Viggo Mortensen's History of Defiance
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Credit: Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images

It's hard to imagine Viggo Mortensen pouncing on Oprah's couch. You don't see him doing the Starbucks shuffle for the paparazzi, hawking baby photos to celebrity tabloids, or getting caught in a Lake Como liplock with Sienna Miller. That's not the Viggo Mortensen way. Just look at him: hazel-eyed handsome, square-jawed and angular, but no trace of Hollywood jackass. He shows up in a Camry to our interview in a state park about an hour and a half from Watertown, New York, a leafy military town near Lake Ontario where he graduated from high school and still visits occasionally. Dressed in a David Wright New York Mets T-shirt tucked into wide-leg blue jeans, he looks as if he's going to the hardware store to buy a nail gun. Has one request: that the photographer please not airbrush out the jagged scar above his upper lip. Viggo doesn't need or want your Photoshop. Viggo doesn't need most of the illusion, really. Loves acting, the immersion, even the rehearsals, but tries to avoid everything else. Hell, when he lost the Oscar in 2008 for best actor, he danced.

"Most people don't win, you know?" Mortensen says, after we walk down a trail to a lakeside picnic table. "So on the way out of the big auditorium, the Kodak, I went over to these people and said, 'Hey, let's do a losers dance.' I started jumping, and they were just horrified at this loss they just suffered, you know? There were these filmmakers from Canada who lost and actually agreed. And I think Michael Moore did the losers dance. But I would say 99 percent of the losers didn't want to do the losers dance. They all just sort of ran from me like I was shitfaced drunk or something."

By now, you might have heard a few tales like this from the unconventional life of Viggo Mortensen. How he slept in his caped Aragorn costume while making the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy; how he walked barefoot around New Zealand for most of the three years he was there; how he stashes chocolate on his person like a marsupial, foisting blocks of it on unsuspecting costars and journalists; how he makes experimental records with his friend Buckethead, the enigmatic former guitarist of Guns N' Roses who's known for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head. Elijah Wood, Mortensen's friend and 'Rings' costar, recounts how Mortensen called his cell phone for weeks, leaving nonsensical messages in the accent of a German military officer. "He would laugh hysterically for, like, 30 seconds, and then it would go back into this weird German accent," Wood says. "There really wasn't any purpose to it; he just delighted in these messages. That's part of Viggo's madness."

Despite this quirkiness, or maybe because of it, Mortensen, a 50-year-old actor who has stubbornly resisted the formula for modern movie stardom, finds himself one of the last great leading men standing. At a time when what passes for masculinity is jogging shirtless on a beach, here is Mortensen, a multilingual polymath (English, Spanish, and Danish all fluently; Norwegian a little less so; Italian, French, and Swedish passably) who recalls the understated but commanding actors of a previous age. "There's just an authenticity to the guy," says Charlize Theron, Mortensen's costar in 'The Road,' the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's global bestseller that was released in 2009. "He's not really caught up in it."

That's because it – movies and all the baggage that comes with them – is not Mortensen's only passion. He is an accomplished poet, painter, pianist, and photographer who has shown his work in galleries from Santa Monica, California, to Denmark. He has also launched an independent publishing house, Perceval Press, through which he produces a small stream of art books and CDs. He's working on two books now about indigenous tribes in South America, and has published, among other titles, a critique of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a collection by avant-garde multimedia artist Alix Lambert, and young adult fiction from Mike Davis, of 'City of Quartz' fame. Mortensen helps edit and signs off on every book himself; he also has his own contributions, including 'Linger,' a collection of eerie black-and-white landscape photos, and 'At All,' an abstract new-age album on which he plays keyboards and guitar. "We're in the red mostly, and I can subsidize it," he says of Perceval, which is named, appropriately, for a knight who blazed his own path. "Once in a while, you get to break even."

By Hollywood standards, Mortensen is a late bloomer, not approaching anyone's definition of stardom until he was a last-minute addition to 'The Lord of the Rings,' which made him an international hero at age 43. More recently were a pair of sublime thrillers with Mortensen's oddity soulmate David Cronenberg: 'A History of Violence' and 'Eastern Promises,' the latter of which earned Mortensen the Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nikolai, a taciturn driver for the Russian mob. Last year brought a critically acclaimed turn in 'Appaloosa,' directed by and costarring Ed Harris, and the indie film 'Good,' a morality piece about a German professor falling under the spell of the Nazi party. And now comes the much-anticipated 'The Road,' a relentless, uncompromising portrait of a postapocalyptic world that features Mortensen in nearly every frame.

It's as credible a run as an American actor has had lately, and it has heightened suspicions that the choreographer of the losers dance might again be invited to the waltz – and maybe this time he won't have to dance. Mortensen reacts to his ascension with bemusement. Yes, he can laugh at himself. "He's not one of those morose, inward-turning method actors at all," says Cronenberg. "He likes to have fun." Mortensen once reacted to being labeled one of the sexiest men alive by asking, "So there are a lot of dead men who are sexier?" and when I ask him for his favorite joke, he responds with a rare one-word answer: "Me."