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Viggo Mortensen — the Great Dane

Viggo Mortensen can swing a broadsword as Aragorn or neatly fillet a Russian mobster. But off-screen, the Oscar contender is a life-giving force, playing big brother to a band of poets, painters, and searchers like him.
/ Source: Mens Vogue

Is that a yawn? OK, so Viggo Mortensen's yawning. He's seriously tired and in some kind of mood, and let's respect that, roll with it, because the hours he's keeping here in New Mexico have just been preposterous.

First, there are the 4:00 a.m. wake-up calls he's grimly endured on the set of “Appaloosa.” And the locals hired to work Mortensen's cowboy picture (who plainly adore him) say they've never seen such a hard-partying cast and crew as the Appaloosans, and God only knows what happened last night, but there he goes again. Another yawn. This is his only day off and it kind of got shot and he didn't get to do some stuff he really wanted to do, and then, his obscure Argentine-concert CD got stuck in the player inside his trailer, because he's never not two-timing the movies with all the rest of his esoteric interests. Some union characters finally smashed the thing open and fished the CD out and he tipped them mighty good, but he's still got an hour-and-a-half drive ahead of him back to Santa Fe in his Dodge pickup — that is, after he figures out just where and how we're going to while away the next few hours together.

The frostbite-blue eyes snap onto mine for a split second. If the brow is a two-way mirror to the soul, his is cracked in several places by Despair and Inner Torment. Mortensen is justly celebrated in Hollywood for how he telegraphs both, which are reading in his face right now. A face rendered (almost) unrecognizable with that distracting droop of a Wild West mustache, the familiar starburst cleft in his chin forested over by a neat beard. In his black skullcap and flannel shirt, jeans and dirt-caked Tasmanian sheep-station boots, Mortensen, 49, has the sullen affect of a man who's just found a ticket on his windshield.

There had been talk of a country drive, but the sun hit the deck at 5:00 p.m., and so we trudge upstairs at the Abiquiu Inn, a 10-minute drive from Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch, and attempt to make ourselves comfortable in this spare attic that is one of New Mexico's ubiquitous art galleries. Some folding chairs are produced.

His sideline business is coffee-table books — or perhaps that's Mortensen's principal business, and acting the actual sideline that supports a pretty expensive habit. A book is handed over, page after page filled with his photography and poetry and published by his own Perceval Press imprint back in Los Angeles (which he calls home). The work is meticulously accomplished and high-production-value, a library of drawings, paintings, photographs, and music by those he's talent-scouted over the years, some strangers, some friends (and even an ex-girlfriend, Julian Schnabel's daughter Lola). It is only when he contemplates Perceval Press's jammed-up assembly line that his voice, a shy, exhausted mumble at the moment, dials up a notch. "I have things I have to finish. Because of this movie, there are four books that my press didn't put out this fall. Which is not a big deal, but—." He sighs and his whole body seems to deflate as he considers the debut artists and authors he's let down.

At first, Mortensen is so fiercely contained that you can't help but wonder if he's one of those Method fanatics who prefers to live in character. He's been reading “The Life of John Wesley Hardin.” An outlaw and a gunslinger, Hardin once shot a man for snoring — but always claimed he never killed anyone who didn't need killing. In “Appaloosa,” Mortensen's a gun for hire, deputy to actor-director Ed Harris's marshal. "Sort of like a lethal butler" is how Mortensen sees his character, Everett Hitch. But you won't hear Hitch saying ain't like the rest of them: He's a West Point man — though without a doubt, the black sheep of the family. Or that's how Mortensen imagines him.

He's also bagged the lead in the screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's “The Road,” which director John Hillcoat, a newcomer from Australia, starts shooting this fall. "Now we just have to find a great kid," Mortensen says, referring to his putative costar, the boy who will play his boy, as imagined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. "That's going to make it. Or break it," he says. "Hopefully it won't totally depress people," he adds.

He didn't know McCarthy actually lives in Santa Fe. "Hunh. I should look him up. I'd be stupid not to," he says. (He's known for his Ph.D.-level research. Prepping for his next major release, “Good,” which wrapped several months ago, Mortensen tried to visit all the concentration camps in Poland to better play the film's lead, a university professor who finds himself tangled up in the issue of euthanasia in Nazi Germany. "They're kind of hard to get to, and I have to say, apart from Auschwitz, I don't think the Polish make it that easy to find them.")

In the McCarthy book, some nuclear episode has reduced the world to a gray-skied ash heap. A father and his only son wander the earth as hobos, survivalists trying to avoid a macabre fate as a feast for any of several roving bands of cannibals, Mortensen is saying, revving for book talk just as his tomato-and-mozzarella salad arrives, which he'll eat Indian-style on the hard wood floor. Food in the belly, he stretches out on the ground as if on some psychiatrist's chaise, his wool cap tucked under his head, eyes annealed to some comfortable middle distance. Arms remain folded across the chest, but answers miraculously turn essay length.

One reason he admires “The Road” is that the child teaches the father a thing or two, particularly about compassion. "You do learn from your kid, if you're open to it," Mortensen says. He has one son, Henry, from a while-ago only marriage to pink-haired punk-rock-pioneer Exene Cervenka. Now a sophomore attending a good college in New York City, Henry has a history-of-punk radio show he deejays. "I just think of myself at that age," says Mortensen, who wound up at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, a Spanish literature and government major. "I didn't have it as together as he does. He's more social. He's got more friends. He sort of interacts with people more easily — or he's more interested in doing so. Not that I couldn't; I just wasn't so interested."

Though he was born in New York City, the Argentine soccer-fan scarf looped around his neck immediately flags Mortensen's affinity for the great elsewhere — his favorite team (somehow unsurprisingly) is San Lorenzo, by tradition Argentina's underdogs. Before they divorced when he was 11, his American mother and Danish father trooped their three boys (Viggo's the eldest) through Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark, where his father managed farms.

Viggo's handy too — he can cook, do laundry, mend his shirts and whatnot. He spends quite a bit of time with his parents; his father is now pretty much retired and lives on a farm. Like the father in “The Road,” Viggo has an outdoorsman's self-sufficiency. "I'd like to learn more about how to fix engines," he says. "I have a 1948 pickup truck, and that's a very simple engine. But today, I think you need to be some kind of specialist."

Before the stage scooped him up, he sold flowers on the street, moved furniture, was a longshoreman. It has always helped that he looks like a Round Table knight; parts abound for the handsome hero-rescuer waving a literal or metaphorical sword. In the business, he's that worldly poetic soul who can do credible justice to gangland Russian, Sioux, or Elvish dialects. That guy who looks great on a horse. That guy who never kills anyone who doesn't need killing.

In David Cronenberg's “A History of Violence,” he is Tom Stall, an upstanding family man who has somehow, somewhere learned to break a man as easily as he pours him a cup of coffee at his diner. Called back from the reserves to star in Cronenberg's “Eastern Promises,” Mortensen is Nikolai the chauffeur, whose tattoos advertise a moderately successful, mid-level career in the Russian mafia while the wraparound shades mask surprising humanitarian impulses. The Russian underworld types he found to school him in their ways finally relaxed "once they realized I wasn't going to make fun of them," he says.

He also went for a walkabout in the Urals. "We kind of worried he'd never come back and we'd never find out what happened to him, until we'd probably find him running the country eventually," says Cronenberg, who insists Mortensen "takes the best out of Method and leaves the bullshit behind." As Aragorn, a caped crusader in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he supposedly slept for weeks in his medieval getup. Cronenberg suggests this had less to do with any Methodmania (as was conjectured) than it was an attempt to render the costume less obviously a costume. On the set of “Eastern Promises,” Mortensen had wanted to wear Nikolai's shoes around, break them in so they'd look right. Feel right.

‘The Undertaker’ and ‘The Soviet Bloc’
Nikolai's charming nickname is "The Undertaker." Around the set, his squared-off Dracula pompadour acquired a nickname, too: "The Soviet Bloc." In shooting the now classic naked knife fight in a public bathhouse, Mortensen says he could only hope everyone would heed the exquisitely timed choreography. Not for a moment did he fear for his groin, he insists. "You're mostly focusing on not getting stabbed or slashed."

Preparing to clip off a murder victim's fingertips as if he were deadheading a rosebush, Nikolai extinguishes his cigarette on his own tongue. That was Mortensen's idea — and there were multiple takes, so he was obliged to do it over and over again. "Well, that's the cost of coming up with something neat like that," says Cronenberg. In this age of DVD screen captures, Mortensen volunteered to lose the towel for the steam-bath knife fight, which was not actually demanded by the script. "To suddenly get coy about it, and have things blocking his crotch" — as if Nikolai were some mafioso Austin Powers with better biceps and bone structure — "would have been ridiculous," Cronenberg says.

Mortensen's back kicked out the day before the scene was to be shot — for the first time ever — but he never mentioned it. He didn't need attending to like some high-strung racehorse, requiring a masseuse on the set or heat treatments between takes or anything of the sort. For treating improv as extreme sport, Mortensen surely deserved more than the critics' unanimous acclaim, even if he confesses he's a little turned off by the hysterical shrieking run-up to the Academy Awards. Three nominations — one for a Golden Globe, one for a Screen Actors Guild award, and, finally, the Oscar nod itself — are possibly a harbinger of something. Or possibly a harbinger of nothing.

"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” co-star Renee 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 co-starred 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?