When you’re as good-looking as Viggo Mortensen, you spend much of your screen time making love to the most beautiful and desirable women imaginable.
Currently, he romps with Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon. Before that, he teamed with Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, Julianne Moore in Psycho and Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady.
The actor, who’s divorced from L.A. punk rock legend Exene Cervenka and the father of an 11-year-old son, understands the impulse to fall in love with a screen-mate.
“People like to laugh and gossip, ‘Look at these people! They’ve gotten all tangled up.’ But if you’re an actor and you’re to be in love, there is an illusion there.
“Feelings have a way of doing to you what they want to do, and love has a way of surprising you. You can’t control everything, whether it’s making a movie or at the post office.
“But the danger of (an on-set romance) is it’s not lasting, because, if you have feelings during a moviemaking experience, it’s like having feelings for someone under the influence of drugs. Everything’s heightened. When the drug wears off, is the person the same? Are those feelings the same? It’s not a way you’re going to live after a movie.”
That coolly analytical approach, along with a subtle acting technique and chiseled good looks, has helped make Mortensen a late-blooming success story.
“I’ve been told I’ve ‘arrived’ so many times I don’t know where I ever went,” says Mortensen, 40, whose first film (“that I wasn’t cut out of”) was 1985’s Witness. “I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to learn on the job, so to speak.”
He has won good reviews consistently since he was directed by Sean Penn playing a self-destructive drug addict in the little-seen The Indian Runner. But A Walk on the Moon rates as a career peak.
In the romantic drama set in the summer of ’69, he’s a blouse salesman at a Catskills summer camp who ignites lusty feelings in Lane, stifled by a teen marriage and early motherhood.
Mortensen is currently on location in Asheville, N.C., where he’s portraying a professional baseball player in rehab in the film 28 Days opposite Sandra Bullock. To prepare, he spent time in spring training camps, “primarily with the Phillies and the Chicago White Sox, who’ve been helpful and really open.” He even visited Oklahoma City, where his character was born, to get the feel of its streets, homes and Little League games.
“I knew about as much about professional baseball and the players as I did about the U.S. Navy when I did G.I. Jane, which is to say not much,” he says. “That’s one of the most interesting aspects of acting. You can learn things, even if it feels like cramming for exams. I was also allowed to go to a rehab place; Sandra did, too.”
For Moon, “I couldn’t go back to 1969,” but he could emotionally revisit what was a significant year in his life.
“My mother and two brothers and I, we moved to northern New York state that summer, right after the moon landing and just before Woodstock. I remember that summer because my parents split up, and I was moving to a new environment from Argentina. I’d been born in Manhattan and moved as a baby to South America, where my dad, who’s from Denmark, had different jobs.
“I was 10 years old and I remember a lot of things, especially the older kids hitching off to Woodstock. As a kid, you accept whatever as normal, so that was my beginning: people dressing differently, the smell of pot or incense in the street or coming out of cars. The music. Mad magazine.”
It was years later in New York that Mortensen got his distinctive facial scar, from what he calls a “combination of a fist and a barbed-wire fence. I was drunk on Halloween, and so were the other people I was with. It was mistakes of youth.
“I was 17 and we went to a clinic and the doctor was 80 at least and it was 2 or 3 in the morning. He just started sewing because he realized I wouldn’t feel a thing, which I didn’t. My friends outside ordered pizza. I remember after, they were feeding me these pin-sized bites that night.”