Nearly 10 years ago Esquire’s Amy Wallace penned a cover story titled, “The Appealingly Weird World of Viggo Mortensen,” which dove headfirst into the life of the versatile Danish actor. The piece ran on the heels of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, in which Mortensen plays a balmy family man who may or may not have a destructive past. But what struck me about Wallace’s profile was its insistence on rendering its subject strange. The truth is, after talking to Mortensen for more than 30 minutes, the only perceptible “weird” quality to him — and it’s not even so much weird as it is un-common—is his unwavering thoughtfulness.
As far as I can tell, Mortensen is a man of passions, and isn’t afraid to discuss them. Whether it’s the current state of affairs in D.C. or why he now primarily works on smaller budget films instead of the blockbusters he could so easily star in with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on his CV, the veteran actor is forthright and scrupulous in his selection of words. Rarely do you come across someone who means what they say and say what they mean like Mortensen. To no question does he simply blurt out a speedy, haphazard response. Even when asked what he considers to be his “pop culture blind spot,” we searched for upwards of 10 minutes for an answer he’d find satisfactory.
It make sense, then, that Mortensen would flock to Far From Men, a well-strung drama adapted from a short story by French philosopher and consummate wordsmith Albert Camus. With the passage of time, both artists are tangentially unified both by their inability to mince words, and an uncompromising commitment to seeking out the truth, no matter where it may take them.
How familiar were you with the work of Albert Camus before taking on Far From Men?
I’m a big fan of his. I read a little bit starting in English during high school, and then in French during college. And I hadn’t read everything by him, but I read most of his novels by the time I got this job and read everything else for preparing the movie. It took more than a year and half to get the financing. So I read all his correspondence with other writers, and especially his work as a reporter in the 1930s when he was still living in Algeria, where traveled around the country and talked about the inequality for the Arab population.
I like his writing a lot, but I also admire his human stance. He didn’t take the easy, black and white way out in terms of differences in cultures and the problems plaguing Algeria and France. He was an activist, and not afraid to make friends of his enemies and enemies of his friends in order to be true what he felt and believed. He was the opposite of what you see so many politicians doing these days — not only in the United States, but everywhere. Europe as well. To vilify those who seem different, creating wedges between people of different color or religions. Instilling fear instead of trying to work out problems. It’s a lot harder to try to have a conversation. That’s why politicians don’t do it.
Are you still politically inclined?
I try to keep up. What’s great about modern technology is that there’s so much more information than before. You can learn about cultures, other points of view. But people tend to use technology to find out more about what they already know; to bolster their points of view. I’m just curious. I can take it in short bursts, but I do try to make it a practice to listen to right-wing AM radio, which is the overwhelming majority of AM radio. It’s prejudiced in many ways. I don’t just go to one commentator or one essayist. I’m a little more trustful of journalists than I am of politicians.
But not by much…
[Laughs.] No, I like to make up my own mind. That’s a good thing to do. Every once in awhile, someone who I generally might not agree with can make a really good point.
I’m not sure I’ve heard Rush Limbaugh make a good point.
Very rarely. The other day Bill O'Reilly made a good point. He was backing up Barack Obama on his policy toward Iran, which was kind of refreshing. But I think his ego is so much in the way. I also think he may be a pathological liar and that doesn’t help.
The moment you have mugs of yourself is probably when you know something is wrong.
[Laughs.] That’s a good policy. Let me know if I ever make a mug of myself!
Pivoting a bit, you seem selective in the projects you accept.
I’m just looking for stories that I think would make good movies. And by that I mean movies that I would want to go see, which is obviously very subjective. It takes a lot of time to shoot, make, and promote a film that it might as well be something you really like and can learn something from. And maybe years from now you’ll still feel okay about having done it. Everybody is in different situations. Sometime you need to make some money, for whatever reason.
The reason I’ve been doing movies like Far From Men and Jauja, and not big budget movies in recent years, is out of stubbornness and sticking to something. It may not be the smartest thing career-wise, but it’s just what makes me comfortable. I have said no to some bigger budget movies, not because I didn’t want to do them, but because I had already said “yes” to go to the dance with someone else, and I was going to see it through.
What was your first exposure to Playboy magazine?
There was a kid who had a big collection, and I think it was his older brother’s. I looked at those with him and being amazed. It was the late ‘60s, early '70s. I remember being surprised that my dad had one in his suitcase. That sticks out.
What movie scared you the most as a child?
More than one, but I was both scared and exhilarated by Fantasia. I was probably five or six. I wanted to climb that mountain. I remember also seeing the original Frankenstein movie, with the little girl by the water.
What was your first car?
A VW hatchback station wagon thing; 1969, used, light blue VW. This was the first year of college.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
The Argentina national anthem.
What is your pop culture blind spot?
Although I’ve seen film versions of it, and I’ve read some of it, I never finished War & Peace. I haven’t seen Elephant by Gus Van Sant. I never saw I’m Still Here. I also haven’t tried haggis!
If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
A baked potato and a garlic-and-onion bagel, toasted, with cream cheese, a slice of onion, and a slice of tomato. To drink, a bottle of red wine. If it was allowed, a shot of Irish whisky.
What was your biggest mistake?
Because I like to think I’m basically an optimist, I think it’s coming up soon — it’s still to come.
Founder of Movie Mezzanine, Sam Fragoso is a San Francisco-based journalist whose work has appeared in Interview Magazine, The Daily Beast, Forbes, RogerEbert.com and The Week. You can follow him on Twitter @SamFragoso.