Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces Of January

Viggo Mortensen A Global Citizen

It was only a casual question about the world cup this month, the sort of thing one bloke might say to another in a pub to fill a void. But the bloke with me at the Covent Garden Hotel in London today is the actor Viggo Mortensen—and Mortensen is a man who takes things seriously. He furrows his brows, sharpens those piercing eyes and ponders deeply.

“I mean, I’d love to see Argentina and Brazil in the final, and Argentina beat Brazil. I’d like to see England do better than they have, because they should have done better the previous time, but so should Argentina, at least in the last several World Cups. I’d like to see Wayne Rooney have an amazing World Cup because he’s never had that, nor in the European Championships either. He’s never shown the promise. Well, he was pretty good in Portugal…”

And so on.

It’s obvious that Viggo knows a lot about football. But then he knows a lot about a lot of things.

And the films he’s made—from The Lord of the Rings to the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—mark him out as a man who goes wherever his many interests take him. The unpredictability goes beyond just his film choices too—sometimes he chooses not to do films at all. He publishes his own poetry, he makes music, he sells his own artworks. He, it barely needs to be said, isn’t your standard-issue Hollywood lead: Viggo is a man apart.

His new film The Two Faces of January is all part of the trend of there not being a trend, and it captures two faces of Viggo Mortensen.

I think the more places you go, the more chances you have to be objective about other cultures, and that’s a positive thing

Based on a little-known and—by Viggo’s description—a not particularly good Patricia Highsmith story, it’s a taut thriller set around Europe in the early 1960s. Viggo plays an urbane American businessman called Chester MacFarlane, who brings his glamorous wife (Kirsten Dunst) to Athens for a holiday, but gets involved with a scamster called Rydal—and murder. It means Mortensen gets to play both a chiselled-cheeked charmer and a man on the make in the same film, and sometimes in the same scene. 

“It’s always more interesting to watch a character’s mask come off, isn’t it?” says the 55-year-old, with a half smile.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

That people have many different masks, different faces for different places 

is something that Mortensen understands implicitly. His mother is American and his father is Danish, an agricultural manager. Viggo was born in New York, but his father’s work took the Mortensens to Argentina when Viggo was three years old. Then, when his parents divorced, he, his mother and his two younger brothers returned to America, near the Canadian border in upstate New York.

“My brothers and I spoke only Spanish and it was 1970, so there was no TV or radio in Spanish, no internet, no cable and no Argentine football any more. But you quickly adapt.”

The young Viggo started speaking French; they weren’t far from Quebec. “And I swapped my football team with the Montreal Canadians hockey team
—they have the same colours.”

Even today, having also spent years in New Zealand filming The Lord of the Rings, and now resident in Spain, he struggles to name one place as “home”.

Viggo Mortensen in Lord of The Rings

“There are some places—Argentina, because it was [where I spent my] childhood—I’m very much at home in. But I don’t feel the same walking around New York. I don’t know. I think the more places you go, the more chances you have to be objective about other cultures, and that’s a positive thing. I think that probably, as a result of moving around and [having] different cultural influences, I’ve always felt that in every moment, in every place I was, there was some sort of displacement. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps you open-minded, I think.”

From his past, you can see why Viggo has an interesting relationship with the US—he’s tied to the country by family and work, yet simultaneously stands at one remove from it, a Chester MacFarlane figure who might be one thing, might easily be another. 

 

The idea of Americans as both heroes and villains runs right through The Two Faces of January

and it was one of the things that drew Mortensen to the role. “In post-war America, Americans liked to think of themselves in the John F Kennedy/Jackie O mould—the glamorous, the good people. And I think that’s how Europeans, by and large, looked at them too. There was still that afterglow of them having been the nice guys in the Second World War. That changed once people started shooting politicians…Martin Luther King…Robert Kennedy, and certainly the corrupt presidents like Richard Nixon. It’s different now; it’s a different world.”

As you might expect from a polyglot poet, Mortensen prefers subtlety to brash, bold statements—he’s softly spoken, scrupulously polite, thoughtful and serious. He likes the fact that The Two Faces of January doesn’t shout too loud.

“Even though we were in iconic locations, one of the things I enjoyed is that they didn’t try to make a big deal of it. The Talented Mr Ripley [Anthony Minghella’s Highsmith adaptation] had sort of the opposite approach. There was good acting and storytelling, but it was like, ‘Let’s make it clear that we’re in these well-known places.’ ”

To read more of Viggo's interview and to find out why he's shying away from blockbuster films, click here.

A selection of films starring Viggo can be found at our Reader's Digest shop, click here.

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