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Viggo Mortensen: intellectual nourishment in a world of artery-clogging culture

The cinematic legend talks life, creativity and turning 60

Viggo Mortensen: intellectual nourishment in a world of artery-clogging culture
19 December 2018

“So, who are you with?”

In most conversations about Argentine football, there are only two answers to this question: Boca Juniors or River Plate. Those are the biggest clubs with the biggest fanbases and the richest histories. The Barcelona and Real Madrid of the Argentine game. It would be unusual even for an Argentine native to respond with anything other than Boca or River. A non-native? Well, they’d have to be a serious student of the game to be able to name even one other club from the Superliga Argentina.

Have no doubt: Viggo Mortensen is such a student. Which is why he poses the question almost as soon as he learns of my Argentine ancestry. The fact that Mortensen is “with” San Lorenzo de Almagro - a team whose glory days were in the late 60s, early 70s - tells you something about Viggo Mortensen, the respected actor. The manner in which he communicates his love of San Lorenzo - via a bizarre blog, entirely in Spanish, which he co-authors with his poet friend Martin Cutino, in which the two men share their thoughts on everything from historical rivalries in the second tier of Argentine football, through to human rights abuses in Syria, strange art-house films, and visits to UNESCO World Heritage sites - tells you everything you need to know about Viggo Mortensen, the poet, painter, author, musician and photographer.

Mortensen is not a fan of San Lorenzo in the way that Samuel L Jackson is a fan of Liverpool, or Sylvester Stallone a fan of Everton – photographed at a game for PR purposes. Mortensen’s love of San Lorenzo is life-long, obsessive and encyclopaedic. 

“I love that team, and the history of it. Not just the team, but the neighbourhood it’s from, Boedo,” says Mortensen, in his soft, unremarkable American accent. “Historically it’s produced a lot of artists, a lot of writers. [It’s] a very complex neighbourhood, and complex team, in a way, San Lorenzo.”

Nor does he see his passion for San Lorenzo and his other artistic interests as mutually exclusive. “[Football] is theatre. Theatre in the sense of watching not so much the winning and the losing, but how people behave, on the pitch and in the stands, when they win and when they lose. It represents the best and the worst of human behaviour. At its best, it’s like a snapshot of what’s going on in the culture at any given time,” he says, on a roll, and not for the first time today. “The drama of the sport and of the fans and everything that surrounds it: that’s what fascinates me. I look at it as an art form.”

And there you have it: Viggo Mortensen in a nutshell. A man who elevates the low-brow to high art; who makes the high-brow accessible to anyone who’s interested; and who is consistently, committedly idiosyncratic, and yet inexplicably unpretentious.

Viggo Mortensen didn’t pluck his beloved San Lorenzo out of a hat. The actor’s Danish father and American mother relocated to Argentina from their home in New York when Viggo was just two years old. Mortensen Senior had taken a job managing poultry farms in Argentina. Viggo grew up there, until the age of 11, when his parents divorced and he moved back to the States with his mum. His childhood in Argentina would set the tone for an itinerant life, moving from country to country (college in the US, selling flowers in Denmark, moving furniture in New York); staying just about long enough to establish roots, before tearing them up, moving on, and starting over. (These days, home is Madrid, where he lives with his Spanish partner - fellow actor Ariadna Gil - and her two children.)

We meet in London, in a hotel suite of the beigest order - beige carpets, beige walls, beige upholstery, beige curtains. On one of the beige armchairs is sat Mortensen - blue chinos, blue blazer and blue eyes contrasting sharply against the neutral surroundings. He’s in town for a few days to promote his new film, Green Book. Directed by Peter Farrelly (of There’s Something About Mary fame), and co-starring Moonlight’s Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali, the film is a ROFL-fest with a serious message. A based-on-a-true-story road trip movie about a foul-mouthed Italian-American nightclub bruiser (Mortensen) contracted to drive a gloriously talented African-American musician (Ali) on a tour of the still-segregated, oppressively racist American South, in the early 60s.

Seeing Mortensen as an overweight (he put on 20kg for the role), unapologetically imbecilic, Fat Tony Lite character will come as a shock to anyone who only knows him as Aragorn son of Arathorn, the orc-eviscerating proto-hero of the Lord of the Rings films. Less of a shock, perhaps, to those who have followed his career more closely, from the bleakly dystopian The Road to the unflinchingly brutal Eastern Promises via the feel-good Captain Fantastic and a litany of art-house, foreign-language indie flicks inbetween.

“Art is a recording of society and a reflection on what’s happening in the tumult and the confusion”

By the time the film is released in British cinemas in early February, it will no doubt have already won a bunch of fully-deserved awards. Its depiction of deep-set societal racism is surprisingly sensitive - considering it’s a comedy from the director who brought us Dumb & Dumber - and important given the current state of the world. 

“If you’re a right-wing nationalist party in any country in Europe these days, your stock is rising, unfortunately,” he says darkly. “Something unimaginable 15 years ago is now a very real consideration every time there’s an election in Europe: will extremist, misogynist views, racist views, tip the scale? Certainly, even if they don’t win, they dilute any open-minded, progressive program that a more liberal-minded party might have. It’s unquestionable.” And back in the US? “Trump is proudly leading the way in terms of fomenting that kind of mistrust and division and polarisation, because it works. It makes money, it gets you elected.”

As Aragorn in the epic film trilogy The Lord of the Rings

In conversation, Mortensen doesn’t indulge in niceties. Doesn’t do small talk. But get him going on football, or his about-to-be published Spanish-language poetry collection, or indeed Green Book, and you can easily lose 10 minutes to his enthusiastic observations and tangential musings. Attempts to redirect his thoughts are about as effective as trying to stem the flow of a raging river using an ironing board.

These verbal deluges don’t derive from a feeling of self-importance, or of high-mindedness, but of generosity. He is trying to answer my questions as fully and considerately as he can – to a fault. Over the course of our time together he will offer to post me a physical copy of his latest poetry anthology; email me an especially relevant poem about rootlessness; leave the room temporarily only to return with a CD compilation of his favourite songs taken from his 15 genre-spanning albums (‘Seventeen Odd Songs’); and offer me some of his yerba mate - the Argentine tea sipped from a traditional metal beaker which he carries around in a paper Starbucks bag.

There’s a particularly powerful scene in Green Book - the kind that follows the words “and the nominees are” in those compilation reels during the Oscars. In it, Ali’s character explodes (emotionally speaking - it’s not that kind of film), and explains to Mortensen’s character what it’s like not to belong in any particular world. To be a perpetual outsider. While the film’s primary concern is with race, the parallels between that alienation and Mortensen’s own itinerant life are striking.

“Trump is proudly leading the way in terms of fomenting that kind of mistrust and division and polarisation, because it works. It makes money, it gets you elected.”

Does he identify with that sense of rootlessness? “Yeah,” he says without hesitation. “Back when I was a kid, there was no internet - there was no internet until I was well into middle age. Cell phones, iPhones, all that - none of that existed. So when I left Argentina at 11 years old, I lost contact with all those kids who I knew. I lost contact with everything.” Naturally, Mortensen has written a poem about this exact subject. Naturally, he promises to send it to me. (As yet, he has not.) “The important thing isn’t where you find yourself at any given time, it’s how you find yourself, and with whom. The advantages of getting to know different cultures, languages, people, ways of looking at the world, are that you can kind of feel at home anywhere. And that far outweighs the disadvantages, which are a certain rootlessness, and asking yourself, ‘Where do I really belong?’ Maybe that’s part of why I fiercely hang on to, unconditionally, my affection for San Lorenzo, because that dates to my childhood. But I wouldn’t trade in [the advantages] for anything.”

What about Hollywood though? His fellow actors, producers, directors - isn’t there a ready-made family, or at least community, into which he could slide with liquid ease? His face crinkles and he emits an uncomfortable sound, akin to a creaking door. “I think in the movie business and in the theatre as well, you find that people, they constantly make families as they shoot different projects or tell different stories together, but then they drift apart,” he says. “There’s very few people that I’ve worked with that I’ve stayed in touch with, and I could say that that’s a kind of an ongoing friendship. I tend to get along with people, but then it’s a very nomadic existence. And I think you’ll find that there’s quite a few actors, maybe directors as well, who tend to have had itinerant upbringings. I think it’s not uncommon. And maybe that’s part of what drives you to… telling stories. I’m not sure.”

Mortensen’s creative interests are varied and vast, but the one thing they all seem to have in common is that, since 2003’s The Return of the King, all his projects, personal and professional, have been notably high-brow. Though that is a definition that he refuses to acknowledge. “I don’t differentiate. There’s a danger in saying, ‘this is highbrow, that’s not,’” he says.

Still, it does feel that by living in Spain and avoiding big-budget blockbusters, he’s somehow sticking up a big middle finger to the Hollywood establishment. “I haven’t consciously done that,” he says. “Since the giant success, for everyone involved, of Lord of the Rings… I certainly have had opportunities to just take the money and do whatever, and I just… don’t.”

Why though? Why not just take a part in the latest comic-book reboot and spend the next 20 years counting your money? “I don’t differentiate between big budget or low budget movies, I just want to be in good stories that teach me something,” he says. “I’ve never looked at a movie and said, ‘oh it’s a studio movie, I don’t want to do that’. Or, ‘that’s an independent, I must do that.’ Once you’re on set… it doesn’t matter. It’s still a camera. It’s still you.”

What is most striking about the sheer amount of stuff Mortensen creates - a film per year, on average, but also reams of poetry, music, photography, drawings and of course blog posts too - is that he has the energy to do it. When we meet, he is days away from his sixtieth birthday. (Though nothing about his clear skin, bright eyes or healthy, hand-swept sandy hair would suggest he’s a day over 50 – what’s in that yerba mate?) And it isn’t just his output that’s exhausting, but how fully he fills his time. By his own admission he has five books on the go at any one time; is constantly travelling; is waking up at 3am to stream a San Lorenzo game from the other side of the world (and then getting on with a full day’s work).

“I think it’s all connected,” he says. By way of explanation, he takes the conversation in a morbid direction. “From an early age, as soon as I realised that dogs die, and hence I guess people do too, I checked with my mum: ‘So we’re all going to die?’ And she [replied], ‘Yeah, but let’s not talk about it.’ ‘No, I want to talk about it’. I always wanted to hear about that, and what are injuries, and what are broken bones, and how does that get fixed… Mortality, you know? That idea that it’s always there. That clock, ticking.”

So this ceaseless energy, this artistic curiosity, all stems from… death? “It makes me want to do things; makes me want to learn things. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not like a frantic hysterical activity. Sometimes it is, but not usually. It’s just like, ‘OK, well what are you going to do today? What could I see today? What could I read today?’ That’s one of the annoying things about life, is that you’re not going to read all the books that you would like to read; you’re not going to see all the movies; you’re not going to see all the places; and those places change, you’d like to go back and see how they’ve changed,” he lets out a frustrated groan. “You’re not going to see all those trees when they’re big.”

With Mahershala Ali in Green Book

At the time of our conversation, this magazine’s closure had yet to be announced. Neither he nor I were to know that this would be the final cover interview in the final ever issue of ShortList. And yet, in retrospect, there is an eerie poignancy to much of what Mortensen spoke of that day.

The world is full of injustice. Achieving every one of our goals is an impossibility. Then there’s the fact of our inevitable, pathetic mortality. And yet, Mortensen’s approach is not to become downbeat and crestfallen, but creative. To live life with more vigour; to chase goals with more haste. “Even in the worst of times, I tend to look out of the window, to connect to what’s going on, in terms of the weather, the seasons,” he chuckles sheepishly. “We’re pretty insignificant, each of us individually, and yet we’re connected to what’s happening around us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not… I think it’s a fact that we are really affected by what we see and read and hear, and are led to feel by other people and their actions.”

But what is the point? When everything is fleeting and futile, why bother to make? “I think art is a recording of society, and a reflection on what’s happening in the tumult and the confusion. Every once in a while a story or an object is created that makes you stop for a moment and consider more than just what you’re looking at. Look inward, even,” he says.

“Like a film. Or a book,” I suggest.


“Or a poem.”

“Or a football match,” he adds.

Or a magazine.

Green Book is at cinemas from 1 February

(Photography: Leigh Kiely)

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