The real Viggo Mortensen is often confused with the characters he plays. And you can see why. Since Lord of the Rings, he's played on his image as the wild man of film, living in the hinterlands of art house and foreign language movies. Away from the camera, he paints abstract paintings and writes poetry. He releases music with Buckethead. He lends his name to custom-made knives.
All of these are hobbies that make you think there's a fair bit of crossover between the man himself and the man we see on our screens. So when I meet him to talk about his role in Matt Ross' new film Captain Fantastic, it doesn't surprise me to find him drinking what looks like tea from a strange-looking gourd – which a quick google reveals to be a traditional Argentinian drinking cup. He grew up in the South American country with his family for the first ten years of his life, and its crockery seems to have made a lasting impression.
With all of this in mind – the fact that the public perception of Mortensen is so clearly influenced by the characters he plays – the first thing I ask is how he sees himself. "When I am asked, if I'm at immigration or I have to do a landing card after a flight and they ask for your occupation," he says. "I just write 'artist'."
It's the sort of line that should make you laugh, but Mortensen delivers it without a hint of irony or pretence. And, in fairness, it's a pretty accurate summation: the man paints; he produces music; he owns The Percival Press, which publishes his own poetry and the work of others; and he's carved out a successful career as an actor.
It also helps that, for the most part, Mortensen lives outside of the media circus. He isn't likely to grace the pages of The Sun or the New York Post; you won't spot him picking up matcha lattes in Calabasas or being "surprised" by paparazzi as he strips off on the beach. But I still want to ask: does media attention piss him off? Is that why he seems to actively avoid being in the spotlight unless he absolutely has to be?
"Misquotes and misconceptions," he says, straight off the bat. "Where people make up a story about who they think you are. I think all people do that, not just with actors, but with people they know. Best friends – people who have been friends for decades – who, when asked to describe them as how they have encountered them, leave out that they might behave differently with others."
He drops the point, returning to discussing the media. "It isn't like I'm hounded," he says. "I guess I'm not that extroverted. Unless it's a movie premiere, or showing up with someone who is better known, I don't think people bother me that much. There are a lot of boring paparazzi pictures of me walking a dog, and I don't think they sell that much."
His role in Captain Fantastic seems like the perfect part for him to play, but it's not going to help audiences who continue to confuse the man and his onscreen personas. He plays hippie-survivalist Ben, a man raising his kids deep in the woods of the American Midwest. Ben teaches the kids survival skill lessons, from rock climbing to a healthy distrust of contemporary neoliberal American culture, encouraging them instead to read Noam Chomsky (they don't celebrate Christmas, they do celebrate Chomsky's birthday), as well as playing music around campfires.
One of the many charms of Fantastic is the family dynamic, which could be described as a sort of beatnik version of The Waltons, but with knives and jokes about Maoism. Mortensen's Ben is an unconventional father, happy to frankly discuss everything: from his wife's bipolar disorder to explaining what a penis is to his youngest on-screen daughter. "[We are] talking about sex and rape, or where she pees from – giving these really methodical explanations, which aren't playing for laughs," explains Mortensen. "The character of Ben is explaining these sincerely."
This extends to drug taking: "When she asks him about crack, he turns around and says, 'Well, it's…' and goes on to explain it. You take the time and interest in your child to explain and give them an answer with the respect you would give to anyone else – which may or may not be a good idea in some cases."
It's a role that you could imagine few others playing. For Mortensen, though, however many similarities we would like to see, he doesn't view it as different to any of the other characters he has played – and that includes the tattooed Russian hitman Nikolai Luzhin in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.
"I have never played a character, however different he was to me – be it worldview, ideology, inclination towards violence… I have never played a character that I couldn't identify with at some level," he says. "As an actor, my job is to take on the point of view of the character I am playing. And not only take it on, but to fall in love with that point of view or the way they are thinking. I have never played a character I didn't fall in love with."
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