Viggo Mortensen's History of Defiance
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Credit: Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images
Fatherhood is central to Mortensen's life. As every 'Rings' adherent knows, it was Henry, a Tolkien fanatic, who convinced his skeptical dad to take the part in the 'Rings' trilogy. A poet and musician himself who attends school in New York City, Henry has traveled extensively with his dad, joined him for live readings, and played with him on his albums. On a coast-to-coast road trip when Henry was 11, Mortensen says, his son made a homemade map ahead of time to chart their itinerary, a map Mortensen has kept. "Instead of a little under 3,000 miles, it looked like it was going to be 16,000 or so, a kind of insane cardiogram, you know?" he laughs. "It took us the time it took us."

Fatherhood is at the core of 'The Road,' too. Mortensen called McCarthy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, to discuss the part prior to shooting, but "in the end, we didn't really talk too much about the book. We talked about our sons, which seemed appropriate."

Despite what the movie's trailer suggests, 'The Road' isn't a blockbuster disaster movie. Directed by Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat ('The Proposition'), it seeks to replicate the almost claustrophobic intimacy of McCarthy's novel, in which its father-son protagonists try to evade cannibalistic gangs who occasionally hunt them. Mortensen was bowled over by his costar, a then 11-year-old Australian actor named Kodi Smit-McPhee: "I haven't had a better acting partner ever. I've never seen any actor, of any age, man or woman, give the kind of focused and emotionally brave performance that he gives. Kodi's going to blow people's minds."

Filmed mostly during the gray late winter in western Pennsylvania, 'The Road' was an appropriately challenging movie to make. "Snow and ice and rain and intense cold and bitter winds," says Hillcoat. "But it made it a real adventure and led to a lot of black humor. Whenever the sun came out, people were freaked out and depressed. And when we got really miserable weather, we were rejoicing."

Still, the mood on the set could be intense. Hillcoat describes an afternoon when Smit-McPhee, already shivering from the cold, began to cry in Mortensen's arms while filming a difficult scene. After Hillcoat called "cut," the boy remained locked in Mortensen's grip, even as Mortensen signaled Smit-McPhee's father to come in and take his son. "Kodi's father actually stepped back, and he said it was one of the hardest things he's ever done in his life," Hillcoat says. "But it helped create an unbelievable bond between Viggo and Kodi. From that day on, there was this whole other kind of emotional layer."

"This story is no different from what every parent goes through," Mortensen says of 'The Road.' "Any parent can understand the concern: What's going to happen to my child when I'm not around? Are they going to be okay? Are they going to have enough food? Are they going to have friends?"

For Mortensen, the film's grim plotline did not feel like science fiction. "Obviously, the whole world is behaving in a crazy manner," he says of the real-life state of things. "Those who have the power and should be the most responsible are often the least responsible. There are serious pollution problems, serious problems with nuclear proliferation, and if it continues that way, with disregard for both the environment and human life, it can only end badly, you know? This story is not such a stretch of the imagination."

Many actors, of course, abstain from talking issues, or politics in general, for fear of alienating their audience, or because they don't know what they're talking about, or perhaps a little of both. Mortensen is not one of those actors. With little prompting he will open a vein about the war on terror, the lack of universal health care, or his vision for a wind-energy corridor in the United States that also preserves wild horse and buffalo populations. Asked, for instance, if he thought President Obama was moving swiftly enough to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, he replied emphatically, "No!" Even a benign question can yield a deep answer. Asked about his favorite kind of chocolate, he e-mailed a detailed answer chronicling the lengthy history of "exploitation and child slavery connected to cocoa cultivation and production." (For the record, he likes single-bean organic chocolate from Venezuela, where such abuses are not the case, he says.)

Still, he listens to enough right-wing talk radio – opposition research, he says – to anticipate the negative reaction that usually follows when an actor dares to speak out, as Mortensen did when his preferred 2008 presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich, was shut out of the debates. "Mind your own business – certainly if you're an actor or singer or sports personality," Mortensen says, mimicking a popular attitude. "Just be grateful that you're an overpaid baby and stop whining. Don't stick your nose in something you don't understand."

But he's not shutting up. "It's supposed to be a participatory democracy," he counters. "Since when can't the average person on the street give their opinion about what their government is doing? We're paying their salaries."

With so many active interests, Mortensen admits he used to be impatient. "It felt unjust that we were given such a limited period on Earth, but I don't feel that way anymore. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I just figure, eh, what's your hurry?" He's also tried to put a friend's advice into practice. "He was talking about horses, but you could apply this to any activity in life. He said: 'Go slow to go fast.' You know, when you try to do 50 things at once, you end up doing them poorly, and you're probably less efficient and you probably go slower in the end than if you'd just done it methodically and tried to be relaxed and stay focused."

For now he's putting his film career on hold. "I have no plans to do another movie," he says, flatly. "I don't know what's going to happen. I'm open to seeing how I feel in a while, but right now I'm not saying yes to anything. And you know, my agent is like, 'Well, if you don't do anything, people will forget about you.' Maybe they won't say it in those words, but I just feel like I've taken on too much for a while."

It's hard to know how serious he is, or if it's just a tossed-out comment. In any case, it isn't as if he doesn't have enough to do. When he's not riding horses, gardening, or pruning trees at what passes for his primary residence these days, in the woods of northern Idaho, he'll be making trips back to Argentina and Paraguay for Perceval Press.

For one of the books, Mortensen has teamed up with a couple of anthropologists to collect photos of indigenous life – photos taken by the tribespeople themselves. "We've gone to all these different remote areas and taken disposable cameras and shown them how to use them. And we just say, 'Take pictures of things that are important to you, whatever it is.' And that's going to be the heart of the book, you know, noninterventionist, ethnographic workings."

He's also preparing for a role for a stage production in Madrid of Ariel Dorfman's play 'Purgatorio' – "another joy ride," he jokes. He has acted in Spanish before, a language he says can be better than English for getting to the heart of the matter.

"I think Viggo has many faces," says Elijah Wood. "It's not to say he's elusive – just that there are different facets to his personality. He can be quiet. But once the doors are open and he gets a sense of comfort, he's hilarious and incredibly affectionate and loving and kind of crazy, in the best possible way."

We don't see too many like that anymore. Mortensen doesn't do the easy trail or the glib quote, and he doesn't claim to have all the answers. Maybe it's because he grew up in so many places, or it took him so long to find the top, but he's content to be a searcher.