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Viggo Mortensen talks LOTR

August 27, 2001 at 12:56 pm by xoanon  - 

A BIG thanks to Sangarunya for this great translation and trsncription of this long article, thanks!

In the first issue of the monthly Danish magazine M/S there’s an eight-pages interview (by Poul Høi) with Viggo Mortensen, including many photos, e.g. of Aragorn hiding in tall grass with bow and arrow. Here follows a (somewhat abbreviated) translation, as well as it was possible in the short time since yesterday’s release:

“VIGGO FROM HOLLYWOOD

The press-agent is nervous: “He said he’ll meet you in a park in the mountains. Do you think you can find each other?”

Sure, why not?

“Well, he’s not the type who carries a cell phone. He doesn’t even own a cell phone…”

Which obviously in Hollywood equals running about without a pulse.

But the miracle happens. Without problems we find each other in TreePeople Park in Beverly Hills, exchanges courtesies – in Danish – and sit down on the dust-dry ground beneath the eucalyptus trees.

Once in a while a couple of joggers passes by. Some of them turn and jog past us again, and a woman whispers to her co-runner: “My God – it’s Viggo Mortensen.”

And my God. It is Viggo Mortensen.

Lt. Wepps from “Crimson Tide”, Sgt. Urgayle from “G.I. Jane”, David Shaw from “A Perfect Murder”, star or co-star in more than 30 films, acting with Michael Douglas, Al Pacino, Demi Moore, Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Nicole Kidman, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Half Danish, wholely Danish-speaking, gossip victim, A-list, and of current interest as Aragorn, one of the main characters in the filming of “The Lord Of The Rings”.

That Viggo Mortensen.

It’s safe to conclude that the Danish-American actor is a success.

But as is well known it’s not the sum of good fortune that characterizes a person’s success – but the way he or she handles it.

Elvis Presley was successful. So was Marilyn Monroe and Curt Cobain. But to what use?

Viggo Mortensen’s success is very different. It’s not bent in neon and spelled with a megaphone – it’s a quiet, a humble success, and several times during an interview you feel the urge to prop up his ego just a bit.

“Well, I’m not a big star, not a famous name,” he states several times.

You have dozens of fan-websites on the Internet, you have played with the biggest and best, and the woman next door to me back in Washington calls you super sexy…

“She does?” Viggo Mortensen asks with surprise. “That’s nice of her. Well, maybe I’m famous, a bit famous, but not famous like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or anyone of that caliber,” he maintains.

The filmjournalist Cindy Pearlman from The Chicago Sun-Times met the same modesty. She also got an interview with the actor, but she could barely hear what he said. “He’s a fascinating person, but TALK A LITTLE LOUDER”, she wrote in the paper. “Viggo Mortensen is apparently completely lacking the Hollywood ego,” the article concluded.

She also asked co-actors Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow about their view on Mortensen, and it was the same. “He’s a method-actor,” Douglas said. “He can yell if he has to – go watch “G.I. Jane”. He’s an excellent actor, but a shy actor.”

“Viggo is a real artist. He lives for creating art and be absorbed by it – not for talking,” Paltrow seconded.

Such a Friday afternoon in TreePeople Park there’s not much super-ego and glamour about him either.

He wears jeans, a couple of dusty black boots, and an overwashed black and white shirt. There isn’t a hint of make-up in his face, the stubble have survived this morning, the sandy hair is shoulder-long and Prince Valiant-ish. He’s slender, but muscular, of average height, but of a more-than-average physical appeal.

There are no bodyguards roaming in the background, and he came here by himself, driving a pick-up truck.

It’s not a far-fetched thought that Viggo Mortensen isn’t at home in this city. That he at the same time is too much for Hollywood and not really into Hollywood at all.

Which he confirms himself. A short while he lived in a villa in Beverly Hills – like everybody else – but he quickly moved to Venice, the alternative quarter of Los Angeles, and he spends as much time as possible in his cottage in the mountains in the north of Idaho.

“When I come back after a couple of weeks in the pure air in Idaho, I can taste LA. You can taste the city. Awful,” he says.

But it’s not just the city as such that he doesn’t enjoy. Obviously also a great part of the movie-life.

Viggo Mortensen is a rare guest at those receptions and movie-events that sets the agenda. Tonight he’s attending the opening of “Apocalypse Now Redux”, but only because his son Henry likes to go.

“I don’t want to waste my life on receptions and shallowness and those film-awards that take place every weekend and in many ways corrupt the whole industry. There’s enough that matters in life – my son, nature, art, travels – and that’s what I want to spend my time on,” he says.

Viggo Mortensen dives into his backpack and finds cheese, kiwis, oranges, biscuits, spring water from Montana, wine from New Zealand, and beer from Valby, until we look like a Skagens-painting of an interview.

Danish cheese, Danish beer, Danish talk, a son who is named after the father’s brother from Ringsted, several visits a year back home. What is it with Mortensen and Denmark?

“I have travelled incredibly much throughout my life. As a kid I lived in 5-6 different countries – from Denmark to USA, from Argentina to Egypt – and as a grown up I have travelled half the globe myself. The movie-business is a vagrant business. These latest 2 years I’ve spent in New Zealand while filming LOTR, at other times I’m in 5 cities in a week. Somewhere, in the back of your head, you have to have an anchorpoint, a place you call home, and Denmark is that place for me.”

What do you think of, when you think of Denmark?

“I think of a beautiful landscape, I think of a land where I can be myself and meet my family, where my cousins regard me as Viggo from Ringsted and tease me, as they tease everybody else – teasing is obviously a Danish way of expressing friendship. In that way Denmark means incredibly much to me.”

Viggo’s dad, who is also called Viggo Mortensen, is from a Mid-Sealand family of farmers, and on a trip to Oslo he met his future wife – the American Grace. They travelled to USA where Viggo was born. His father’s job as an economist brought them around the world, but every summer Viggo and his 2 brothers were sent on holiday back home. As grown up he returned to Denmark, and he has lived there for several times, and among other things worked as a carpenter and lorry driver in Copenhagen and as a waiter at Jan Hurtigkarl’s (famous chef), and for a short period he earned his living as a truck driver in Esbjerg harbour.

In Esbjerg?

“I had a girlfriend, a really nice girl, who I wanted to live close to. She lived in Outrup.”

In Outrup?

“Outrup. At that time the town was known for its speedway center. It was rather big.”

We begin a longer discussion on speedway, only inhibited by the fact that none of us knows anything about the subject, and it fails owing to the question of what ever happened to Ole Olsen. (Danish multiple world-champion in speedway)

“Have some more cheese,” Viggo says – and we happily change the subject.

To the movies – and status in the movie-business.

(Here follows some out-of-interview facts about the meagre film-summer this has been and about the cost of LOTR and New Line’s dependence of its success – everything familiar to you)

In this vacuum Viggo Mortensen finds himself; floating between the finished shootings and what holds the possibility of becoming a new “Star Wars” – the parallel most often heard in Hollywood.

You have done your job. You have put everything into the shootings in New Zealand, spent almost 2 years down there, and now all of it is in the hands of Peter Jackson. How does that feel?

“Terrible,” Viggo Mortensen laughs.

“No, Peter is a fantastic director. I have the greatest confidence in him, and I’m sure he’ll make something great out of it.”

At least the raw material should seem to be there.

“At times it was a rough experience. As I said, the shootings took place in New Zealand. They were meant to last a little more than a year, and we were supposed to have a break and be permitted to go home every third month. But as you almost could figure out by yourself: It didn’t go like that. The shooting lasted 18 months, and we had no breaks. We shot every day, the lunch-break was 45 minutes – and then back to work again.”

The actors spent all that time together in a Hollywood-camp far away from everything. Even the actors from New Zealand got homesick, because they didn’t get home either.

How do you live that long together without getting tantrums?

“You have to make the best of it. In the lunch-breaks I often took my fishing rod and a hunk of bread and butter in my pocket and went off to a lake for a little bit of solitude. Some days off I strode off alone into the mountains. But everything considered, it went well. We were a good team who worked well together, there were no big egos that needed tending, partly because the movie has no great, huge stars on board – only us, the run of the mill.”

But doesn’t it happen after the shootings that the final result is different from what you expected? Don’t you ever get disappointed, when you see how the director has treated your role during editing?

“Yes, absolutely. I get disappointed every time. I think all actors do, and that’s something we have to accept. In my first 3 movies I got cut out, among others in Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” and Jonathan Demme’s “Swing Shift”. It’s a bit embarrassing, when you drag your friends and family along to the cinema and tell them that “just you watch now” – and then you’re landed on the editing floor. Therefore I’ve stopped telling them in advance to pay attention to this or that scene. ‘Cause you never know if it’s in.”

Do you agree with the media-buzz about LOTR – does it look like a hit?

“I’m always careful with predictions. I have believed some films to be sure bets and others not – and then it went completely opposite. It’s hard to say. But the potential is there, absolutely. The trouble with movies today is not lack of talent. The trouble is that the film companies choose to talk down to the audience. They present the audience for cartoon-fantasies, for caricatures of reality. The audience is much wiser than they think, and of that Peter Jackson has an understanding.”

“Take a movie like “Apocalypse Now”. Why does it have such an impact? Because it operates in many layers, because it gives the movie-goers something to ponder upon. I have been seeing many of this summer’s movies – also movies I looked forward to – but is has been disappointments time and time again. None mentioned, none forgotten, but there really hasn’t been much to come for.”

Can LOTR do better?

“I think so. There are split plotlines, there is dialogue of a certain quality, and often in foreign tongues like Elvish, and there are no special effects merely for the sake of effects. I think the audience is in for a treat.”

If LOTR will be for the modern film what SW was for the 70’s, it will not only be a needed hit for New Line, it will also be a temporary climax for Viggo Mortensens career.

Trying to describe his film-career is like finding your way in a Middle-eastern medina. Now you think you’re on the right way – only to end up in a cul-de-sac of spices and camel-mongers.

The Danish-American has broken through for real in a – for an actor – mature age. But Viggo Mortensen will rather take the marguerite-route than the freeway – and pick the flowers on his way – because he’s not become an actor to make money or be famous, he maintains.

He became actor out of curiosity – spurred by 3 masterpieces that made a tremendous impression on him as a youngster: “Death In Venice”, “The Deer Hunter”, and Bergman’s “Høstsonaten”.

After high school he moved to Manhattan and tried to get a foothold himself.

The first time he got a part and survived the editing was in 1985 – in “Witness” where he played Alexander Godunov’s brother. In 1987 he was doing the underground-movie “Salvation”, and during the work he met the punk-rock singer Excene Cervenka, a well-known artist within her genre. After the birth of Henry they moved up into a mountain cottage in the north of Idaho.

It was some work-wise meagre years for Viggo Mortensen. There wasn’t much money to be made in Idaho, and he commuted to LA or New York to shoot the movies he was offered. Minor things like “Fresh Horses” and “Tripwire” – and – believe it or not –

“Chainsaw Massacre III”. Viggo Mortensen cringes somewhat and bites his lips, when that topic surfaces.

“I was visiting a friend in LA, and he had a part in the 3’d. “We need a man. Wasn’t that something for you?” he asked. Why not? I had seen the original “Chainsaw Massacre”, and I thought there was something about it – in spite of everything. I was hoping the 3’d would contain the same. But the film company got cold feet and cut away all the most terrifying and gruesome scenes, and it ended up being a rather incoherent movie.”

Would you play a part in a movie like that today?

“No. I’ve heard some say that those kind of movies are “violence-aesthetic”, but for me there’s nothing aesthetic in violence. Violence is violence, and I’m worried about the effect of such movies on young people. There are people who invest too much of themselves in the movies and get crazy ideas.”

I’ve heard that agents in the early years tried to persuade you to change your name to get the career going?

“That’s true. In the beginning everyone was very obsessed with getting my name changed. “Viggo Mortensen – that’s too long, too strange,” they said. I suggested as a joke to change it to “Vic Morton”. That sounds like one of those film noir private investigators from the 40’s… “Vic Morton, privat eye.” No, my name is Viggo Mortensen, I am Viggo Mortensen, and Hollywood will have to live with that.”

And so Hollywood did.

His 31 movies has made just about 400 million dollars, the biggest hit being “Crimson Tide” from 1995, the movie that established Viggo Mortensen as a name for real. After the success in CT Viggo Mortensen’s career has been more commercially oriented, e.g. “Daylight” with Sylvester Stallone, “G.I. Jane” with Demi Moore, and “A Perfect Murder” with Michael Douglas. Mortensen himself is so Danish, so much Klaptræet (independent cinema in Copenhagen) and velvet suit with leatherpatches, that he gets a bit defensive hearing the word “commercial”, and he feels the urge to explain himself.

“The problem with the independent, more artistic films was that I couldn’t live by them, and at some stage I realized I had a family to take care of, and then it didn’t help acting holier-than-thou and being neglected, whatever good intentions. Therefore I began accepting parts as in “Daylight”.

And really, there’s no reason to be defensive, judged by the verdicts of the American reviewers. “Daylight” is a fine, classical disaster movie that even Sylvester Stallone can’t ruin, and in “G.I. Jane” Viggo Mortensen acts so intensely that you can’t help feeling sorry for Demi Moore, in more than one way. In “A Perfect Murder” he is – in spite of the appearance of Douglas and Paltrow – the star.

There’s a reason for Viggo Mortensen featuring on the A-list of Vanity Fair. “The scene-stealer”, the magazin calls him.

And movie-journalist Amy Longsdorf concluded last year: “Viggo Mortensen is superstar material – and of course it doesn’t hurt that he in his latest pictures has showed different degrees of nakedness.”

There has been many nude or semi-nude scenes lately, and if you visit one of the dozens of fan websites dedicated to him, it is obvious that he’s a sex-symbol to the world.

What does it imply being a sex-symbol?

“That you have to take off your pants in all of your movies,” he laughs back at me.

“I don’t mind the nude-scenes in the movies, and those actors who say they do – are lying. Hey, it’s a work, and even a quite pleasant part of the work.”

Is it true that you sang serenades to calm Gwyneth Paltrow before the scenes in “A Perfect Murder”?

“How do you know that?”

She told me herself.

“It’s correct. To calm her and create a certain atmosphere of intimacy I did sing a couple of lovesongs that I learned as a kid in Argentina. I don’t know if that ended up scaring her instead.”

But being a sex-symbol?…

“First of all I don’t consider myself a sex-symbol, and I think that’s important. The troubles arise if you think of yourself as a symbol. I mean, you couldn’t live with that… In my everyday life it doesn’t mean a thing. But my agent from time to time delivers a bunch of fan-letters, and I read them, and out of 50 letters the 49 are always sweet and very flattering, and I’m happy to read that my movies mean something to people, and that they mean something different to people. But then there’s always one letter which is weird, and where a woman wants to marry me right now, and she has left her husband and family back in Kansas. That’s really very sad and disheartens me. But by far the most of the response is positive and intelligent.”

A couple of years ago Viggo Mortensen learned that fame has another price. Scandal.

Shortly after the shooting of “A Perfect Murder” one of Hollywood’s relationships fell apart – the one between Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. “It was Viggo Mortensen’s fault”, the newspapers wrote.

“In the beginning I laughed at it. There wasn’t “fugls føde” (“bird’s food” – Danish expression meaning “the slightest”) in that story, not a grain of truth, and I just shrugged. But then I began receiving unpleasant threatening letters: “How can you destroy their relationship” – “two nice young people who were meant for each other.” I realized that there’s really a lot of people who believe in that kind of stories, and who engage in the actors’ lives and perceive them as some sort of surrogate family, and then it frankly was not that fun anymore.”

However, his Danish relatives got him down to Earth again.

“One of my Danish cousins called me and said it was a good thing that I’d found Gwyneth Paltrow: She was always nicely dressed and well-groomed, and I could learn something there…”

But generally, Viggo Mortensen isn’t a man who complains.

“I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky. Lucky as hell. There are hundreds, thousands, of actors in the world, who are better or at least as good as I am. I have just been the right place at the right time,” he says.

By now he has published his own poetry, exhibited his own paintings and photos, and has arranged exhibitions and is in Venice known as an unspoilt art dynamo. “He’s a true rennaisance man”, the movie-magazine Premiere wrote last year. The interest in art showed early.

“According to my mother I never went anywhere as a child without a pencil, and I always drew. Recently she gave me a notebook with some of my old drawings. There was one I drew when I was 7 – it was rather wild. On the top of the page it said: “Little Red Riding Hood”, and then there was a lot of oil colours, mixed up into something rather abstract. I liked it. But across the drawing it said with red ball pen – and underlined: “Very Poor!” Some teachers still think that such is motivating…”

From here on the mountaintop we see the rush hour beginning. Burbank and Studio City reminds one of a busy Richard Scarry drawing, and the cheese-dish cover of smog has become even more poisonous yellow. Viggo Mortensen is right. You can taste Los Angeles. It must be the same taste with which carbon monoxide-poisoned people leave this life.

We break up, collects nicely all our stuff, all orange peelings, bottle tops, and plastic glasses and head back towards his car, a Dodge Ram 2.500 pick-up diesel. On the dashboard lies dried flowers and what looks like an Indian rosary, in the CD-player there’s fusion music (new age and jazz), and Viggo Mortensen puts on a classic ranger hat.

He seems to be very much at ease, as he sits here well above the driving lane and like a pinball navigates us through the brutal traffic.

“I love driving. Just driving, driving, driving by the road. Suddenly you can think again. Like when you’re wandering through hardwood forest, or in the mountains, or stand in a big, cold, mirroring lake, fishing. Then you are close to happiness – and what more can anyone want.” There’s a long way from Ringsted to Hollywood. But the distance can obviously be held in one person.

(Note: Ringsted means literally “Place of the Ring”…)

Viggo on his Danish favorite director: “Carl Th. Dreyer was a genius. I’ve seen “Jeanne d’Arc” and “The Word” three times, and so has my 13-year old son.”

Viggo on Danish Dogma-movies: “It’s excellent to have a discussion about films and how to make them, but the Dogma concept in itself is more of a gimmick. “Festen” (“The Celebration”) is a fantastic movie. It’s the best version of Hamlet I’ve seen in modern times, but it wasn’t Dogma that made it good. On the contrary it wouldn’t have hurt with a little more light.””

Posted in Old Special Reports on August 27, 2001 by

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