“You never know how the world is perceiving you,” says Viggo Mortensen, “and I try not to be boxed in.”Ever since exploding into the cultural consciousness as the sword-wielding hero Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films, the erudite and intense 56-year-old actor has made it awfully hard for myopic studio executives to define exactly what a “Viggo Mortensen type” is. He’s fully inhabited roles ranging from the likes of a tattooed Russian mobster to a pair of Spanish-speaking twin brothers, a Nazi, and Sigmund Freud. This year alone, he’ll play a Danish general in Jauja (speaking fluent Danish and Spanish) and a former soldier-turned-schoolteacher in the Algerian War drama Far From Men, which required him to speak in French and Arabic. He also speaks Italian, by the way.
In David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men, in theaters May 1 (and available on VOD now), Mortensen plays Daru, an ex-French Army soldier turned schoolteacher in a tiny village in 1954 Algeria. He reluctantly agrees to transport a prisoner, Mohamed (A Prophet’s Reda Kateb) to Tilsit, where he’s set to stand trial, but the two soon find themselves caught in the midst of the onset of the Algerian War and the treacherous mountains. These two proud, reserved men soon forge a unique bond, surrendering their prejudices and embracing their fellow man.
The Daily Beast spoke with the Oscar-nominated Mortensen, who’s always proven to be a candid, fascinating interview subject, about everything from Muslim stereotyping to technology, Edward Snowden, and 1984.
After The Lord of the Rings films, you really could’ve done whatever you wanted. But you’ve managed to stick to your guns and avoid the temptation of large paychecks for less interesting studio films, instead opting for fascinating ones like Far From Men.
I don’t have anything against working on big-budget movies and getting paid well, and I honestly don’t try to avoid any type of movie or genre, and I don’t look for any particular language or nationality in terms of movies. It seems like I’m trying to do as many languages as I can, but that’s just the way it’s worked out. I’m looking for stories that I like; movies that I’d like to see in the movie theater. That’s subjective, but it’s the only way I can feel good about what I’m doing, so when I have to do press for the film after it’s all said and done, I can be honest without trying to dodge questions because in my heart I know that it’s not really good, and that I did it for the money. But it’s just the way it’s worked out. Once I commit to something I want to see it through.
I grew up a big comic-book geek and I could see you in a superhero film. Were you ever courted by the superhero powers that be? You would’ve made a good Wolverine.
I was offered Wolverine, actually, for the first movie—I guess it would’ve been for the franchise then. That was just before I got Lord of the Rings. I was flattered. I remember going to that meeting with the director, Bryan Singer, with my son who was a total comic book expert. He was about 10 at the time. Henry came, and Singer showed us all these models and storyboards, and Henry was instructing the director, saying, “Oh, you’re going to change this thing right here.” I believe it coincided with another project, and I couldn’t do it. Every once in a while I’m offered something like that. I was offered two different parts in the last Superman movie they made [Man of Steel], but I wasn’t available to do that either. And The Huntsman in Snow White and the Huntsman, which isn’t a comic book but is almost like a comic book.
That’s a little too close to Aragorn, right?
It might’ve been. Yeah. They changed it a lot. When they offered it to me, it was a different story and seemed more justified to be called Snow White and the Huntsman. The movie they ended up making should have been called Snow White and the Wicked Witch. The original script was a lot funnier and there was a longer apprenticeship. It was almost like The African Queen a little bit.
Far From Men is set at the start of the Algerian War, which in retrospect is seen as an important decolonization war. But when your character is shown the paper in the opening scene, the rebel actions are painted as the actions of terrorists. It begs the question of: Is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter?
That’s right. It’s difficult. There’s that “us vs. them” and “kill or be killed” mentality, and in the long run, when you’re talking about increasingly large arsenals of conventional and nuclear arms all over the place, it’s kind of untenable for the human race to survive and keep having that mentality. Camus wrote something to the effect of, “It is easier to die for one’s contradictions than to live with them.” What can you learn from the other, and from one’s differences? Everyone was a kid at one point, so how can we come together? This story is very much about that, and that’s why I feel this film is an important one to see given what’s going on in the world right now—particularly in the Middle East, but also elsewhere.
Right. In America right now, we are often being presented with a very black-and-white view of Muslims, and there is this pervasive “us vs. them” mentality that is quite toxic.
Yeah. It’s very easy to do that. It’s much easier to say that instead of talking with somebody who’s different—or your enemy—and work out any kind of agreement, or even try. There’s the whole debate about Iran, and the constant barrage from the likes of John McCain. There’s a certain part of Congress whose first answer is always, “Let’s bomb them.” The Dick Cheney mentality. That has been proven again and again to not be a long-term solution; you create a lot more problems than existed in the first place. It’s not the way to go, but it’s the easy way to go.
It’s the political way to go.
It’s the easy way to score points and win elections and raise money for elections, to have that digestible, black-and-white view. To have a dialogue with someone in any way complex that’s really about human beings takes more than just sound bites—it takes work. Those people are essentially just lazy and result-oriented, and the result they want is to stay in power, or gain it. This doesn’t just happen on the right, but on the left and middle, too. In the end, if you’re doing that you’re not there to serve the people. What people are you there to serve? You’re only serving yourself.
You play a schoolteacher in the film to a class of young kids. How do you feel about today’s youth? It seems we’re living in an increasingly tech-reliant world, and also one that lacks privacy.
The privacy thing concerns me. But with all the gadgets and all that, I sometimes think maybe it’s just a phase and will develop into more attention of what’s going on around you, but at the moment, young and old, people don’t seem to be present—on the sidewalk, or where they are. People can’t even sit for a minute and have a cup of coffee with someone without checking their phone, responding, punching the “like” button, or taking a picture of themselves and sending it. It seems like this unconscious fear of death that’s just gotten way out of hand. The fear of not being present and not being on top of everything makes you not be present at all. I think when you’re working like that you’re like a hamster in a cage, and I think that serves a certain part of the political class, because voting is irregular, people tend to go to the sources of information they already agree with, and it seems like people are more polarized than ever and less focused on what’s going on in the here and now.
If you’re walking down the sidewalk and bumping into people because you’re looking at your phone, you’re not really here. If your car is swerving because you’re texting, you’re not really here. If you’re standing on line at the post office and talking at the top of your lungs to someone a thousand miles away with no consideration for people standing right next to you, you don’t really give a shit. People seem to be more and more unconscious. But I think the way forward is that people will become more conscious. Even though I don’t avail myself of all that stuff, I’m not one of those people who thinks Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and text messaging is the end of civilization, but like anything, it’s how you use it.
I went to a concert the other day and they forced everyone to check their phones during the show to avoid having a bunch of tiny screens light up this dark, small room. And people there were getting very stressed out about it.
It’s like if someone drinks way too much coffee and you take their coffee away, they go apeshit for a day and then get used to it. If you take someone’s iPhone away for a little while because it has to be repaired or it got stolen, people have real meltdowns. Is it really a matter of survival? It’s not in most cases.
Phones are also good devices now for checking authority. I’m not sure if you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in South Carolina with the video of the cop who shot Walter Scott.
South Carolina. Yes, I’ve been following it. That was great what happened there, that he was caught on video, but let’s see what they do. Look at what happened in Ferguson or Staten Island, where the guy was choked to death. That was all caught on a phone, but the guy wasn’t even taken to trial! Because all these things have been happening, it’s going to be hard for that police department in Charleston to let the guy get away with it.
Technology is an interesting thing, because it can be used to check authority—as in the case of Walter Scott or Eric Garner—but can go the other way as well.
Who’s the one that’s going to decide what’s an invasion of privacy, and what isn’t? It’s annoying when you can’t do anything without being observed. It’s just how it’s managed. What Edward Snowden has warned about is the equivalent of what George Orwell was warning about, and I think that documentary Citizenfour is equivalent to 1984 in its importance. And I think Snowden is like Winston Smith—the character who fights Big Brother. There are serious issues with it, not just the trivial, “Get out of my face with that camera, it’s so irritating,” but it can also be good. I think young people are also learning things very fast, and if they want to, it’s good for getting out the vote and making people conscious of what’s going on, but they’re great tools to inform. What are the roots of this kind of music, or literature? Where did it come from? I think people are generally better-informed, but it’s just a matter of what they do with that information. Being informed and engaging, or using that information to connect with others in more than just a trivial way, that’s the next step. A lot of people are doing that, but a lot more could be.