By Ruth Conniff
November 2005 Issue
Sure, he’s cute. Well, not cute. Strikingly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. But the most intriguing thing about Viggo Mortensen, who played King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and who recently won critical acclaim for his leading role in the latest David Cronenberg release, A History of Violence, is how much he loves to talk politics.
When I called him in July to interview him for The Progressive, he had returned from four months’ shooting the forthcoming Spanish historical epic, Alatriste. He sounded exhausted, as though he could barely hold the phone, but when we started talking about the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration, and the role of actors and artists in mainstream political discourse, he didn’t feel like sleeping. Eventually, I had to tell him I was tired.
Two days later, he called back. He wanted to clarify a few things he’d said and to answer more questions. And he tried me a few times after that. We spoke one final time in the wake of Katrina. I might have flattered myself to think one of the best-looking Hollywood leading men liked the sound of my voice. But that clearly wasn’t the case, since he did most of the talking.
Born in Manhattan on October 20, 1958, to an American mother and a Danish father, Mortensen spent his childhood in Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark. He went to school in Watertown, New York, just south of the Canadian border. He studied acting at the Warren Robertson Theatre Workshop in Manhattan in the 1980s and then moved to Los Angeles. There, he met Excene Cervenka, the lead singer of the punk band X, and became a familiar face in the Los Angeles punk scene. The couple had a son, Henry, together in 1988, and subsequently divorced.
Mortensen made his feature-film debut in 1985 as Alexander Godunov’s Amish brother in Witness. After that, he had a run as a villain in a series of films, playing a paraplegic ex-con snitch in the 1993 film Carlito’s Way with Al Pacino, and Lucifer in The Prophecy with Christopher Walken, two years later. In 1997, he played the tough-talking training instructor to Demi Moore’s G.I. Jane, and the following year he appeared as Gwyneth Paltrow’s home-wrecking paramour in A Perfect Murder.
In recent years, Mortensen has been cast as much more heroic figures, not only as King Aragorn but also as the lead human in Hidalgo, the horse story in which a down-on-his-luck postal carrier rides his mustang in a race across the Arabian Desert.
Most recently, he won acclaim for his portrayal of Tom Stall, an Indiana diner owner whose life is changed forever after he acts against two robbers in A History of Violence. The film, an adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel of the same name, was a critical hit at Cannes. He also plays the lead in Alatriste, portraying the seventeenth century soldier and missionary Captain Alatriste, based on the book of the same name by Arturo Perez Reverte. The film is due out in the spring.
Mortensen is a part-time musician, a published poet, and a photographer and painter who has had exhibitions at art galleries such as the Robert Mann Gallery, Track 16 Gallery, Fototeca de Cuba, and Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark. On top of all that, he founded the independent publishing house Perceval Press.
Even when he’s not jet-lagged, he is soft spoken. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal accomplishments. But get him going on politics and he’s hard to stop. Below is a condensed account of our many phone conversations.
Question:Why did you decide to go down to Camp Casey and join Cindy Sheehan?
Viggo Mortensen: I went in the first week, when there were only a few people down there. She was being so maligned and dragged through the mud. I thought the best thing to do was just to go and listen to her and make up my own mind. If you’re someone who is a public figure, if you make too much of it, the risk is that you can be seen as just trying to get attention for yourself. So I intentionally went down without saying I was coming. No one even saw me getting out of the car, and before anyone knew it I was just standing in front of her. I stayed very briefly, and she was nice enough to give me a little of her time.
Q: What did you talk about?
Mortensen: Well, first of all, I just said, respectfully, I’m sorry about your son, and I said thank you for some of the things you’ve said and for bringing attention to the issue, for keeping this topic alive. I left there really impressed with her, with her integrity and sincerity.
I also had a sense of just how threatening someone like this would be to people who are used to running the show, in terms of perception and media information—or disinformation. It’s like she pulled an end around just by being herself, a relatively ordinary woman displaying extraordinary courage and being quite eloquent and brave, knowing she’s being savaged and hearing it and standing up to it and having her say as an individual and as a woman. The fact that she was a woman—how could this little woman do that to us?—it just galled them. I thought, good for you.
Q: What was your reaction to Katrina?
Mortensen: Cindy Sheehan and how badly Katrina was bungled are two shots to the heart. I hope the beast does fall down soon. What’s more shameful than the criminal negligence that made a bad situation much, much worse is the arrogant attitude after the fact. The outright lying—even though we’ve become accustomed to lying from this Administration—has broken new ground in the field of dishonesty. They’re so clumsy in their attempts to come off well. And there is so little heart in what they say. Even the sound of their voices is so false.
Q: Are you anti-Bush, as the pundits say?
Mortensen: No, I’m not anti-Bush; I’m anti-Bush behavior. In other words, I’m against cheating, greed, cruelty, racism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism, treason, and the seemingly limitless capacity for hypocrisy shown by Bush and his Administration.
Q: What’s wrong with pinning it all on Bush?
Mortensen: It’s too easy, and it lets a lot of people off the hook. I think impeachment proceedings need to be started immediately but not just against him. God forbid we should have Dick Cheney as President. No. Those two need to go, and many of the others in the inner circle need to go.
Q: It seems much of the media has responded differently to Katrina than they did to earlier screw-ups by the Bush Administration. Why is that?
Mortensen: It’s because it’s here. You can see it. You can’t hide that. So all of a sudden these mousy, timid, go-along reporters are finding some spine, and that’s nice to see. I hope it lasts. I hope they don’t recede into their self-congratulating, privileged little niches.
Q: Are you hopeful about political change?
Mortensen: I think most Americans will look back on this period since 1980 as a morally bleak, intellectually fraudulent period of history. There will be a certain amount of shame, a feeling we were part of something wrong. People standing outside of this country can see this because it’s very obvious. It’s like looking at a spoiled brat, a kid who’s totally out of control, but because the parents are really rich and because they own the school, you have to put up with it. America is an empire in decay. But we don’t have to lash out and do damage on the way down. We can reverse some of the damage we’ve done. It’s possible.
Q: You have been criticized for wearing anti-war T-shirts while promoting your films, particularly The Lord of the Rings. Did you have a particular strategy?
Mortensen: I made use of an opportunity. The first time was in the fall of 2002, when I happened to be on The Charlie Rose Show. I went there wearing a shirt that I just scribbled with a pen, “No More Blood for Oil.”
Q: But it was also connected to the politics of the movie.
Mortensen: Yes, I was getting tired of journalists presuming that “obviously” the Fellowship of the Ring is America or the West, surrounded by poor Oriental Islamic extremists. Tolkien presents a complex and detailed and interesting set of stories and ideas and archetypes. The Lord of the Rings was appreciated around the world because it speaks to a lot of universally understood truths and myths, not because it justified the right wing of the Republican Party or some kind of North American Protestant Christian fundamentalism.
Q: Following the Charlie Rose appearance, USA Today contributor Michael Medved took you to task for ruining a popular movie by politicizing it. “Political preachments, on or off camera, only interfere with the entertainment value of creative work by major Hollywood stars,” he wrote, in a piece that got a lot of attention. What did you think?
Mortensen: It was a shoddy piece of journalism. I won’t descend to his level to call him an idiot or anything like that, but it was obviously something he did to curry favor with his fan base or the people he would like to impress in religious political circles. He wanted to be able to say, “Look, I slapped that guy down.” The only reason he took aim at me at all was because the movie I was in had done very well, so I was a visible person. The establishment media will often do that; they’ll see someone who has visibility and they’ll take them down. The risk is that the person might actually be listened to. It poses a threat. I’m glad I resisted the temptation to respond at the time. In the end, it didn’t mean that much to me.
Q: Should the average citizen care what a celebrity thinks about politics?
Mortensen: I don’t think special attention should be given to an actor or a singer or a baseball player or a soccer player more than anyone else, but they do have an opinion like anyone else. When people say that entertainers should “know your place,” they might as well say the same thing about plumbers and teachers and cab drivers. We all should be able to express our views.
Q: Do you think actors are particularly stymied when they try to speak out?
Mortensen: It’s almost a standard tactic, really, to try to minimize any effort that people in the entertainment business or in any public occupation make to express themselves. Look, there are people that grandstand and seem to be publicly politically engaged because they like the attention, more than because they’re genuinely concerned about the world. But I don’t think that’s the majority. The majority of those who take the risk—and it is a risk because it’s much safer to keep your mouth shut and keep making a living—have something to say. They speak up, or go on a march, or get involved in the political process because they do care and they are concerned. I consider myself very fortunate to have a platform. I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t abuse it. I don’t speak up about something unless I feel strongly about it and until I’ve researched a subject extensively and have an informed decision about it. But I think if you don’t say something it’s lying by omission. I personally think it’s immoral. Yeah, it might cost you a few fans, but you have to say something.
Q: What has it cost you?
Mortensen: I don’t know. There might be people out there who wouldn’t hire me because they thought I should keep my mouth shut, but I’m not aware of that. Even if I saw evidence of that, it wouldn’t really concern me. Bertrand Russell said one of the first symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. I take my work seriously, but it’s not the only thing that exists in the world.
Q: You’ve played a number of roles now—in A History of Violence, Hidalgo, and The Lord of the Rings—in which you are a type of cowboy, fighting the forces of evil. A Toronto newspaper dubbed you “the New John Wayne.” What are your feelings about portraying these types of heroes?
Mortensen: I don’t know what the new John Wayne is. I’m not consciously picking any type of role, even so-called hero roles. And if some character seems very certain or very courageous, I always try to find the other side of that. When are they not courageous and when are they not certain?
Q: When you were asked to play Frank Hopkins, the pony express carrier in Hidalgo, I read that you were concerned about being cast as the American cowboy riding through the Arabian Desert. How did you deal with that?
Mortensen: Yes, at first I had concerns about how the movie would be made and also how the movie would be promoted. When we were about to start shooting, it was early 2002 and anyone could see that the Bush Administration was already gearing up its PR machine to sell the U.S. public on its war in Iraq. I was very anxious that I was going to be playing a role as a mythic American cowboy participating in a race in the Middle East. I met with the director and asked him, “What do you want to say? Is this just going to be some American that goes and kicks ass in some heedless way? Or, are you going to show Wounded Knee? Are you going to show, in some small way, that someone from the West and someone from the East with seemingly opposite points of view can come to understand each other?” He said that’s what he was going to do, and he also said a lot of other things that made me feel the project was worthwhile. And, in the end, I feel it was.
Q: What attracted you to your role in A History of Violence?
Mortensen: It was very thought provoking. It’s very much like a Western on a lot of levels. Plus, it was fun to work with David Cronenberg. He’s one of the best directors working in the world today, and he has a lot to say, and he’s very clever about the way he says it.
Q: You have a lot of interests outside acting. You’re a photographer, a poet, a musician, a painter, and a publisher. If, for some bizarre reason, you had to choose just one medium in which to express yourself, what would it be?
Mortensen: That’s like saying would you rather lose your eyesight, your hearing, or your ability to speak. I would rather not even think about it. I pursue the things I do because I’m interested in them. And I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, putting one foot in front of the other.
Nina Siegal is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, where she is writing her first novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.