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Viggo Mortensen, King of The Road

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

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 7:30 AM EST

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: Did you have to bring more chocolate than usual to the set?

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?

VM: I love it!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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