The many, many faces of the actor Viggo Mortensen
The actor, publisher and fantasy hero tells Will Lawrence how he reluctantly took on the role that made him a star
Among the many benefits bestowed upon Viggo Mortensen courtesy of his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, one of the most useful has been the kudos earned with his girlfriend's kids. "That is true," says the 55-year-old Danish-American when we meet up. "It has cut me a little more slack," he laughs. "It is sometimes a case of, 'Wow! Is that you on that horse?'"
Like most children, those who occupy Mortensen's free time find Middle Earth thoroughly beguiling, and these particular tykes demand his presence at the cinema for the films that are currently forming The Hobbit saga. Mortensen, whose own son, Henry, is fully grown, saw both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug in 3D on their opening weekends.
"I took some kids of friends and my girlfriend's kids," he says. "I really enjoyed them, the films are fun, and for me personally the most interesting thing is the little glimpses you still get of the real New Zealand landscape.
"We saw a lot of that with the first film in the first trilogy, though the second film was a lot more special effects and the third even more. In The Hobbit, though, I would say the majority of the shots are not real.
"That is fine and the story line was interesting, to see some of the liberties they took. The kids loved the films."
When did he last watch The Lord of the Rings movies? "Last year I watched all three of them for the first time since they came out with this one kid in particular, who is very smart and instantly, almost like a contagious disease, he knew all the names of everyone.
"He knew more than I did. He could remember all the lines and then he wanted to see it again and again!"
Whether this young viewer is as keen to see Mortensen's other work is as yet uncertain, though it's safe to say that he might lose interest in the actor's latest offering, The Two Faces of January, a grown-up period thriller that is adapted from a novel by The Talented Mr. Ripley author, Patricia Highsmith.
The film, which also stars Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, is the first directorial offering from acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini, who cast Mortensen as the central character, Chester MacFarland, a handsome, charismatic and enigmatic older man with a young wife (Dunst) and a shady past.
"Viggo brings an element of Gatsby to his character, which isn't in the Highsmith novel," says the director of his leading man, "and he just looks so heroic."
Mortensen is looking quietly heroic when we meet. He's set up in a garret-type hotel room with angled walls and sweeping views over London's Soho. He is wearing a sports jacket and slacks, his greying hair neatly trimmed, a network of fine lines crinkling his handsome face whenever he smiles, which is often.
He speaks softly and deliberately, and can converse intelligently on a whole array of subjects. He owns the publishing house Perceval Press (named after the questing Grail knight from Arthurian legend) and he says that had his life panned out differently he would have quite liked a teaching job.
"I like young children. In some way, not in a pretentious way, but I find myself in that role inadvertently on movie sets, like with The Road," which follows a father and his son on a perilous journey across America. "I wouldn't mind teaching kids."
I can see him in that role. When the conversation turns to history and literature, he talks eloquently on both the Icelandic sagas and the Greek myths. Indeed, Greek myth forms a backdrop to his current movie; The Two Faces of January opens in Athens and takes the characters on a journey into the rural wilds before descending into a labyrinth where a monster is revealed. He is not a Minotaur, though he proves just as lethal.
"My approach is to find stories that I haven't told," says Mortensen on why he took the role. "I look at working in movies as a kind of Open University. Each time I play a role and tell a story, it is a paid scholarship to learn as much as I want."
What did he learn from The Two Faces of January? "I re-read a lot of mythology, which I read a long time ago, and things I hadn't read. Also, I re-watched a lot of the film noir movies that I liked and watched a lot of others, even really bad ones or mediocre ones.
"I also got to go to Crete where I'd never been, knowing a lot more than normally I would have done. I enjoy the travel with this job."
Mortensen has lived something of an itinerant life. He was born in New York to an American mother and Danish father, the family moving to Venezuela, Denmark and Argentina during his early years though his parents divorced just before he hit his teens and he spent much of his later youth in New York.
"I have always liked travelling," he says. "I'd like to spend more time in Ireland. I've been to Dublin a couple of times and I've driven round a bit but I'd love to get to know the west coast. A lot of my family are from Scandinavia and northern Europem, and I like rugged landscapes."
His interest in acting, he says, did not emerge until his late teens. He was weaned on an eclectic mix of influences – Death in Venice, Bergmann movies, The Passion of Joan of Arc – and demonstrated his own talents early on, debuting as a young Amish farmer in Witness before going on to rack up over 40 film credits.
It was The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, however, that set him on the path to stardom. Interestingly, however, he was initially reluctant to take the Aragorn role. "I was terrified by the sheer size of the book and the rest of the cast had all started working on it long before I was to get out there."
And yet he made the right move. "Oh yeah. If Aragorn hadn't got me that level of visibility, there's no way that I would have been in (Spanish movie) Alatriste, or even (David Cronenberg movies) Eastern Promises or A History of Violence. I just wouldn't have got the opportunity."
He has used his subsequent opportunities well and has also returned to Spanish-language filmmaking with Argentine crime thriller Everybody Has a Plan, released last year, and the forthcoming adventure Jauja from Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso, which will play at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
"I look for stories that I would like to see in the movie theatre," Mortensen says. "That is my goal. I want a good story that is going to take me out of my comfort zone as an actor."
As talk returns to Middle Earth for one final time, I wonder whether Mortensen's career trajectory would have shifted if Tolkien had taken advice from Anglo-American poet and writer WH Auden, who thought Aragorn's story should play out without the accompanying love story with Arwen? He ponders the question and says that it possibly would.
Mortensen then asks me why Auden suggested that Tolkien change the narrative; the answer being that he thought it slowed the pace of the adventure story.
"Well," he laughs, as he refers to a storyline from The Desolation of Smaug, "can you imagine what he'd have made of the dwarf-elf love triangle that they are working on now?"
- The Two Faces of January is released on Friday
Viggo's best roles
Viggo's more than a fantasy icon ...
The Indian Runner, 1991
He stands out in his role as one of two feuding brothers in Sean Penn's 1991 directorial debut
Carlito's Way, 1993
Viggo turns in a memorable performance as the wheel-bound Lalin
Crimson Tide, 1995
The actor plays the supporting role of Lieutenant Peter "Weps" Ince in this submarine thriller
The Lord of the Rings, 2001-2003
He replaces Stuart Townsend in Peter Jackson's fantasy epic
A History of Violence, 2005
His first film with David Cronenberg earns numerous critical plaudits
Eastern Promises, 2007
His second film with David Cronenberg earns even more critical plaudits
He appears in Ed Harris's gritty Western
The Road, 2009
Viggo takes on the lead role in this post-Apocalyptic thriller from author Cormac McCarthy
A Dangerous Method, 2011
Yet another film with Cronenberg, where he plays Sigmund Freud