Sunday 30 November 2003 Two o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon we're
in the hallway outside Viggo Mortensen's suite at the Regency
Hotel in New York, and we've knocked on the door but there is
no response. Camillo, from Argentina, who works for the movie
company, knocks again and this time there's a muffled answer.
Mortensen opens the door. His expression suggests that he's just
woken up but his appearance is crisp - dapper, even. He is wearing
a three-piece charcoal-grey suit and looks like a Danish businessman.
"Sorry," he says gently. "I was in the other room."
Mortensen's manner is low-key and earnest. There is nothing fierce
about him except his cheekbones. His looks are wholesome, boyish;
he's physically beautiful but delicate and far from macho. He
disappears for a moment into the other room, and when he returns
he hands me a heavy rectangular book. It's a book of photographs
- his photographs, published by his own publishing company, Perceval
The book is called Miyelo, inspired while
Mortensen was on location in the California desert shooting his
next film, Hidalgo. It is loosely based on the massacre of the
Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. The photographs
are abstract, colourful, blurred images of the Lakota, and are
accompanied by quotations from T S Eliot and Khalil Gibran, as
well as the words of the Lakota themselves. Mortensen writes in
the introduction to the book: "It is hoped that the words
and images in this book might in some way serve as reminders of
sacrifices made by people on all sides who suffered from cruelty,
confusion and ignorance in the past. May we look forward with
some understanding of what is behind us, and an interest in making
the best of what lies ahead."
It's too early to tell whether Mortensen
is pretentious or merely well intentioned. But the gesture establishes
right away that he is an artist. That's clearly how he wants to
Mortensen writes poetry and paints, although
he only started the latter when he was offered the part of the
painter in A Perfect Murder who was Gwyneth Paltrow's lover, and
he asked the director if he could do the art for the movie. He
wants to make an impression, to be seen as more than a movie star.
He is good-natured, conversing amiably in
fluent Spanish with Camillo, and there is a guilelessness about
him, a sense that he is still perplexed by the attention and privilege
that The Lord of the Rings has brought him.
We have an hour, the movie-industry standard
for press interviews. They don't want journalists getting too
close: that would give them too much time to get under the skin.
But there's something about Mortensen. It becomes apparent he
does want us to get to his core, to understand him, or at least
the person he wants to be. Maybe that's why the one-hour interview
turns into six hours. It meanders and elongates; a drink at a
bar is bolted on, then a walk in Central Park, but it doesn't
stop there. He wants to keep talking and it extends into the afternoon
with a stroll through Manhattan. It continues into the early evening
and to a tepid cup of coffee in a cafe. It's nearly eight o'clock
before he remembers he has to be at a dinner party with his fellow
Lord of the Rings actors.
And still he lingers. It's possible he doesn't
want to go, doesn't feel he's "explained" himself yet.
It's obvious Mortensen isn't here just to plug a movie. Not once
throughout the day does he seem rushed or uneasy. His willingness
to give his time seems grounded in a desire to be taken seriously.
We see Aragorn on the movie posters, on the side of a bus, on
the big screen. He wants us to see Viggo - but what's there to
We'll find out somewhere - in Central Park
or maybe while waiting for the walk signal or window-shopping
on Madison Avenue. But not in his suite at the Regency, apparently.
Mortensen, who is 45, sits and takes a sip of tea through the
spout of a South American maté cup. His bohemian nature
works well for him both as a movie star and as an artist. At first
glance he's intriguing. His introspection and his instinct to
analyse set him apart. Aragorn has made him the object of desire
for millions of women and he appears perplexed by that status.
But is it feigned? Can he really be that modest or naive?
Proud of his work in The Lord of the Rings,
he's eager to discuss it. He settles into an armchair, lights
up a cigarette and there is a distinct feeling that he is doing
his duty - surrendering to the promotion. He has shown up and
is wearing the suit, but given the choice he would much rather
be somewhere else, wearing a T-shirt.
He leans back, tucking pieces of sand-coloured
hair behind his ears, and speaks lovingly of how it feels to return
to New York City; coming in over the bridge, the rush of the skyline.
His sentences are languorous; words are chosen with precision.
He was born in New York but grew up in Argentina with a Danish
father and an American mother, and at the age of 11 his parents
split and his mother moved him and his brothers back to the United
States. He lives now in Los Angeles with his 15-year-old son,
Henry, whose mother is Mortensen's ex-wife, Exene Cervenka.
He spent 15 months living in New Zealand,
and the enormous success of the trilogy is not lost on him. He
is now a household name who nurtures the role of shy, retiring,
reluctant hero. The films were a last-minute thing. The British
actor Stuart Townsend was originally cast to play Aragorn, the
benevolent warrior king, but it was decided that he looked too
young for the part. Peter Jackson, the director, drafted in Mortensen,
whose son, Henry (then 11), was a fan of the books. Influenced
by Henry's enthusiasm, Mortensen took the role, sensing that it
would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Now it is difficult to imagine anyone else
in the role. He has successfully captured Aragorn's authority
and his sadness, characteristics that Mortensen relates to and
aspires to. He seeks higher artistic ground than movie stardom
and claims to be unmoved by commercial measures.
"What happens after the process we
go through - how much money the movie makes, or how successful
people deem it to be, or is it fair that Peter Jackson didn't
get best director - none of that matters. Those are results beyond
the scope of telling the story, as far as I'm concerned."
His search for artistic expression or credibility
is organic and promiscuous. When it's pointed out that people
might come to his poetry readings or buy his books because he's
a movie star, he nods, accepting this. "Sure, sure - I'm
not unaware of that. I know if I announced that I'm going to do
a book-signing tonight with no advance warning, there will probably
be a bunch of people there because of the movie. But some people
will come to hear the reading and some people will come because
of The Lord of the Rings. I don't care. If they come and hear
the poems and they have a reaction pro or con, and there's a connection
made between me and them - then who cares?"
One of the more striking things about Mortensen
is that his temperament seems peaceful and even, but underneath
there is clearly something unsettled, hungry, dissatisfied. It's
hard to imagine him getting worked up and he agrees he's not confrontational.
When he does argue, does he admit he's wrong first? "A lot
of times, not. But I'll always feel bad later if an argument has
happened and unless someone has exhibited cruelty and unfairness,
more to someone else than to me...Well, that might be someone
I don't want to talk to, but if we get into an argument then generally
I would probably call them later, because I'd want to make amends.
"I like to resolve things. I like to
feel everyone's gotten a fair chance. I can be judgmental about
what I perceive as cruelty - someone who puts themselves before
the good of the group - and I think that is a real danger that
is... evil, self-interest at the cost of the group. In our story,
the Ring has been compared to many things - for example, nuclear
weapons. Ultimate evil. And I think in our country today, the
Ring is more akin to the rash of ever-expanding legislature and,
uh, programmes, concepts, pacts with ominous names like 'homeland
security'- those are intimidating, grand names for things that
essentially have to do with controlling people's wills and people's
behaviour from a distance."
There's a knock at the door and Camillo
enters. There is another exchange in Spanish. Time's up. Mortensen
asks for more and he is told he's got to view some of the footage
of the third film. He turns to me - there's more that he wants
to share. "What part of town will you be in? You can give
me your number or something, and I can change and meet you in
As an actor, Mortensen has shown that he
can be versatile. Whether he is a professional baseball player
in rehab, in 28 Days, or a suitor to Nicole Kidman, in The Portrait
of a Lady, or a hard-core army lieutenant, in GI Jane, he inhabits
the roles with authority. When asked about the remake of Psycho,
directed by Gus Van Sant, he softens. "I laughed every day
making that movie. There is that scene in a hardware store with
Bill Macy - he's just hilarious. He seems like someone who always
has an absurd take on what's going on. And Anne Heche - I could
tell she just thought I was such a dummy!" Maybe that's a
clue to him; perhaps he has the actor's perpetual fear of being
seen as vacant, that behind the role there's nothing much more
to the man - a dummy.
So what upsets him? He's quick to respond.
"I think there's no excuse for anyone to be bored. I have
this ongoing argument with my son. He says, 'Well, you don't understand
what my science class is like.' But I say to him, 'You can find
a way not to be bored. What is interesting?' I think boredom is
a luxury. I think anger, frustration and pessimism, misery wallowing
and self-pity - I'd rather hear that, and I'm more tolerant of
that in myself even than 'I'm bored.'" He is growing increasingly
animated. "There is no excuse in life for f***ing being bored!"
We're getting somewhere. Mortensen's intolerance
- or fear - of boredom fuels his urge to be creative, pursue poetry,
art and photography to the point of owning his own publishing
house so that he can be heard. Here is something tangible. He
chooses solitary pursuits to indulge himself. While most movie
stars parade a taste for expensive cars, homes, women, golf and
top billing, his need is to be perceived as something wholly serious
and wise. Playing Aragorn makes him famous but doesn't satisfy
his desire to express himself. Trying to be an artist means he
won't waste time or be bored or, worse, be boring.
"I have never been in a natural place
and felt that that was a waste of time. I never have. And it's
a relief. If I'm walking around a desert or whatever, every second
And is there such a thing as wasting time?
He is thoughtful but adamant.
"Oh, you can drive yourself crazy thinking
that. Why didn't I do anything while I was there, I was in the
presence of so-and-so and I never asked whatever. Or I was in
that city and I never went to go see that painting or that church,
or I should have had the soup." When asked what else he has
no tolerance for, he says solidly: "Cruelty. Deliberately
going out of your way when you have a choice to make someone feel
There's another knock on the door. Mortensen
says: "You better give me your number and I'll call you."
He writes it down in a notebook. Time passes. An hour later, the
phone rings. There is a deep, casual voice: "Hey it's Viggo."
Like we've been friends for years.
We have a brief discussion about where we
should meet and, for the sake of time and convenience, decide
on the Oak bar at the Plaza hotel. When he shows up, he has changed
out of his suit and is wearing blue jeans, a checked shirt and
a polar fleece jacket, and he is holding a camera. Now he could
be a Danish tourist.
The bar is crowded and noisy and as we linger,
discussing whether or not to go somewhere else, Mortensen is recognised.
He responds with kindness - there is no false humility he shakes
the man's hand, says thanks. He slides into a booth and orders
a whisky, straight up. There is a painted mural on the wall and
he is staring at it.
Despite being part of the film business
- a world that requires him to be social - he is a solitary person.
He is nodding now, forcefully, at this assessment and explaining
he doesn't feel he has enough time to himself.
"I have friends who I get along with
who I know get very uncomfortable being alone, unless they're
with people, talking all the time. Whether it's on the phone,
or in person, they're never by themselves. Whereas I could be
alone for months."
When asked what's the longest he's ever
gone without talking to someone, he pauses for such an extended
length of time that he then laughs.
"I did a movie once directed by a guy
named Philip Ridley, from London. "The movie was The Passion
of Darkly Noon. Mortensen's character lived in the woods with
his sister and was a deaf mute. "So I was on a plane - I
got to east Germany, where we were shooting - and decided I would
go for an entire day without making a sound. I get there and this
guy picks me up - he was the producer - and I wrote a note that
said, 'I'm not going to talk for a day or so, just to get the
feeling of what it's like.'" ,br> He smiles, remembering
that it made for an awkward ride from the airport to the set.
An hour and a half of the producer chatting, essentially, with
himself. "As soon as I stopped talking, I felt so calm. Most
of what we say, we don't really mean to say. So I thought,'Well,
I'll do it another day.' And I went through with it - through
meeting the crew and the costume-fitting. No one had met me before,
so they didn't know otherwise. And I liked it and I decided I'd
just keep going. So for the whole f***ing movie, I didn't say
a f***ing word." The shoot lasted four weeks. Mortensen didn't
make one sound. Remembering it, his voice fills with warmth. "Yeah,
I really enjoyed it. I keep telling myself I have to do that again,
because I felt so relaxed. And it was funny because people treated
me like I was mentally handicapped."
He would hang out with the crew, passing
notes to them in a bar, or on the set. "I'd scribble lots
of notes." He'd order food by pointing. "I was peaceful
and happy - I just really liked it."
So he didn't say a word. Not one word out
loud. Not even when he was alone in the shower? "No!"
Not even an "ugh" or an "eh"? "No, I
did not. Because my son at that time was about eight years old,
I faxed my ex-wife and said, 'I'm not going to be speaking for
a while, but I will call. And can you put Henry on the phone?"
He laughs again. "So I'd call and she'd say, 'Hi,Viggo, how
are you?' and I would be like..."
He is silent for about 10 seconds, breathing
demonstrably through his nose.
And how did his son know it was him? "She
would put him on the phone and I would be breathing so he could
hear I was there. And he would tell me what was going on - but
you know kids, they don't really say a lot on the phone anyway
- and he'd go on about stuff and I'd make a sound to let him know
I was still there, and then she'd get on and ask, 'So you'll be
home in two weeks? Three?' And there are certain breaths, or I
would make clucking sounds."
Mortensen is laughing now, surprised and
amused with his own behaviour. "The only word I said the
entire time was the word "no". The World Cup was going
on - I think it was Brazil, and whoever won I didn't want them
to win - and I fell asleep watching the game and I wanted to know
the end of it and I went to the guy next door. I was half asleep
when he told me the score and it just came out: He utters, under
his breath, a tiny "no".
Highlighting the hilarity of the fact that
he can maintain silence with his son, his work and in every area
of his life except sports, he clarifies: "No, not sports
- soccer. It's different."
It is 5.30 in the afternoon now. A perfect
autumn day. We cross the street and walk into Central Park - strolling,
smoking. Mortensen stops to take a photograph of a dog, then sits
on a bench overlooking the pond.
"By doing that movie where I didn't
speak, I ended up feeling that most of what I say, I don't need
to," he says. "But we speak, to make sure we're understood."
Occasionally, people who walk by will do
a double take - nah, that guy just looks like Viggo Mortensen.
The real Viggo Mortensen wouldn't be hanging out on a bench with
a camera, would he? But this is how he lives. He does not insulate
himself from the world - just, maybe, from who he is rather than
who he wants to be: himself.
Sitting casually, hanging out on the bench,
seems ideal. But there is a problem. There are rats. Many of them.
They are running back and forth between the bushes, over the footpath,
and it is impossible to ignore them.
"Wow. They're bold," he says,
incredulously. A couple of Brazilians pass by. "Hey - I could
ask them who they played in the World Cup final."
He jumps up off the bench, leaving me alone
with the vermin. As he stands chatting with the Brazilians, a
small huddle forms around him. Next thing, he is posing, arms
draped around them, for a photo. He looks back at me over his
shoulder with an expression that says "Oops."
Minutes later, he returns. "Yeah, in
the final it was Brazil against Holland. I didn't really give
a sh** but I was rooting against Brazil - I grew up in Argentina."
But Brazil have never met Holland in a World Cup final: it was
the semifinal in 1994. No matter, he's still impressed by the
"Whoa! Did you see that one? That was
a rat-a-roo. Is it a herd of rats, a flock of rats? Maybe it's
Another one tumbles past. "That one
has a bad back. He's old - that's sad." Having a conversation
about anything else proves impossible. "I don't remember
seeing that many rats here," he says. "They're twice
as big as the rats in Los Angeles. That one was like a possum'
The sun is setting now, and we leave the
park and cross Fifth Avenue, chatting. He doesn't own a television.
He spends time with his son. He loves a restaurant on Ninth Avenue
called Supreme Macaroni Company and wonders if it's still around.
As we pass Barneys, the swanky department store on Madison Avenue,
he pauses in front of a window display. He peers inside and notices
that a store worker is setting up a camera on a tripod to take
a photograph. Mortensen holds his camera up to the glass and knocks
Just as the guy turns around, he snaps.
He is enjoying himself, being playful. It's
possible that he has periods of darkness and turmoil, but right
now, what comes across is someone who is content with himself
and not particularly haunted or brooding.
We reach his hotel. "Let's keep walking,"
he says. There is still some time left before he has to go to
dinner and it seems there are still things he has to say. Soon
he will have to meet his fellow actors from The Lord of the Rings.
It is dark as we hit Lexington Avenue and
he bumps into some friends from South America. Everyone is very
excited. They speak in Spanish, exchange phone numbers, kiss on
both cheeks. We are about to go for a cup of coffee but I need
to run quickly across the street to a cash machine. He says he'll
wait in front of the coffee shop.
When I return, he is standing there, holding
two bouquets of flowers. He hands one to me. I ask him who the
other one is for. "For the room," he replies.
We head inside. Mortensen is not in a relationship
and, when asked whether he misses it, he hesitates. "No,
not really. I don't have time to be with myself, much less be
with someone else right now."
But that's not entirely true, because he
admits that if the right person came along he would make the time.
So the truth is not that Mortensen doesn't have the time - just
that he makes time for what really matters to him.
It is now 7.45pm and he needs to get going.
We stand for a few more minutes on the corner of Lexington Avenue,
saying goodbye. The adventure is over and, just as we are about
to part, we revisit, briefly, the subject of lack of time. He
sounds rueful. "If I can get a day to myself, I won't answer
the phone, I'll read or go for a walk. Simple, basic things. People
think there's always time to do that but there isn't. Life is
For someone who feels that he has so little
time, a contradiction is raised in his willingness to linger.
But the six hours we have spent together are not about killing
time or being lonely. They have been about Mortensen's determination
to make an impression - not as an actor but as a man. He just
wants to be a hero.