When director Peter Jackson called Viggo Mortensen to offer him a part, it changed his life from bit-part actor to household name. Now the multitalented star of The Lord of the Rings has turned his hand to another cinematic version of a literary classic, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. David Gritten reports
People's lives or careers can be changed by by something seemingly trivial - making a left turn instead of a right, the toss of a coin, or walking into a room at precisely the right moment. Viggo Mortensen's life changed in 1999 because of a book - one he hadn't even read back then.
At the time, Mortensen had been eking out a career in films of variable quality for 15 years, always in supporting roles. But then he received a call from the director Peter Jackson in New Zealand, who was already two months into shooting the film version of JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
Jackson had a problem: as Aragorn, a noble warrior king and expert swordfighter who exuded quiet authority, he had cast the Irish actor Stuart Townsend. And he felt Townsend, then 27, was too young to carry off the role.
At 40, Mortensen was the right age. But the previous year he had separated from his wife, Exene Cervenka, once the singer with the Los Angeles punk band X, after 11 years of marriage. They had a son, Henry, to whom Mortensen was close. Shooting The Lord of the Rings involved 15 long months in New Zealand and he was reluctant to be parted from the boy.
But ironically it was Henry, then 11, who urged his father to take the role; by pure chance he was reading Tolkien's epic at the time, and was thrilled at the prospect of his father playing the heroic Aragorn. Mortensen, concluding that at least this was a role in a film his young son would be able to see, agreed. "I thought if I didn't do it, I'd always regret it," he said. "I knew it was a one-time chance." (He finally read The Lord of the Rings on the plane to New Zealand.)
As it turned out, Mortensen was the ideal Aragorn. He is handsome and intense-looking, with a sharp thoughtful gaze; he didn't need to speak much to make an impression. He added the ingredient of sex appeal to a film trilogy that otherwise lacked it. He did his own stunts, unconcerned by the minor injuries he sustained; the sword master on The Lord of the Rings, Bob Anderson, described him as "the best swordsman I've ever trained".
The role made him a star and a household name. And if literature was the indirect cause - via Henry's enthusiastic endorsement of Tolkien's book - then Mortensen has repaid the debt to literature. With the money he earned from The Lord of the Rings, he founded his own company, Perceval Press, based in Santa Monica, California. It publishes books by mostly unknown authors that encompass painting, photography, poetry and essays, along with music CDs, including a variety of work by Mortensen himself. Perceval has now been in business for a decade.
If you were to conclude from this that Viggo Mortensen is not your typical screen actor, you'd be correct. His interests go far beyond emoting for film cameras. He is also a poet, photographer, musician and painter - and he made his mark in all these fields before Perceval Press was born.
"For me, acting in movies is a complete universe," he tells me. "It includes photography, painting and design, and the collaborative aspect of it is interesting. But I think maybe because I do other things that mean as much to me as movie acting, it takes the onus off me.
"So it isn't the end of the world if I can't get a film job or if a movie doesn't turn out well, even though I don't like it when that happens. There are plenty of other things I enjoy doing."
Still, when he is acting, his literary inclinations spur him to get inside the characters he plays, the better to understand them. He did it with Aragorn, carrying his sword around with him, even camping out in the woods and sleeping with it by his side.
He went even further in The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, a story of an unnamed father and son doing their utmost to survive while voyaging through a blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape.
"The story has a universal appeal," he reflects. "It's that fear that all parents can have. What's going to happen to your child if you're not around? It takes those concerns to an extreme. In that story, without me, the boy has no food, no shelter and no resources. The young actor who played my son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was 11 years old, but he's quite slight, so he looked even younger."
But to test himself for playing the role, to gain a greater insight into this father's character in such bleak circumstances, Mortensen prepared by wrapping himself in a tarpaulin and sleeping outdoors in subzero temperatures.
For someone who sinks himself so thoroughly into his roles, it was a gift for Mortensen when the director David Cronenberg offered him the chance to play Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, in the recent A Dangerous Method, which examined the relationship (and the rivalry) between Freud and his disciple Carl Jung. He threw himself into researching Freud's life and writings.
"I found a lot of books that would have been in Freud's library in Vienna in antiquarian bookshops," he recalls. "We used them in scenes. You accumulate them. And even if you never use them directly, they inform what you're doing." (Cronenberg has said that Mortensen was the only actor he knew who would buy props for a film scene and bring them to the set, hoping they might be useful.)
Mortensen devoured biographies, essays and newspaper accounts of Freud, looking for small clues to his character that he could fasten onto in his performance. He spent time at the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna, where the great man lived and worked for almost 50 years.
When the film was over, he chose to carry out a few interviews about it at the Freud Museum in north London. In the presence of one journalist, he lifted the velvet rope that cordoned off Freud's study and reverently touched the psychoanalyst's couch on which Freud's patients had reclined.
He knows not every actor becomes so obsessed by the storytelling process of films. (In contrast, Michael Fassbender, who played Jung, cheerfully admitted he had done no research at all for it: "I didn't have the time to do much research, so I just let the script guide me.") Mortensen doesn't have this breezy confidence in approaching a role."It's probably out of insecurity, out of habit," he says of his diligence. "But then leaving no stone unturned is a good idea. You never know what might turn up." Still, whatever he's doing, it seems to work.
Mortensen, who is now 53, was born in New York City to a Danish father and an American mother. His family were well-travelled; they moved to Venezuela, Denmark and then to Argentina, where he became fluent in Spanish as well as the two languages he already spoke - English and Danish.
When he was 11, his parents split up, and he and his mother returned with his two younger brothers to the US, settling in Watertown, in upstate New York. After college, he travelled around Europe, dabbling in odd jobs before returning to the US to try for an acting career.
By his mid-20s he was being offered small parts. He joined the cast of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, but his one scene ended up on the cutting room floor. His first screen appearance was in Witness, starring Harrison Ford, as a young Amish farmer.
For a decade and a half he appeared in a few notable films (The Indian Runner, Carlito's Way, Crimson Tide) in relatively small roles. His best part was in A Walk on the Moon (1999), playing Diane Lane's lover, but the film was not a hit. By the time the offer to play Aragorn came along, Mortensen had already put acting into perspective.
His outside interests are not all literary or artistic. While living in Argentina as a boy, he became a fan of the Buenos Aires football team San Lorenzo. To this day he always wears some item in the club's red-and-blue colours, usually a thin cord around his wrist. When A Dangerous Method opened at the Venice International Film Festival, Mortensen joined the cast at a long table for a press conference, placed a little knitted puppet in San Lorenzo colours in front of him and waited for someone to ask about it.
While shooting the film Good in Budapest in 2008 (he played a compliant Nazi who gradually learns the price of his obedience to the Third Reich), he went to great lengths to track down a broadcast of a San Lorenzo game in a side-street cafe, on Italian cable TV.
Why football? "I abhor the violence that goes with passion," he says, "but most fans aren't that way. It's one of the only groups of people outside family members where there's unconditional love and acceptance. It's an unwavering team."
In recent years he has also been on the team of Cronenberg, who before A Dangerous Method directed Mortensen in two highly praised films: A History of Violence (2005) as a mild-mannered, small-town American with a vicious past, and Eastern Promises, set in London, as a fearsome, Russian mob enforcer who turns out to have a shred of decency. (He was Oscar-nominated for this role.)
His next film, for the Brazilian director Walter Salles, takes him back to literature: It's the long-awaited film version of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's classic Beat Generation novel from 1957. Mortensen plays a relatively minor character, Old Bull Lee, who is known to be based on William S Burroughs, another, infamous Beat Generation novelist and a morphine addict. (His best known work was The Naked Lunch, filmed by Cronenberg.)
However it turns out, it's a sure bet that Mortensen will have done his homework on Burroughs.
"I've always loved the research," he says, "trying to work out why characters are the way they are. Immersing myself in the story - that's what I like best of all."
The Mortensen file
BORN October 20, 1958, New York City
SCHOOLING Primary school in the Argentine provinces of Córdoba, Chaco and Buenos Aires; Watertown High School, Watertown, New York; St Lawrence University, Canton, New York, bachelor's degree in Government and Spanish
FAMILY Son Henry, now 24, with ex-wife Exene Cervenka
HONOURS OUTSIDE OF ACTING Honorary doctorate from St Lawrence University; Gold Medal of the Province and the City of León, Spain; Knight's Cross of the Order of Dannebrog
NON-ACTING JOBS Waiter, bartender, truck driver, dockworker, flower seller, translator for Swedish ice hockey team during 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York
ON ACTING "It comes down to the fact that you supply the blue, and they supply the other colours and mix them with your blue, and maybe there's some blue left in the painting and maybe there isn't. Maybe there wasn't supposed to be any there in the first place. So have some fun and make a good blue and walk away."
BATTLE SCARS Many, including: broken tooth, two broken toes, numerous bruises from The Lord of the Rings fight scenes; scar on lip from running into a barbed-wire fence at a Halloween party
NICKNAMES Vig, Guido, Guervo
GETAWAY Property in forested area in northern Idaho, US