He writes poetry, composes music, speaks multiple languages – and makes the kind of movies that get people talking. Best of all, finds Martha Hayes, Viggo Mortensen loves a cuppa
When Viggo Mortensen was travelling the world to promote The Lord Of The Rings films in the early 2000s, he’d frequently get pulled aside by officials querying the ziplock bag of suspicious-looking herbs he took with him wherever he went. ‘It was like, “We’re going to bring the dogs in!”’ he recalls with a sheepish grin. Today, in a London hotel suite, old habits die hard; nothing comes between the Danish-American actor and a cup of fresh green tea. He’s even brought his own tiny metal cup and matching metal straw.
It’s easy to be taken aback by how eccentric, warm and funny Mortensen, 60, is in person. It’s not how you imagine stoic Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings IRL; and it’s certainly not the vibe you get from the sinister characters he’s inhabited in a trio of David Cronenberg films (from A History Of Violence to A Dangerous Method; he’s starred in more than anyone else). That’s not to suggest an actor’s film choices are ever indicative of their personality, but Mortensen’s career spans more than 30 years now, and his reputation for being conscientious and painfully diffident could precede him.
But he’s full of surprises, and none more so than his latest role in Green Book, a film written and directed by Peter Farrelly, the brains behind There’s Something About Mary and Dumb And Dumber. Not that Viggo Mortensen is doing a Jim Carrey – that would be a stretch too far –because this is Farrelly’s first drama. Goose-bumpily moving but punctuated with LOLs, it’s a joyful masterpiece inspired by the real-life friendship between wheeler-dealer New York City bouncer Tony Lip (Mortensen) and well-spoken world-class black pianist Dr Don Shirley (Moonlight star Mahershala Ali).
The action follows the unlikely pair after Tony is hired to drive and protect Dr Shirley on a 1962 concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South using the ‘Green Book’ – a travel guide that helped steer African-Americans to places that wouldn’t refuse them service or threaten them with violence in the era of segregation. The film won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (previous winners include La La Land and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and is widely predicted to be the underdog at the 2019 Oscars.
Mortensen, who was born in New York City but has lived all over the world and speaks several languages, could well bag his third nomination (following Eastern Promises in 2008 and Captain Fantastic in 2017) for a role he almost turned down. ‘I wasn’t sure I was right for an Italian-American character,’ he explains. ‘I said to [Farrelly], “I think you’re taking a risk, which is great and if you pull this off you’re going to surprise a lot of people, but you have to be careful how you cast it.” But I’m glad he convinced me. I’ve felt the same before with David Cronenberg, playing Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method. It’s good to be pushed out of your comfort zone.’
‘Once you communicate, you can find something in common with anybody’
He’s certainly got the seal of approval from Tony Lip’s oldest son Nick Vallelonga, who came up with the idea to tell this story and co-wrote it as a tribute to his father, who died in 2013 aged 82. Dr Shirley passed away just three months later, aged 86. Their friendship had lasted more than 50 years. ‘The quintessential Italian in a movie is Marlon Brando in The Godfather,’ explains Vallelonga. ‘Marlon Brando was Irish but his level of acting made everyone think he was Italian. He played Italian better than an Italian. Viggo is our Marlon Brando.’
High praise indeed, although Mortensen denies he’s ever gone full ‘method’ like Brando. ‘I tend to think of [method acting as] people who refuse to break character and insist you address them as their character… I don’t do that,’ he shrugs. ‘During this shoot, I tried to keep the accent but not the behaviour – I would have been thrown in jail!’
Tony Lip is a lovable brute with a big heart and an even bigger belly, and Mortensen piled on around two stone to feel, as much as look, like him. Today, he is healthy and lean, so I wonder if gaining so much weight had any psychological impact. ‘I was a little self-conscious,’ he recalls. ‘I had to go and buy [new] trousers and shirts. It’s a lot easier, as everyone knows, when you get to a certain age to put on weight than to take it off. Although I’d hate that to be the salient point.’
But eating and food do play a key part in the film; from the hot dog-eating competition a down-on-his-luck Tony wins by polishing off 26 (Mortensen ate 15 of them for real) to a bucket of fried chicken shared on the drive, exposing – before quickly evaporating – the class and racial divide.
Just as Tony and Dr Shirley are forced to confront their own preconceptions (‘Tony’s like, “He’s a prick”, and Dr Shirley thinks, “That guy’s an animal”’), Mortensen hopes the film’s audiences will, too. ‘It’s good the movie is set in 1962, where there is no question of that’s the way it was; it’s not an idealogical point that anybody’s trying to make, it’s institutionalised racism,’ he explains. ‘It serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen if we ever allow ourselves to slip back into a certain ignorance. And not just in the US; it can happen in the UK and Europe. Whether it’s being exploited by politicians or corporations for profit and power, or the fear of “the other” – immigrants or people of different races, classes or religion – all these things point to the dangers of not communicating. Once you communicate and listen, you [can] find something in common with anybody in the world.’
When he’s not acting, Mortensen – who resides in Spain with Spanish actress Ariadna Gil and has a grown-up son, Henry, from a previous marriage – keeps busy as a (wait for it) poet, photographer, painter and musician, having wisely invested his Lord Of The Rings money in his own independent publishing company, Perceval Press, in 2002.
He was in his early forties when the JRR Tolkien trilogy made him an international name and he’s grateful he was able to take all the attention in his stride. ‘When you’ve been working 15 to 20 years already, you know it’s just one story, and your employability or stock will go up and down based on what you do next. I was unfamiliar with the massive amount of attention paid to all of us, but I knew by then that, “OK, this is great, but it’s not permanent.” You have to keep going in life and keep working.’
It’s a philosophy that helped him in recent years caring for his parents – who both had dementia – at the end of their lives. They passed away within two years of each other; his father nearing the end when Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar for Captain Fantastic in 2017. ‘You work as hard as you can, but this put things into perspective. That’s what I remember; my parents, more than – with all due respect – “this”. [Death] is annoying, it’s sad… but it’s a constant bell ringing. A wake-up call to make the most of life.’
And with that, he shakes my hand and gives me a CD of his music – a little slice of his eccentricity – to take home. The biggest surprise of all.
Green Book is in cinemas from 1 February