seen the movie I’ve seen another layer, usually some other aspect to it.”
How does working with a director like Lisandro compare with working with Cronenberg?
“Not so different. I mean Cronenberg, on a technical level and a story-telling level is doing something that’s different, but they’re very similar in the sense that they’re calm, friendly presences on the set, they’re not authoritarian, they’re not intolerant. They’re both very secure as people, so that you never get the sense from them that they have this insecure need to make sure everyone is aware at all times, especially in the media, but the crew as well, that every idea, every thing that’s happening is their idea and they control all aspects of the storytelling. They’re more secure than most directors – they’re open to contributions, they’re open to chance playing a role, they don’t need to claim authorship of every aspect of what’s going on during the shoot and in the final product. So I find them to be very similar in that regard.”
Speaking of Cronenberg, did you enjoy naked wrestling in Eastern Promises as much as certain sections of your audience did?
“(Laughs). It was pretty uncomfortable. Not just the idea of being naked, it was being thrown around on hard tiles. It would probably have been more comfortable if they could have had it be as warm as it should have been, but then there would have been steam on the camera and we wouldn’t have been able to film very well. But no, it was just a scene that had particular physical challenges just to get through it and do the choreography right and obviously since there wasn’t clothing, you couldn’t wear padding and stuff, that was just the nature of it. So it wasn’t enjoyable in that sense. What was enjoyable, like with any scene, is if the shots worked, and in that case of that particular scene, it was especially enjoyable if the shot worked, because it meant you didn’t have to do it again [laughs]. Normally, I’ll do as many takes as you want, I like the process, but with that it was like, ‘Huh, I’m glad we got that, let’s move on’.”
Is there a particular part you’ve always wanted to play or a dream project you’ve always wanted to get off the ground?
“There’s a couple of stories. I’ve written two scripts, I’m writing a third one now and one of those scripts I hope to someday direct. I have ideas for other stories that I think could make movies, but I don’t have one burning ambition in terms of a story or a particular character or anything like that. As I say, I kind of try to see what comes my way and I try to pick things that I think I’d like to see, in part because it’s just more fun and then it’s easier to speak with you guys afterwards if it’s something I like, rather than having to find clever ways to avoid talking about something that I know is not very interesting.”
Quoting from the movie, what is it that makes life function and move forward?
“I don’t know. As my character says, I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking the question. It’s like saying what makes a perfect movie? Well, there is no way possible to make a perfect movie, it doesn’t exist, there is no such thing as perfect. But striving to make a perfect movie or to even describe what a perfect movie might be is worth the effort. So I don’t know and I don’t mind not knowing, but I’m still going to keep trying to find out.”
One of your upcoming projects is the Albert Camus adaptation, Far From Men. Can you say a little about what drew you to that?
“It’s a great story. He’s one of the writers I most admire, for his art, for his writing, but also his ideas and his humanist stance. This story – it’s a very short story of his that David Oelhoffen, the writer-director expanded on, but in a very clever way and very true to Camus’ spirit. I liked it as an adventure story, as a relationship story, but I also found it valuable in terms of the thoughts it stimulates about what’s happening now, particularly in the Middle East, but everywhere.”
You’ve revealed in previous interviews that you’re a big sports fan. What’s the appeal, for you?
“I like to watch sports, particularly football, hockey too, in the sense that I think there’s something dramatically interesting about what’s going on. What happens when your back is up against the wall, which I think is the foundation of any interesting drama. What happens when ordinary people are put into extraordinary situations. You know, life isn’t fair and sports aren’t fair, but every once in a while a fairy tale happens before your eyes and it’s fun to watch.”
Jauja is out in cinemas this Friday, April 10.
Main Image: Getty
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