The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

12/5/11

Viggo Talks and Talks - NYTimes.com

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High up in an apartment block in Toronto, Viggo Mortensen was padding around barefoot, cleaning up the kitchen after lunch and speaking, in his soft-voiced way, about his longing for immortality. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said, wiping down a counter with a damp cloth, “but I resent it. I think it’s unfair and irritating. Every time I see something beautiful, I not only want to return to it, but it makes me want to see other beautiful things. I know I’m not going to get to all the places I want to go. I’m not going to read all the books I want to read. I’m not going to revisit certain paintings as many times as I would like. There’s a limit.” He paused. “I mean, I understand limits are good for character and all that, but I would rather live forever.”

Mortensen’s combination of cheekbones and limpid-eyed sincerity has tended to inspire a slightly awestruck tone in journalists over the years. Some of their more breathless accounts of his chilled-out, barefoot demeanor have come perilously close to making him sound a bit of a pill: a parody of the soulful gypsy artiste, all flared nostrils and rippling Kant quotations. Happily, he is not really as oppressively soulful or as grandiose as such reports might suggest. He is earnest, God knows, and his pronouncements on life and art verge, occasionally, on the sententious. But he’s not a preening nostril-flarer. What he brings to mind, more than anything, is your older brother’s hippie friend from childhood — the one who played you your first Velvet Underground album and instructed you in Trotskyist politics. He has the same lank-haired seriousness, and — oddly enough — the same shyness. He also has, for what it’s worth, one of the strangest and unsexiest laughs in America: a kind of abrupt, feminine cackle that is liable to make you jump if you’re not expecting it.

The counter being clean now, Mortensen rinsed out his cloth and turned his attention to the dirty dishes. (The reporter ought to have offered some assistance at this point, but the sight of Aragorn with his hands in a sinkful of Fairy Liquid was too beguiling: reader, she sat back and watched.)

The original plan was to meet Mortensen for lunch at the Ritz-Carlton, where he was staying during the Toronto Film Festival, and then to visit an exhibition of Robert Motherwell drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. But by the time the appointed day rolled around, Mortensen had moved out of the Ritz-Carlton. (Life, he said, was too short to stay in a “prison” where you couldn’t open the windows and where the lobby was always full of industry people.) We met instead at the apartment he was borrowing from a friend and ate a picnic lunch of cold salmon and broccoli rabe. As for the art outing, Mortensen thought it would be better to go and see an exhibition of work by the Group of Seven, a lesser-known school of Canadian painters. There were plenty of opportunities in life to see Motherwells, he said. But if we didn’t drive out to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg today, we might never get a chance to see these particular works again.

The brevity of life and the importance of grasping the day are, one quickly learns, big themes for Mortensen. The sound of time’s winged chariot is very loud in his ear, it seems, and the imperative to “use time well” crops up repeatedly in his conversation — particularly, when he is explaining some of the more unorthodox ways in which he has chosen to handle movie stardom.

In the decade since his leading role in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy turned him into a household name, he has studiously resisted acquiring any of the standard accouterments of Hollywood success. With some of his “Rings” earnings, he founded Perceval Press, a small L.A.-based publishing house specializing in art books and poetry. Other than that, he has continued to lead much the same modest, under-the-radar existence that he did before. He paints, he writes poetry, he plays piano, he takes arty photographs. He hangs out with his 23-year-old son, Henry (by his former wife, Christine “Exene” Cervenka, lead singer of the L.A. punk band X). He campaigns for various human rights and political causes. (During the 2008 election, he endorsed Dennis Kucinich.) He travels a lot: for most of the last year, he has been living in Madrid,where he is rumored to be involved with the Spanish actress Ariadna Gil. When he’s in Los Angeles, he crashes in the Perceval office and socializes with what his friend, the political activist and urban historian Mike Davis, calls “Southern California’s grass-roots cultural scene.” (“Most of Hollywood ignores or disdains . . . the Venice poets and Leimart Park painters,” Davis says, “but Viggo is a passionate homeboy. Multiply him by one hundred, and Hollywood might be worth sparing when the Red Cavalry next rides down Sunset Boulevard.”)

None of this is quite, perhaps, what little boys and girls dream of when they dream of becoming a star, but it’s Mortensen’s idea of fun. He never had Champagne dreams and caviar wishes, and much of what passes for “a celebrity lifestyle” is, he thinks, rather banal and grim. “I don’t have lots of friends in the business, and the ones I do have are probably more like me, in that they’re not the kind of people to go places just so they can be seen. I see people doing that stuff and to me, it seems pathetic and ridiculous and kind of . . . well, humiliating. Life’s too short.”

His contempt for actors who engage in superfluous acts of self-promotion also extends to actors who appear in dopey blockbuster movies, just for the paycheck. “Sometimes you look at a movie and you can see that the actor or actress said, ‘I’m taking this onboard because I’m making a ton of money, and not because it’s going to be something special,’ ” he said, sounding scandalized. In choosing his own projects, his chief criterion is always “a good story.” But with the exception of the odd Tolkien adaptation, his notions of what constitutes a satisfying narrative tend not to coincide with those of the multiplex audience. He told me at one point about a script that he wrote back in the ’90s — “a silent movie set a thousand years ago” — that he had hoped to direct himself. (He sent it to Leonardo DiCaprio, with a view to getting him to play the lead, but not entirely surprisingly, DiCaprio, fresh from starring in “Titanic,” declined the part.)

“An agent will say, if you have the option, it’s good to do a big movie and then a little one. I understand that and within reason, I’ll try to, but 90 percent of the time, I’ll end up in low-budget movies that are difficult to finance and often won’t get distributed very well. I could have done one big-studio movie after another if the goal was to stay as visible as possible, to make as much money as possible. I guess, because of my temperament, I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have been telling good stories. The challenge would have always been to try not to make a total ass of myself, even though I knew the story was really stupid.”

Next year, he will appear in Walter Salles’s adaptation of “On the Road” as Old Bull Lee, the William S. Burroughs character, and in a low-budget Argentine film noir, “Everyone Has a Plan,” as a pair of identical twins. The movie he was promoting at the Toronto festival was “A Dangerous Method,” a spiky little psychiatric costume drama directed by David Cronenberg, in which he plays Sigmund Freud, locked in intellectual battle with Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung.

Mortensen has worked with Cronenberg twice before, on “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” and he relished the opportunity to do so again. But the real appeal of this film, he says, was the chance to play someone who talks. Mortensen is a voluble man, off-screen — he frequently responds to questions with dense, uninterruptible monologues — but as an actor, he is usually allotted taciturn, still-rivers-run-deep roles. “I haven’t been given the chance to play men who speak much. The parts that people — including David [Cronenberg] — normally give me are men of few words, people who express what they’re thinking or what they’re afraid of or what their goals are, physically. With Freud, it was all words.”

Choosing Mortensen to play the Viennese doctor was not “obvious casting,” Cronenberg says, but he thought it was a useful way of injecting some “charisma and virility” into a character who has become ossified in the public imagination as a fragile old man. There were moments, he concedes, when he feared Mortensen might be bringing a little too much virility to the part. “I remember standing in the Belvedere Gardens in Vienna and stopping the shoot to tell him, ‘You’re not walking like a Jew, Viggo.’ He had this kind of rangy, athletic thing going on.”

Mortensen not only worked fastidiously on acquiring an appropriately “Jewish” gait, but he also took calligraphy lessons in order to be able to emulate Freud’s elegant script. (The hand that you see writing letters in the film is Mortensen’s own.) He studied Freud’s work, and — because he wanted to know “what Freud read for pleasure” — he researched the work of contemporary Austrian and German playwrights and humorists. (He can now talk authoritatively and at length about the oeuvres of Johann Nestroy and Wilhelm Busch.)

“Viggo and I both get very enthusiastic about the details,” Cronenberg says. “On this movie, we must have exchanged 40 e-mails about the kind of cigars Freud smoked. Viggo will bring props to the set. I mean, he basically does his own set decoration. He’d come in with these rare books — editions that Freud actually had in his own study — and the production designer would say, ‘Where did you find these?’ ”

Mortensen has acquired a small legend for the elaborate lengths to which he goes in his preparation and research. For “Eastern Promises,” he read Russian poetry and novels, studied Russian history and researched the significance of every one of the 43 Russian gangster tattoos he wore in the movie. For the movie “Good,” in which he played a German professor co-opted by the Nazi regime, he drove over a thousand miles across Germany and Poland, visiting concentration camps. When he played a con-man artist in “A Perfect Murder,” he ended up painting all the canvases that appeared in the movie.

He is not particularly dogmatic about his own preparation techniques. He acknowledges that actors achieve excellent results with all sorts of strategies, including doing nothing but reading the script a lot of times. The meticulous research is, he says, its own reward: “It’s enjoyable and stimulating. I learn things. It’s particularly important to me, because I have had experiences where the shoot has been really annoying and unprofessional, and the director has made poor choices and the movie has not turned out well. But however it turns out, I always feel that I’ve got something out of it, because of the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve got from the preparation stage.”

Mortensen has been acting for a very long time. He’s 53 years old now, and he went up for his first film audition in his early 20s. Before 1999, when Peter Jackson made a last-minute decision to cast him as Aragorn, he had been toiling, and often “resting,” in the Hollywood trenches for a good 20 years. “For a long time after I started out, I couldn’t get anything. I mean, I’d do a small play, or one scene in a TV thing — I’d get just enough encouragement to keep me going — but I wasn’t making a living at it.”

There were many false starts. Twice, he said, he had scenes in movies — Jonathan Demme’s “Swing Shift” and Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” — that ended up on the cutting-room floor. “I wasn’t told. Months go by, the movie comes out, I tell my parents — you know, my whole family. They go see it, and I’m not in it. The scene isn’t there. They think I’ve lost my mind. They’re like, What are you really doing in Los Angeles?”

In 1990, he got the lead in “The Indian Runner,” directed by Sean Penn. “And everyone said, ‘Oh, boy, you’re set.’ But I wasn’t. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t capitalize. I don’t know what I was supposed to do. People would tell me do this, do that, fire this guy. . . .” It was not until 1993 that he began getting a steady flow of work — “supporting parts in studio movies, a job or two a year.” He admits to having become demoralized on occasion. “But I guess I kept being curious. I was curious as to how movies were made. It wasn’t, like, I wanted to be famous or anything like that. I liked the idea of telling these stories, the make-believe aspect. I wanted to do it, to try it. I don’t know.”

Cronenberg speculates that the years Mortensen spent as a “B actor” have made him gracious and grateful in success: “It helps that he got it late. He has an appreciation of his luck.” Certainly, his years working in relative obscurity gave him plenty of examples of how not to behave as a famous actor. He remembers every bit of on-set misbehavior he ever observed, with astonishing clarity. (Holding grudges is one of his vices, he says.) He remembers the actors who didn’t come to set because they were hung over after a night of drinking, or who came and behaved horribly. He remembers the leading actors who did little tricks to throw him off. “I see it now with veteran actors doing it to younger actors, and the young guys don’t even know that it’s happening. I’ll say to them, ‘Watch out, he’s already done his close-up, and he did a great job. Now it’s your close-up, and he’s tickling you and distracting you and telling you stories.’ The young guy will be like: ‘Really? You really think he’s doing that?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ ”

He also remembers the actors who didn’t even bother to show up when it was time to do their off-camera work. “Earlier in my career, I saw a lot of important actors and actresses splitting when they had done their close-ups. You’d say, ‘Where’s so and so?’ and they’d have gone home, so you’d end up doing your close-up with an assistant director. It makes your work harder and it also makes you feel disrespected.”

He no longer tolerates this sort of thing. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Do you mind if I go?’ I’ll look them right in the eye and say, ‘I don’t want you here, if you don’t want to do it.’ If they say, ‘Oh, fine, I’ll stay,’ I’ll be like: ‘No, go. You’ve told me who you are, get out of here.’ I’d rather do it without them. When someone does that to me, it’s like, Boom, I’m not working with you again.”

That seemed a bit harsh.

“Yeah, well, about that stuff I am harsh. There’s no excuse for that behavior. You’re tired? Come on! The crew isn’t tired? The crew who got here two hours before you, and who’ll be here two hours after you leave and who are being paid, in many cases, one thousandth of what you’re being paid? Come on!

“I always thought treating people well was probably the most important thing, but now I’m convinced,” he adds. “Life is too short to work with idiots — well, not idiots, but people who are rude and selfish.”

We took rather longer over lunch than we had planned, and by the time we set off to Kleinburg, it was already late in the afternoon. We drove through the drizzle, with Mortensen occasionally checking the directions he had scribbled down from the Internet. When we arrived, the museum was about to close. We whizzed through the exhibition rooms, diligently taking in as much as could be taken in of the Group of Seven in half an hour. Then we took a bathroom break and got back in the car. “Where did the time go?” Mortensen lamented as we inched back through rush-hour traffic to Toronto. “I’m glad we went, though. Are you glad? I think it was worth it. My feeling is, you’ve got to see these things when you can. I mean, if you’re riding along the road and you see a sign saying ‘Mark Twain lived here,’ you should stop and take a look. Sometimes, you’ll think, Ah, I’ll leave it, and come back another time. But you might not be back. You might die.”

A few days after our meeting, Mortensen called and left a message on voice mail. He had been thinking about what he’d said regarding immortality and he was concerned now that perhaps he had taken too vehement a position: “I know I said I wanted to live forever and I would never be bored, but the reality is, it’s probably kind of sad to live forever if you’re the only one sticking around. I guess living through injury and disease is pretty hard too, so I don’t know — maybe immortality is not such a great thing. You know, Freud accepted his lot very stoically and very well and with a sense of humor. He aged and died gracefully and there’s a lot to be said for that. Still, it would be nice to live a little longer, with your mind intact and your body reasonably functioning. . . .”

The message went on in similar vein, for a while. Toward the end, Mortensen seemed to become vaguely embarrassed by his own meandering. “Anyway, whatever,” he said. “I don’t know if any of this matters.” There was a long, crackly pause. “But I guess what I’m saying is, I’d settle for another 150 years.”

Viggo Talks and Talks - NYTimes.com