Part 3 of French Magazine Studio Article
By Juliette Michaud, translated by Eledhwen

The hero of LOTR is also a poet, a photographer, and a painter. This extraordinary actor talks to us exclusively about his career and shows us his world. An artist of all trades.

A room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. His short wheat-blond hair makes his extremely pure gaze stand out. He has a drawling voice and bare feet. He has just come from Morocco, where he is shooting ‘Hidalgo’. He is wearing simple jeans and a faded sweatshirt, and wears always on his finger the ring from LOTR which PJ and his partner, Fran Walsh, gave him. Around his neck, he has a green Elvish stone. Usually, he drinks South American maté tea. Tonight, despite a stinking cold, he is sharing a bottle of Bordeaux with us, drawing on imported cigarettes, which a (female) Danish journalist left him …

What awaits us in TTT after FOTR?
Viggo Mortensen – This episode is tougher, more despairing, because the Fellowship of the Ring is broken. Aragorn, my character, finds himself with new responsibility, which will give him a more tragic and more beautiful aspect. What I like a lot in this part of LOTR is the use of a very free structure which returns to the past, to the future, to dreams, to hope, to fears, all at once … PJ has multiplied the degree of difficulty throughout his trilogy. And also, there are some real new things: visually, the Viking country is astounding, and the city of Minas Tirith, unbelievable. As for the rest, I prefer to leave it as a surprise!

The shooting of the three LOTR films happened simultaneously, over 18 months. However, since then, you have re-shot several scenes …
That was expected. Every year, we go back to New Zealand for a good month of shooting. Also, next year, I’ll go back there for additional scenes for the third episode, ROTK. For TTT, this year, we filmed mostly flashbacks.

We know you were chosen at the last minute, even after the shoot had begun. Was this a handicap?
As you know, I replaced Stuart Townsend. I knew there was nothing wrong with Stuart; simply, Peter wanted an old dog like me for Aragorn. [He has just turned 44.] My only fear was that I didn’t have enough time to prepare. Also, I hadn’t even read Tolkien’s book. As well, I hesitated about leaving my family behind for such a long time. But my son, who I’m bringing up, gave me his blessing. Then I read what I could: the script and the books, of course, but also medieval French and Spanish poems which could have inspired Tolkien. I loved this reading. At the same time, I devoted myself to fencing: the first scene which I had to shoot was a fight. So, the first characteristic of Aragorn which I noticed was his physical strength.

How would you define Aragorn?
A king who doesn’t want to be king. A mortal in love with an immortal … It takes time to get to know Aragorn: for many years, he has hidden his identity from Sauron, because he is the last of the Numenorean line. At the same time, he feels very distant from his ancestors, who, though brave, succumbed to the power of the Ring. Aragorn himself has fear that he will succumb, which makes him psychologically troubled. It is very interesting for an actor to have such a role, a character who evolves gradually, with subtleties and implications.

What touches you most in the story of LOTR?
It’s a story about fellowship: the union of people and races to save the world. It’s quite easy to compare it with what we see nowadays, this fight against terrorism which the whole world must fight. It’s rare to find a film which isn’t simply concerned with the characters’ actions, but also with their internal conflicts. What I liked in the book is the fact that there are so many diverse forces: Tolkien was a master at juggling myths, literature, poetry, old tales, language. Moreover, my knowledge of Celtic myths helped me feel immediately close to Aragorn. My father is Danish and I used to live in Denmark; so I know these Nordic legends which say that heroes and gods have weaknesses, that they’re all human. Straight away I saw Aragorn as a mixture of all the archetypal Nordic heroes. Except that he is more modern than those guys who sang before acting. Aragorn’s acts speak louder than his words.

You got so close to Aragorn’s character that even when you were not filming, you wore parts of your costume …
That’s how I work. I always wear an accessory of my character during filming. On ‘Hidalgo’, for instance, I never took off my character’s boots. On LOTR, it was even more important, because having arrived after they had started, I needed to be Aragorn immediately, that I wore the costume as naturally as my own face. So it’s true, I wore some of his clothes permanently and I also carried my sword around often between takes. But PJ encouraged us all to immerse ourselves in the film to make this epic as real as possible.

The latter spared his crew nothing. They say that you yourself broke a tooth during a fight …
Yes, it’s true [he shows his front tooth], so? [He waves his hand.] Everyone was injured more or less seriously, including the crew. Better to say that we were lucky to get off so lightly! (Laughs). Anyway, we were all ready for anything. Peter was such an inspiration, such a power for us all. The story we were telling, and even more so, the places where we were filming, were a fantastic inspiration. But it’s true that the days were very, very long, and we went weeks and months without a break. The battles were definitely the hardest; I had lots and I wanted to do as many stunts as possible myself. Luckily, over time, I became very friendly with the stuntmen. By knowing each other better, we could go faster and faster without hurting ourselves. But, despite everything, those scenes are very long to film. In TTT, there’s a battle which we shot every night over three months. And if what I’m hearing is right, that scene will only last ten minutes on the screen!

What was PJ like on the shoot?
Like a hobbit! He has incredible concentration and remains deceivingly calm under all circumstances. I can’t imagine anyone else supervising this gigantic enterprise whilst keeping such a sharp eye on all the details. He only slept four hours a night. But he was as excited on the last day of filming as the first.

Was there a moment when you felt you had lost touch with reality?
During the filming of TTT, when we were shooting the battle of Helm’s Deep which I spoke to you about and which lasted three months! When I went to bed, I felt like a vampire, and when I got up, like a ghost! I had strange dreams, mostly about killing … I became all the more the character because the context lent itself so much to that: it was always cold, humid, there were no trees, the place was isolated and the landscape surreal … In any case, it was during the shooting of this sequence that the script and reality came together, that a true fellowship was created between the actors.

A magic bond was really created between us. It is still alive today. I’m still in contact with most of them and I’m very friendly with Elijah Wood. It’s the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. The fact that the story exalts team spirit galvanised us. It wasn’t guaranteed, though; we could have very quickly got fed up with each other! But it must be said that the casting is inspired. Take Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf. He is very prepared, he knows what he has to do. And he has a good sense of humour and really profits from life. I don’t know if it’s a sign, but Ian came to see one of my plays, long ago, when I was unknown … The team spirit was also exacerbated by shooting in New Zealand. This country has an island mentality: you have to work together.

Through the trilogy, Aragorn will have to assume his destiny as king … From your point of view, after the success of the first part, do you have the feeling that you have to hold yourself differently, as an actor? You have suddenly become very famous. What has that changed for you?
There isn’t really a difference. Apart from fan-mail, which has suddenly grown. As for job offers, people must think I have an exclusive contract with Tolkien … (Laughs.) I can’t actually say that projects have been raining down since! The real difference concerns my other career – if I can say that without seeming pretentious – that of painter-photographer: nowadays, more people come to my exhibitions or buy more of my books. They are suddenly more aware of my work.

It is tempting to make a comparison between the power of the Ring and the power of Hollywood …
You’re on the right track! (Laughs.) Hollywood stirs up envy, and the battle is fierce … Personally, I have never been fascinated by Hollywood. What I like is cinema itself, as a means of expression. In addition, I know well that everything depends on luck. The time when I had to do mediocre films, just to move on, if they worked, to more interesting projects, seems to be over, but nothing is ever certain. The only control I have is to do the best job possible and to profit fully from each experience. My ambition is not to become number one, but to find projects which won’t be “just one more job.” In any case, an artist should remain separated from the Ring. (Laughs).

You live in Venice, an artists quarter of Los Angeles by the sea, where you are a painter and a photographer, but also a poet and a musician. How did these other artistic careers begin?
Somewhere along the road. Writing interested me before cinema and theatre. And I have always been attracted by drawing. Photography happened naturally, close behind. In the end, all that is just my way of expressing myself, the extension of who I am, of my way of seeing things … In any case, it has become nowadays as important to me as acting.

On that subject, can you remember the moment when and the reason why you wanted to become an actor?
Not really. I know that I went to see films with my mother when I was a child. Towards twenty, I lived for a year close to London, and I went to a cinema which only showed classics. I discovered Bergman, Ozu, Pasolini, Dreyer … It was a revelation. It wasn’t just that I liked going to the cinema, it was that in leaving the cinema I wanted to enter this world. So, logically, I became very curious about the way in which a film was made. Later on, there was this audition for a play, which pushed me to take lessons in New York …

Denmark, London, New York … it’s easy to get lost in your career … can we try to establish a chronological order?
(Stubborn.) We can try … Between 2 and 12 years, I moved a lot. My father was Danish and my mother American. They changed jobs often. We lived in Venezuela and Argentina. Every year, we went to Denmark, where I have lots of family, for the holidays. My parents divorced when I was 11. At that time, my two brothers and I, we went back north of New York with my mother, to the Canadian border. It’s there I went to school and high school. Then, at 18, I went to Denmark, where I stayed only a few years, before going to live in England. Then the return to New York.

‘Witness’ is your cinema debut. Is there a film before that which counts?
No, ‘Witness’ is the first film in which I had a part where they didn’t cut me in editing! (Laughs.) You could have seen me in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ but the editor decided otherwise! (Laughs.)

What was your ambition at the time of ‘Witness’?
I wanted firstly to satisfy my curiosity about cinema. The offer of ‘Witness’ came at the same time as an offer for a Shakespeare play in Central Park. I chose ‘Witness’, although I was only supposed to be there for two days! I had the feeling this was finally my chance. It was Peter Weir who, seeing me, said, “It will be interesting for [the character played by] Alexander Godunov to have this brother who follows him everywhere.” And he asked me to stay six weeks instead of one! It was in June and July, it was very hot. As I had little to do, I passed the time in lounging about Pennsylvania with a bicycle I had found. I made friends. I was like Tom Sawyer, and also, they paid me and I could watch the crew on set as I wanted.

And also Harrison Ford?
Of course! He was most of all professional. Conscientious. Interesting to study. I had the greats before me: Peter Weir, above all, with his calmness and efficiency. In the evening, when I came back from my strolls, they let me watch the rushes. ‘Witness’ was an idyllic experience.

What happened during the years which followed, between ‘Witness’ and, finally, your first starring role in ‘Indian Runner’?
I had four or five difficult years. I had lots of auditions, without success. At that time, I left New York for Los Angeles. I did some theatre there … And then it came little by little, with really small films, with a part in the sequel to ‘Young Guns’. One day, during the filming of I can’t remember which film, I went back to my hotel and found a message: “Sean Penn called you,” with a telephone number. I asked myself which of my friends was playing a trick. And there was a spelling mistake in Sean. I call: “Sean Penn?” “Yeah,” replies Sean Penn, grumpily. “It’s Viggo Mortensen. What do you want?” I didn’t even realise I could have been friendlier. (Laughs.) And then, he told me about ‘Indian Runner’. He saw me in ‘Fresh Horses’, a TV film which I had made for HBO. I had a little scene at the end. He sent me the script and I was instantly hooked. At the start, I preferred the character which was finally played by David Morse. Mine was just described as ‘the baddy’. But I said to myself that, behind the slightly too obvious behaviour of Frank Roberts, there had to be a really complex reason. The filming was extremely interesting … The more so because Sean was very involved. It was there I became friends with Dennis Hopper. After that, the offers arrived.

You met Sean Penn again later, in ‘Carlito’s Way’. Have you remained in touch?
No. Even now, we meet by chance, that’s all. In ‘Carlito’s Way’, we were supposed to have a scene together, Brian De Palma decided not to shoot it. A shame.

Since then, you’ve kept on transforming yourself from one role to the next: sadistic instructor in ‘GI Jane’, romantic in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ … Was this desire for metamorphosis a conscious choice?
I’m happy you see my work in such a varied way. It’s not conscious, it’s just … [in French in the original] that one must amuse oneself a little. (Laughs.)

Was it not also a desire to break this image of handsome ‘bloke’ that threatens you?
I don’t think that this label of sex symbol concerns me. Going without a break from black to white is more a part of my temperament. I’m curious, I like to try new things.

You’ve worked with many actresses: Demi Moore (‘GI Jane’), Sandra Bullock (‘28 Days’), Nicole Kidman (‘Portrait of a Lady’), Gwyneth Paltrow (‘Perfect Murder’), Diane Lane (‘Walk on the Moon’) … With who did you have the best relationship?
They were all great. But it was one of the less well known, Diane Lane, who perhaps impressed me the most. She’s been working for several years with little recognition compared to her talent.

What memories do you have of working with Jane Campion, on ‘Portrait of a Lady’? Was that special?
Oh, yes! How I loved working with her! Her way of rehearsing, of discussing before shooting … At the same time, she demands much more than you think you can give. I’ve rarely met anyone so demanding, but it’s something an actor appreciates. I think also that Nicole Kidman did a remarkable job in that film, and that she’s not often thought of as highly as she should be. She is so intense …

You’re filming ‘Hidalgo’. Why this project?
You won’t believe me, but I didn’t have many offers after LOTR. ‘Hidalgo’ was lucky. The film, directed by Joe Johnson, is based on a true story which takes place in 1890. Hidalgo is the name of a horse. I’m a cowboy, the best rider in the West, who goes to Arabia to take part in a great horse race, after being dared by Omar Sharif. Omar Sharif! I would have accepted this film just for him!

It’s another story about a rite of passage …
It’s a theme which I like: the interior journey, the experience. ‘Hidalgo’ is a film about courage and dignity, honour and survival. It is not the story of an American who goes to Arabia and says, “I’ll show you how it’s done.” This American will learn another culture. It’s much better that this film is being made today. I’m even surprised that it’s a studio film!

Is the curiosity about cinema that you had at the start still satisfied?
I’ve had more than I hoped; I’ve discovered the infinite possibilities of my job. Around cinema, for those who make it and those who see it, there is something religious. Also, on set there is a sort of ritual, with the preparation, the lighting, the direction … When I arrive at a set to rehearse, when I see us all in our costumes, made up, speaking words written by others, when the word “action” resounds and we immerse ourselves so intensely that we begin sometimes to forget reality, I find that there is no better invitation to journey, to dreams, to magic, to the inexplicable …

“In the canvases on which I have been working a while, there are phrases, maxims, extracts from personal diaries or newspapers … I even use these as the material for my paintings, like the paint. These days I’ve stopped copying them, so as not to lose them, in notebooks or on the kitchen wall. However they are still there, in my paintings, like so many indications of my past points of view and my experiences …”

“It’s a real pleasure and a true luxury to be able to unite poems, paintings and photos in one book …”
If his canvases are formal research into colour and signs, his photos are witness to the same work: gestures of life taken from real life, details isolated from their context, solitary figures, almost abstract visions of swimming pools … As well as ‘Sign Language’, he has notably published ‘Hole in the Sun’ and ‘Coincidence of Memory’, both with Perceval Press. And also ‘Recent Forgeries’, whose preface is by Dennis Hopper, and which includes a CD, on which Mortensen reads some of his texts.

“My studio is made out of my kitchen. I haven’t a real working studio. But it’s nice to paint in the kitchen: while the canvas dries, I can take a break and eat something. I like cooking, especially for my son. I’m not sure that you’d like my cooking. It’s not at all conventional …”

“Out of my poems which are related to cinema, I like ‘Matinee’, taken from ‘Coincidence of Memory’. It’s a little text which evokes those afternoon showings, always a little special, if only because, often, you find yourself alone; and which says simply how anyone can feel emotions in seeing a film, or reading a book. ‘Matinee’ talks of the way in which a film can transport you. And how, when you leave, you feel, perhaps for a short instant, but also sometimes forever, different as an individual. That’s a feature of art – whether it be cinema, theatre, painting or literature – it can make you feel different. Better: make you feel unique. Of course, the film which this poem speaks about doesn’t exist!”

“Photography, painting, poetry … these are only extensions of myself, of the way in which I see things. It’s simple my way of communicating. I think that it’s Robert Louis Stevenson who said: “It is better to travel full of hope than arrive at one’s destination.” I agree with that. I think I am fundamentally full of hope and when I paint or take photos or listen to someone talking to me, it’s because I always hope that something will happen. That’s it, “to travel full of hope.”

“I’m not really a musician, but I try sounds, I delete, I re-record … ‘The Other Parade’ is, out of my three CDs, the one I recommend, if you want to have a little idea of the strange things I do. (Laughs.) On that record, I don’t sing, but I do a bit of everything, I play a little of everything with people who … do a little of everything too! I don’t give concerts, but sometimes, during a poetry reading where I read my texts, it happens that I play in front of an audience, between poems.”

“I cannot tell you who are the novelists, the poets, the painters, or even the filmmakers who I prefer. If I answer, I’ll regret tomorrow what I will have said. I don’t want to be the person who likes So-and-so or So-and-so – as I can really love one piece of an artist and not all his work. And also this depends on moments, eras, states of mind … What I can do, however, is to quote several texts, figures, people, actors or films which meant something when I started this job, which have nourished me …”

“If I thank Saint Francis of Assisi in my book, ‘Hole in the Sun’, it’s for a private reason. I don’t want to explain any these references – a word, a name or a quotation – which mark my work. Even if the reader does not know exactly why I wrote that, it won’t stop them searching for a connection, interrogating themselves. I like that people draw their own conclusions. In life, it’s the effort you make to try and understand which keeps you alive and open. It is more important to ask questions than to find answers.”

“When I saw ‘Death in Venice’, by Visconti, I was shocked. It’s one of the films which has really inspired me. I saw it again recently, it’s a little out of date, especially the flashbacks, but still … That mixture of beauty and sadness … And also the performance of Dirk Bogarde is so extraordinary! Its impact on me has been enormous.”

“I really like to bring personal elements to a film. Having acted with my own paintings in ‘A Perfect Murder’ was therefore additional stimulation. In the same way, it was I who suggested to Ridley Scott the use of a poem by D.H. Lawrence for the introduction scene in ‘GI Jane’. This reference gave my military character another dimension. It made him a lot more original, it was also my way of making him less misogynist! And the book which I give to Demi Moore, in which there is that poem, it was mine, all battered, really old … It was me too who made Ridley Scott listen to the Auntie Christ song which you hear at the end. [Auntie Christ was a group led by his ex-wife, Exene Cervenka, who he met while shooting a small film, ‘Salvation’. Since then, she has formed another group, Original Sinners.] The album ‘Life Could Be a Dream’ is a great punk-rock record. Lots of young groups nowadays are inspired by what Auntie Christ did. I really like to leave my trace in a film, and not only by my work as an actor.”

“I met Dennis Hopper while shooting ‘Indian Runner’. Straight away we liked each other. He has an incredible sense of humour. I like him as a man and we also share the same interest in photography and painting. We show each other our work, we talk about it, he’s really very encouraging. It’s also him who pushed me to show my work and also he recommended me to galleries so that I could show my photos and my paintings. I admire the fact that he has made himself respected as a photographer at the same time as his mythical career as an actor. Personally, the photographer Dennis Hopper interests me even more than the actor. He has such a good eye … In a certain way, it’s just to say that it is he who introduced me officially to the art world. At the same time, if one can decide to become an actor, it’s not the same for art – there is no starting point, it’s there, in you, that’s all.”

“To discover Bergman, Pasolini, Ozu, Dreyer, at twenty, that was a revelation. Could that be it, the cinema? My jaw dropped in admiration. These filmmakers really stimulated me. I like the simplicity of Ozu, I like the films of Carl Dreyer, which capture so well the pain of the human condition. I like the purity of Bergman and Pasolini. It was after I discovered their films that I became very curious in cinema as a means of expression.

“The real trigger for me was the film which everyone was talking about when I was twenty: ‘Voyage au bout de l’enfer’. [Translator’s note: Possibly ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’.] And particularly Meryl Streep. What an inspiration! All the actors in that film are amazing, no doubt, but there’s something about Meryl Streep in that film which makes me identify with her, I don’t know why, something mysterious which you can’t put your finger on, but which haunts you deeply, and for a long time … Apart from that, if I think hard, it’s mostly actresses who have inspired me. Like Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann. I still have very strong memories of ‘Autumn Sonata’. That portrait of the intense and frustrating link that you can have with your parents … That wish, even unconscious, which they often have to keep you down – even the best parents in the world do that! It’s really for you to find yourself. But that theme would not have struck me so hard without the performances of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, which come close to perfection. They make each word enter your skin. They are of an exemplary sobriety but still they shine and burn with a contagious fever. The performance which staggers me the most is certainly that of Maria Falconetti in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’. It is so vibrant. The first time I saw this film, I felt every fibre of my body move. When a performance leaves you so marked, so to speak, it’s because you have watched great art. Or, quite simply, the form of art closest to you. When I started to take acting lessons in New York, I used these performances as models. It’s not surprising I still can’t break through!”