“A good actor is there, a bad actor is not. Sure it’s a craft but it also has to do with generosity of spirit. Some people just aren’t very generous by nature and, no matter how technically proficient they might be, they’re not much fun to work with because they don’t care and you feel it.”
On the cusp of turning forty, actor Viggo Mortensen is neither a household name nor a Hollywood superstar in the making. In the course of 14 years, he’s made about 30 films beginning with Peter Weir’s Witness and including The Indian Runner, Crimson Tide, The Portrait of a Lady, G.I. Jane, A Perfect Murder, and, most recently, Gus Van Sant’s frame-for-frame remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yet despite the positive writeups touting him as the next big thing, superstardom has always been elusive. The recognition he has attained stems from his status as the industry’s not-so-secret weapon. He’s the guy you can count on to steal a scene or invigorate it.
Mortensen — born in New York City, raised in his ancestral Denmark and Argentina, and currently living in California — always seems best when cast as the lover. The planes of his face bespeak both peril and sensitivity — a romantic who could be caddish with your heart but rueful about it. His cleft chin, pale, almost milky, eyes, softspoken tone, and laidback manner complete the picture but he’s more than matinee idol handsome. He has that incurable, unbearable, enigmatic eroticism of a three in the morning dream you’ve just awakened from.
It’s a quality that serves him well in actor Tony Goldwyn’s directorial debut, A Walk on the Moon. Mortensen costars as a drifter who distracts Pearl Kantrowitz, the Jewish wife who married and mothered at far too young an age and is played with Garbolike melancholy by Diane Lane. Mortensen found working with Lane “as good as I’d hoped it would be. She’s a good actress and she makes the work really easy. She’s very relaxed and very focused on what’s right for the scene and not her own vanity.” Though he and Lane share some steamy moments, particularly a tryst in the river, onscreen, the actor remarks that love scenes are just like any other scene. “Figuring out how it would work best, in the sense in how you would have it [choreographed] and just a safe atmosphere. That’s really the director’s responsibility. If the director’s nervous and uptight about it, then we’ll feel that and it’ll just be a longer day.”
Though people may be quick to categorize his character Walker Jerome as a hippie, Mortensen feels that his character has just been more exposed to different cultures than the insulated inhabitants of the Catskills community, of which Pearl is a part. “When he goes to Woodstock [with Pearl], it’s kind of new to him as well. He’s just an average person.”
Watching the film, Mortensen roots for neither the husband nor the lover but for how Pearl deals with her dilemma. Neither does he believe audiences should belittle Pearl and Walker’s relationship. “I think it was very important to him and it meant a lot that he couldn’t be with her, but he was respectful of what she needed. I don’t think it was just another [affair]. He’s not selfish or stupid. There’s a mutual respect on both ends.”
A familiar figure on the L.A. punk scene due to his one-time marriage to Exene Cervenko, former lead singer of the punk bad X and the mother of his 11-year old son and with whom he remains great friends, Mortensen is also well-known in other artistic fields. A Renaissance man, he is a painter, photographer, poet and writer. Apart from his numerous gallery exhibitions, he’s had his work displayed onscreen in A Perfect Murder, where he played Gwyneth Paltrow’s struggling artist lover. He’s published two books of poetry, Ten Last Night and Recent Forgeries and released a spoken word CD entitled One Less Thing to Worry About.
With so much on his plate, it’s no surprise that Mortensen often finds his focus unconcentrated. “Sometimes it’s difficult. Right now, I feel I really want to act, I have to pay the rent,” he jokes, sharing a rare laugh. “No, I just want to act right now and I hope I can find something I really feel good about and I have to be lucky there. But there are times when I would just rather do other things where [the acting career] does become frustrating. Part of that is you have to make compromises or compromises are made for you. Whereas if you’re making a poem or a painting, then it’s your thing whether people like it or not or whether they see it or not. But I do have to make a living and, when all is said and done, I like acting. Whatever I’ve been through in the past many years doing it and being exposed to the different aspects of the movie business that I don’t really care about or like, I enjoy acting.”