In the ensuing years, as Mortensen took parts in B-level duds such as Boiling Point and American Yakuza, and in more credible films such as Crimson Tide and The Portrait of a Lady, he maintained an ambivalence about the industry, especially the compromising nature of being a cog in the moviemaking machine. “What are you going to do?” asks Mortensen, who says he’s less frustrated now. “It comes down to the fact that you supply the blue, and they supply the other colors and mix them with your blue, and maybe there’s some blue left in the painting, and maybe there isn’t. Maybe there wasn’t supposed to be any there in the first place. So have some fun and make a good blue and walk away. I try to do that. Sometimes I succeed.”
The metaphor is more than a little apt. Throughout his career, Mortensen has passionately expressed himself through other mediums, especially painting, photography, and poetry. On the set of Hidalgo, while the crew was heading for cover during a passing rain shower, Mortensen seized the moment to grab the Hasselblad camera he’s had for 20 years and photograph a pack of dripping wet horses against a fence. In fact, he’s always taking pictures (especially of his son). Driving down a road, you can expect Mortensen to slam on the brakes and jump outside to photograph whatever engages him.
“He doesn’t walk by something interesting and ignore it,” Miranda Otto says. “Let’s face it, acting can be a very uncreative process. I can see why he wants to do other things where you don’t have to collaborate with anyone else. It’s more pure.”
Though Mortensen concedes that “the final work is not done by you” in making a movie, he equates the mediums: “I think it’s all the same thing. How I feel doing one or the other, and trying to stay open to what might happen, you know, that happens in photography, poetry, painting, and acting.”
Dennis Hopper, whom Mortensen met working on The Indian Runner, is a friend and kindred spirit: The two paint, photograph, and “just go out and look at things” together. “Most actors seem to think that their art stops with memorizing other people’s words,” says Hopper, who gets frustrated by how others view actors who work in other mediums. “They always think, ‘Oh, he’s acting.’”
Hopper believes Mortensen’s passion for the arts is genuine: “Rainer Maria Rilke said something like, ‘If you ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night, if it were denied you to create, would you truly die?’” Hopper says. “I know that Viggo has asked himself that question and his answer was ‘Yes.’”
Fuck you, you motherfucking pansy-ass queers!” Clearly, Mortensen’s fame hasn’t extended to the town of Libby, Montana, where we have stopped to buy sandwiches from the local Subway. While souped-up Ford trucks cruise by, a little white Nissan stops at the traffic light, and a young woman screams with half her body outside the sunroof. “Fucking queers,” she yells at us while teenage guffaws emanate from the packed car. “Fuck you!”
Standing closest to them, Mortensen continues to talk on his cell phone and barely registers the verbal assault. From inside the truck, Henry giggles as I walk toward a garbage can. “Fucking queer,” Mortensen deadpans with a grin, looking at me.
Mortensen’s strongest fan base is in the over-20, female demographic. His physical appeal—the soulful eyes, high cheekbones, cleft chin, and general ruggedness—is obviously apparent. He was named one of People’s most beautiful people of 2002, but, again, he taps into something that extends beyond the physical.
“From the moment that I saw him onscreen,” says Otto,“ I thought, ‘Shit, he looks incredible. Here’s a character I don’t have to pretend to be in love with.’”
Diane Lane also sees the appeal: “I think he has a quality of self-knowing that challenges everyone that he meets—perhaps unwittingly. But the electrical charge of that challenge of ‘How well do you know yourself? ’Cause I know myself real well.’ You know, that’s kind of the unspoken Viggo experience. He’s also fascinated by other people. And when you combine those elements, it’s very charismatic. It can definitely be interpreted as sexy.”
It’s next to impossible to have a serious conversation on the subject with Mortensen. Consider the following:
Q: What do you think makes you sexy?
VM: I don’t really know how to deal with that question. I’m sure that there’s just as many people who think I’m a grizzled hack.
Q: I guess Brad Pitt’s the pretty boy type of hunk and you’re the, you know …
VM: … the grizzled hack version? Do you think we should play brothers or something?
Q: You should.
VM: Or lovers?
Q: Maybe lovers. Yeah.
VM: You think people would pay to see that?
Unlike most celebrities, who usually have some functionary rubber-stamp responses to fan mail, Mortensen not only reads what he receives—he “answers every single one,” he says. “But at the end of this month, I’m not going to do it anymore. I appreciate it, but I can’t spend several hours every day doing this.” His book signings and gallery exhibits are turning into mob scenes, sometimes numbering into the several hundreds, as was the case with an art opening in Santa Monica last year. “It was packed with women from 20 to 45 years old. Just to see Viggo,” Phillips says. “Not necessarily to see his art.” Mortensen deflects the attention. “That was due to Lord of the Rings,” he demurs.
Actually, Mortensen’s humility and generosity turned his Rings costars into some of his biggest fans. They tell of the time when a snowstorm shut down production. The cast was being transported to safety when Mortensen seized a four-wheel drive vehicle and drove back to the set in order to save the hobbits’ four-feet-tall scale doubles from getting snowbound. There are also the many gifts, usually beautifully framed original photographs, which he gave to his many friends on the set.
Mortensen seems to have won over all of his Rings peers, but none more than Bloom. “He was just so giving and gracious,” says the 25-year-old actor, who recalls Mortensen letting him upstage him in at least one scene.“For a young actor starting out in the film industry, he was the most fantastic education I could have had.”
Bloom tells a story that occurred when the Rings crew returned to New Zealand in the summer of 2002 for sound dubbing and pickups for The Two Towers. “I flew over just to visit Viggo,” says Bloom, who had heard that Mortensen was organizing a reunion dinner. He, Mortensen and Henry, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler (who plays Arwen), and members of the crew took a bus to the countryside. After dinner, Bloom and Henry went for a walk and noticed how beautifully the moon was shining on a nearby river.
“We ran back and said, ‘Everyone’s got to see this.’ ” Bloom recalls. “I was having a Viggo moment—running out, getting people to come and check out the moon.”
Some decided to wade into the stream, but Mortensen suggested the more perilous task of crossing the river.
“I’m like, ‘Fuck off,’ and he says, ‘Come on.’ So we’re barefoot, waist-high in water, walking on these little rocks to get to the other side and I’m doing it because I’m an idiot and I’m following his lead. Because he’s an idiot. And because he’s amazing,” Bloom laughs. “I can’t believe how much this is going to make me sound like I’m in love with the guy.”
After making it to Idaho and spending the night, Mortensen and I take a drive into the forest outside his brother’s place to clear the air a bit. Luckily, the airline is going to let him use a faxed copy of his passport, so he and Henry will be able to fly out of Spokane. That’s one less thing to worry about. But he wants me to know that he hasn’t been able to articulate some ideas in the fog of the past two days.
In addition to deconstructing his love for Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore (which we had spent 20 minutes discussing the night before) and espousing the virtues of individualism, he wants to talk about the first day of shooting Hidalgo in Montana, when a torrential rain was dampening the spirits of the crew.
“They looked so fuckin’ miserable that suddenly it was hilarious,” he says. The point being: “You can try to control everything in your life or you can just let go,” he says. “There are filmmakers who resist, and are usually screaming and fighting the elements, and fighting nature. And in the process making other people’s lives hell.”
Mortensen believes there is order in the chaos. “You know, there are freakish and unexpected events that make up our lives. You have to be open to suffering a little,” Mortensen says. “There’s the philosopher, Schopenhauer, right? He talked about how out of the randomness, there is the apparent intention in the fate of an individual that can be glimpsed later on. When you’re an old guy, you can look back, and maybe this rambling life has some through-line. Others can see it better sometimes. But when you glimpse it yourself, you see it more clearly than anyone.”
The glimpse is essential. It is why he photographs, paints, runs himself ragged—and why he is an actor. “You try to communicate to others and to yourself, whether it be through a photograph, an e-mail, or an idea. Or if I just want to show you a pond. Just making the effort.
“There’s a yearning to connect,” Mortensen says. It’s why he wrote a poem called “Matinee,” in 1997. It reads:
After years of merging and allowing/ yourself to be assimilated/Your hair and clothes/ have turned brown/Then, one afternoon you leave a theatre/After seeing the restored/Version of ‘The Hero Returns’/And find yourself wanting/to be treated special.
“I remember specific moments like that,” he says, “being a little kid, walking out of the theater, and feeling connected to the people who were on the screen.”
The Hero Returns is not a real movie. It’s more of an ideal—one that Mortensen hopes audiences will connect with when they enter theaters in December.
“In a story like Lord of the Rings, whether the Ring and Sauron are evil is incidental to me. Even if we were not to get the Ring anywhere near Mount Doom. Even if we all died. It doesn’t really matter,” Mortensen says. “It’s the fact that everybody got together and decided to go on this trip. That’s the thing. That’s the miracle.”