Viggo Mortensen has become world famous for his role as Aragorn in the movie trilogy Lord of the Rings. But the actor is also a poet, a painter, a photographer—and a thoughtful human being. We met him in Odense where he is currently exhibiting Ephëmeris. An exhibit about death, anger—and about getting lost.
I must admit that I didn’t recognize him. In the middle of a not yet finished exhibit, a young blond man is standing who, after shaking my hand and mumbling something as a greeting, seems relieved to have a practical task: to get me a glass of water. That he brings me with all the hidden greatness that makes him as perfect as he is in the role of Aragorn.
Like the trilogy lies as a see-through illustration on top of the images the books themselves created in my inner vision so Aragorn’s face is latent behind Viggo’s. Viggo Mortensen was bare-footed, with loose dark pants and a large shirt that makes him look both small and newly awakened. His left hand is decorated with stuff to remember and phone numbers all the way up the arm and a stubborn bit of tape has attached itself to his sleeve.
The bright eyes are at the same time quick and thoughtful and it is as if he exists in a parallel reality, with a different rhythm, speed and profundity. And yet he is present.
Several of Viggo Mortensen’s different faces can be seen in his photos, some more recognizable than others. In front of the large photograph ‘Topanga 7’ where golden green light moves across a profile like it was a reflecting water surface, he says in perfect Danish:
“This self-portrait I shot with a slow shutter speed. That way I became part of nature. You can see the blue sky through the brim of the hat and there are plants in my face. With that technique you can become one with the surroundings—the house, the wall, or nature.”
Not all of Viggo Mortensen’s experiments are as deliberate. Not to begin with anyway. The photographer Thomas Telstrup asks about formations that look like little crescents that appear ornamentally in several of the photos like ‘Leaving Christchurch’. And they turn out to be a mistake.
“My camera was broken and when I first saw the developed photos I got rather cross because I thought they were ruined. But then I saw that they might have ended up being better. With the next rolls of film I experimented with controlling the error so I could place it almost as I wanted to.”
As soon he has said something about a photo Viggo Mortensen disappears back into himself, he slips away and stands looking at us while we comment on the photos. Good-naturedly he stands where he is asked to by the photographer and when he puts his Hasselblad camera down it gives a rolling clonking sound because the end bit of the lens is loose. Another thing he has taken advantage of photographically.
“So many strange things happen.”
It isn’t until the photographer asks me to mill about in the background to add some life to the scene that Viggo Mortensen gives a genuine open smile. A smile that forgets all about photographing, promotion, and press but just captures the entertaining element in the situation—and makes sure to share it with me.
The genuine interest in his images does him good and soon we’re zigzagging our way through the room. In front of the photograph ‘Scared Brigit’ he tells:
“I had to run across the street to get this. It’s the neighbour’s dog that’s angry at my dog, Brigit. Look, how the eyes of the dogs all reflect indifferent colours. Green, blue, red,” he lists as he points to the dog one by one.
The composition, with a petrified Brigit in front of the red jaws of the neighbour’s dog and the violent pull on the leash have pulled the image into wide-screen. But you can find differently quiet pieces too. As the beautiful and so sad black and white photo of a small bird that has fallen dead from the sky to land on its back with its head hanging down from a the body of a cut-down tree.
“That’s really how I found it,” says Viggo Mortensen, somewhere between proud and devout. I try to say something about the mystery of dead birds disappearing before they are seen but stop myself. All things pass, great and small. All we can do in the meantime is to remember.
In Viggo Mortensen’s photos death is neither pushy nor singularly sad. In one of the photos a donkey lies dead in a rocky desert—still with a friendly, resigned look on its face as if death changes nothing—apart from the rest of the body, transformed to a cadaver cathedral lit through with the rays of the sun. We sit down outside. The sun is paralyzingly hot atop the roof terrace but it doesn’t seem to bother Viggo Mortensen. Or whomever he is, the man sitting across from me. He doesn’t seem like a movie star at any rate. And not at all like a man of 44. He looks at least ten years younger. Only two deep lines are furrowed down his cheeks like a crooked line drawn across the marked cheekbones.
“I think I take photos to make sure that I notice things. Some things you remember many years from now—without knowing why. And everybody remembers differently. Our pictures of the same event will be different from each other.”
“I take pictures at the edges of the things happening. So many strange things happen. I know lots of artists change reality, change the motif, to make it stranger but I don’t think that is needed at all. Reality is very strange in and of itself.”
“And I don’t mind taking beautiful pictures. I know many are afraid of making beautiful photos but a beautiful image is not necessarily fake or wrong.”
“It’s good to be interested in getting lost, in not having a plan. All people can be creative. You can tell something, imagine that you are someplace else, or that you are right here. You can make your own decisions. When I take photos or write poems it’s not to publish a book or make an exhibition; I do it because I want to do it. I do it to do it. I believe that is important.”
“Movies are made up of compromises. A movie is as good as the compromises it is made of.”
“Often I am so tired.”
We sneak a smoke-break underneath the stairs. Viggo drags a rumpled packet of tobacco from his pocket with the movement that, already before you see that hand, tells you that it is digging cigarettes out.
Writing poems take time, how do you find the time?
“It’s hard finding time. But I try to write a bit, maybe during my lunch break, just a couple of lines. But it’s true; poems do take time to write. And often I’m so tired after a full working day that I can’t do anything else that day.”
The look in those bright eyes has gotten calmer. We’ve gotten somewhat used to each other. But it is sad as well. The longer I look at him, the more the sadness shines through. As the sky through the crown of a hat. The sadness at the lack of time to make images, make poems and—or so I tell myself—to talk. For soon enough a hectic press person is standing there, pulling at him again.
We shake hands. His hand is surprisingly large and warm and sort of rough while mine is closer to being quick. The face is still somewhat sad as caught in its own image when he puts his head through the lift doors and says: “It was nice meeting you.”
Then the doors close and the lift disappear upward. Upstairs the photographers, the television cameras, the flashlights—and his own images.