You won't find an actor more respectful of the craft and his colleagues than Viggo Mortensen. The gifted actor, poet, painter, musician and photographer made his acting debut in 1985's Witness and has made an impression in films of wildly varying budgets and scopes, including Carlito's Way, G.I. Jane, The Reflecting Skin, Vanishing Point and, of course, as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After that role made him a familiar face well beyond Middle Earth, Mortensen has had acclaimed roles in two David Cronenberg fims—A History of Violence and Eastern Promises—and most recently starred in the film adaptation of the post-apocalyptic drama The Road.
We caught up with Mortensen during his one night off a week starring in the play Purgatorio in Madrid, Spain and chatted candidly with the 53-year-old actor about his role as Sigmund Freud in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, if dreams influence his work, and what the chances are that we'll get to see him play Aragorn again in The Hobbit.
Movies.com: A Dangerous Method is your third film with director David Cronenberg. Describe your relationship with him and why your on-screen pairings seem to work out so well.
Mortensen: I like him as a person. He knows a lot—perhaps more—than any other director I've known about an actor's process. I think he understands how I like to prepare and work. The research process with him is really enjoyable because he loves it as much as I do. Every time we go to work, we share every little detail we can think of. The first movies I did with David had strong reviews and he never got nominated for an Academy Award, which I find incredible because he's one of the greatest living directors. Time and time again he goes out and makes a thought-provoking movie with strong performances, great camerawork, great set design and a great score, and in the list of best directors nominated that year they can't hold a candle to him.
Movies.com: Did Cronenberg have to convince you to take the role of Freud in A Dangerous Method?
Mortensen: I hadn't quit acting, as had been reported. After The Road, my mother was quite ill and I spent a better part of a year and a half doing almost nothing because I wasn't free to work. The first time David offered me the role of Freud, I said I couldn't get away and he cast Christoph Walz who won the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. At some point in pre-production, Christoph decided to leave and go do a studio movie and left David in a precarious position because it was a difficult movie to get financed. He asked me if I would reconsider and I had some help I could count on, so I had to think about if I was the right guy for it. But David is my friend and I trust and respect him. If he thinks I can do it, I'm sure that I can somehow. I got to work and got used to the physical transformation and speaking that much dialogue that I've never had to do before. Until you try something, it's scary. That's what the unknown is—it scares us and makes us nervous. If you're lucky and you get a handle on the character, you start to enjoy and you're grateful—as I am—that you took it on.
Movies.com: How long did it take you to physically transform into Freud?
Mortensen: It was a well-done prosthetic nose, so it's hard to tell. It was a considerable amount of time between the nose, the skin, the eyes, the hairline and the beard.
Movies.com: When you play a historical figure like Freud, do you feel an added responsibility as an actor to try to portray the man you have read about in history books?
Mortensen: Cronenberg encourages people to think for themselves. There are so many detailed descriptions about the way Freud walked and talked. He could talk for two or three hours without stumbling. He wasn't just a stick in the mud or an old, frail guy. He had a large appetite for life—cigars, wine, food, jokes and hanging out with people. He liked Mark Twain for his social satire and wittiness and Oscar Wilde for the same reason. Once I started to learn that side of him—that he was very funny and very sociable—that helped me a lot as an actor. He doesn't out-and-out tell jokes in the movie, but there is an irony to his tone and the way he listens, responds and ask questions. In some ways, he's kind of the comic relief in some cases.
Movies.com: Do you believe, as Jung did, that Freud placed too much importance on the sexual motivations for our behavior?
Mortensen: No. I think that Jung increasingly fled from the working of the body and calling things what they were. I think that Freud and Jung's interests weren't so far apart, but their personalities and their backgrounds were quite different. That had more to do with their coming apart than academic differences. Jung become a more religious figure as time went on than a scientist, in my opinion. Freud, like other intellectuals before World War I, said that we are mistaken that man has become civilized and left barbarism behind. He thought that the things that we don't address about the body and mind will come back to haunt us. We can't just bury them because they will come out in ugly ways. When World War I came about, it kind of proved him right.
Movies.com: Freud believed we could learn a lot about unconscious desires and obsessions by interpreting our dreams. Do you remember your dreams and how much do they influence your artwork and writing?
Mortensen: Yeah, because there are dreams that you remember and dreams that come to you when you are awake, like thoughts from your unconscious that you don't know where the hell they came from. It happens with acting, too. Right now I'm doing a play where every night I go up on stage with another actress for an hour and 45 minutes with no breaks and no other characters to interact with. There is a lot of talking, mood swings and emotional material. There are line readings that come out of nowhere that are startling. They are just wonderful, and we probably won't be able to make it happen again. It's a matter of being relaxed and letting your instincts go to work after you've memorized the text. I'm not afraid of it—I think it is interesting.
Movies.com: Do you think The Road got the attention it deserved?
Mortensen: I can't tell you how many people have seen that movie on DVD and said how much it moved them. We worked very hard on translating Cormac McCarthy's well-loved and bestselling book into a movie, but we had a disreputable distributor in North America and it ended up in about 10 percent of the theaters it should have been in, so it went nowhere. If there isn't an effort to keep people aware of the movie as it is being released, it might as well have never come out to the opinion makers. It's not the first time I've had that happen, but that's just the way it goes. People do see a movie eventually if it's good and that is what matters.
Movies.com: Has Peter Jackson asked you to return to Middle Earth in the Hobbit movie in any capacity?
Mortensen: At one point, the producers asked if I would do it and I said sure if Aragorn is supposed to be in the bridge story because he's not in The Hobbit. I would rather do it than see someone else do it, but I've never been asked and they're shooting the movie. I'm not in it unless it there is some last-minute plan they have, but I thought I would have heard of it by now. Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett shot something, but they're elves and don't change as rapidly. As you know, Aragorn is half elf and also lives a couple hundred years or more and he could be in a bridge, but I have to assume it isn't going to happen. That was an important period in my life and I will always be grateful that the trilogy was so successful and gave me a lot of new opportunities. I never would have gotten A History of Violence, no matter how much David wanted me, had it not been for my newfound notoriety.
Movies.com: Do you ever think about what happens to the characters you play after the credits roll? For example, what do you think happens to Tom Stall after the end of A History of Violence?
Mortensen: When it's a good movie, I wonder. With A History of Violence, there are a lot of questions left unanswered like what is going to happen to that family and that guy. Is that marriage going to hang together? Will gangsters get him? What's great is when people discuss it and have these conversations. Other directors try to explain too much, but David doesn't do that. He doesn't talk down to his audience—he is respectful and that is an artistically sound way to do things.
Movies.com: Up next for you in the role of Bull Lee in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. What can you tell us about this character?
Mortensen: That was a fun role, too. I was asked to do it while on A Dangerous Method. I thought maybe this is another case like Freud where it was something I couldn't imagine playing but maybe I could. There is something similar in the characters in that Bull was kind of a mentor figure for like-minded people in the way Freud was for Jung.
Movies.com Aragorn is the only character that you have returned to play on-screen more than once. If you had a chance to play any character again in a movie, who would it be?
Mortensen: Well, there is one that might happen, actually. David has talked about a sequel to Eastern Promises. That's a good character and there is more to be said if one wanted to do it. Normally sequels don't turn out as good as the original except for something like The Godfather: Part II, but Cronenberg could do it if anyone could.