Viggo Mortensen: “I run into a lot of actors who seem to have had itinerant childhoods”

The Lord of the Rings star talks fame and fortune, film and football, and explains why he’ll be supporting Argentina in the World Cup

Fri, May 9, 2014, 00:00

It’s not gentlemanlike to bring up a man’s age. But how the hell did Viggo Mortensen get to be 55? Heck, he’s old enough to be my slightly older brother. Of course, Mortensen has the sort of Scandinavian features that wear the years lightly: sharp cheekbones, greenish eyes, chisel chin. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s kept middle age at bay.

The psychological disconnect has more to do with his relatively late arrival as a major force. Mortensen has been acting regularly since the early 1980s. But it wasn’t really until Lord of the Rings, a little over a decade ago, that he began properly shaking the earth.

“Many times over the years, right from the start, I’ve had thoughts about the work being embarrassing or frustrating,” he says. “I have regularly considered doing something else. I have always had an uneasiness about it. One of the results is that I keep thinking this hasn’t been going on very long. I am shocked to recall that it started more than 30 years ago.”

All that noted, in his latest film, the fine The Two Faces of January, Mortensen is definitely playing the “older man”. Hossein Amini’s adaptation of a 1964 Patricia Highsmith novel could hardly be more deeply marinated in that writer’s characteristically sour juices. Viggo and Kirsten Dunst appear as an American couple travelling through Europe who, after becoming caught up in a mysterious death, enlist the help of a cynical drifter, played by the suddenly ubiquitous Oscar Isaac.

As in other Highsmith adaptations, such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Amini’s gorgeous picture invites us to root for apparently amoral people as they attempt seemingly unforgivable acts.

“A lot of the best movies are like that,” Mortensen says. “They deal with bad guys, thieves and murderers. But you want them to get away from the cops. That’s often the way with film noir, for instance. You know they probably won’t get away with it, but you hope they do, because they are interesting. There’s also a vulnerability about them.”

Highsmith’s stories tend to translate well to the screen. Cinema enjoys teasing its congregation with moral conundrums and, of course, the postwar European settings are easy on the eye. Mortensen directs us towards René Clément’s earlier adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil (1960).

The new film is, maybe, more like Plein Soleil than any of the others, he says. “But, of course, it looks a little like Anthony Minghella’s 1998 version of The Talented Mr Ripley. But that film cost about three times as much. Add in inflation and it cost maybe five times as much. But there is a virtue to a tighter budget. Ours doesn’t call attention to itself the way that did. Without that, you can get closer to the story.”

Viggo Mortensen thinks deeply about his art. A slow talker, at home to the odd ramble, he comes across as the sort of sober fellow who will only make a joke when absolutely certain the situation demands it. He’s a hard man to concisely assess (a good thing for an actor, one assumes).