Viggo Mortensen part 3 – the philosophy of Viggo. (Includes new video!)
Apologies for the delay in this post; it took longer than expected to wrestle my thoughts into (hopefully!) coherent form! It’s not easy to craft a post – without writing an entire book (and this isn’t far off)! – which captures the essence of all that Viggo Mortensen had to say when he attended the Coolidge Award here in Boston. In this final part of the write-up, I wanted to try to capture Mortensen’s philosophy of life, as revealed through remarks he made during the various gatherings at the Coolidge Theatre. In the three sessions at the Coolidge – press Q&A, questions after the Eastern Promises screening, and the evening discussion with WBUR’s Robin Young – Mortensen was asked many questions, and his thoughtful way of looking at the world, (and at the art he wishes to create in that world), was revealed in the answers he gave.
Mortensen is often referred to as a ‘Renaissance man’, because of his seeming ability to turn his hand to all manner of talents. He has written poetry, exhibited photography and paintings, even composed music. He told the audience at the Coolidge, ‘I might like to try directing at some point.’ He is an excellent horseman and was praised by the late swordmaster Bob Anderson (in the Two Towers DVD extras) as being ‘the best swordsman I’ve ever trained’. On top of all that, he’s a rather good actor…. In spite of all this ability, Mortensen continues to be known as ‘No ego Viggo’; how is it that he stays so humble? And what drives him to try his hand in so many different fields?
Let’s begin at the beginning….. It was curiosity which, after a less than stellar start, eventually brought Mortensen to his career in acting. The first time he appeared on stage was as the ‘ass end of a dragon in a play about St George’. Later, in junior high school, Mortensen was persuaded by friends to try out for the school production of Hello Dolly. For his audition he read the opening lines from David Copperfield; alas, his mumbling could barely be heard. After the audition panel had shouted, ‘What??’ several times, he fled from the room – an inauspicious start indeed! Not too many years later, however, he was inspired by Meryl Streep (the actress, he says, with whom he would most like to work); seeing her performance in The Deer Hunter made Mortensen wonder, ‘How do you DO that?’ This desire to find out how one achieves such truth in performance made him, as he puts it, ‘bold enough to try’; so he went along to audition for a theatre workshop in Manhattan. (For one of his audition ‘speeches’, Mortensen decided to sing an old Irish poem; at the evening discussion at the Coolidge, he remarked, of his tendency to break into song: ‘It’s a bad habit; unbidden; unwelcome – but it happens!’)
Unbidden singing aside, the audition was successful and so began his work as an actor. It was not, of course, a case of overnight stardom; Mortensen has been working at his craft for a long time (‘I have been doing this for quite a while … I guess I’m older than I think! I don’t know if I’ll be able to play Peter Pan!’), and he knows what it is to go to see a movie in the theatre, only to find that your entire role has been left behind on the cutting room floor – as happened to his performance in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (‘They should tell you when you’ve been cut!’ he told Robin Young.) Through the years, Mortensen has worked hard and has been constantly learning (‘You can learn a lot on every movie’) and challenging himself. Rather than just do the thing he knows he can do well, Mortensen says, ‘I like to do things where it’s like, ‘Woah, how am I going to do that?’ … The biggest obstacle becomes the most fun – once you make friends with it!’ Such a challenge for Mortensen was the role of Nikolai in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; a ‘Russian who had learned his English in England’ – thus requiring him not only to learn Russian, but also to speak his English dialogue with an appropriate ‘English (as opposed to American) Russian’ accent. In what appears to be typical ‘Viggo’ style, Mortensen learned ALL of his lines of dialogue for Eastern Promises in Russian, ‘just in case’ – and he pushed for there to be more Russian in the film, just as he was an advocate for including more Elvish in the Lord of the Rings movies, as he believed that this would draw the audience into the culture of the elves, and make them feel that they were eavesdropping on intimate moments.
Another recent challenge embraced by Mortensen was the ‘wordiness’ of his role in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. ‘I hadn’t tried that much dialogue before,’ he said. ‘Once I got comfortable, I loved it … Since then I’ve gone back to theatre after over twenty years … now I feel it’s something I can do and enjoy, and not be terrified!’
Mortensen is famed for the hours of research he puts in to any role. ‘What happened between birth and page one of the script? … You’ve got to make it up; and I like to … The more I believe it, the more chance there is that you’re going to believe it.’ Mortensen explained that there is no limit to where you can look for information and inspiration: ‘Jokes heard, things seen, a look on someone’s face….’ Like most actors, he will also ponder the physicality of a character; for Nikolai, Mortensen was inspired by Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, with his ‘swagger… the coldness to his body language.’ For Freud in A Dangerous Method, Mortensen researched authors the scientist liked to read, (‘Freud met Mark Twain… and he loved Oscar Wilde’), and he found editions of books which Freud might have had in his own library. In creating a convincing character, Mortensen told us he likes to ‘leave no stone unturned. Most research material won’t show up in the movie, but it’s there in the background.’
In addition to this disciplined preparation for any role, Mortensen also credits his ‘nomadic’ upbringing (in America, Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark) with giving him a mental ability to ‘go places’. Putting this all together as his tool kit, Mortensen said he strives to get to the truth of any given scene, be it a conversation, a fight, or even something as violent as a rape. He spoke of his desire always to do the work ‘properly’; of his Russian language lessons he said, ‘I just wanted to do a good job.’
This is perhaps a clue to Mortensen’s humility; he is a man who always wants to give his best, who always seeks to learn more, and who therefore never rests on his laurels. In Mortensen’s world, past glory is no substitute for present application. At the press Q&A, he told us, ‘There’s no better thing … than to be called reliable … that someone can count on you to do a job well – or the best you can… that’s what I strive for.’ He went on to say, ‘If I have any choice in the matter, I’d rather work with ladies and gentlemen; people who treat people well … Life is short; it’s better to have fun.’
Mortensen, then, is an actor who always gives his best, and who approaches his work with care and discipline, whilst treating those around him with courtesy and respect. (Which is not to say that he is dull; Mortensen’s ready sense of humour was apparent in all that he shared with us, and he told Robin Young that he, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender all tried to out do each other with practical jokes on the set of A Dangerous Method.) Mortensen is obviously drawn to working with those who share his dedication and work ethic, as well as his sense of play; he said of David Cronenberg, ‘[With him] I know I’m going to learn and have fun, and … there’s a guarantee of quality – you can’t say that about many directors.’ He also told us how much he dislikes ‘big names’ who behave badly on set. ‘Don’t draw focus or upstage your colleagues.’ The cult of celebrity, in Mortensen’s opinion, increases this tendency for stars to behave badly. ‘The award circus has got out of hand,’ he said; acting teachers talk of how to ‘win the scene’, and being an actor becomes more about the promotion of yourself than the actual work.
Such egocentric behaviour is anathema to a man whose focused approach to his main craft, his acting, spills over into all his life; and indeed, he does not separate his acting from his other activities. A recurring question at the Coolidge events was which art form Mortensen prefers; he replied every time, ‘They’re all related … they’re all branches of the same tree.’ He went on to explain that, in all of these endeavours, Mortensen is simply seeking to engage with the world around him. ‘Pay attention,’ he told us. ‘Make choices about the kind of interactions you have … that’s my way of communicating with the world I’m in. Art is paying attention to life. Being an artist is how you listen to somebody… How you walk down the street and observe what you see… It’s important how you talk to people. You know when you use a tone that’s not right. It matters. Little things all add up – that’s what a community consists of. You don’t get that moment back. You’re never going to find all truth and perfection – but it’s worth trying!’
Mortensen, it seems, travels through life ready for any opportunities to create, in whatever form that creation may be manifest – including the creation of positive energy with those around him. ‘The stories we tell about ourselves are who we are.’ If ‘art’ can be defined as a thing – a moment, an image, a feeling – which one makes, in order to engender a reaction in another human being, then Mortensen’s whole life – his poetry, his painting, the way he chooses to interact with people – is an artistic expression aimed at creating a positive reaction in us all. This is why he makes you feel that he cares about you; because, quite simply, he does. He cares about the energy he brings to a place, a room, an interaction. This is his art, and his story – a story which is inspirational to hear, no matter where and how he tells it.
Mortensen said that he is often shocked by his own rambling – reading his own interviews, he thinks, ‘Is that really the way I talk??’ But Viggo Mortensen is a man who, however his thoughts may wander, certainly is not lost. He grasps life with a passion; he stated that from a very young age, ‘once I knew that I was going to die … it was really irritating… I wake up and go, ‘Sh*t!’ … Death is … an affront … I have things I want to do!’ And in all the things he does, he wants to do his best. As he left us after the afternoon gathering at the Coolidge, Mortensen told us all, of all our life moments: ‘There was potential for art in that moment. I don’t know what you did with it; I hope it went well.’
That is indeed a worthy philosophy by which to live one’s life.
If you still want more of Viggo – The Coolidge Theatre made a tribute show reel, which was screened at the Award ceremony, and which can be seen here.
You can learn more about Mortensen’s poetry and art at his publishing website, Perceval Press .
And if you’re still not satisfied, TORn’s good friend Ethan Gilsdorf (author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks) conducted an in-depth, one on one interview with Mortensen when he was in Boston. You can read Gilsdorf’s superb three-part write-up at the following links, as well as seeing some of the excellent video footage he shot:
A last note, for any Tolkien fans in the Boston area – if you missed these happenings, but would like to meet with fellow fans in future, check out One White Tree, the Boston area fan group. You can find their page here on facebook; hope to meet you at a future moot!Posted in Events, Fans, Film Screenings, Headlines, Lord of the Rings, LotR Cast News, LotR Movies, Meet Ups, Other Events, Viggo Mortensen on March 17, 2012 by greendragon