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Viggo Mortensen, the thinking woman’s blind date fantasy, is low key in person, at odds with his larger than life role in The Lord of the Rings, or even his mysterious Tom Stall in David Cronenberg’s Cannes entry, A History of Violence, in which his past collides with his present. But there is also a party animal inside the softly spoken actor, as Andrew L. Urban discovered.

Wearing light green woolly socks (without shoes) and sipping bitter, light green yerba mate (pronounced matteh) tea from South America through a silver sipping pipe, Viggo Mortensen cuts a slightly smaller and somewhat softer figure than he does on screen. Two small medallions hang around his neck, and coloured wrist bands can be seen on both wrists. Adding to this new age image is a soft speaking voice, but then he regales you with a story of hard partying at Cannes in which he can’t even remember meeting David Cronenberg (who was with composer Howard Shore), and later being puzzled when Cronenberg greets him with “nice to see you again”.

Then there is that sudden wide grin, with teeth well exposed and a spark of the larrikin, and the man’s guy thing is instantly on show. He’s not the simple caricature a cursory glance might reveal, even if you do know that he speaks a couple of languages, plays guitar, sings, writes poetry and paints.

Slumped in a chair at Sydney’s swank Park Hyatt, with sails of the Opera House behind him (and real sails floating past), Mortensen speaks at a moderate pace, and likes to give longish answers. But at least they’re interesting. After a short mate tasting, we get stuck into the reason for the interview: A History of Violence, which is based on a graphic novel, but in David Cronenberg’s hands becomes something far more nuanced and less graphic in the literal sense.

“I read the script and thought it was pretty good,” says Mortensen, “ … not a great script, a script that could easily become one more exploitation movie. But then I found out that David Cronenberg was going to direct it and he wanted to meet me. [This is where his memory lapse from the Cannes party for Lord of the Rings comes in.] As soon as we had a talk over breakfast, I realised that any concern I had about where the story would go, and how subtle it might not be in the wrong hands, were dispelled. He’s a really bright movie maker. He always respects the audience; he doesn’t manipulate, he doesn’t try to package some sort of message … he doesn’t really give you answers, and you know, that’s really more like life is.”

"I read the script and thought it was pretty good"

Mortensen plays Tom Stall, who lives a quiet life with his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana. One night, during an attempted robbery in the diner he runs as a business, Tom protects his staff and clients and kills the two criminals in self defense. He is immediately dubbed a hero by locals and the media, but the television attention attracts a stranger to town, a man in a black suit (Ed Harris), who believes that Tom is the man who had wronged him in the past.

The film draws into the story and the characters and never dictates, not even in the subtle ways of a filmmaker, what moral stand to take in this complicated arrangement.
“It’s easier sometimes to be told what to do and what to think,” says Mortensen, “but it’s much more rewarding for an audience when you have a director like him, who tells a story because he is interested in it; and in the end, as in this movie, you’re left with a lot to think about.”

A History of Violence deals not only with violence, he says, “but it also deals with problems of celebrity culture. You see Tom Stall having this situation thrust upon him, to which he reacts instinctively. Violence ensues. He becomes a small town hero congratulated for committing these acts of violence. His son thinks he should be on Larry King. In that sense, David is dealing with a universal problem that’s particularly prevalent in the United States. People are very excited by violence connected to celebrity.”

Talking about the violence in the film, Cronenberg says, that in this film, he “wanted the violence to be very realistic, brutal and tight. It was about real brutality and the kind of violence that you would actually see on a street fight, for example, ungainly and not too graceful, very bloody and not very pretty – the opposite of balletic slow-motion choreographed sequences seen in other pictures.

“The way the violence is structured in this movie narratively, the violence that the main character commits, is all justifiable. So the Tom Stall character is forced into violence when there was really not much of an alternative for him. At the same time, we don’t cover up the fact that the violence that he commits now has very nasty consequences for the people who are the subject of the violence. I think you come away with thinking that violence is an unfortunate but very real and unavoidable part of human existence. And we don’t turn away from it, and you can’t really say that it’s never justified. You can say that it’s never very attractive, though, and that is the approach we’ve taken.”

The film had its world premiere in Competition at Cannes in 2005, a stamp of artistic approval which Cronenberg has previously enjoyed with Crash (1996) and Spider (2001).

"a positive experience"

Working with Cronenberg was a positive experience, he says. “Unlike many other filmmakers, Cronenberg just wants to tell the story; he’s also one of the best at showing … at studying human behaviour, because he’s interested in people. It’s obvious working with him… and I think that’s why his crews work with him time and time again. And any actor that works with him wants to work with him again.

“As one of the best reviewed directors in English language cinema, he’s not fazed by that; he keeps improving and growing and challenging himself. On a practical level, and why I’ve never had a better time than I had on this film, is that he communicates very clearly. He’s not insecure so he’ll happily listen to suggestions. But he’s also very direct. He’ll say ‘that’s crap, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard today and we’re only halfway through the day.’ He has that sort of sense of humour. But as soon as something comes up, he’s right there.

“On the one hand he’s almost like a scientist, very well organised and well read, with total mastery of movie making but on the other hand he has this organic approach and once everything’s ready, he trusts you with your character.”

One sure sign of Cronenberg’s actor-friendly style, says Mortensen, is seeing William Hurt* laugh on the set. “It was a great collaborative experience; I don’t think I’ve had a better one and most of the actors will tell you the same thing. William Hurt, for example, has had a lot of negative experiences in recent years, where he didn’t feel appreciated or listened to, and in this case he had a lot of fun. I saw him laughing a lot … William Hurt is a very serious man, and here he was goofing around a lot.” * Hurt was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role.

Mortensen, as is his wont, collected some artefacts before shooting began, “things that seem appropriate to the character … it’s a way of nesting, I suppose. It’s something I always do. It’s a non verbal way of saying [to the director] this is what I’ve learnt about the character, what do you think? Some of them were specifically Americana .. we were filming in Ontario, Canada, and I grew up in a small town across the border in America, and there were some items that were appropriate … they could have been in my house.”

Published March 9, 2006


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Viggo Mortensen
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)



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