We’re sorry to have to break this to you, but Viggo Mortensen is not a movie star. A poet? Yes. Photographer? Yep. Guitarist? Sure. Author? Uh-huh. Painter? Yessir. Actor? Most definitely. But celebrity? No way.
We meet in London to discuss his soulful turn in John Hillcoat’s lyrical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s chronicle of life after the apocalypse, The Road. In it, he plays a character known as The Man who, along
with his young son, is trying to negotiate the treacherous climes of an America that has been all but wiped out at the hands of an undisclosed disaster. He says that while he’s conscious of his celebrity, he’s not insecure about it. ‘To me, it doesn’t mean anything. It means that you’re well known, at least for a period of time. I worked for many years without being a celebrity or a known actor, and the success of some of the movies I’ve been in has helped me to… move up the ladder.’
Since attaining poster-boy status among the Forbidden Planet set for his star-making turn as swashbuckling heartthrob Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen has been quick to exploit the legacy of his spell in the limelight and chosen to embark on a journey into the dark heart of the acting craft. It was the pair of films he starred in for David Cronenberg – A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) – that catapulted him into the method-acting major league alongside De Niro, Pacino and Day-Lewis. And in line with the strongest work of those revered luminaries, Mortensen believes that cinema shouldn’t be a case of heroes and villains. ‘I don’t think there’s a person in literature or in real life who isn’t complicated. For me, people are endlessly fascinating and, as an actor, you have a choice: you can learn the lines, work out the gestures and the ways of speaking and stick to them, or you can do that ground work and then see where the other actors and the director take you on the day.’
Mortensen’s legendary borderline-compulsive attitude to ‘deep research’ has paid off. When Eastern Promises came out, there were tales of how he’d ventured alone into the Russian hinterlands to perfect the lifestyle tics (and tattoos) of the local gangster fraternity. For The Road, similar stories have emerged about how, to get the feel of surviving in a charred wilderness, he would wrap himself in a tarp and sleep outdoors. ‘It’s something I’ve always done,’ he assures. ‘There were times on the set of Lord of the Rings when people would call me Aragorn rather than Viggo and I was starting not to notice.’ Immersing yourself in the body and mind of another is all very well, but has it ever affected his mind? ‘As far as not being able to shed the skin of a character, no. Sure, you take them home with you and it drives people crazy, you become despondent if you’re playing a despondent character, and so forth. But I never worry about it. I’m not in a hurry to forget interesting experiences or feelings that were awakened by doing a certain job.
But at the same time, I’m fully aware that sometimes there is a price.’
One aspect of his performance in The Road that stands out is how convincingly he cries. It feels genuine, as if he’s going further than just holding up some shallots to his eyes and picturing the family dog being taken around the back of the barn and shot. ‘A lot of it was down to Kodi Smit-McPhee,’ he admits, name-checking the young actor who co-stars as his eternally optimistic son. ‘The relationship I have with the boy is so intense that I didn’t need to visualise anything other than what was in the film: it was sad and real enough for me.’
Mortensen isn’t only a great actor: he has his fingers in a number of other artistic pies. From his time on the set of spirited period action caper Hidalgo (2004), he released an anthology of photographs named The Horse is Good that were taken from the perspective of his trusty steed. Did he take any photographs on the set of The Road? ‘Not really, but I wrote quite a bit. I wrote a lot of poems in Spanish and I also composed music on the piano for a CD called Songs of Winter, which I’m finishing up now.’ You’d be hard pressed to name any other actor who relishes the same perks of the trade as Mortensen does: ‘It’s great if someone who never would’ve gone to a poetry reading goes to one because they’re thinking, “Oh, that actor guy’s doing it – it’ll probably be s***, but we should go and see it anyway!”’ In short, he’s not in it for the money. He’s in it for the poetry.
The Road is in UAE cinemas now.
From book to box office
The Road isn’t the only film adaptation of a book by Cormac McCarthy.
All the Pretty Horses (2000)
Despite A-list leads in Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, this adaptation by Billy Bob Thornton bombed to widespread critical bile. Both Thornton and Damon blamed the studio’s insistence that the film have more than an hour shaved from the original cut.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning crime thriller is a brilliant chase movie in which none of the characters who are chasing each other ever actually meet.
Blood Meridian (2011)
Currently in production, McCarthy’s bloody novel about scalp-hunters who murder Indians on the US-Mexico borderlands has previously been called ‘unfilmable’.