Viggo Mortensen: Lay off the pope

The "Lord of the Rings" star, who shares a soccer team with the pope, has known him for years and defends his honor

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 20, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

Viggo Mortensen says he doesn’t have a plan. It’s a funny thing to say midway through a conversation about a movie called “Everybody Has a Plan,” a low-budget Argentine thriller that Mortensen produced and in which he plays two roles, as a pair of twin brothers. (Yes, it’s in Spanish, but this isn’t some postmodern-flavored stunt, à la Will Ferrell's “Casa de Mi Padre.” Mortensen spent much of his childhood in Buenos Aires and speaks fluent Spanish, along with English and Danish, and can get by in several other languages. Are you surprised?)

Mortensen’s non-plan looks a lot like a plan to me, although maybe not an entirely conscious one. He has used the worldwide fame he earned for playing Aragorn (son of Arathorn) in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to declare his independence from the celebrity economy and follow his own idiosyncratic career path, which has included painting, poetry, music and three films with David Cronenberg, including an Oscar-nominated turn as a brutal Ukrainian mobster in “Eastern Promises.”

That may not sound especially unusual; the movie star turned reclusive oddball with Renaissance-man tendencies is almost a stock character in pop culture at this point. But Mortensen isn’t reclusive at all – entirely the opposite. I once left a message with his publicist in the middle of the night, hoping I might get a return call in a day or two. Mortensen called me back half an hour later, from a moving car somewhere in New Mexico. He’s only a weirdo if you think it’s normal for actors to exist in an artificial bubble of celebrity self-regard, protesting that they are ordinary people even as they move among us like demigods from one velvet-rope VIP lounge and chef-of-the-moment restaurant to the next. He’s something else entirely, a bohemian intellectual with left-wing opinions and adventurous tastes, who was involved in the L.A. art and poetry scene long before he became famous. (He used to be married to Exene Cervenka, lead singer of the pioneering L.A. punk band X; their son, Henry, is now an adult.)

I’ve had four or five conversations with Mortensen over the years, and they’ve all followed the same pattern: He takes your measure for a minute or two, just to establish some basic comfort level and make sure he’s not talking to a total idiot, and then it’s hard to get the guy to shut up. This time around we started out talking about an ultra-obscure Argentine filmmaker, then moved on to Pope Francis, the relationship between soccer and hockey fandom, the culture shock involved in moving from Argentina to upstate New York, and Lars von Trier, before moving on to his dual role in this slow-burning atmospheric thriller.

In “Everybody Has a Plan,” Mortensen plays a pair of estranged adult teen brothers, Agustín and Pedro, who end up switching identities under circumstances I’d better not disclose. Pedro is both sick with cancer and implicated in a murder in the swampy and remote delta region where they both grew up (although those scenes were actually shot in southeastern Spain, near Alicante.) Agustín is a doctor in Buenos Aires undergoing an unexplained breakdown, telling his wife he no longer wants to go through with their long-planned adoption and retreating into a locked room. The two brothers seem to offer each other a solution to their respective dilemmas, but this is one of those film-noir parables where all attempts to outrun fate are doomed.

Mortensen met Ana Piterbarg, the writer and director of “Everybody Has a Plan,” at the San Lorenzo de Almagro athletic club in Buenos Aires, where she was picking up her child from the swimming pool. She got up the nerve to ask him to look at a screenplay and he said sure. Apparently this happens to him a lot, and he actually reads the damn things. San Lorenzo, by the way, also fields a well-known professional soccer team, and until very recently Mortensen without a doubt qualified as its most famous fan. With the election of Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires and before that a Jesuit priest in the club’s working-class Boedo neighborhood, all that has changed.

I reached Viggo Mortensen by phone in Madrid, where he said he’d been outside doing some gardening, and trying to get a pair of cavalry boots dirty for an upcoming role. In addition to “Everybody Has a Plan,” he’ll soon be seen opposite Kirsten Dunst in Hossein Amini’s 1960s thriller “The Two Faces of January,” adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Are you shooting something in Spain, or just gardening?

Actually, I leave in less than a week. I go to Argentina and I do another movie down there.

No kidding. Is that the movie with Lisandro Alonso? [Little known in the United States or anywhere else for that matter, Alonso is an Argentine director of experimental art films, including “Liverpool” and “Los Muertos.”]

Yeah, exactly. Gardening, wearing some very long cavalry boots that were made for the movie. I have to go till the soil a little bit, so they’re all – they’re filthy now, and they’re on their way to looking right. Every time I get down there they’re on their way to looking right.

He’s a fascinating director, although we’re probably not talking about blockbuster potential. What can you tell me about that film?

Well, like most of his movies, it will have its own kind of unique pace, like something out of Tarkovsky’s world. But unlike his other movies this one actually has professional actors, and somewhat more of a conventional blueprint for a script. His other movies are – they’re not totally free-form, but he’s not worked with actors before. It’s a totally new thing for him. He wanted to try something structured in a different way, actually got someone to write a script. The story takes place around 1880, in Argentina. It was a time when the European population was moving the natives west, either killing them and/or taking their land. I play a Danish war veteran – there were a couple of big wars between the Germans and the Danes in that period. At the same time we had our Civil War they were having their big war. Germans were trying to nip more and more territory away from the Danes. Anyway, I play a Danish guy – I’ll be speaking Danish with my daughter and one or two other characters, but the rest of the time Spanish with a Danish accent.

Have you ever done both Danish and Spanish in a movie before? You grew up in Argentina and lived in Denmark as a young adult, but have you spoken both languages in the same film?

I’ve never played a Dane in a movie. I’ve had offers to be in Danish movies, including for some good directors, but I either had a job at the time or, when I was available the movie just didn’t happen. Hopefully someday I’ll do one. I didn’t expect the first movie to be a Danish-Argentine production. The first time I shoot a Danish movie, and it’s shot in Argentina.

Yeah, that’s like two parts of your life story stuck together. It’s almost surprising to me that you’ve never worked with Lars von Trier. Of course, he makes most of his movies in English these days. Do you know him?

I have not met him, but he’s offered me a couple of roles a long time ago. In “Breaking the Waves,” I was offered a small part, but I wasn’t available at that time. What else -- he offered me a part that Willem Dafoe played, what was it called?


Yeah, I was offered that part, but I wasn’t available at that time, so I couldn’t do either, unfortunately. I’d love to work with him. He’s a really talented director.

Yeah, you would’ve been great in that role. Willem was very good, but you would’ve been great in that role, I think.

Oh, he was tremendous. I’m taking nothing away from that. He was supposed to do that role, and he did a good job with it. He’s a good actor, and I think him and Lars probably hit it off.

I know this is a weird parentheses, but I understand you have an accidental connection to the new pope. You guys are fans of the same soccer team in Buenos Aires.

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, those pictures of him that have been circulating all over the Internet – with the San Lorenzo flag, and you see a brick sort of background to it? That’s inside a small chapel that I actually donated some years ago to the team. The idea was that it was an ecumenical place, meaning that it was open to people of all faith, even, as we said when we dedicated the chapel, a place where anyone could come to be in peace and meditate and seek tranquility for all, even those who don’t believe in anything. And sometime after that, he came to consecrate it, to bless the place. The picture was taken then. He’s been a fan since he was a little kid. He grew up with that team, he did a lot of his work as a Jesuit priest in that neighborhood, which is a pretty poor neighborhood. There’s a lot of problems in that neighborhood: poverty, drugs, crime. He comes from that Jesuit tradition of helping the needy. But yeah, he’s never made secret his passion for the team. To other Argentine soccer fans who aren’t fans of San Lorenzo, if they thought we were unbearable until now … it’s gonna be untenable for them, I suppose.

We’re the most inventive fans -- with our songs, cheering the whole game. It doesn’t matter if we’re losing by 10 goals, it never stops. So now it’s even worse. (Laughter.) But of course, you get a lot of ribbing too. “If you guys can’t win the championship now, then you guys are pathetic.” It’s a funny thing. To be honest, I don’t really care about any pope. It’s not something I think about much, to be quite honest with you. I love San Lorenzo, and I don’t really care one way or another about the pope. But if there’s got to be a pope, he might as well be a fan of my team.

Do you know anything personally about Bergoglio? I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent in Argentina in recent years. Have you had any dealings with him?

Yeah, I know about him a lot. I’m not just sitting at a desk, going through his history. I know initially when he was named there were a lot of rumors circulated about his complicity with the dictatorial regime in the ‘70s, and that was disproved. There were even lots of photographs, supposedly showing him giving communion to Jorge Videla, the president, the dictator. All those – it was proven it was not him, it was another priest. There’s a lot of malicious gossip, and I suppose it’s not just a left-wing thing, or right-wing thing. It might be people who don’t think much of the Catholic Church, people who have grudges, and so forth. I don’t think you get to be pope without making some enemies, like you do when you’re president. But all in all, he seems to me a lot more humane, more humble – he’s more human than the last pope, certainly. He’s more personal – he’s engaged with people when he speaks.

So there’s some controversy. But for the couple of people who have come out and said, “Oh, he’s complicit,” well they’re not speaking for the couple priests who were abused by the regime and kept in prison and tortured and stuff like that. People who knew him well – human rights activists, including the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1980, and also a woman judge who in 1973 was kicked out of the country -- people who have been treated really badly and, if it was true, would have every reason to speak against him, have come out staunchly defending him. So I don’t really feel like he was someone who was in – he definitely doesn’t have some huge secret that’s been disclosed.

I mean, I guess, it’s like World War II. The church as an institution was definitely complicit with the Nazis to some degree and the same is true in Argentina: The church is definitely guilty of a lot of things during that period, but I don’t see that he was, frankly.

Switching to a somewhat lighter topic, I was thinking about your relationship with San Lorenzo and various other sports teams. I can’t keep up with them all: the New York Giants, the New York Mets, the Montreal Canadiens, Norwich City. Probably others. And the thing is, I wouldn’t automatically assume – knowing about your career, your interests in literature and art, the wide range of acting that you’ve done, you don’t seem like the kind of guy who’s a huge sports fan, but there is that side of you, right?

Oh, definitely, for lots of different sports. Actually, in the context of soccer and Argentina, it’s not so strange to have … well, it depends on the team. San Lorenzo, there’s a lot of writers and artists, poets, novelists who have been into that team. For some reason it has that kind of vibe. Same case in the United States, there’s a lot of columnists who have – who write really well and aren’t sportswriters. But now at least I won’t have to work as hard to be an ambassador for San Lorenzo around the world. The pope is taking a big load off me. I’m really grateful. (Laughter.) I remember I was nominated for an award in 2008 – it was the SAG awards. And they said, “Why are you wearing a red and blue pinstriped suit?” And I said “Because of San Lorenzo and because of the New York Giants.” And they said “Why the New York Giants?” And I said “Because the New York Giants will win the Super Bowl in two weeks!” They laughed at me, but it worked. You never know. I had the same thing last year with the Montreal Canadiens, and they’re doing really well this year too.

Does that one come from your youth in upstate New York, after you left Argentina? Because you surely didn’t know about the Canadiens growing up in Buenos Aires.

That’s where my mom’s from, right on the St. Lawrence River across from Ontario and Quebec. And I come from Argentina and all of a sudden I was in a place where there was nobody who spoke Spanish. There was certainly no soccer, there was no cable TV, there was no Internet, obviously. So I was completely severed – the culture I had growing up with San Lorenzo and the frenzy and the passion that goes with it was just gone. And I started to see on TV the Montreal Canadiens – at the time it was Guy LaFleur, and those great teams from the ‘70s. Not only did they have the same colors as San Lorenzo, but their fans, the French-Canadian fans in particular, seemed just as passionate as the Argentines, as opposed to some of the fans of the other hockey teams. So I jumped on that and became a big fan of that team. During those years, they took the place of San Lorenzo, or at least helped me get over it until I reconnected with San Lorenzo. But I’ve remained a Habs fan and I follow them closely.

So you were a producer on “Everybody Has a Plan.” How involved were you in getting this movie off the ground?

I ran into Ana by chance, actually at the club, during one of my visits to Buenos Aires. I ran into her at the front door. She had come to pick up one of her kids, who swims in the pool of the club. She goes, “Oh, you’re Viggo. My name’s Ana, I’m a writer, I directed some things.” She directed some shorts. “I have a script and I’m making a full-length movie. Can I send it to you?” I said, “Sure.” Gave her my address, and didn’t think much more of it. For one thing, almost all of the scripts I get that way – either dropped off at a hotel or given to me on the street or through the mail – are usually not original and not well-written. In this case, when I got home and finally got to read it, I was shocked at how good it was. It was a film-noir type movie, but very original. Particularly Argentine, but universal, its concerns and its themes and its types of relationships. So I said, “Sure, let’s do it.”

Like a lot of unique movies, it took years to get together. Two or three years, probably. I kept working on her and said, “I want to be a producer. I’ve never done it before, but I want to do it.” I wanted to make sure that whatever happened, her vision got to the screen. As a producer, I had a little more say, and I could say, “Well, let me see the script with subtitles and let me correct them.” Things like that. It’s not like I got paid or anything for doing that, I just wanted to help out. So I’m glad I did. I think I did help a little in that regard. We had the North American premiere last fall at Toronto, and it was the first time we had showed it to an Anglo-Saxon audience. It was overwhelming, a really great reaction: full theater, standing ovation, and at the Q&A no one left, which is almost unheard of.

That was a great experience, and I feel like, well, this movie definitely has a chance. It’s hard to release any kind of foreign movie unless you’ve got a name director like Almodóvar, or something. There aren’t, as you know, many movies with subtitles that get into a lot of movie theaters in North America. In this case, they’re doing theaters as they do: It’s gonna be two or three theaters in New York, two or three theaters in L.A. So after that we’ll see. Hopefully it does well enough and the distributor has faith in us and they’ll let it open in a couple other places so that native Spanish speakers in the U.S., of which there are millions, get a chance to go and see the movie.

It’s an interesting combination of ingredients, because obviously it captures that place very well, and it’s visually beautiful. It reminds me a little bit of a Coen brothers movie, but in a more mournful key. It’s not utterly dissimilar to something like “Blood Simple.”

It’s remarkable to me that it’s a first-time director: You watch that movie and you take into account how low the budget was, just look at the feel and the pace of it and the confidence with which it was put together. But you’re right – it’s a movie that you could transfer to the bayou and New Orleans, or Miami and the Everglades, you could picture it in a lot of places.

It’s nothing new in movie history for an actor to play two roles. I was thinking about Buster Keaton playing numerous roles in the same film, which they had to do with old-fashioned photographic trickery. How did you guys do it?

Like I said, we had a very low budget, so we had to be clever enough to work that. We did tons the most old-fashioned way, which is over-the-shoulder shots using a double. It had this thing. And then sometimes we’d just shoot one plate and then another, which meant the shots where you see the two brothers looking up at each other and talking, or handing each other a coffee or buying each other a drink or fighting or all those things. I literally would have to play one part for a few days, doing all those scenes, and then trim the beard and get the look of the other brother and then do the other side of it. That was a little strange, but then looking at the playback, where we’d say, “Oh, that one works,” or “No, we’ll have to do that take again, it wasn’t good ‘cause you put your hand through his chest.” (Laughter.)

I didn’t want to have happen what happens most of the time in movies I’ve seen with identical twins, where it just looks like a stunt and you can’t keep your mind off the fact that it’s just one actor and it’s just a trick. In this case I think it genuinely feels like they’re different people with two different personalities, and I think it was helpful that we shot all of that at the end, after we’d shot all the scenes of them separately. So I knew them each separately quite well.

Right. You had worked out what was different about them vocally and physically and psychologically and whatever it is you have to think about.

And their accents and their vocabularies and different ways of speaking. And remember, they don’t like each other. Although I’d like to think you see a little bit of -- they bury the hatchet a little bit. The scene in the bathroom where it goes so badly, initially there’s a certain playfulness and a camaraderie there. They’re revisiting old memories and they’re not at each other’s throats. They’re not being so sarcastic and suddenly there’s a little bit of peace – there’s a little bit of quiet before the storm, before it all goes down.

In the years since “Lord of the Rings,” it seems as if you’ve worked hard at not being a normal celebrity, not being somebody who’s isolated from life by fame. How do you balance out the positives and negatives of playing Aragorn and the way that changed your life?

You know what? I don’t have a conscious – I mean, if it turned out that the stories I’ve found or that have found me were in big budget movies, I probably would’ve done nothing but big budget movies, assuming they wanted me, since “Lord of the Rings.” And I have been offered those, but I have to say that most of them were just not very original, not very interesting. I understand I should do those once in a while, just to be able to say when I want to make a small movie, my name is good enough to raise money. But I’m confident that eventually good work will get seen. Eventually it’ll pay off, even if it sometimes is not released well. Even a movie like “The Road,” which was a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, in that case the distributor at the company decided not to stick to the contract that they had. It was just kind of dumped, which is sad.

You never know what’s gonna happen. My goal is just to make movies, whether they’re big or small, that I’d like to see 10 years from now. That’s sort of the way I gauge it. “This is an interesting story. I haven’t tried this before. I can learn something here, and furthermore it’s the kind of story that if we manage to do it right, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, years from now or 10 years from now.” And I would definitely say that about “Everybody Has a Plan.” I think it’s a very assured debut from Ana and there are a lot of subtleties in the movie that at first glance, people will go, “Oh, I dunno, the pace … it’s kind of slow for a thriller,” and then they’ll go, “Oh, well that’s why.” It takes a little while for people to get a grip on it, but it’s a movie that gets better. You find more things in it rather than less. I would say that with the vast majority of big-budget and low-budget movies every year, whatever is sold to you or whatever you buy the first time around, the next time you see it you’re seeing less of a movie than the first time. I try to make movies that get better each time you watch them.

“Everybody Has a Plan” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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