Mortensen, Viggo: Movie Star–Champion of Indies

Viggo Mortensen rose to international fame as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

His career, however, is not one of overnight success.

He has also garnered major critical acclaim for his multiple and complex roles, including performances in three films by Canadian director David Cronenberg, with whom he admits he has forged a special friendship.

56-year old Mortensen has recently received tribs in the San Sebastian Festival, Mar del Plata and now in the Marrakech film festival where he was honoured with a special career tribute on Sunday.

At 6 pm Sunday, Mortensen travelled to Marrakech’s World Heritage square, Place Jemaa el Fna, in the company of snake charmers, fortune tellers and junglers, to present his most recent work “Far from Men,” by David Oelhoffen, a French-language drama set in the Algerian war of independence, which was shot in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. The pic won the SIGNIS award at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

After the presentation in Place Jemaa el Fna, before 7000 spectators, he was whisked off to the red carpet of Marrakech’s plush Palais des Congres, where he was honoured with a personal tribute.

Actress and jury member Melanie Laurent presented the career award to Mortensen. She confided that she envies directors and above all actresses who have had the chance to work with him.
She then referred to the great depth and accuracy that Mortensen brings to roles, based on immersing himself in each character and referred to how, for example, he confronted “rain, hunger, cold and loneliness” in John Hillcoat’s “The Road”.

She also cited his multiple talents including as a producer, director, actor, painter, musician and poet, and ended up by revealing that she had just discovered that they have a common passion: ice hockey.

Visibly moved as he came on stage, Mortensen, speaking in French, said that it had been a wonderful experience to present “Far from Men” in the Place Jemaa el Fna before “storytellers, artists, poets and the people of Marrakech”, adding that it was “like being in a dream.”
He then said that it was one year ago, on Dec. 7, 2013 that shooting wrapped in Morocco on “Far from Men.” Getting back into character, the thesp then switched into Arabic: “Being here tonight is like coming back home”, to tremendous applause.

“Men” director David Oelhoffen and co-star, Reda Kateb, joined Mortensen on stage.

“Viggo doesn’t just bring talent to a project,” explained Oelhoffen. “He uses that talent to make projects possible. He has the courage to take risks and I benefited from his generosity. Thank you.”

Prior to the tribute, Mortensen provided a round table interview to journalists – where he talked about his recent projects and experiences with different directors.

Commencing with “Far from Men” he explained that Oelhoffen had initially wanted to shoot in Algeria and they spent several days location-scouting in the country. However given the relatively limited budget they didn’t want to take chances of encountering a logistics nightmare, due to the fact that locations suddenly become unavailable due to bureaucratic obstacles. He shrugged off the idea that this was due to any political concerns in relation to Algeria.

Instead “Men” was shot near the Moroccan-Algerian border, also in the Atlas mountains that are depicted in the film. An Algerian language coach was also on hand to ensure that the actors, including Mortensen, used the right accent and vocabulary when speaking Arabic in the film.
Mortensen revealed that he is intrigued by Arab culture and has been to Morocco on several occasions, although this is his first visit to the Marrakech film festival. In addition to Algeria, he also visited Egypt’s Cairo in the early 1990s.

He considers that “Far from Men” differs from other films set during the Algerian war of independence, that culminated in 1962, because previous pics have always had an ideological stance, whereas “Men” is essentially a personal drama, without any ideological ramifications.
“Different zones of the world seem to be really different, but when individuals from different backgrounds are forced to work together they often find that they’re not so different from each other. By showing this we can help people see eye-to-eye. This is particularly important in places torn by conflict, such as Israel, Syria, Libya or Egypt. It may seem to be impossible to bring people together, because of differences of religion, economics, race, class, politics or money. But if you don’t try, nothing will change. You have to try. Knowledge isn’t just about power. It’s also about freedom. ”

He explained that having been raised as a kid in Argentina within a multi-cultural family, and having travelled widely means that he is particular interested in cultural differences while at the same time tries to see beyond such differences to find the common humanity underneath.

“These experiences have changed me mentally and physically. My job as an actor is to tell and see the world in different ways. Sometimes I portray characters that I wouldn’t like to meet in real life, but through the role I get to know them and understand them.”

“People are complicated. All of us. Everyone has a secret life, their own individual dreams and hopes. I think the director has the chance to show this, whether in a slapstick comedy or a thriller.”

Mortensen was also asked about returning in Argentina to shoot his recent film “Jauja” by Lisandro Alonso, which played in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and is screening at Marrakech as part of his career trib.

“I don’t see any difference in shooting in different countries in terms of nationality or budget,” he explained. “The key difference is related to the subject and the person who is directing the film. Essentially everything depends on the personality of the director, the captain of the ship.”

He added that lower budget productions can often deliver greater artistic freedom, and that with small crews there is a more intimate, family atmosphere. “With big budget films, the investors don’t want to take risks and so they’re more likely to use a formula, that’s been successful before. Films like ‘Jauja’ will take 2-3 years to put together. But they’re original rather than being based on a formula.”

Asked about how he chooses roles, he explained that he tries to accept roles that he would like to see on the big screen, and that may make a difference to the world.

In relation to David Cronenberg with whom he has worked on three films, he said that the director had taught him above all that “less is more.” Asked whether the awards he has won with his roles in Cronenberg films, in particular “Eastern Promises,” had made a major difference to his career, he replied: “I don’t think that awards make you any better as an actor. They don’t enable you to do the job any better. I think ‘Eastern Promises’ was a special case, because it struck a chord. But you never know what the audience or critical reaction will be to your films. It doesn’t change my way of acting.”

In relation to Cronenberg he nonetheless emphasised the special bond that exists between them. “David has helped me to do some really good work. He understands my working process. We have something in common. We like similar books and movies and we have a similar sense of humour. That enables me to help him tell the story.”

Mortensen revealed that he considers that Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is one of his best films to date. “It’s a near perfect film noir/thriller.”

Turning to Peter Jackson, the actor also revealed that he admires Jackson’s recent productions, stating that he donned funny glasses to be able to slip into the opening day screenings of the first two pics in “The Hobbit” trilogy, surrounded by teenagers, and intends to do the same for the third film.

Finally in relation to playing characters who attempt to escape the stresses of modern life but are then caught up in its snares, he quipped: “I like to live dangerously. Last night I was quietly at home, cooking a meal of chicken, onions and garlic, Cuban style, and then here I am today facing a pack of journalists.”