Photo by Lonny Spence.
“I like to work on stories where I’m forced to learn things that I hardly knew anything about,” says Viggo Mortensen with the kind of reserved intensity which has come to be his trademark from films such as Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and The Road.
He’s in the capital for the London Film Festival at which two very different existential westerns – Juaja and Far From Men – are screening. For the latter, he explains, he learned some Arabic and dialect that’s specific to the film’s West Algerian locale. “All of that forced me to look at the world in a different way,” he adds. “I look at movies that way. They’re like university courses. Just for my enjoyment and education, I prefer to do as much preparation as I can and then show up and see what happens.”
It’s hardly a typical approach but Mortensen is hardly your typical actor. In addition to his masterful command of the big screen which ranges in scale from low-budget world cinema to The Lord of the Rings, his almost ludicrous list of talents includes poetry, painting and a prolific discography which boasts more album releases than your average full-time musician.
He’s evidently aware that he’s a little different. Over the course of this interview, Mortensen repeatedly makes a point of detailing how he’d approach certain tasks in contrast to what he’d expect from others. Take Juaja (pronounced how-ha), for example. Mortensen plays Captain Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who is stationed with the Argentine army on a seemingly thankless mission deep within Patagonia. It’s an obvious draw for Mortensen, a Danish-American who spent much of his childhood in Argentina.
“I like the basic idea of the story, that a father and his young daughter in the nineteenth century go to the other end of the world to a culture that’s very foreign from theirs,” he explains, his meditative voice barely rising above the volume of a whisper. “And there’s that universal aspect to the story that the father – as often happens – is the last man on Earth to realise that his little girl is not a little girl anymore and that men are interested in her.”
“I look at movies that way. They’re like university courses. Just for my enjoyment and education, I prefer to do as much preparation as I can and then show up and see what happens.”
A stranger in a strange land, Gunnar has little choice but to further embrace his disconnect by heading into the desert to search for her following her disappearance. As Mortensen agrees, it’s a plot that represents the essence of a classic Western tale. Aesthetically, however, it’s a film that’s a broad leap away from conforming to typical genre expectations, with hyper-real colouring and creative lighting framed within a curved-edge 4:3 aspect ratio. Its visual flair is a hazy mythic daydream infused with a fondness for the early days of the cinematic tradition.
Juaja director Lisandro Alonso’s reputation is as a master of minimalism. This economically scripted film, half-jokes Mortensen, probably features more dialogue in its first half than the rest of Alonso’s filmography combined. What there is, however, is carefully considered: the actor spends a good 300 words discussing why his character describes his daughter as “invisible” rather than “missing” (short approximation: between his struggle to learn a new language in an alien culture and the panic of his situation, this highly educated and confident individual is reduced to being awkward and clumsy).
Juaja is a film that subconsciously draws an audience into its surreal world before audaciously spinning their expectations into a mystery. Mortensen grins a beatific smile of satisfaction. “In my opinion, most movies you don’t talk about for very long afterwards. But this is a movie that I think stays with you. It’s a nagging kind of feeling. Even if you reject the last ten or fifteen minutes of the movie out of hand, there’s something about it.”
That something is a continuing question of just what it means. Even if you don’t reach any conclusion, there’s a clear value in the discussion that it inspires.
“To me it’s a sort of hybrid existential fairytale,” he continues. “A hybrid because the movie is as Danish as it is Argentine: Danish characters; half of the dialogue is in Danish; the main characters are Danes in a strange place; and yet there’s a sense of humour and a sensibility – and the landscapes and the other people – that’s very Argentine. There’s something really beautiful, but under the surface there’s something that’s very sinister and you’re not quite sure what it is.”
It’s evident that Mortensen finds a particular joy in taking a cerebral approach to acting. He’s at his most animated when talking about the creative connection that he enjoys with David Cronenberg (he cites the process of making Eastern Promises, which involved extended email discussions about all aspects of Russian culture: poetry, music, philosophy, cinema) or when enthusing about his collaborations with enigmatic guitarist and Juaja’s soundtrack co-composer Buckethead.
It’s a thought process that he applies to every aspect of his career. His explains at length the reasons behind his stubborn dedication to sticking to projects that he’s already committed to, and it appears that he’d rather reluctantly pass on a bigger opportunity than endanger a smaller movie by dropping out of it. Is there anything he has missed out on that he particularly regrets?
“Yeah,” he sighs before immediately disagreeing with himself. “Not so many. There are a couple of things that would’ve been fun to do and would also have been professionally helpful, I suppose, in terms of maintaining a certain visibility so I have options to do a smaller or a bigger movie. I understand how it works; there are consequences to being stubborn about following through on these types of movies.” Part of what makes Mortensen such a fascinating character is that his constant analysis of his own work means that he sees a value and a weakness in everything he does. Nothing, it seems, can be good enough for him to rest on his laurels, but even an unsuccessful project is a worthwhile learning process.
“I can understand why there are actors and even directors who are loathe to look at their work,” he says, noting that Woody Allen never watches his own movies after they’ve been completed. “I don’t have a problem looking at it. It’s a question of perception – one day I might like what I see or I might not. But there’s nothing wrong with a bucket of cold water to the face once in a while. It’s just a way to learn, and to do a better job next time.”