THERE’S a parallel between Viggo Mortensen’s defining characters and his own.
As the loving father in The Road, as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings and in his current movie Jauja, he undertakes difficult journeys with a singular aim, proving his dedication and moral strength.
Similarly, once he agreed to take on the independent, Danish/ Argentinian film Jauja as both its lead actor and producer, not even an offer to appear in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming movie The Hateful Eight could tempt him away from his chosen path.
“The Hateful Eight started filming at the end of last year, but I was still promoting this movie,” he says. “I was flattered to be asked, but if I had said yes, I wouldn’t have been able to represent the movie in its country of origin, or go to the London Film Festival, or all these places we were committed to, and that’s part of the project. I couldn’t abandon the movie to its fate.”
Thought-provoking in every aspect — and all the less commercial for it — Jauja (pronounced hau-ha) centres around a Danish father in Patagonia who crosses the desert for his runaway daughter.
It’s a film which ties together his Argentinian upbringing and his Danish background, and Mortensen’s performance is backed by the stunning direction of Lisandro Alonso, who bucks Hollywood trends with his single-camera, slow-paced scenes which almost mocks the smartphone generation.
The film has strong cinematic merit, but surely Mortensen is cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, I suggest when we meet in London, where it’s proved that his rugged good looks are as captivating in person as on screen.
“Sometimes it’s tempting to leave a film,” he says, thinking carefully. “Especially if I’m waiting for a film to get off the ground and it may not happen, yet offers come in for bigger budget movies that are definitely financed and for which I’m paid more. But once I commit to something, I finish the job,” he says.
It’s typical of the revered actor to forego meaty high-profile roles in favour of low-budget labour of loves.
His 30-year acting career has seen him take on some of Hollywood’s heavyweight films — Carlito’s Way, Young Guns II, Crimson Tide, Psycho, 28 Days, Eastern Promises — alongside more creative low-budget indies, as is often the case with successful actors who balance big cheques with fulfilling work.
However, Mortensen, 56, who lives in Spain with his partner Arianda Gil, has shied away from mainstream movies since 2011’s A Dangerous Method, the last of three collaborations with director David Cronenberg, in which he starred alongside our own Michael Fassbender.
Especially now that acting is only one of his outlets (he set up his creative wing Perceval Press in 2002) and his forthcoming releases (Loin Des Homme and Captain Fantastic, which isn’t a Marvel movie) don’t scream multiplex releases, is he turning his back on Hollywood?
“That’s not the case,” he says. “People might think I’ve a purist mentality or don’t think they’re good stories, but it isn’t that. I think there are movies made with big budgets and sometimes they are really well told. It is true that the bigger the budget, the less the financiers are going to take a chance. But even within those limitations, you can make a really good movie.
“I’ve lost other opportunities too, and there are probably times when I’ve been wrong not to do something. But I like to feel that there’s something about the role that interests me beyond being just a job. When I first started out — and it could happen again — I was in a position where I really need to pay the rent and I’d be lucky to get anything, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. But as long as I have some choice, I will always rather do something that I find interesting. I don’t think about the budget or nationality or genre.”
Elsewhere, he’s mentioned that he was also offered parts in the Superman reboot, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Wolverine in the first X-Men but when talk turns towards these films, he declines to go into detail. You get the impression that Mortensen is someone you’d want on your team.
He is an actor who evidently takes his craft seriously, and would be intimidating if it weren’t for his table football-patterned shirt.
“I don’t think it’s good manners to talk about things that you didn’t do which someone else got,” he says politely. “If I get offered something and I choose for whatever reason not to do it, that’s where it stays.”
His reluctance to dwell on the casting process could be related to his Lord of the Rings experience.
Howth-born actor Stuart Townsend was down for that role, before producers worried he looked too young for the part, and it ended up in Mortensen’s lap. Did he find that whole situation uncomfortable?
“That was odd,” he says. “At the time, I wrote him a letter to tell him I’m sorry about it. I didn’t know what had happened but I was sorry it worked out that way, and all I could say was I’d do the best I could with the role. I ran into him quite a bit later, and he was nice about it.
“But yes, it felt a little odd to be taking someone else’s role on.”
Unfortunately for Townsend, the trilogy went on to be become a runaway success, earning nearly €2.75bn at the box office and catapulting Mortensen into the higher echelons of the acting world.
Though with a varied repertoire as his own, we wonder if it’s an annoyance to be best known as Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, 12 years later.
“I don’t worry about that. I do films that, if they turn out the way I hope, I’m not ashamed of. That’s why there’s no amount of money that would be worth doing something I didn’t care about from the start.” he says.