This weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a very good cover boy – Viggo Mortensen! He looks much better in these photos than he did in those red carpet pics from a few weeks ago, but I think some of that is a better hairstyle. He’s 53 years old, and I swear, as he gets older, he’s looking more and more like Ed Harris. Right? Anyway, Viggo is talking about A Dangerous Method in this interview, but his conversation isn’t limited to that, at all. One of the great things about Viggo – he’s a talker. And he actually has interesting stuff to say. In this piece – which you can read in its entirety here – Viggo calls himself “harsh” and he’s totally a judgy bitch about his fellow actors. I like this Viggo.
Longing for immortality: “I’m not afraid of death,” he said, wiping down a counter with a damp cloth, “but I resent it. I think it’s unfair and irritating. Every time I see something beautiful, I not only want to return to it, but it makes me want to see other beautiful things. I know I’m not going to get to all the places I want to go. I’m not going to read all the books I want to read. I’m not going to revisit certain paintings as many times as I would like. There’s a limit.” He paused. “I mean, I understand limits are good for character and all that, but I would rather live forever.”
He eschews the celebrity lifestyle: “I don’t have lots of friends in the business, and the ones I do have are probably more like me, in that they’re not the kind of people to go places just so they can be seen. I see people doing that stuff and to me, it seems pathetic and ridiculous and kind of . . . well, humiliating. Life’s too short.”
He has contempt for famewhores and actors who just work for the money: “Sometimes you look at a movie and you can see that the actor or actress said, ‘I’m taking this onboard because I’m making a ton of money, and not because it’s going to be something special,’ ” he said, sounding scandalized. In choosing his own projects, his chief criterion is always “a good story.”
His film choices: “An agent will say, if you have the option, it’s good to do a big movie and then a little one. I understand that and within reason, I’ll try to, but 90 percent of the time, I’ll end up in low-budget movies that are difficult to finance and often won’t get distributed very well. I could have done one big-studio movie after another if the goal was to stay as visible as possible, to make as much money as possible. I guess, because of my temperament, I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have been telling good stories. The challenge would have always been to try not to make a total ass of myself, even though I knew the story was really stupid.”
He played Dr. Freud because he wanted a chance to talk: “I haven’t been given the chance to play men who speak much. The parts that people — including David [Cronenberg] — normally give me are men of few words, people who express what they’re thinking or what they’re afraid of or what their goals are, physically. With Freud, it was all words.”
Viggo on his habit of doing meticulous research for his films: “It’s enjoyable and stimulating. I learn things. It’s particularly important to me, because I have had experiences where the shoot has been really annoying and unprofessional, and the director has made poor choices and the movie has not turned out well. But however it turns out, I always feel that I’ve got something out of it, because of the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve got from the preparation stage.”
His career before Lord of the Rings: “For a long time after I started out, I couldn’t get anything. I mean, I’d do a small play, or one scene in a TV thing — I’d get just enough encouragement to keep me going — but I wasn’t making a living at it.” There were many false starts. Twice, he said, he had scenes in movies — Jonathan Demme’s “Swing Shift” and Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” — that ended up on the cutting-room floor. “I wasn’t told. Months go by, the movie comes out, I tell my parents — you know, my whole family. They go see it, and I’m not in it. The scene isn’t there. They think I’ve lost my mind. They’re like, What are you really doing in Los Angeles?”
Being demoralized: In 1990, he got the lead in “The Indian Runner,” directed by Sean Penn. “And everyone said, ‘Oh, boy, you’re set.’ But I wasn’t. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t capitalize. I don’t know what I was supposed to do. People would tell me do this, do that, fire this guy. . . .” It was not until 1993 that he began getting a steady flow of work — “supporting parts in studio movies, a job or two a year.” He admits to having become demoralized on occasion. “But I guess I kept being curious. I was curious as to how movies were made. It wasn’t, like, I wanted to be famous or anything like that. I liked the idea of telling these stories, the make-believe aspect. I wanted to do it, to try it. I don’t know.”
He holds grudges: Certainly, his years working in relative obscurity gave him plenty of examples of how not to behave as a famous actor. He remembers every bit of on-set misbehavior he ever observed, with astonishing clarity. (Holding grudges is one of his vices, he says.) He remembers the actors who didn’t come to set because they were hung over after a night of drinking, or who came and behaved horribly. He remembers the leading actors who did little tricks to throw him off. “I see it now with veteran actors doing it to younger actors, and the young guys don’t even know that it’s happening. I’ll say to them, ‘Watch out, he’s already done his close-up, and he did a great job. Now it’s your close-up, and he’s tickling you and distracting you and telling you stories.’” He also remembers the actors who didn’t even bother to show up when it was time to do their off-camera work. “Earlier in my career, I saw a lot of important actors and actresses splitting when they had done their close-ups. You’d say, ‘Where’s so and so?’ and they’d have gone home, so you’d end up doing your close-up with an assistant director. It makes your work harder and it also makes you feel disrespected.” He no longer tolerates this sort of thing. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Do you mind if I go?’ I’ll look them right in the eye and say, ‘I don’t want you here, if you don’t want to do it.’ If they say, ‘Oh, fine, I’ll stay,’ I’ll be like: ‘No, go. You’ve told me who you are, get out of here.’ I’d rather do it without them. When someone does that to me, it’s like, Boom, I’m not working with you again.”
He admits that he’s harsh: “Yeah, well, about that stuff I am harsh. There’s no excuse for that behavior. You’re tired? Come on! The crew isn’t tired? The crew who got here two hours before you, and who’ll be here two hours after you leave and who are being paid, in many cases, one thousandth of what you’re being paid? Come on! I always thought treating people well was probably the most important thing, but now I’m convinced,” he adds. “Life is too short to work with idiots — well, not idiots, but people who are rude and selfish.”
More on immortality: “I know I said I wanted to live forever and I would never be bored, but the reality is, it’s probably kind of sad to live forever if you’re the only one sticking around. I guess living through injury and disease is pretty hard too, so I don’t know — maybe immortality is not such a great thing. You know, Freud accepted his lot very stoically and very well and with a sense of humor. He aged and died gracefully and there’s a lot to be said for that. Still, it would be nice to live a little longer, with your mind intact and your body reasonably functioning. . . .”
[From The New York Times]
I think Viggo has every right to judge his fellow actors, and the points that he makes about “bad behavior” and all of the grudges he holds are right on point. But I would like to see Viggo acknowledge that he’s stayed in Hollywood because he genuinely likes being an actor, he likes the process, he likes to work. It feels like he’s so busy bitching about everything (once again, I enjoy his bitching, and he’s earned it) that he doesn’t acknowledge that he could just walk away. I’m glad he hasn’t walked away, truly, but at some point it would be nice for him to acknowledge that he actually likes being a working actor.
Photos courtesy of the NYT.