In a land without mountains, you have to be happy with the few mountains there are. It can be reflected in a relaxed and well-balanced acceptance of the conditions of things, but it can also sometimes be reflected in a sturm-und-drang, an attempt to be more than you are. Reaching for the sky instead of reaching for Himmelbjerget (”The sky-mountain”–famous hilltop in Denmark).
How many Danish actors and directors have not been told they were about to have their international breakthrough? How many simple-minded bundles of muscles and nice faces, strange ideas, and very Danish ideas, have not been foretold a future, where only the horizon sets the limit? And isnt it by the way Steven Spielberg who waits on the phone? What has ever come out of it? Very, very little. The A-, B- and C-list of Hollywood is without a single Danish element.
But wait! There is someone. A single one, who has got his ticket stamped, all the way from Ringsted to the most expensive movie of the world, from Danish that is spoken on Middle-Zealand, to Elvish that is spoken in the future epic Lord of the Rings. And this is the man this article is about.
The press agent is nervous. ”He has told he wants to meet you in a park in the mountains. Do you think youre able to find each other?”
Yeah, why not?
”Well, he’s not the type who carries a cell phone. He doesn’t even own a cell phone…” This obviously in Hollywood is the same as running without a pulse.
But the miracle happens. Without any problems we find each other in TreePeople Park in Beverly Hills, exchange courtesies–in Danish–and sit down on the bone-dry ground under the eucalyptus trees. There is a wonderful view over that world which is made of celluloid and silicone: Studio City and Burbank, the skyscrapers that house the bookkeepers of the movie world, and on the mountain slopes the white palm- and paparazzi surrounded haciendas where the stars live.
Every once in a while a couple of joggers pass by. Some of them turn around and pass again and a woman whispers to fellow runner: ”My God–it’s Viggo Mortensen.” And my God, it is Viggo Mortensen.
Lt. Wepps from Crimson Tide, Master Chief Urgayle from G.I. Jane, David Shaw from A Perfect Murder, star or subordinate part of more than 30 movies, fellow player with Michael Douglas, Al Pacino, Demi Moore, Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Nicole Kidman, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Half Danish, entirely Danish speaking, gossip potential, A-list, and of current interest as Aragorn, one of the main characters of Lord of the Rings.
That Viggo Mortensen.
It is safe to conclude that the Danish-American actor has success. But it is a well-known fact that it isnt the sum of good fortune that characterizes a person’s success–but the way he or she manages it.
Elvis Presley was successful. Marylin Monroe was successful. Curt Cobain was successful. But to what use? Viggo Mortensens success is very different. Its not bent in neon and spelled with a megaphone–it’s a quiet, a humble success, and several times during the interview you feel a desire to make his ego just a little bit bigger.
“Well, I’m not a big star, not a famous name,” he says several times.
You have dozens of fan websites on the Internet, you’ve played with the biggest and best and the woman next door to me back in Washington calls you super sexy…
“She does?” Viggo Mortensen asks surprised. “That’s nice of her. Well, maybe I’m famous, a little famous, but not famous like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or anybody else of that calibre,” he maintains.
The movie journalist Cindy Pearlman from The Chicago Sun-Times met the same modesty. Before the premiere of A Perfect Murder in 1998 she wanted to write a profile of Viggo Mortensen. She also got an interview with the actor, but she could barely hear what he said. ”He’s a fascinating person, but SPEAK A LITTLE LOUDER,” she wrote in the newspaper. ”Viggo Mortensen is apparently completely without the Hollywood ego,” the article concluded.
She also asked his fellow players Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow about their opinion of Mortensen and it was the same. ”He’s a method actor,” Douglas said. ”He is able to scream loudly if he has to–just watch G.I. Jane. He’s an excellent actor, but a shy actor.”
“Viggo is a real artist. He lives for creating art and be absorbed by it–not for talking,” Paltrow said.
Such a Friday afternoon in TreePeople Park there’s not much super ego and glamour about him either. He wears jeans, a couple of dusty black boots, and an over-washed black and white shirt. There isn’t a hint of makeup on his face, the stubbles have survived this morning, the sand-coloured hair is shoulder-long and Prince Valliant-ish. Hes slim, but muscular, of average height, but with a more that average physical appeal. There’re no bodyguards in the background, and he came here by himself, driving in a pickup truck.
The thought about Viggo Mortensen not feeling home in this city is not far away. He is at the same time too much and too little for Hollywood. Which he confirms himself. For a short period of time he lived in a villa in Beverly Hills–like everybody else-but quickly he moved to Venice, the alternative quarter of Los Angeles, and he spends as much time as possible in his cottage in the mountains in northern Idaho.
“When I come back after a couple of weeks in the clean air in Idaho I can taste L.A. You can taste the city. Terrible.” He says. But it’s not only the city he doesn’t enjoy. Obviously also a great part of the movie-life. Viggo Mortensen is a rare guest at those receptions and movie events that set the agenda. Tonight he is going to the premiere of Apocalypse Now Redux, but only because his son Henry wants to go.
“I don’t want to waste my life on receptions and superficiality and those film awards that take place every weekend and in many ways corrupt the entire industry. There are enough things that matter in life–my son, nature, art, travels–and I would rather spend my time on that,” he says.
Viggo Mortensen dives into his backpack and finds cheese, kiwis, oranges, biscuits, water from Montana, wine from New Zealand, and beer from Valby. Finally we look like a Skagens painting of an interview. Danish cheese, Danish beer, Danish talk, a son who is named after the uncle from Ringsted, several visits back home every year. What is it with Mortensen and Denmark?
“I have travelled a lot my entire life. As a child I lived in five-six different countries–from Denmark to USA, from Argentine to Egypt–and as a grown up I have travelled half around the globe myself. The movie business is a very vagrant business. The last two years I’ve spent in New Zealand filming Lord of the Rings and sometimes I’m in five cities in a week. Someplace, in the back of your mind, you need to have a fix point, a place you call home, and Denmark is that to me.”
What do you think of when you think of Denmark?
“I think about a beautiful landscape, I think of a country where I can be myself and meet my family, where my cousins think of me as Viggo from Ringsted and tease me as they tease everybody else–and teasing is obviously a Danish way to express friendship. In that way Denmark means incredibly much to me.”
Viggo Mortensen’s Danish connection is therefore not just made up for the media as an attempt to make himself exotic, as a newspaper from Copenhagen once has said. It is actually the truth. Viggo’s father who also is called Viggo Mortensen is out of a Middle-Zealand farmer family and on a trip to Oslo he met his future wife–the American Grace. They travelled to USA where Viggo was born. The father’s job as an economist got them all around the world, but every summer Viggo and his two brothers were sent on vacation back home. As a grown up he returned to Denmark and he has lived there several times and among other things worked as a carpenter and lorry driver in Copenhagen and as a waiter at “Jan Hurtigkarl,” and for a short period of time he also earned his living as a truck driver in Esbjerg Harbour.
”I had a girlfriend, a really nice girl, who I wanted to live close to. She lived in Outrup.”
In Outrup? [Are you deaf or something, stupid interviewer?? – Obs]
“Outrup! At that time the town was known for its speedway centre. It was rather big.”
We begin a longer discussion about speedway, only inhibited by the fact that none of us know anything about the subject, and it ends with the question about what has happened to Ole Olsen.
“Have some more cheese,” Viggo says–and luckily we change subject. To movies–and status in the movie business. Over here everyone complains that it has been a dry summer, a very dry summer in Hollywood. There has only been one reviewer-hit and that is a 22 years old movie–the re-edited Apocalypse Now. Everything else has been fast-food. So the international movie world has started to look forward. When is there coming a movie that can prove that Hollywood is alive? Several critics point as Lord of the Rings, the most expensive film project ever. The director Peter Jackson has made not one, but three movies at the same time, and the budget is 2.3 billions Dkr. For good reason everyone involved are nervous. 2.3 billions is even in 2001 a great deal of money, and the movie company New Line Cinema seriously needs a hit. Lately it has had some commercial flops as Kevin Costner’s 13 Days and Warren Beatty’s Town & Country. The rumour says that the existence of the company depends on Lord of the Rings, so understandable they put every ounce of energy into this springs Cannes Festival where New Line made an–even for Cannes–enormous media extravagance. Journalists were transported to a castle to meet with the actors, the building was draped with props and scenes from the movie, there was time-typical food and music, and only Ivanhoe missed before the Middle Age feeling had been total. Beside that New Line also shoved 26 minutes from the movie. And then… silence… quiet drumbeats … what did the movie world think of it?
“The movie has a positive buzz in the business in this moment. There’s greatness in the air. But it all depends on how the director puts the movie together before it works the way its supposed to. But it can be really good,” an American critic says.
In this emptiness is Viggo Mortensen; floating around between the finished scenes and what has the potential of being a new Star Wars–the parallel that is the most often heard in Hollywood.
You have done your job. You have put everything into the shootings in New Zealand, spent almost two years down there, and now it’s all in the hands of the director Peter Jackson. How does that feel?
“ Terrible,” Viggo Mortensen laughs. “No, Peter is a fantastic director. I have the greatest confidence in him and I’m sure hell make a really great movie of it. At least the raw material should be alright. Sometimes it was a tough experience. As I said, the shootings took place in New Zealand. They were meant to last no more than a year, and we were supposed to have some breaks and be permitted to go home every third month. But as you can almost figure out yourself: it didnt go that way. The shootings lasted 18 months and we had no breaks. We filmed every day; the lunch break was 45 minutes and then back to work again.”
The actors spent all there time together in a Hollywood camp far away from everything. Even the actors from New Zealand got homesick, because they didn’t get home either.
How can you live together for so long without getting tantrums?
“You have to make the best of it. During lunch-breaks I often took my fishing rod and a hunk of bread in my pocket and went off to a lake for a little bit of solitude. Some days off I wandered alone in the mountains. But everything considered it went well. We were a good team who worked well together, without any big egos that needed to be taken care of, and it was partly because the movie doesn’t have any big, huge stars on board–only us, the run of the mill.”
But doesnt it ever happen after the shootings that the final result is different from what expected? Don’t you ever get disappointed when you see how the director has treated you role during editing?
“Yes, absolutely. I get disappointed every time. I think that all actors do that, and that’s something we have to accept. In my first three movies I got cut out, among others in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo and Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift. It’s a little embarrassing when you drag your friends of family along to the cinema and tell them that just watch now and then you’ve landed on the editing floor. Therefore I’ve stopped telling them in advance to pay attention to this or that scene. Because you never know if it’s in.”
Do you agree with the buzz there is in Hollywood about Lord of the Rings? Does it look like a hit?
“I’m always careful with predictions. I have thought that some movies was going to be a hit and others not and then it went opposite. Its hard to tell. But the potential is absolutely there. The problem with movies today is not lack of talents. The problem is that the movie companies choose to talk down to the audience. They present the audience for cartoon fantasies of the reality. The audience is much smarter than they think, and Peter Jackson has an understanding of that. Take a movie like Apocalypse Now. Why does it have such an impact? Because it operates in many layers, because it gives the audience something to wonder about. I’ve been seeing many of the movies this summer–also movies I’ve been looking forward to–but it has been disappointments time and time again. None mentioned, none forgotten, but there has not been much to come for.”
Are Lord of the Rings able to do better?
“I think so. There are displaced plots, there are dialogues on a certain level, and often in foreign languages, such as Elvish, and there are no special effects merely for the sake of affect. I think the audience can look forward to a good experience.”
If Lord of the Rings will be for the modern movies, what Star Wars was for the 70s–it will not only be a needed hit for New Line, it will also be a climax for the present of Viggo Mortensen’s career. Trying to describe his movie career is like finding your way in a Middle-eastern medina. Soon you think you’re on the right way–only to end up in a dead end of spices and camel-mongers. The Danish-American has had his breakthrough in a–for an actor–mature age. As Los Angeles Times found out with a shake on the head: He was not less than 40 years old, before he got his own website.
But Viggo Mortensen would rather take the marguerite route than the freeway–and pick the flowers on his way–because his has not become an actor for the reason to make money or become famous, he maintains. He became an actor out of curiosity–spurred by three master movies that made a tremendous impression on him when he was young: The Death in Venice, The Deer Hunter and Bergman’s Høstsonaten.
After high school he moved to Manhattan and tried to get a foothold. The first time he got a part that survived the editing was in 1985 in Witness where he played Alexander Godunov’s brother. In 1987 he was doing the underground-movie Salvation! and during the work he met the punk rock singer Excene Cervenka, a well-known artist in her genre. They became a couple, got the son Henry and moved to a mountain cottage in the northern Idaho. It became some work-wise meagre years for Viggo Mortensen. There wasn’t much money to make in Idaho and he drove all the way to Los Angeles or New York to make the movies he was offered. Minor things such as Fresh Horses and Tripwire and believe it or not Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Viggo Mortensen squirms and bites his lips when we talk about it.
Theres no doubt that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in all its disgustingness was pioneering and a sort of art. But the third ?
“I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles and he had a part in the third. ’We need a man. Wasn’t that something for you?’ he asked. Why not? I had seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I thought there was something about it in spite of everything. I hoped the third would contain the same. But the movie company got cold feet and cut away the most terrifying and gruesome scenes, and it ended up being a rather incoherent movie.”
Would you play a part in movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre today?
“No. I’ve heard some say that those kinds of movies are violence-aesthetic, but to me there’s nothing aesthetic in violence. Violence is violence, and I’m worried about the effect that the movies have on young people. There’re people who are putting way too much into the movies and get crazy ideas.”
I’ve heard that agents in the early years tried to pursue you to change your name to get the career going?
“That’s right. In the beginning everyone was very obsessed with getting my name changed. ‘Viggo Mortensen–that’s too long and too strange,’ they said. I suggested as a joke to change it to ‘Vic Morton’ That sounds like one of those movie private investigators in the 40s… ’Vic Morton, private eye.’ No, my name is Viggo Mortensen, I am Viggo Mortensen, and Hollywood will have to live with that.” And so Hollywood did.
His 31 movies have made just about 400 million dollars, the numbers of the movie business says. The biggest hit is Crimson Tide from 1995. The movie that established Viggo Mortensen’s name for real. In the movie he plays Lt. Peter Wepps Ince, the only man in the submarine who has the code to the nuclear missiles, and who is caught in the middle of Captain Gene Hackman and second in command Denzel Washington. The first one wants to fire the missiles, the other doesn’t, and you can see all that psychological drama in the honest Wepps. ”Masterly played,” the critics stated concurrent.
After the success in Crimson Tide, Viggo Mortensen’s career has got more commercial oriented for instance he has been in Daylight with Sylvester Stallone, G.I. Jane with Demi Moore and A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas. Viggo Mortensen is so much Danish, that he gets a bit defensive hearing the word commercial, and he feels the urge to explain it.
”The problem with the small, more artistic movies was that I couldn’t make a living out of it and at some stage I realized that I had a family to take care of, and it didn’t help that I acted holy, was neglected, and had good intentions. Therefore I began accepting parts as in for instance Daylight.”
And really, there’s no reason to be defensive, judged by the evolution of the American reviewers. Daylight is for instance a good classical disaster movie that even Sylvester Stallone cannot ruin, and in G.I. Jane Viggo Mortensen acts so intense that you can’t help feeling sorry for Demi Moore, in more than one way. In A Perfect Murder he is–in spite of Michael Douglas’s and Gwyneth Paltrow’s presence–the star.
Theres a reason why Viggo Mortensen is featured on the A-list of the international magazine Vanity Fair. ”The scene-stealer,” the magazine calls him. And the movie journalist Amy Longsdorf concluded last year: ”Viggo Mortensen is superstar material–and of course it doesn’t harm that he in the latest movies has shoved different degrees of nakedness.” There have been a lot of naked and half-naked scenes lately and if you visit one of the dozens of fan websites dedicated to him, it is obviously that the 43-year-old Mortensen is a sex-symbol to the world.
What does it imply to be a sex-symbol?
“That you have to take off your pants in all your movies,” he laughs back at me. ”I don’t mind the nude-scenes in the movies, and those actors who say they don’t like them–they’re lying. Hell, it’s a job, and even a quite pleasant part of the job.”
Is it true that you sang serenades to calm Gwyneth Paltrow before the scenes in A Perfect Murder?
“How do you know that?”
She has said that herself.
“That is correct. To calm her and create a certain atmosphere of intimacy I did sing a couple of love songs that I learned in Argentina when I was young. I don’t know if that ended up scaring her instead.”
But what about being a sex-symbol ?
“First of all, I dont consider myself a sex-symbol, and I think that’s important. The problems arise if you see yourself as a sex-symbol. It wouldn’t be easy to live with that. In the everyday life it doesn’t mean anything. But once in a while my agent delivers a bunch of fan letters and I read them, and out of 50 letters the 49 are always sweet and very flattering, and I become happy when I read that my movies has meant something to people, and they mean different things to different people. But then there’s always this one letter which is weird and where a woman wants to marry me right now and she has left her husband and family back in Kansas. That’s really very sad and makes me dejected. But far the most of the response is positive and intelligent.”
Last year Viggo Mortensen learned that fame has another prices. The gossip. Shortly after the shooting of A Perfect Murder one of Hollywood’s well-published relationships fell apart–Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. It was Viggo Mortensen’s fault, the tabloid newspapers wrote. But they couldn’t come to an agreement whether it was because Affleck was morbidly jealous over the heating love scenes in the movie between Paltrow and Mortensen, or if it was because Paltrow had dumped her boyfriend and started a relationship with Viggo Mortensen.
“In the beginning I laughed at it. There wasn’t anything about that story, not a grain of truth, and I just shrugged my shoulders. But then I began receiving unpleasant threatening letters: ’How could you destroy their relationship’–‘two young nice people who are meant for each other.’ I realised that actually there’re many people who believe in those kinds of stories and engage in the lives of the actors and think of them as some sort of a replacement family, and then frankly it wasn’t fun any longer.”
However, his Danish family got him down to earth again.
“There was a female Danish cousin who called and said it was good that I’d found Gwyneth Paltrow. She was always nicely dressed and well-groomed, and I could learn something there.” But generally Viggo Mortensen isnt a man who complains. “I feel I’ve been incredible lucky. Lucky as hell. There are hundreds, thousand, of actors in the world, who are better than I, or least as good as I am. I’ve just been at the right place at the right time,” he says.
To reach his class has great advantages. He has got money in his bank account, and money means freedom, and freedom means possibilities. He has realized the multi-artist he has been hiding, and among other things he has published his own poems, exhibited his own paintings and photos, and he has arranged exhibitions and is in Venice known as an unspoiled art dynamo. ”He is a true renaissance man,” the movie magazine Premiere wrote last year.
The interest of art came early.
“According to my mother I never went anywhere as a child without a pencil, and I drew all the time. Recently she gave me a notebook with some of my old drawings. I especially noticed one I drew when I was 7–it was rather wild. On the top it said: ’Little Red Riding Hood,’ and then there were a lot of oil colours mixed together, almost abstract. I really liked it. But across the drawing it said with a red pen–and underlined: VERY BAD! Some teachers still think that is motivating.”
From here on the mountaintop we can see that the rush hour is beginning. Burbank and Studio City look like a busy Richard Scarry drawing, and the cheese-dish cover of smog has become even more poisonous orange. Viggo Mortensen is right. You can taste Los Angeles. It must be the same taste with which carbon monoxide poisoned people leave this life.
We break up; collect nicely all our stuff, all orange peelings, bottle tops, and plastic glasses, and head back to his car, a Dodge Ram 2.500 pick-up diesel. On the dashboard lies dried flowers and what seems to be an Indian rosary, in the CD player is fusion music (new age and jazz), and Viggo Mortensen puts on a classic ranger hat. He seems to be very much at ease, as he sits here well above the driving lane and like a pinball navigates us through the brutal traffic.
”I love driving. Just to drive and drive and drive out of the road. Suddenly you can think again. Like when you are wandering in a hardwood or in the mountains or stand in a big, cold, mirroring lake, fishing. Then you are close to being happy–and what more can a man want.”
Theres a long way from Ringsted to Hollywood. But the distance can obviously fit in one person.
Viggo Mortensen on Danish dogma movies:
“It is wonderful to have a discussion about movies and the way theyre made, but the dogma concept itself is more of a gimmick. Festen (The Party) is a fantastic movie. It is the best version of Hamlet I’ve seen in modern times, but it wasn’t dogma that made it good. On the contrary it wouldn’t have hurt with a little more light.
Viggo Mortensen about his favourite Danish director:
“Carl Th. Dreyer was one of a kind, a genius. I’ve seen Jeanne d’Arc and Ordet (The Word) three times, and so has my 13-year-old son.”