Viggo Mortensen, King of The Road

Hollywood's renaissance man talks about fame, fatherhood, and edible insects.

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 6:30 AM EST
Dimension Films

Anyone not living under a rock has probably seen previews for the big-screen version of Cormac McCarthy's postapocalyptic novel The Road, which hits theaters November 25. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as a nameless father struggling for survival alongside his boy, played by 13-year-old Australian TV actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. (Mortensen's real-life son—Henry, 21—is the product of his now-defunct marriage to Exene Cervenka, front woman of seminal Los Angeles punk band X.)

The word "actor" only begins to describe the many talents of 51-year-old Mortensen, who made his Hollywood debut as an Amish farmer in the 1985 Harrison Ford flick Witness. It would be another 16 years before his portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy catapulted him to international stardom (and job security), but Mortensen has never had trouble keeping busy. Born to a Danish father and raised in South America, he's fluent in four languages (not counting the Elvish tongues) and conversational in others. He's a published poet, painter, fine arts photographer, and dabbler in musical projects—including Intelligence Failure, a collaboration with weirdo-guitarist Buckethead. He's also founder and editor of Perceval Press, a boutique publishing house that puts out mostly high-end art books.

To that résumé, you can add another title: political activist. An outspoken foe of the Iraq War, Mortensen actively campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during the 2008 primaries. He's also featured alongside Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, and others in The People Speak, a new documentary based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which debuts December 13 on the History Channel. As chance would have it, I caught up with Mortensen the morning that President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize. 

Mother Jones: What do you make of this morning's news about Obama?

Viggo Mortensen: There's a certain irony. He says he's committed to keeping his campaign promise of getting us out of Iraq as soon as it's possible—I don't know exactly what that means anymore. He's gone back on what he said about Guantánamo. He's gone back on what he said about the torture photographs. And he's quite hawkish on Afghanistan. I agree with Obama when he said this morning that he didn't deserve it. But I do like the fact that it seems to be, which he acknowledged, an award that carries with it a certain degree of expectation.

MJ: In the 2008 movie Good, you played a German professor who gets co-opted by the Nazis. Has it been alarming for you, seeing people comparing Obama to Hitler?

VM: Well, that's just a cover for out-and-out racism, basically. It is alarming, the amount of vitriol that's being piled on him.

MJ: It's not all that unexpected.

"I spoke to Cormac McCarthy on the phone and that was all we talked about: his kid, my kid, being dads."

VM: No. But it's pretty amazing. It's amazing to me that Glenn Beck can be on the cover of Time, and there can be a whole article about him basically saying, "Well, you know, he's controversial." It's like, No, he's a dangerous idiot who needs the help of a good psychiatrist! But these are also guys who make money and they like the attention. Rush Limbaugh, for example, knows he's lying his ass off, but he doesn't mind making $50 million a year.

MJ: We had an in-house debate about how to cover these guys: The upshot was that you don't follow their antics, but you've still got to cover them.

VM: You gotta do it honestly. It doesn't mean you have to start swearing and using their tactics, but I think you have to call them on it. If you let them go with it they'll go and go and go. They are bullies. But like all bullies, if you stand up to them they're not so strong.

MJ: Men's Journal called you "man of no compromise." And that's silly. But campaigning for Kucinich was pretty uncompromising. Some might say futile.

VM: What am I going to do? Look back when I'm 80? Obama's best material during the campaign was cherry-picked from the things Kucinich had been talking about for a long time. And Kucinich continues to be really the people's congressman. He is the one with the most conscience regarding health care, the banking issue, the bailout. He's the guy who said we should not go into Iraq, and was called a traitor for it. He was a guy who said, "This Patriot Act is not a good thing, we should not vote for it." Even people in his own party were saying, "Why do you say that?" And he says, "Because I read it," and there was silence. 'Cause none of them had read it. They just voted yes because they were told to. Same with health care stuff.

MJ: I don't have much hope for Congress.

VM: I know, but what do you do? You either quit or you keep trying. I'm optimistic. Same with The Road. You know, it's uplifting to me. I am hopeful about the world. I am hopeful about people in general. It's not over till its over, that's my feeling.

MJ: I just saw The Road. It was kind of a shock to step out onto a crowded street afterward. It really succeeds in delivering you into this postapocalyptic mindset.

VM: Did you read the book?

MJ: I did. Are you happy with the way the movie turned out?

VM: It's a different medium, so you can't avail yourself of all that beautiful McCarthy prose, but I think that in what you feel from it, the emotional weight of the story, it's a really good adaptation.

MJ: I thought so, too.

VM: I felt similar in the end, where you feel a deep, deep sadness, but there's also a strange uplifting quality. Yeah, we got to the coast, and yeah, it's not any better here—it's not any warmer, there's not any food, there's not any sun, the water's not blue, there's no sustenance. But we realize we had what we were looking for: It was us.

MJ: A decade ago, when your son Henry was about 11, you took an epic road trip with him. Did that come up in your preparation for this role?

"The preparation for this role was mostly internal: I had to go all the way emotionally."

VM: Reading the book and the script and working with Kodi, I was reminded many times of my son at that age. You can give all the advice you want to your kid. You can put them on the right path, but the final forming of their character is in their hands. That's true in The Road and it's been true with my own son. In fact, before we started shooting, I spoke to Cormac McCarthy on the phone and that was all we talked about: his kid, my kid, being dads. We didn't really talk about the book at all. The preparation for this role was mostly internal: I had to go all the way emotionally and be very exposed, so I was concerned that we find a really great actor for that boy—a unique person who could handle this.

MJ: I thought Kodi was quite good.

VM: He was amazing. There was something about him: He was relaxed, he was in the moment, he had a certain gravity, and his emotional range was amazing—and he could repeat it. There wasn't much time to mess around because of the limited budget and time to shoot, and winter and short days. There was a lot of pressure there, and he was more than up to the task. Without what he did, there's no way I could have gotten to some of the places I did.

MJ: How did you guys bond on set?    

VM: Once his dad realized that I was okay, he allowed us to hang out and do things together: walk around Pittsburgh and go to museums and talk about stuff and find stores that sold bugs that you could eat—which ended up in the movie. We went into this Mexican grocery store and bought every insect they had. There's boxes of them, all different colors and flavors. Maggots, worms, crickets, some kind of cockroach. And then we had a little picnic—we spread them all out on the floor.  

MJ: Did you snack off-camera?

VM: We had to save them. We got a certain amount of boxes and gave them to the prop department, and they didn't really want us to take any more, because you never know when you're going to need them. But I would tease Kodi. I would try to get him to eat ones that were crawling around, and he didn't want any of that.

MJ: How do you prepare to play somebody who's starving at the end of civilization?

VM: Camera work and the choice of locations and the clothing and makeup: Everything was right. We really had to work. We were tired and worn out and we really were freezing. I couldn't very well show up looking extremely well fed. Kodi was lucky because he's just naturally a scrawny kid. But that was the least of it, really. It was much harder to go on this emotional challenge together.

MJ: You're know for bringing chocolate to the set. Did you have to bring more than usual?

VM: I did eat a lot. That was my sustenance—I had bags of chocolate. But no, I didn't have to bring more than usual because Kodi doesn't like it that much, which was very weird. I had tons.

MJ: What's up with you and chocolate, anyway?

VM: I love it!

"Kids have this kind of fantasy life which is mostly unfettered, and as actors you have license to keep being a kid in that sense."

MJ: You also tend to come bearing gifts. Is that a product of the cultures you were raised in?

VM: Maybe. Maybe it's just a product of the way my family is.

MJ: You grew up on ranches in South America?

VM: Only partly. I was in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, but I would spend a lot of time in the country. That's where I learned to ride.

MJ: Is it true you wanted to be a cowboy?

VM: Like a lot of kids I dreamed about being a cowboy or a gaucho or some great adventurer.

MJ: And then you got your chance.

VM: Yeah. Kids have this kind of fantasy life which is mostly unfettered, and as actors you have license to keep being a kid in that sense. I like to look at the world from other points of view, and that's one of the best ways to do it.

MJ: Would you prefer to have lived at another time?

VM: No. I mean, it would be interesting to check it out. As a kid I used to wake up and think about the fact that I was going to die. Almost every day, it would be the first thing that ran through my mind and I'd be annoyed. It didn't seem fair. Whose idea was it? I'm going to be an adventurer and I'm going to do all these things but it's finite? It used to really piss me off. But I stopped doing that maybe in my 20s. If you're spending any time thinking about, Well, it's too bad this is going to be over with, you're not really there.

MJ: You're known for very intense preparation. In Eastern Promises you play this ambivalent Russian mobster, and you speak Russian in a lot of it. Did you learn it just for the role?

VM: Enough to do the film, and I went to Russia and listened to it. I ended up speaking a little more than we were going to have in the movie just because it seemed to add something. Luckily there were two Russian satellite TV channels in the apartment that I had while we were shooting in England, so I had that on all the time: soap operas, variety shows, old movies, you know. I watched Putin give lots of speeches. Just his mannerisms, his way of speaking, his body language, and the fact that he had a similar background to the character I was playing—that helped me a lot. Those things change your physiognomy; they change your body language. It's a part of that technical preparation that allows you to make a leap of faith as a performer.

"When I land in a country and they ask for 'occupation,' I always just put 'artist.' I think that covers all of it."

MJ: You're good with languages. In 2006, you were nominated for Spain's version of an Oscar for Alatriste, which was entirely in Spanish. Was that basically your first language?

VM: Well, my mom's American, so I learned both at the same time—English and Spanish.

MJ: Was it exciting for you, playing a role just in Spanish?

VM:  Yeah, I liked it a lot. In fact, the next thing I'm going to do is a play in Spanish. And that's gonna be kind of terrifying, 'cause I haven't done a play for a couple of decades.

MJ: Is it true that you're not taking any new movie roles for a while?

VM: I don't have any plans. But I've said that before and people say, "Well, he's done, he's quit!" I don't know if it's that people are trying to push me to retire, but... [Laughs.]

MJ: You have all these creative pursuits. How do you prioritize?

VM: As far as creative stuff, I never have, really. Other than to be open to good stories coming my way as an actor.

MJ: Do you think of yourself as an actor first?

VM: When I land in a country and they ask for "occupation," I always just put "artist." I think that covers all of it.

MJ: You're known as a guy who kind of rejects the superficial trappings of Hollywood. What's the price of fame for you? Can you still go places and be anonymous?

VM: Mostly. I didn't really have to deal with any of that stuff until after Lord of the Rings. And now just once in a while. The other day, after a Q&A we did here in LA, I went to have a drink and a bite to eat with friends, and suddenly I was trapped, because there was some event next door and people wanted to get pictures of me. I thought they'd go away eventually and they didn't. Finally I thought, What the hell, I'll just walk out. And they followed me for like 10 blocks! They must have taken 1,500 pictures. And they kept asking questions and I didn't answer. That stuff's weird, you know? But I don't usually go to places where that's gonna happen, so I don't worry about it. And I like the fact that when I do a play somewhere, or a poetry reading, or if I show photos in Iceland or Denmark or even Cuba, a lot more people come than would have come 10 years ago. That doesn't mean that they don't care about my [nonfilm] work. Once they get there, they're going to look at the paintings or the pictures, they're going to listen to the poems, and they're either going to like them or not regardless of whether they came there as movie fans.

"I never did feel confined by playing Aragorn, because it allowed me to do these other things."

MJ: Is that why you started Perceval Press?

VM: It was something I'd thought about before. And with the attention from Lord of the Rings I thought, Well, I can do that. I can publish some nice books the way I think they should be done, and more importantly, publish other people's books and present their work the way they would like it presented without having to make the compromises they would have had to make with other publishing houses.

MJ: So you cede a lot of the creative control to your writers and artists. Is that a reflection of your own frustrations with being edited and not having control of the product?

VM: I used to be a lot more troubled with it. There was a poem I wrote back in '91 or '92. Something about, Your work has been pruned and removed to a well-groomed graveyard that smells like popcorn. But I also wrote a poem called "Matinee" around the same time, maybe even earlier, which is a reminder about why I do like to work in the movies and feel fortunate just as a fan of movies: After years of merging and allowing yourself to be assimilated / Your hair and clothes have turned gray / Then one afternoon you exit the theater / After taking in the restored version of The Hero Returns / And find yourself wanting to be treated special. You know, it's like when something really touches you. It's not wanting to be there or be them: You are them and you are there. I felt that from Q&A audiences on The Road, where people had this reaction and their faces—they looked really like they'd gone through something.

MJ: Are there parts you've turned down and regretted it later?

VM: I don't think so. In my first couple of years, I probably did 24 or 25 screen tests and it always got down to the final two and I never got them—and each one was a tragedy. I would say there's two roles that I would have liked to play and that I came within a hair's breadth of playing. One was right in the beginning, Greystoke—to play Tarzan. The other was the Willem Dafoe part in Platoon. The thing is, I didn't have the experience to deal with the consequences of being in a big studio movie playing a lead. I wouldn't have kept learning. I've been lucky to learn by playing all kinds of roles and watching all kinds of really good cinematographers, actors, and directors for many years before people were even aware of me in terms of audience.

MJ: It was kind of a fluke that you were cast as Aragorn, wasn't it?

VM: Yeah, it was very last minute.

MJ: And it's still by far your best-known role. Does that bug you?

VM: No. And it just depends. In Spain, it's definitely Alatriste as much as Lord of the Rings. In some places it's more Alatriste. In certain parts of New York City people will yell "Lalin!" for one scene I did in Carlito's Way. Puerto Rican guys will always know that. But I never did feel confined by [playing Aragorn], because it allowed me to do these other things.

"I liked my privacy. I didn't like the sound of phones ringing in my house. I was afraid that I'd opened up a big can of worms [by using a cellphone]."

MJ: John Hillcoat, who directed The Road, came to it with a limited track record—mostly music videos and so forth, and really just one feature film, The Proposition...

VM: It's a good movie. It's really a cult favorite, and certainly the producers or the people who had the rights to McCarthy's book liked what he'd done. I think Cormac McCarthy liked The Proposition a lot. So they felt he was the right choice. The places he put us in, the situations, the whole design of the movie—it was very easy to feel like we were living this story. A lot of our work was done for us by his meticulous preparation.

MJ: This is a tangent, but is it true you tried to destroy your first cell phone?

VM: Yeah, I threw it out the window, actually. It was brought back to me. And then I threw it in the back alley. I didn't like it. I was convinced to have one. What happened was I had gotten a job on a TV show and they kept calling the agent and I went down to call him from the pay phone. He said, "I've been trying to call you for a day and a half. You've got this job. You've got a plane leaving in two hours from Newark." And I did make the plane, but then he said, "You're nuts and you've gotta get a phone." Then it rang a couple times and I said, "Fuck that." So I threw it out the window. I have a phone now, obviously.

MJ: Was it more about guarding your personal space or do you have some sort of antipathy toward technology?

VM: Well, ignorance breeds antipathy. Until I got to know how computers worked, I didn't want anything to do with them. I said, "Well, why do I need them? I write letters." Which I still do. With phones, I liked my privacy. I didn't like the sound of phones ringing in my house. I was afraid that I'd opened up a big can of worms, and really I wasn't. It's not like there were that many people that were going to be calling me. [Laughs.] Certainly not back then.