A year in the life of Viggo Mortensen
For three years he has inhabited the dreams and joys of us cinephiles. Charismatic hero of The Lord of the Rings, this actor on the margins of the system is a complete artist (poet, photographer and musician) and also an engaged citizen. He told us exclusively about his year.
19th December 2002
In a somewhat far-reaching political context, the worldwide release of the second episode of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Time magazine publishes a critique of the film comparing the fellowship of the ring to the western democracies besieged by islamic fundamentalists. Viggo is furious—"they even dared compare Christopher Lee to Osama Bin Laden—and sends a response which the magazine judges unsuitable for publication. An extract from the letter:
"Your comparisons put forward a view of the world that is simplistic, xenophobic and arrogant. It is the actions of the government of the United States that provokes fear and distrust in other countries around the world (...)"
[s]1st to 15th January 2003[s]
The deployment of 50,000 American soldiers in the Gulf. Viggo is one of a group of American actors who mobilise against the conflict with Iraq. He poses in teeshirts on which he has printed slogans such as 'No more war for oil' or 'War is not the answer'. "Public personalities who express themselves against the war are given the finger. It is revealing about the 'values' on which America herself is founded. Expressing an opinion may be considered unpatriotic. Me, I believe it is worse to lie to and manipulate your people—and the rest of the world. Unless one believes that a government can remain by the grace of lies. Ours is a champion in that area. Sometimes it is so enormous that one asks oneself how people can go on believing in them. Ossama Bin Laden is allied with Sadam Hussein, no proof! Weapons of mass destruction: no proof! It doesn't matter if the truth is re-established after the fact, one always thinks that there is no smoke without fire."
The University of St Lawrence (New York State), from which he graduated in 1980 with a degree in political science and another degree in Spanish literature, pays him homage. "He manages many careers, and yet he has no pretensions" declares the Dean, Daniel F Sullivan, "Viggo Mortensen has won a good reputation through his energy, his curiosity". "It is the university where I began to take photos, before I even had the idea of becoming an actor. I have also always liked writing and drawing. For me, they are branches of the same tree. It is my way of communicating. Besides, I always have a camera with me. To capture the moment. I am not someone to put people into impossible poses. I made photos during the filming of Lord, and I am just happy to have caught Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd and the others at that moment in their lives."
[s]20th March, 2.35 am GMT[s]
After a 48-hour ultimatum, President George Bush announces the start of military operations against Iraq.
"The United States, aided by the trusty Tony Blair, and all those they have managed to convince—the Danish, Spanish and Icelandic governments—have finally executed their pathetic joke, their dishonest actions. I have not failed to notice that, while the occupying troops prevented the looters from entering the Ministerie for Oil, nothing was done to protect the libraries, the museums, the hospitals."
The filming of Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston, is finished after nine months of shooting which has sent Viggo to Marocco and New Mexico. The movie is inspired by the life of legendary horserider Fank T Hopkins, a contemporary of Buffalo Bill, who was offered the chance to participate in an endurance race of 4,800km through the Arabian desert. The film is scheduled to be released in March 2004.
"It is the first film I've done since The Lord of the Rings. I was to have made Borgia, directed by Neil Jordan, but the financiers have knocked that one on the head. I was starting to run out of money! It was nearly two years since I had received a salary. I couldn't wait any longer. When they offered me Hidalgo—and I think that they would never have considered me for the role if I hadn't been Aragorn—I found the script rather unconventional for a big studio movie [it is being produced by Disney]. It seemed interesting, in the current context, to play a cowboy—a real one, not a fake like Bush—who travels to the same place (Iraq and Syria) just to take part in a horse race. I liked the idea that the hero doesn't go to the 'third world', and especially the middle East, to teach the natives how to behave, or to conquer and destroy, as is too often the case. Hidalgo is above all the story of personal defiance. I have also discovered that, compared to Lord, any other shoot is going to seem short and easy. Still, we have some real scenes on Hidalgo. The crew was a little surpised by the climatic conditions. I remember one time when we were trying to shoot in the Sahara, where you get these atrocious winds; it was hot, there was sand in the cameras. I heard everywhere: 'this is hell!' and, deep down in my heart, I thought 'this is a giggle compared to Lord....'
[s]18th - 25th April[s]
On holiday in Iceland.
"I took advantage of the spring school break to take my son Henry (15) on holiday with me. I had wanted to explore Iceland for a long time. I know the Saga [the glorious accounts of the Icelandic people and the Norse kings] and that was an enormous influence on me for Lord of the Rings. We crossed the length and breadth of the country by car and on horseback. It's awesome."
[s]1st to 7th May[s]
Visit to Havana, where the Phototeque Nationale de Cuba has organised an exhibition of Viggo's photos, entitled 'Hole in the Sun'. A rare approach for an American actor.
"They invited me. I went. Like many Americans, I had always wanted to visit Cuba, but it is regarded badly, because the United States embargo is still in force. So, down there, they haven't seen Lord.... It was an inspiring trip. In Havana, things happen everyday that the world ignores. We, the photographers, see that."
Return to New Zealand, where he reprises the role of Aragorn to film additional scenes for Return of the King.
"I go back to New Zealand with pleasure, which I consider my adopted country these days. Especially since this time my son came with me and even managed to snag a part as an extra. Aragorn has never really left me. It has, above all, been an honour to play him. I love his imperfections, which make him strong. To get under the skin of the person, I tell myself that the fiction is like real life: one can never rest on one's laurels and say: 'This is good, I am proud of myself'. You must always go back and question. Despite his vast knowledge of the world, Aragorn always considers himself fallible. It is his internal conflicts that make him evolve. But I don't believe a film is ever finished. In my head, it goes on."
Last day of filming The Lord of the Rings for Viggo.
"It was sad and happy at the same time. Terrible and confusing. The end of such an adventure. Each of the end-of-shoot parties—all of the actors had one—was an occasion for looking back one more time. I was equally careful to talk to all the stuntmen who doubled for me. When I was leaving, Peter Jackson gave me my sword and a tape with my best scenes and also.... the worst!"
Finalising the exhibition Ephemeris in Denmark—where Viggo's father comes from—which retraces his career. The actor also holds a poetry-reading there.
"Returning to Denmark is obvious. It is the country where my roots are. After university, I lived here for several years and did all sorts of little jobs: sold flowers in the streets of Copenhagen, dockworker, waiter.... On these occasions, I know that a lot of people come to see me because of the films. But once they are standing before my photos, whatever motivated them to come, it is the interest that counts. Through this perhaps they will even want to go on and discover other photographers."
Publication of his new collection of photos and poems, 45301 'a provocative book', which he publishes himself. Abstract images, phrases taken from his poetry, notebooks, journals are collected with negatives taken during his trips to Morocco, Cuba and the plains of the United States.
"I started my own publishing house, which I have called Perceval Press, after the legend of the knight who is freed from his spiritual blindness when he is initiated into the mysteries of the Grail. We publish authors who have found it difficult to get published. Poets, mostly. It is important to protect living poetry, which is also why I participate as often as I can in public readings."
The actor opens Miyelo in Los Angeles, an exhibition of his latest images. The photos, taken during the filming of Hidalgo in South Dakota, recreate the dance the Sioux performed before they were massacred by the American army at Wounded Knee.
"It's rather unusual for a Hollywood movie to address the Indian question, and in particular the Sioux culture, with this much respect. That made me realise this would be a rather unique film. And I have tried to 'capture' this 'ghost dance' as a nebulous memory, an ephemeral dream. It came to me like that, I took my camera and I only shot one roll of film."
Arnold Schwartzenegger is elected governor of California.
"It is not the fact that he is an actor or ex-bodybuilder that disturbs me. Everyone has a right to speak. What is terrible is that he has been installed in a presidential manner. He had the attitude of having won even before running his campaign. He didn't need to say anything, nor to develop even one political argument. Next to him, the other candidates seemed like ghosts. What shocks me even more is that a small group of very rich people has succeeded in reversing an election—exactly the way in which Bush stole the presidency."
Viggo is 45 years old.
"I am not afraid of getting old. I have seen a lot of actors who started out with lots of bottle and who gained either some success or some disappointment, or a little of both, who became paralysed and decided to stop trying. I can understand that. Me, I am always passionate about the process of cinematic creation, about researching people. I like talking about a film which works with the press, and try not to feel bitter about the failures. I never really make plans in advance.
The proof: I don't even know what my next film will be!"
Thousands of people take part in the first great pacifist demonstration in Washington since George Bush announced, on May 1st, the end of military operations in Iraq. Viggo speaks, following veterans and activists. After distributing his anti-war teeshirts and protesting against the occupation of Iraq, he addresses Congress with a fierce: "God isn't angry, you are."
Then he reads one of his poems, written for publication on the poetsagainstwar.org website, "Back to Babylon," from which an extract follows:
"Accept and forget difference or desire that separates and leaves us longing or repelled. Why briefly return to play in broken places, to mock the ground, to collect infant shards, coins, fossils, or the familiar empty canisters and casings that glint from poisoned roots in the blackened dust?"
Release on DVD of the extended version of The Two Towers.
"Personally, I prefer the extended version of the films of Lord. I hope that history will retain them."
Release of his new, fourth cd, Pandemoniuminamerica. Amongst the musicians one notes the regulars like guitarist Buckethead, who has collaborated amongst others with Guns N'Roses, and his son Henry, who plays bass, but also guest stars amongst the chorus: Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan!
"It is a tribute to the memory of the victims of the 11th September tragedy. I wrote the words, but I also used texts that I love very much, from Noam Chomsky, to whom the album is dedicated, and from Jonathan Swift. It's totally experimental. The Hobbits agreed to join me and it was a lot of fun, we improvised on the spot, we spent our time exchanging instruments. Elijah played the battery and the piano."
[s]End of the year[s]
The end of the year is busy for Viggo. Following a tour of South America (notably Brazil and Argentina, where he grew up) promoting Peter Jackson's film, he returned to New Zealand in mid-November to organise two photography exhibitions dedicated to him: one, very extensive one, at the University of Wellington, the other, at a city gallery, of only images of New Zealand. He meets up with his friends from Return of the King for the world premiere, which will take place on 1st December at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington.... On 8th December the team is in Berlin for the European premiere of the film. The 13th they will call at Paris. And the 14th at Copenhagen, where Peter Jackson has especially asked Viggo to introduce him to the queen of Denmark.