Viggo Mortensen is waiting for me in a parking lot on the Pacific Coast Highway near Topanga Canyon.
He thought it would be nice to walk along the beach, watch the sunset and the deepening pink clouds and the dolphins at play in the surf, and talk, you know, maybe have a drink or two. He is barefoot on the asphalt, in jeans. His hair is sandy-red, floppy-perfect, the provocatively dimpled chin brushed with stubble. He kisses me hello on the cheek. My vision goes blurry for a second, then—steady, steady—rights itself.
“I brought you some things,” he says, sitting down on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
He opens a large cardboard box at his feet. There are about a dozen books: one of pictures by a Cuban Santeria practitioner turned photographer; one of poetry that comes with an owl-shaped pewter trinket; one containing sketches by Lola Schnabel, an ex-girlfriend; and then several by Mortensen himself—of paintings, poetry, and photographs. All are published by Perceval, a small press he runs with a partner. Then he pulls out a DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent movie. He informs me that the original negative was destroyed in a fire, and that the filmmaker died believing his masterwork had been obliterated. But a complete version was found in a closet in a Norwegian mental institution in the early 1980s and was restored.
“You published this too?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says. “You should just see it.”
This barefoot guy in a parking lot talking to me about Santeria and Norwegian mental institutions inhabits a realm far, far outside the one most people think of when they think of Hollywood actors, yet he is fast approaching a celestial syzygy of fame. In December, New Line releases The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which showcases Mortensen as the reluctant ruler Aragorn. And in March he will be seen in Disney’s $90 million epic, Hidalgo, in which he plays an endurance rider who takes his humble mustang horse to compete in a 3,000-mile race in the Arabian Desert. After 20 years of making movies, Mortensen, at 45, seems on the brink of becoming a star—a word he rolls around in his mouth with skepticism.
“I’ve been told that I’m back and gone so many times,” he says, “it just ceases to concern me. I mean, I don’t really give a shit or not. You wanna walk?”
He leaps like a mountain goat down the rocks to the sand, and shouts, “Watch out for the broken glass!” I’ve got my purse and my flip-flops and my notebook, and my jeans are on the tight side, so I try to do a modified body roll down, futilely attempting to manage a landing that looks remotely casual. Mortensen waits at the bottom, his eyes politely averted.
Along the beach a boy follows us for a stretch, biting his thumbnail. He clearly wants to approach his hero from The Lord of the Rings. When Mortensen turns around, smiling, the kid sprints away. That didn’t use to happen when Mortensen played the conman lover of Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, or the D. H. Lawrence-spouting drill sergeant in G.I. Jane. It was not until the Lord of the Rings movies—The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and The Two Towers in 2002—that people really began stopping him on the street.
The Lord of the Rings movies are among the biggest moneymakers in history: Fellowship earned $860 million globally and Two Towers $919 million. The third has the potential to be the most lucrative of all, and Mortensen saturates the film.
It’s a long way from Mortensen’s role as Tex, the good-natured cannibal who delivers soliloquies about the savory qualities of roadkill in 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. His film debut had actually come in 1985 as one of the Amish farmers in Peter Weir’s Witness. He then got a part in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, but it was cut. In 1988 he co-starred in Fresh Horses—a massive, pretentious flop-with Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald. His son, Henry (with then wife Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the art-punk band X), was born the same year. After Henry learned to read, he had the good sense to become a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s.
By 1990 it looked as if Mortensen was headed for the Where Are They Now? file, and fast, with roles in Young Guns II (one critic called it “double-barrelled cowpuffery”) and Leatherface (“The best that can be said of it is that it runs for less than 80 minutes”).
“If I really think about it, there isn’t any one movie I would wipe off my slate,” Mortensen says, however. “Even during the worst experiences, there was somebody I got to know, or something about the place we were in, something memorable. A lesson.” Happiness or satisfaction, to Mortensen, is not something that one can actively seek. A sense of well-being does not depend on outside events, but rather on how we interpret them, he explains.
“Seek not the favor of the multitude,” he says. “It is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of the few, and number not the voices but weigh them.”
Kant, he says. I am wildly impressed.
In 1991, Sean Penn cast Mortensen in The Indian Runner, as a tormented Vietnam vet. Dennis Hopper, who starred in the movie with him (“I’m an old barkeeper he murders at the end,” Hopper explains), calls it one of Mortensen’s best roles ever. “He’s not a good actor, he’s a great fucking actor,” Hopper says. “I’m not a fan of Sean’s other two movies, but this is a hell of a movie. Don’t live another day without seeing it. Mortensen is it. He’s the real deal.”
Next came Carlito’s Way, with Mortensen as the cringing, wheelchair-bound informer, Lalin, then a brief macho period, doing Boiling Point, with Hopper and Wesley Snipes, and Crimson Tide, and his role as the menacing drill sergeant [sic] in G.I. Jane.
Around Mortensen’s 40th birthday, he made two movies playing the siren lover who liberates wives suffocating in domesticity. In A Perfect Murder, he was the artist boyfriend of the patrician Paltrow, a fashionably greasy-haired bad boy whose overripe physical presence you could practically smell coming off the screen. If you’re a woman you will remember the way he slid his hands backward over her cheeks as they made love in his grimy loft. The canvases in the film were his own, painted in Dennis Hopper’s studio. And in A Walk on the Moon, Diane Lane had to choose between her television-repairman husband (Liev Schreiber) and her hippie boyfriend, played by Mortensen, who makes love to her under waterfalls, introduces her to pot, and takes her to Woodstock.
“I knew I wanted him for that role in such a way that I was saying, Please take some of my money and give it to him,” Lane says. Pass up money? “Because he gives immeasurable depth to what he does, full commitment, full conviction.
“He’s a man of mystery, for sure—that’s rule No. 1,” she adds. His exotic lack of ego, her theory goes, won’t hurt him in Hollywood. That mystery acts like a narcotic on a community of people who always chase the one thing they cannot have, and as with a spurned lover any distance only increases their ardor.
“He’s being true to himself. And people here are not really used to that or comfortable with that. And I love the fact that, as far as I have been able to see, he has not given away any of his mystery. People want to figure you out so they can move on. But he’s the one who moves on.” His muse, Lane says, is the tramp. “He can be as debonair as he wants. For that afternoon. But then the tramp will call him again.”
Working with such women as Lane, Paltrow, Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady, and Julianne Moore in Psycho didn’t faze him. “In the end, when you go to work, it’s about the person you’re playing, not who is next to you,” he says. “It could be someone’s first movie, and some people are harder to work with than others, but a lot of the times you find the same problems and work through them.”