It took Viggo Mortensen almost twenty years to break into acting. Along the way, he was cut from films like Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and cast (and then axed) from Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but he never lost his faith. Fate intervened in Oct. 1999, when the then-character actor received a call from Peter Jackson asking him to be a last-minute replacement for Stuart Townsend for the role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Now, the erudite actor is a household name. His latest film is The Two Faces of January, an old-fashioned caper set in scenic Greece and Turkey. Directed by Hossein Amini and adapted from the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, Mortensen plays Chester MacFarland, a dapper gent vacationing with his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), in Greece. The two cross paths with a local tour guide/con artist, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who takes a liking to them—in particular Colette. When a private eye winds up dead, the three become fugitives on the run… and then things get particularly hairy when Chester becomes jealous of Colette and Rydal.
Mortensen spoke at length to The Daily Beast about the film, and his long road to stardom.
I’ve heard that you’re not a fan of Fox News.
They lie—that would be the word for it.
You helped narrate The People Speak, a documentary on Howard Zinn, which presents a pretty different version of history than the one Fox News presents.
Howard Zinn’s version of history is based on fact. Fox News’ version of history is rarely based on fact. That’s the main difference between Howard Zinn and Fox News. Zinn’s version of history is a threat to the system.
You signed the Toronto Declaration back in 2009 opposing the Israeli occupation of Gaza, and Israel is back in the news. What's your take on the current situation there?
Sadly, very little has changed in terms of the free rein that the government of Israel is given by the U.S. and other influential governments in terms of their handling of the Palestinian question. Sadly, too, the violent acts from a small minority of Palestinian terrorists also continue unabated. No one in the media seems to have a problem with anyone criticizing Palestinian terrorism, but if anyone dares express any objection to the Israeli government’s acts of state terrorism against Palestinian civilians, one is rapidly vilified and censored. Truly even-handed reporting and diplomacy are the only way to peaceful coexistence, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near seeing either of these happening in the mainstream U.S. or European media as regards the state of Israel and its behavior.
Now, The Two Faces of January is such a welcome respite because it’s an old-school caper that’s actually shot on location in Greece and Turkey—instead of, say, Vancouver.
Or they shoot it somewhere else and green screen it, and fake it, and all that. No, you don’t go there as much. It was an old-fashioned movie as much as an old-fashioned shoot. The trick is to not slavishly imitate some retro exercise. The characters, costumes, location, and dialogue have to stand on its own as a new movie, and I think it does. I think Hossein Amini prepared it very well and his work with the cinematographer ensured that we weren’t making some replica. I think that, as good and interesting as it was, The Talented Mr. Ripley went a little bit too far in that direction of picture-postcard. As I was watching it, the effort was always obvious of, “Oh, look at this! Look at the era, and the quaintness of it!” as opposed to the reality. Ours is a bit messier, but every bit as authentic as far as period recreations.
It is quite glamorous at first though—with you in that impeccable white suit.
In the beginning, it feels like it’s going to be The Talented Mr. Ripley—and not just because it’s the same era and features Americans in the Mediterranean—but you start at a recognizable monument, The Parthenon, and it’s in the sunshine and almost Gatsby-esque with beautiful people in beautiful clothes but then, in parallel with the actual character, the story also descends from the sunshine to nameless back-alleys and caves. But this was one of those rare movies, too, where the shoot was a lot of fun and we swam, ate good food, and had a great time, and then we saw the movie and it was a really good, thought-provoking take on the film noir genre.
Your character loves Ouzo. Do you like that stuff? It doesn’t do it for me.
I don’t like it, either! It’s a little too sweet for me. And you can get really bad hangovers from it because of the sweetness. I like Argentine malbec red wine or a good red wine from the North of Spain. And I like a good Irish whiskey. I like Jameson.
You play a grifter in the film. Have you ever been the victim of a con?
I have been ripped off in a minor way, but not a big con. One time, I got hustled and thought I was buying a ticket to a Mets game, and it wasn’t a real ticket. I lost, like, forty bucks. It wasn’t much. That was back in, I think, ’85. I’m a longtime Mets fan. Daryl Strawberry, to me, has the sweetest swing I’ve ever seen. What a waste. He really could have been a DiMaggio if he applied himself.
Have you ever had a friend move in on your girl and steal her away?
He wasn’t a friend, but yeah, I’ve had that happen. Shit happens. But it’s a misplaced ego thing seeing it that way; it’s not as if she’s being kidnapped. It’s presumptuous to say I lost her because a woman makes her own decisions. But it is true that when my character Chester starts getting paranoid and thinking he’s losing her, he makes it worse and adds oil to the flame by exhibiting even more of the possessive, controlling, paranoid behavior that’s pushing her away in the first place. When we start getting desperate, we act in ways that are completely against our own interests.
The first film I ever saw you in as a kid was Carlito’s Way. You were sweating bullets in that movie.
[Laughs] That was a fun character to prepare. Having been raised in a Latin American country, I had some understanding of it. But I spent a lot of time in East Harlem and listened to the music of the period, as well as the speech. At one point, we were thinking of doing the scene all in Spanish, but in the end we did it in English. It’s funny—I’m only in one scene in that film but to this day in New York City there are people who yell out to me, “Lalin!” It’s mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican New Yorkers.
And the next film I saw you in was the very first R-rated film I saw in theaters: Crimson Tide. Apparently, Quentin Tarantino did a bunch of uncredited rewrites on that? The Lipizzaner stallion exchange sounds very QT.
Yeah! He was one of several writers that the studio brought in. That’s what studios do—they get crazy, and start throwing money around really for no reason. But it’s fun folklore to talk about how Tarantino did rewrite that. The best part about that was that movie was filmed not too far from where I was living at the time, so on my days off I’d walk over to the set and watch Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, two very good actors and very different actors, act. It was like watching two heavyweight boxers go at it.
It took a long time for you to really break into the industry. I read that early on you were cut from Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo?
I was cut from that… and I was cut from Swing Shift, the Jonathan Demme film with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Unfortunately, I was never told that I wasn’t going to be in it, so my family and me went to the movie theater expecting to see me and I wasn’t in it. I think the director or someone in the production should at least let the actor know that he’s not going to be in it… but it was an experience, and part of my apprenticeship. I learned how to act in movies by acting in movies, and in a way, it was fortunate that they weren’t lead roles right away. I tested about a dozen times for lead roles and I always thought I was going to get them because I really did my best and prepared a lot, but I never got one of those. The experience of preparing for the auditions and the bit parts with different kinds of directors was a big learning experience. At the time, it was very frustrating to not get the roles and see other actors get these big roles, but the main thing is just to be prepared for accidents to happen and good luck to come your way.
What leads did you get really close on?
There were a couple of roles I would have liked to have played that I got close on. One of those was Greystoke—the Tarzan movie—because it was a really gritty version of the story, and another one I had the role but lost it. It was the part that Willem Dafoe wound up playing in Platoon. Oliver Stone cast me in that role back when it was going to be a much lower-budget movie, but he was having trouble getting the financing together. Then, he cast Willem Dafoe and I read about it in the news. And stupid me, I had spent the past year reading every possible book on Vietnam, looking at it from every angle possible, and doing my own, self-motivated boot camp. I got ahold of Oliver Stone’s number and called him and said, “What are you doing? The role was mine! Let me show you I’m the right guy for the part.” Willem Dafoe had just been in To Live and Die in L.A. and he was more “on the map” in terms of industry consciousness, even though I felt I was the person more knowledgeable about the character. I learned a lot there, too, and I don’t regret it. And Willem Dafoe did a great job in that film.
But fate finally came into play when Stuart Townsend was cast as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but it wasn’t working, and you stepped in to play the role.
Totally. I wouldn’t have even worked with David Cronenberg or any of these brilliant filmmakers if it wasn’t for that. There’s still a ripple effect of the residual good fortune I got when I received the call in October 1999 that I would be joining this wonderful cast and crew in telling Tolkien’s story. I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson for that. It was a very lucky break.
I heard you were almost arrested by police on the set for carrying your sword around in public?
That’s true. I don’t know if they were really going to arrest me, but they did stop me and ask me a lot of questions. That was in New Zealand. They let me take the sword with me to practice with, because as you were saying, I replaced an actor and came to the film late so I had to play catch-up. Stupidly, I was walking down the street to my car after rehearsal and I was wielding the sword which, from the innocent bystander's point of view, probably looked like a deranged person with a dangerous weapon. So, understandably, they called the cops. I guess if it happened post-9/11 I probably would’ve gotten arrested… or worse.