Viggo Mortensen on "Lord of the Rings" -- and playing an American at last

The chameleonic star on why the first LOTR movie was best, and playing a '60s con man in "Two Faces of January"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 24, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Viggo Mortensen in "The Two Faces of January"      (Magnolia Pictures)
Viggo Mortensen in "The Two Faces of January" (Magnolia Pictures)

As Viggo Mortensen is well aware, his obituary will include the name “Aragorn,” probably in the first paragraph. But the 55-year-old actor, photographer, painter and poet has turned the international fame he achieved as the human hero-king in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in unexpected directions. Mortensen’s post-LOTR movies haven’t all been successful, but they’ve all been projects he wanted to make, and projects he helped make possible. I met him in New York recently to talk about his role as American con man Chester MacFarland in the Patricia Highsmith adaptation “The Two Faces of January,” a film that took nearly four years from conception to completion. If Mortensen seemed less ebullient than usual, that’s not surprising: He’s been hopscotching around the world from one film festival to the next, doing interviews and appearances in support of three different independent films that all open within a few weeks of each other.

Just as Mortensen has successfully avoided a Hollywood star’s career and has sought to lead a relatively normal life, he has no semblance of star attitude. Offhand I can’t think of another actor at his level who is as easy to reach or as easy to talk to about almost any subject. I claim no personal relationship with Mortensen beyond a few previous interviews, but he once called me back from a movie set in the middle of the night about an hour after I had left a message with his publicist. Last time I talked to him -- about his dual role in the low-budget Argentine thriller “Everybody Has a Plan” -- he told me what he knew about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the onetime parish priest from Mortensen’s old neighborhood in Buenos Aires, who had just been elected as Pope Francis. The time before that we spent the whole conversation on the legacy of Sigmund Freud, which was appropriate enough since Mortensen played the father of psychoanalysis in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method.”

In “The Two Faces of January,” which marks the directing debut of British screenwriter Hossein Amini (“Drive,” “The Wings of the Dove”), Mortensen plays a new kind of character – the quintessential mid-century American. Chester and his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), appear at first to be a couple of idle, rich Yanks on a leisurely tour of Europe, sometime around 1962. In Athens they strike up an acquaintance with a young American drifter named Rydal (Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis”), who speaks enough Greek to be a tour guide and is scraping out a living by hustling people like them. But as in any Highsmith story, none of these people is quite who he appears to be, especially not Chester, who has good reasons for staying on the move under an assumed name.

“Two Faces” is a subtle, underplayed psychological drama with terrific work by all three actors. It’s obvious right away that Colette and Rydal are attracted to each other – and make a more appropriate couple than do Colette and Chester – but the story’s real engine is the tense and uncertain relationship between the two men, which carries with it both affection and violence. As Mortensen and I discussed, Highsmith’s male relationships often seem to have a homoerotic undertone, but that’s not so much evident here. The love-hate connection between Chester and Rydal is more about yearning for a father (or son) and then rejecting him, and about the generational conflict between the American men who survived the Depression and fought World War II and the jaded, disillusioned younger men who fueled the Beat sensibility.

If it’s almost impossible to feel sympathy or compassion for Chester, who does unforgivable things, Mortensen accomplishes the difficult task of compelling you to respect him, even in failure and defeat. He’s a man willing to live or die by the code of masculinity, the code that gets you out of bed with a massive hangover and keeps you moving forward, suit brushed and hair combed, after dreadful crimes and dreadful losses. Just a little bit of Chester seemed to have rubbed off on Mortensen, a chameleonic figure who speaks numerous languages, reshapes himself for every new role and seems to adopt a different guise in every public appearance. I think the last time I met him in person he was grizzled, bushy and hirsute – the Freud influence – and this time he was neatly tailored in an iridescent blue dress shirt, with freshly dyed and styled blond hair. As he says about Chester, grooming and presentation are important.

This seems to be a really busy time for you. You’re in so many films right now, you barely have time to be Viggo Mortensen, photographer, visual artist and musician.

Yeah. I’ve been pretty busy in the movie end of it lately, just as it happens. It’s not that I made that many movies in the last few years, but all the ones that I’ve made in the last few years seem to be coming out this month and next month. It’s a confluence that I guess sometimes happens, just the luck of the draw. But it means I’m running from one place to another and having to change to talk about one story and then another, and sometimes more than one at a time, and they’re all quite different.

Let’s see. So you’re in “Two Faces of January” with Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst, first of all. When was that made?

I think we finished it in January of 2013. And then finished editing it early this year.

And then you’re in “Jauja,” by the Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso, right? Which is playing in the New York Film Festival, and also opening soon.

That’s going to be in October. It premiered at Cannes where it won a critic’s prize, and there were several critics who said they thought it should have been in the main competition. It’s a ground-breaking movie, different from anything else, and it’s very nice, well-praised, which really made us feel good. It was also at Toronto, and it’s going to be at San Sebastián Film Festival in Spain, and a lot of places. A lot of people want to see it, a lot of festivals want the movie, a lot of film societies. It’s a real movie-lovers’ kind of movie. And then there’s “Loin des Hommes,” or “Far From Men,” that’s an adaptation of an Albert Camus short story, directed by David Oelhoffen. That turned out really well; it’s a beautiful, beautiful movie.

Yeah, that’s an extraordinary confluence of things, and they’re all so different. What I thought was interesting about “Two Faces of January” was that it’s a new kind of character for you. This guy, Chester MacFarland – at least at first, he’s a classic mid-century American man, a man's man.

Yeah. Son of the Depression, World War II. It was interesting. It allowed me to look more closely at that, with different eyes. It’s different when you actually embody that, rather than you’re just at a more removed, objective distance from a subject or a type of person in a generation. He’s my father’s generation, but an American man , who grew up at that time and had those kinds of experiences. It’s a certain type of person, with certain values and a certain toughness. In their presentation there’s a certain discretion and there’s a certain uniformity, in terms of the way they look and the way their hair is. There’s a certain unspoken connection, whether you come from money or not, whether you’re working-class or not. You know you look at those old photographs, of fans in ballparks or people standing in line at the store, or the train station, or at work. Guys wore jackets and guys had haircuts. Grooming and presentation, no matter how humble it was, was important, and there was a uniformity.

I guess all of that is still important in different ways, but it was distinctive. Presentation and a certain kind of cleanliness was closely tied to one’s sense of worth and dignity. So you would see this guy, and it’s part of his con, the look, he wants to look like he came from money and all that. I don't think his origins are those clothes that you see. But there is something that you see that is a sincere interest in his presentation. You see the morning after when he wakes up hung over, after that drunken night where he behaves badly, and he brings his wife a doughnut. He pulls himself together pretty quickly, like those guys would.

And it’s such an intelligent and delicate performance, if I can put it that way. It would be easy for this guy to come off just as a villain. Which he is, at times. Kind of the classic “ugly American” overseas. He’s a con man and a criminal. He literally brings death with him wherever he goes.

He’s kind of sloppy, yeah.

It’s not exactly that you made me feel compassion for him, that’s not quite appropriate. But you made me understand that there’s a person in there who’s kind of struggling in a way.

Well, that has a lot to do with Hoss’ adaptation. It’s an improvement on the book, I think. With regard to Colette most of all, probably. It’s a more layered character, it’s a character who has feelings and fears and insecurities and regrets and deludes herself a little bit. There’s a tension there, and Kirsten obviously brought something to it. It’s much more interesting than the book’s Colette. And Chester, as you say, he starts out in a place and then sort of makes this descent and then there’s a slight climb at the end. If he doesn’t get to respectability, at least there’s some kind of code of ethics there somewhere in the end, which is interesting without being corny and tacked on. It’s just who he is, I think, at heart.

It’s really true, what you say about Kirsten’s character. In the book she’s really just a device that connects the two guys.

She’s an opportunist and a catalyst. She’s an object, really. That’s typical Highsmith, though, as far as the way she treats women. She writes men and men’s psychologies much better than her male contemporaries, I think. She’s just amazing how well she writes men, the way they operate and the way they think.

Well, there’s this dime-store psychological theory about her works, that there’s always this level of homoerotic content or possibility. I guess you could say that here, although it doesn’t seem sexual at all. But the relationship between the two guys is very important. It’s like that’s the real subject of the movie, and Colette is kind of along for the ride.

Yeah, well they get intimate with each other psychologically, that’s for sure. They get under each other’s skin, they really do. And they find ways … they both learn ways to provoke the other. And they both make the mistake, at different times, of underestimating the other guy. Rydal clearly underestimates Chester in the beginning, and then Chester underestimates Rydal, and it goes back and forth a little bit. At the end there’s an interesting mutual respect they arrive at, in spite of all the betrayals and nasty behavior.

Tell me about working with Oscar Isaac, who’s a very impressive actor. How did you guys work out that relationship?

Yeah, he’s a very good actor. I think it was just there on the page. It was well-written. Sometimes we might have talked while we were doing it, but we didn’t really sit down and talk before. We talked a month before shooting with Hoss; he gathered all of us, which was in London, and we talked as much as we wanted to for several days about the script and any questions we might have or connections we might have made that Hoss may not have thought of. And he took all those questions and comments that we had and what he’s learned from hearing us reading some scenes out loud. Collectively and individually while we were there with him, he took those ideas and fine-tuned the script even further. And it also served him, just seeing us and hearing us and being in the same room. And it took the onus off that first day of shooting, with a director making his first movie. It made sense, it was smart. It made things a lot more relaxed on that first day.

There are a lot of small surprises between you and Oscar, it’s like the relationship between you is different in every minute of the film. One moment that really struck me is when you apologize to him for talking about his dad. It doesn't seem insincere, it feels like a moment of connection. But on the other hand there’s this strong antipathy between the two guys by then. I don’t know if Chester thinks he’s playing an angle at that moment or not. I’m not sure whether he knows.

Yeah, and also Rydal, understandably, is not quite sure how sincere it is. And it’s hard to be completely sure, as an audience member, which I like. I like that all the characters, Chester in particular, but all of them really, display moments of weakness. They’re just messy. They’re not being bad or good, it’s just awkward, but it’s very human in that regard. That’s kind of the Highsmith style. And I think that’s one of the reasons that there have been a couple of people, including the woman who wrote this biography, who have said it was their favorite Highsmith adaptation, in terms of the characters and the way that was done. A lot of people who are Highsmith fans have really liked the movie, which is encouraging.

It seems pretty clear that you’re pursuing projects that you like, which is every actor’s dream. Is it more about the material or more about the people you get to work with, or is it both?

It’s first and foremost about the material. Stories that I read and think, “Well, that’s a blueprint for a movie I’d go see,” which is, in the end, that’s the only thing I can count on. I can guess at what you might like seeing, what other people might like to see, but I’m not a big fan of that approach. I understand it, for economic reasons, but the huge-budget movies are often less original and less thorough or something, or less interesting in their characterizations and story lines, because they don't take chances. They don’t want to take chances. They use tried-and-true formulas, and repeat them, but also, more importantly than that, they’re trying to appeal to the largest possible cross-section demographically.

When you’re trying to please everyone, you’re not going to please any one group or person in a thorough way. It’s just impossible. So it’s like calling for an actor to play a concept rather than an action or a feeling, a behavior. It doesn’t make sense. It’s kind of a result-oriented thing, and that doesn’t work for storytelling, not really. It’s got to be original, and most of those stories happen to be, at least lately, more independent-type movies. But that doesn't mean they don’t sometimes make really good big-budget ones. I don’t really look at movies in terms of budget; I’m just looking at the story. Would I want to be in that? Would that be good? It would be fun to try. That’s a movie I’d go see, and a movie that potentially I wouldn’t be ashamed to see again in five or 10 years.

You and I are of the generation that go back to when TV was seen as the medium that was trying to please everybody all the time, and most of it was really mediocre.

It’s the other way around now, isn’t it? On TV, you can be out there.

I understand that movies are your first love, but you’d be terrific in something really solid on TV. I’d love to see you on “True Detective.” Have you had any interesting TV offers?

No, I haven’t. Well, I did actually. From Denmark, interesting enough, where they make some really great television. But I couldn’t go there and do that, just because I’m doing this right now. I would have had to start in August. I was offered a chance to to do something else, to do “Vikings,” but I couldn’t do that either. I mean, a lot of really good actors and directors are working in TV now, more than ever.

It seemed like there probably was a moment for you, after “Lord of the Rings,” where you could have gone in a more movie-star direction, and worked in Hollywood movies for at least a few years. But it doesn’t seem like that would have appealed to you.

I think it has real limitations creatively. I mean, there are people who are really clever at doing both, jumping back and forth. That hasn’t been my fate. I would have liked to have done that in principle, but the thing is, when I say yes, like I said to Hoss, even if it takes two years or three years as was the case here, I stay with it. And most of the time in this business, understandably, you’re trying to pay the rent and help your family or whatever, and think about your career, I suppose. So if you’ve been waiting a year or two years trying to get something made, and then someone comes along and says, “Well, this is financed, it’s got a green light, it’s going next month,” and it’s a good paycheck, then you make your excuses, you say to the person, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to take this.” And most people are pretty understanding about it. But I’m kind of stubborn in that regard, I just stay with it. So I have missed the chance to be in some big things, just because I wasn’t available, because I had committed to something.

You had a little news blip last spring for talking about your sense of the “Lord of the Rings” movies in retrospect, looking back on them. Especially for saying that the second and third movies were grandiose, and that Peter Jackson kind of got lost in them.

I was criticized a lot, because a lot of things were … it wasn’t the entire thing I said.

Was that taken out of context?

No, no, I stand by it. If you’re referring to the Telegraph article … I mean, whenever I’m being interviewed, no matter what I’m talking about, whether it’s books or movies or music, I’m always asked about that. And I’m always positive, because why shouldn’t I be? I owe a lot to it. I mean, I wouldn’t have gotten to do a lot of the things that I’ve done. There’s probably still an effect from "Lord of the Rings," even though I’ve done other things since, obviously, like the movies with Cronenberg, that have had their own praise. But without “The Lord of the Rings,” without having been picked as one of the actors to be in that hugely successful trilogy, I don’t think that Hoss could have gone to a producer and said, “OK, Viggo’s gonna do it,” and then it’s green-lit, pretty much. That’s the direct effect of that stroke of luck, that Peter Jackson cast me. So I did talk about that, but it’s more interesting to point out …

Well, listen, here’s what I was going to say. I think you were right on the money when you talked about those movies, and I know for certain a lot of other people agree. And I’m somebody who grew up with those books and has watched the movies several times. I’m reading those books to my kids now, which is an immensely moving experience.

It’s incredible writing.

And what I remember most from those movies is the powerful performances, the iconic characters brought to life. You and Ian McKellen and Sean Bean, in particular, and especially in the first film. Other people too, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett.

It was more like the book. It’s truer to the book. There’s something about that more straight-ahead drama, it’s like people really talking to each other.

Sometimes when I watch those movies again and I see, like, the flying dinosaurs and giant battle scenes in the third episode – I mean, it’s fine, the technology is really impressive. It's spectacular in its way. But it doesn’t have the same effect on me.

It doesn’t stay with you. That being said, the technical accomplishments are amazing. But that is more and more true in the subsequent movies.

This is a weird comparison, but it’s kind of how I feel about Hitchcock’s films. And I’m really glad, by the way, that Hossein Amini didn’t try to do "Two Faces" as a “Hitchcock film.” But it’s like this: The films themselves are great, but the influence on other filmmakers is really complicated. I feel that way about Peter Jackson a little bit. What he accomplished is very impressive, and it also launched this whole universe of $300 million CGI-driven movies that are really mediocre, or a lot worse than that.

Yeah, it becomes top that, top that, top that. Yeah. How much do you need? I think it’s just a question of degree. Just from my own taste, everybody has different … I guess it becomes an entirely different genre, which is OK too. Like slapstick comedy or situation comedy or horror or slasher movies, they’re all different. But the thing that was great, throughout “The Fellowship of the Ring,” especially the long version, the extended version, was that it married the CGI work with the value of Tolkien’s literature and the mythological, historical underpinnings of the story. It was all there. I mean, it made the best use of all the tools at his disposal as a director in that movie, I thought, to my taste. Writing, acting, cinematography, discreet use of CGI, amazing sets, amazing design, locations. I liked the other films too. I’m not saying that. But that one was different.

Let me get back to your character in “Two Faces of January,” because I had a funny personal reaction. He is of my father’s generation, basically, and like you my dad was an immigrant. He worshipped those kinds of guys, he wanted to be one of them and couldn’t quite make it.

Of course. My dad too.

But I also had this reaction, like, that’s exactly the kind of American who got us into Vietnam.

Yeah. “I can fix this.” It’s a generational thing, and I’m glad you noticed that. That’s where some of the tension comes from, because Rydal represents the coming of the Beat era.

I was thinking that! He’s got a little Greenwich Village to him, a little Kerouac.

He’s got that kind of thing like, “Hey man, let’s just let things be.” He’s a bit of a weasel too, but it’s a different thing. He doesn’t come from that mentality of, we can punch each other out and then get a martini together. It seems absurd, like Neanderthal.

Yeah. I feel there are a lot of things in that mentality that are praiseworthy, and then there’s a certain kind of arrogance that you just can’t get past.

Yeah. I studied those guys, old friends of my father, the few guys that are left. They’re in their 80s or 90s now. Guys who were kids during the Great Depression and then served in World War II. There’s this brotherhood, this unspoken bond between them, no matter what their station in life is, and their economic background, and even race to some degree. Although there were certainly barriers there. But there is certainly that kind of white American man who had a certain kind of … we talked about the clothes, the haircut, the uniformity, the code. It’s like you gotta look clean, you gotta look right if you’re really hung over, it’s like you gotta get that shit squared away, get shipshape, and all these things.

I collected a whole bunch of phrases that I remember my stepfather and his friends using. There’s a whole shitload of them. There’s a couple in the movie, but we did a lot more, but they were funny. Sometimes Kirsten would just burst out laughing: “You can’t say that, Grandpa!” But there is that thing, though. That stubbornness: I know what’s best, and America is the best, and you guys in Europe or the rest of the world may be interesting to come and have a look at, but fuck you guys. You’re inferior. I mean, that was the unspoken message. And if you need us to fix your stuff, we’ll do it.

Yeah, Chester even has that moment of connection with the private eye right before they try to kill each other. They’re both like, yeah, fuck Europe, you know?

Yeah, that’s something we came up with together, and it was great. They’re both servicemen.

I feel like we still have that hangover in American life. I’m sure you’ve seen “The Fog of War,” the great Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara. He’s that kind of guy.

Guys like McCain and Cheney and those guys thrive on pursuing that notion, even though Cheney was a draft-dodging dude. McCain did serve. But there’s that, like, a good bombing will solve a lot of problems. Let’s bomb first and ask questions later.

We’re still seduced by that. I mean, look at what’s happening right now.

Yeah, it’s happening right now. Rather than it being a police action or a special forces kind of thing. We’re gonna get in such a mess, and it’s gonna get worse. And I mean, what’s happening now gives the complete lie to that unfortunate 2003 phrase, “Mission Accomplished,” How ridiculous was that, looking at what’s going on now? It’s like the very worst example of irony.

“The Two Faces of January” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. It opens Oct. 3 in Palm Springs, Calif., Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., San Diego and Washington; and Oct. 10 in Atlanta, Boca Raton, Fla., Boston, Charleston, S.C., Denver, Hartford, Conn., Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow. It’s also available on demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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