“For months, it’s the whole who should be nominated. And who should have been. Then, who should win and who will win and who should have won,” Mortensen says. There’s continuous pressure to slam your mug in front of the Academy. He notes (with pleasure) that the paparazzi have forsaken him ever since the Lord of the Rings trilogy wrapped. There are no more telephoto close-ups of him conferring with a nurse at his vet’s. Or sleazy surveillance freeze-frames of him walking out of a store with a doughnut in his mouth.
The Oscars, he notes with some distaste, “are like politics. It’s very much like people running for office.” Mortensen remembers when the music died on A History of Violence. “It was like, ‘Cronenberg’s a genius, he’s a shoo-in,’ and then…nothing. It vanished from consciousness.” That said, now that he’s been favored with an Oscar nomination, he won’t pull a Brando and not show. Now that would be rude. Venting seemed to relax him: One boot goes up on the ledge of a folding chair.
Watching the presidential campaigns, Mortensen sees vaguely nauseating parallels. “They had this very important vote on the new attorney general, who’s now been approved. And four senators who are running for president didn’t even bother. They couldn’t make it, I don’t know. I want to learn more about that. I’m going to do some research on that. My feeling is, they’re campaigning for their Oscars, you know? And they’re too busy to realize this was a crucial moment for the country–for the Constitution.”
During the primaries, he was rooting for Dennis Kucinich, the vegan -congressman-bantamweight from Ohio. Mortensen recently endorsed Kucinich on Hannity & Colmes, hopping a red-eye to Manchester, New Hampshire, to express his dismay that ABC had excluded Kucinich from a pre-primary Democratic presidential debate–with that scarlet Argentine soccer scarf again around his neck. As for the current commander in chief, Mortensen calls him “out-and-out simple. Which is not to say that he is simple. I think he’s very clever. I don’t think you get to be president twice fairly legitimately or illegitimately without being a smart person, even if you’re kind of a tool. But Bush is a willing tool. Reagan was, too. Most presidents are.” The doomy blue eyes stay fastened to the ceiling as the boots come off.
Some Sundays, if he’s not trout fishing, he’ll just get in the car and drive, which is a thing to do in New Mexico, with its jagged, primeval landscapes and pendulum-swing microclimates. “There’s rarely a day he doesn’t show up bearing gifts of some sort from his different weekend jaunts,” says his Appaloosa costar Renée Zellweger, “where he’ll go find some really obscure village behind Taos somewhere and visit an artists’ colony and bring back some wares to share. And there was never a day that he wasn’t plying us with dark chocolate. It was ridiculous. Bags full. Bags full! Bacon-covered truffles. Where was he getting it? He was the chocolate crack dealer.” On with the boots and away with the dirty dishes downstairs, where he sneaks a quick unfiltered American Spirit butt outside.
Mortensen recommends I try out the mission-churches trail, also known as the “High Road to Taos.” The 18th-century chapel in Las Trampas is particularly picture-postcard. It seems he took a date to this well-groomed graveyard: Ariadna Gil, the Barcelona-born actress who costarred with him in the Spanish film Alatriste, has a role in Appaloosa, and is said to be his girl. He showed her the headstones on the grounds of the church, “which are mostly this one same family: Leyda,” he says. On one concrete slab from the 1940s, somebody gouged ETERNAL REST in Spanish into the wet cement with a stick–only the word eternal is spelled wrong.
“And then, under it, they wrote, FOR ETERNITY,” Mortensen says, chuckling at this second helping of careless absurdity.
The road is something of a comfort zone. His son was fixated on all things Nordic, and so he indulged them both with a winter trip around Iceland in what felt like one never-ending snowstorm, intrigued by the steaming volcanic landscape. “It was like, it could blow any time!” says Mortensen, laughing. And of course he plundered the Norse sagas to prepare: “All the place names are the same as they are in the sagas. The same farms have the same names.” He discovered an artist there whom he’s now published. He heard some great music in Reykjavík’s cathedral. He caught some Arctic char. He was eating dinner at two and three in the morning.
Some coffee arrives. He pours. With the same ease, it should be noted, that he could maybe break a man if he wanted to. But this isn’t one of those nights. He picks up the check. He hands me some cigarettes. He tells me the way to Santa Fe. Gotta be up at four. Gotta hit the road.
Is that a yawn?