Thessaly La Force meets Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen, the accomplished actor who has made his career by defining himself as everything a movie star isn’t
IN THE INFORMAL taxonomy of Hollywood’s leading men, there are several obvious types. There is Brad Pitt: too lean and too chiseled to ignore, rangy and funny but emotionally aloof. He doesn’t understand you, but then again, as with all beautiful people, you don’t need him to.
There is the spiritual descendant of Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, that boyish, Peter Pan-type who still happens, however incongruously, to be in possession of an old soul.
There’s Matthew McConaughey and Keanu Reeves — dreaming, or maybe just out to lunch. There are the jerks: Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire. The preppies: Jude Law, Christian Bale. The guys who can make you laugh, even when you’re annoyed at them: Will Smith, George Clooney. There’s the men you’d want to carry you from a burning building, flames licking at their heels: Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis. The meat and potatoes: solid and reliable, like Matt Damon and Russell Crowe. And then there’s Viggo Mortensen. A man who can — at his very best — assume a certain density on the screen, who is somehow able to project a sense of vast interiority with just the flicker of his eyes or the nod of his chin. His face is strangely feline in its geometry, heart-shaped, the sharp lines of his cheekbones framing his blue eyes. Even when he is covered in dirt or sweat or blood (or sometimes all three), he’s still in possession of a dignity that few other actors can rival.
He has played everything from a travelling shirt salesman (1999’s A Walk on the Moon) to a forest-bathing libertarian (2016’s Captain Fantastic) to Sigmund Freud (2011’s A Dangerous Method) to a reckless con man (2014’s The Two Faces of January) to a Navy SEAL (1997’s GI Jane). He is perfectly comfortable being naked (Captain Fantastic, 2007’s Eastern Promises), his characters perform oral sex as if breathing air (1998’s A Perfect Murder, A Walk on the Moon, 2005’s A History of Violence) — and yet he can easily kill his foes with his bare hands (The Two Faces of January, A History of Violence), with a sword while riding a horse (2001-3’s The Lord of the Rings), point blank with a gun (A History of Violence, 2009’s The Road, 2008’s Appaloosa) and God knows how else.
Traditional male movie stars are now, despite both their abundance and popularity, something of an anachronism. For better or worse, Hollywood has defined toxic masculinity more aptly than most other industries. Women today expect men on-screen not to be the stuff dreams are made of: We want vulnerability and communication and responsibility and all the uncertainty in between. I watched The Bachelor for the first time while writing this piece and realised with dismay how America’s obsession with love had long ago departed narrative film for reality television. It’s just not practical to make out with a man who has a gun tucked in his tuxedo or to quit your job (that comes with health care) for Jerry Maguire. Movies may be an escape from the drudgery of our lives, sure, but sweeping a woman off her proverbial feet isn’t that straightforward anymore.
Mortensen, though, is different. He is Hollywood’s most appealing man probably because he is Hollywood’s least threatening man. He is paternal but not patronising; he possesses strength without aggression. Even in his most violent scenes, the tension builds but Mortensen rarely acts on it until necessary — like a judo master, he seems able to take another’s energy and flip it to his advantage. You desire him, but he doesn’t set out to seduce. He is one of the few actors for whom the female gaze has been possible (the shock of seeing a naked man on the screen only exists because it is still so rare). The women in his movies are drawn to him as if there’s a hidden stillness that they need to reach, like finding a pond in the middle of a forest. So much of masculinity on film feels like watching a gift you don’t want being unwrapped.
However, Mortensen’s operates on another plane. There’s a moment in A Walk on the Moon when Diane Lane’s character, Pearl, climbs into Mortensen’s van knowing well enough she doesn’t want to buy a blouse. What she wants is him. What could have come across as lascivious or amoral doesn’t; Pearl is married, and Mortensen, as Walker Jerome, surrenders to her desire. She sighs and she moans and it’s so satisfying to watch, in part because as we do, we understand that the frustration that has defined Pearl’s life has finally disappeared.
It wasn’t until Mortensen, then 40, was cast as Aragorn in the director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that he became an international star.
Famously, the role was offered to him after filming had already begun — Jackson, for whatever reason, changed his mind about the actor he originally cast — but luck strikes when she chooses, and the role helped form the foundation on which Mortensen’s best characters are built. As Aragorn, Mortensen plays the hidden heir to the last kingdom of men, whose duty it is to help the hobbits on their quest to destroy the ring of evil. He is a hero who understands the burden of destiny, and did so with courage, valour and humility.
After this performance, the director David Cronenberg cast Mortensen in two masterpieces: A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. In A History of Violence, Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a man who buries his criminal past to begin a new, more simple life but runs into trouble again; in Eastern Promises, he is a supposed Russian criminal who survives all manners of brutality, saves an infant, eliminates a sinister mob boss and still doesn’t seem at all interested in sleeping with sweet Naomi Watts. Both performances are marked by that same sense of dignity, a calmness in the face of danger. Before, Mortensen seemed to be cast more for his stunning looks — a sexy felon, for example, who happens to have a successful contemporary-art career and who sleeps with Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder) — but his characters were similar in what they lacked. He was never the reason the centre held. Mortensen could enter or exit the narrative without much consequence.
However, these three roles unlocked his true gift: They showed how the actor is capable of carrying the moral weight of a story. He can be the uncomplicated hero, yes, like Aragorn, but he is also able to convey, as in A History of Violence, the ambiguity of fighting for justice amid the chaos of life. That Mortensen’s character is capable of murder (in the name of self-defence) and deception (for the sake of protecting his family) doesn’t detract from what he makes us understand about ourselves — that we are all, to some degree, faced with difficult choices, and that only an unwavering sense of duty to those we love makes it possible to distinguish wrong from right. We like Mortensen because he shows us how to be.
IN REAL LIFE, Mortensen has the same quiet ease that he conveys so well on the screen. We sit across from each other at a Spanish tapas bar in New York City’s Chelsea neighbourhood, chosen by my editor as our meeting spot purely because Mortensen lives part of the year in Madrid with his longtime partner, the Spanish actress Ariadna Gil. He is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt reading I Stand With Standing Rock in support of the resistance against the oil pipeline, completed last year, that risked polluting North and South Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation’s primary water supply.
On his flip phone, he makes a quick personal call. His hair is a flinty silver, closely cropped. His mien is reminiscent of the American West, his skin weathered by the sun like a 1940’s-era cowboy. At 59, a certain arresting majesty remains. A waitress walks past him twice, staring unapologetically. He explains to me that he was drawn to acting because of the storytelling, but as he later writes in an email, “I also found a need to address a growing curiosity about what exactly the skill or trick was that allowed certain performances to occasionally move me to tears, laughter, and even, at times, to a profound questioning of my place in the world.” Mortensen has had a peripatetic life.
Born in the United States, his family moved to Latin America when he was a boy, eventually settling in Argentina, where his father managed farms and cattle ranches. Upon his parents’ divorce when he was 11, he moved to upstate New York with his mother. He lived in Denmark after graduating college and before he began acting. As he orders, he pronounces the items the way one would in Spain — boquerones en vinagre, he says, ensalada de alcachofa. Later, I check: He speaks four languages fluently (French and Danish as well as English and Spanish).
We are here to discuss Green Book, his newest film that has seen him nominated for an Oscar, two years after his critically acclaimed performance in Captain Fantastic, the story of a family raised outside of our late-stage capitalist society, which garnered him his second Academy Award nomination for best actor (the first was for Eastern Promises). Directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book is based on a true story of a lifelong friendship formed on a road trip in 1962 through the American South between the jazz pianist Don Shirley and his hired driver, Tony Vallelonga, or as he was called, Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali plays the educated and elegant Shirley against Mortensen’s Lip, who is brash and unrefined. Over time, the trip — Shirley’s trio is touring the South — forces each man to reveal a less-expected side of himself. Lip is more principled than his privilege as a white man in society might let you assume; Shirley is more vulnerable and nurturing than his pride lets on. It’s a clash of culture, personality, class and race, but it is also, more winningly, a portrayal of male friendship, a topic more commonly found in Judd Apatow and buddy cop films.
The title is borrowed from life as well. The Negro Motorist Green Book was originally a New York metropolitan area travel guide first published in 1937 by a Harlem mailman named Victor H Green in a practical attempt to help fellow blacks travelling by car, which was, if you could afford it, preferable to segregated public transportation.
The Jim Crow South was undeniably dangerous, but black travellers faced widespread discrimination almost everywhere in north America — from the embarrassment of being refused service at petrol stations, motels and restaurants to far more perilous situations, such as being arrested at night in “sundown towns,” which enforced a ban on blacks by nightfall. The guide, updated annually, eventually covered much of north America; it ceased publication only in 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mortensen and Ali met in early 2017, before the Academy Awards (Ali would go on to win best supporting actor that year for Moonlight), and immediately connected, finding themselves deep in conversation amid the bustle of a cocktail party. Both walked away hoping to find a way to work together. “It honestly was just like having an extraordinary dance partner,” Ali told me of his experience filming Green Book with Mortensen.
Still, Mortensen, whose mother was American and whose father was Danish, admits that though he loved the script, he had to be convinced by Farrelly.
“He told me he didn’t want it to be related to the movies of that subgenre of Italian-American family stories,” Mortensen says. He put on weight for the role (“I became as fat as a tick,” he wrote me later) and spent time with the family of the real Tony Lip, especially with Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who co-wrote the script with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. “I was like, ‘what were his favourite things to do?’” Mortensen says.
“Nick was like, ‘He loved everything! He could dance with two women at the same time; he’d swim in the Hudson River; he never lost when he was playing cards. There was nothing he could do that he wasn’t good at!’ So then I asked, ‘What was his favourite?’ ‘Eating and smoking.’ ‘Eating and smoking. At the same time?’ ‘Sometimes!’” The more he began to tell me about Lip, and about spending time with Lip’s family — of his day spent trekking up to a neighbourhood in the Bronx that was once almost entirely Italian-American, or of making Lip’s family members laugh or cry after he had captured what was quintessentially Tony — he transformed before me.
There, a spread of tapas between us, Mortensen’s shoulders hunched forward. His hands suddenly gestured in a different way than before. He spoke in a broad, New York accent. In that moment, I knew it was Mortensen, but I believed he was Tony or Nick or Tony’s brother. Later, as I played back my recording, trying to find whatever magic I remembered existing so that I could get it on the page, it wasn’t the same. That, I realised, is what they call acting.
ALL HOLLYWOOD CELEBRITIES have a real-life counterpart to their on-screen persona. It’s part of the mythmaking and artifice of movie stars. And we enjoy glimpsing the spoils of their success — the Malibu palaces, the glittering company they keep — as much as we relish discovering that the distance dividing us from them is not so great. If, at one moment, they are captured in high-definition for the screen, then they are also delivered to us by harried paparazzi shots, red-carpet pictures and social media.
Mortensen’s life, as much as it is publicly shared, is something of an outlier to the cliché. He is thoroughly uninterested in playing the game of status and vanity. Or, as Mortensen said in an interview with a small Idaho newspaper last year: “What people might generally regard as typical ‘Hollywood’ behaviour (seeking maximum attention and hobnobbing with movie people at all times), I am not really drawn to that.” That he didn’t achieve fame until his early 40s helps. His first wife is Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the punk band X; the two have a son, Henry, who is now 30, and at one point ditched Los Angeles for a life together out in Sandpoint, Idaho. Mortensen told me that he spent the night before we met riding the subway to the Bronx, to the New York Botanical Garden. He ended up talking to a middle-aged Mexican man, a contractor, on his way home from the job. Surely, I asked, the guy knew who you were?
Mortensen shakes his head, “No, I don’t think so.” He’s a regular guy — except he’s not. There’s something about Mortensen that is difficult to describe, because who he is, paradoxically, is almost entirely about what he isn’t. The empty charm and insecure braggadocio often present in his peers are unsettlingly, though wonderfully, absent in him. He is, in such a superficial medium, able to transmit the feeling of a soul.
In Captain Fantastic, there’s a moment where Mortensen, who plays Ben, the father of the family, must tell his children they won’t be returning home to the woods. The children are incredulous; they believe they can still persuade their father to change his mind. But Ben has decided. Mortensen’s body hardly moves: One eyebrow lifts, pulling the rest of his face up to acknowledge that what he has said is final. Then he remains impassively still — calm but resigned.
As he speaks in a monologue, you can see more than you can hear the accumulation of events that have led Ben here, various emotions flickering across his face. It’s scenes like this, so fleeting and so profound, that still make Mortensen a bit of a mystery to me.
We continue to correspond over the next few weeks. He checks in with me to see if I have more questions. This, it seems, is also who he is: thorough, a perfectionist. He has gone to Toronto to scout locations for a movie he’s planning to direct. He tells me he’s returned to a script he began writing back in the 1990s, before his career took off. He is a writer, too — he runs a small publishing house called Perceval Press with Michele Perez and Henry in Santa Monica, California, founded in 2002 with the money he made from The Lord of the Rings. Over the years, he has released his own music and published several books of his own poetry, photography and paintings, as well as the work of others.
I’m curious to see his thoughts in writing. I wonder if he thinks about the effect his masculinity has had on his audience. I had asked him about this in person — we agreed that so many of his characters are as much a kind of father figure as they are an archetypal hero — but felt I was inexact. So I try again. When I ask how he would define masculinity and how, exactly, he performs it, he replies: All of these terms seem a bit vague to me. “Maleness,” “masculinity” and “femininity” are words that we might think we understand perfectly well but seem, on closer examination, to be fertile ground for misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions. How is masculinity expected to be performed, you ask, and what is an unexpected way in which it might be performed? I’m not sure about that either. I do not think of my feelings — what drives me to desire, to fear, to dislike, to nurture, to destroy, and so on — as being feminine or masculine. My feelings are strong, medium or mild. I am a man with alternately mild, medium or strong feelings.” He is resistant to categorisation, can see himself only as a range of intensity in feeling. I continue to watch and rewatch his movies. I’m struck by how quiet and precise his movements can be within the frame. Some actors become stiff when they try to emote. But his motionlessness is graced with intention. When I ask him about this, he becomes philosophical: “Everything begins with stillness, with silence. Movies are light and time. Before the movie begins, there is darkness and nothing is happening. When the movie starts, the clock starts, and we see.
From then on, it is all give and take with the initial stillness, the initial darkness, and nothing can ever be entirely unseen, unnoticed or immobile. Trusting that, letting yourself breathe and move in unison with the tension between “nothing is” and “anything could be,” allows you to communicate whatever you can imagine communicating, whether you appear to be still or are moving as fast as you can.” (I apologise if this or other answers to your questions might sound laboured or overly philosophical. I’m just trying to give you my honest first impressions and responses at this very moment as I take in what you’ve asked.) This was Mortensen the artist — meditative, a little elegiac, but honest, unafraid to take everything too seriously. He has an old-fashioned sincerity, an echo of what you see in his movies — lacking in irony but brimming with nuance. On the page, he’s a little more weighty than on the screen. These aspects of him I understood.
Still, I wondered what he was like when the tape recorder was off. I ask Ali, who tells me an anecdote from their time shooting Green Book in New Orleans. That morning, Ali says, Mortensen had decided to walk to set.
“I see this little black thing wrapped in his jacket. He walks in the trailer, I’m sitting in the makeup chair, and I’m like, ‘oh, you got a cat.’ And he’s like, ‘no, it’s a crow.’ And so everyone’s looking, like, ‘What the heck is Viggo doing with a crow?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah, the crow is not well.’ Shortly thereafter, he goes back to his trailer. He gets out of his regular shirt, because he needs to be in a tank top to get his makeup done, and he walks back in with the crow, and I see he’s got a tattoo on his arm. And I go, ‘Viggo, what kind of bird is that on your arm?’ He says, ‘Oh, it’s a crow.’” Ali let out a warm laugh. “I turned to his makeup artist, who says, ‘oh he does this all the time, he’s always finding crows.’ But, like, they just sort of come to him. This crow was on the ground, and it wasn’t well. It literally died the next day. He tried to get it to some kind of vet — it didn’t make it — but he’s got this thing about him that is a little otherworldly. He’s this guy with a crow tattoo attracts crows.”
This article first appeared in The New York Times