Viggo Mortensen at the New York City premiere of ‘The Two Faces of January,’ Sept. 12, 2014
When The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies marches into theaters on December 17, don’t expect to see Viggo Mortensen leading the charge. Granted, his Lord of the Rings counterpart, Aragon, wasn’t in J.R.R. Tolkien’s earlier fantasy classic, but Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptation has certainly made room for other cast members from the preceding trilogy including Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom. And Jackson has also suggested that the third and final Hobbit film will serve as a bridge between the two series, which could be a hint at a few more surprise cameos.
But Mortensen tells us that he never got a call from the director. “I’m not in it. I haven’t been asked.” There are no hard feelings, though—the 55-year-old actor says that he’s watched every Hobbit installment, and will be cheering on Gandalf and Bilbo in Five Armies as well.
In the meantime, the once and future king is keeping busy making films like The Two Faces of January, an adaptation of the 1964 novel by Patricia Highsmith. The period psychological thriller, which opens on Sept. 26, stars Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst as a married couple traveling abroad when their checkered past catches up with them. Also pulled into the ensuing mess is a low-level scam artist (played by Oscar Isaac), who agrees to help the couple out, largely because he has his eye on Dunst. Mortensen had more to say about January—and The Hobbit—when he sat down with us during a New York press day.
The writer/director of The Two Faces of January, Hossein Amini, said that he didn’t seek you out for the part—you found him.
Yeah, I liked the book and asked him what the status of the movie was. He said, “The status is that I’m trying to get the financing together.” And I said, “Well if you can do that, count me in.” We had a very nice meeting; I liked his ideas about the approach he was going to take to the visuals, and the fact he wanted to shoot in real locations. I was attracted to all of that.
Mortensen as Chester MacFarland in ‘The Two Faces of January’
Among Highmith’s books, January doesn’t appear to enjoy the same popularity as Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley.
It’s not one of her best, but the characters are interesting, and Hossein made them even more interesting. He wrote a very good adaptation; it’s a rare case where, if anything, the screenplay is an improvement on the book, largely because the characters are more layered, particularly Kirsten’s role. She’s more conflicted about what’s happening, to the fact that she’s been turning a blind eye to what her husbands’ really been up to for quite a long time, and can’t anymore. And my character is different as well. In the book, he starts out as a real sloppy, desperate paranoid person, so you’ve got nowhere to go. In the movie, it’s much more interesting, because this couple is definitely not whom they seem to be at first.
Was it a challenge to play a character whose personality is constantly shifting?
As an actor, in some sense, you’re a con man because you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. And in this story, I’m pretending to be someone I’m not, who is pretending to be someone he’s not. It’s kind of a spiral or labyrinth—you’ll get lost trying to figure this person out. You have some idea, but you can’t be sure. But I know for myself. It’s fun to have a secret, and my secret is that I know where he’s from, and some of the reasons why he is where he is.
You filmed the movie in a number of picturesque Mediterranean locations. How did that landscape help inform your performance?When the movie starts, you think, “Okay this is like The Talented Mr. Ripley—we’re going to see these postcards of Mediterranean Europe and it’s going to be beautiful, even if sordid things happen.” So it begins like that. And then it spirals, ending up in the gutter in the rain and the dark. So it’s quite a descent. It’s not a series of postcards. I like that Hossein made a movie that feels old-fashioned, but it’s not an exercise in retro-filmmking. Everything is period-correct, and there’s a formal quality that feels very film noir. But it has a rhythm and energy that’s very modern.
It’s interesting to see you paired up with Oscar Isaac, a younger actor whose career is on a similar trajectory as yours. He’s made several smaller films before graduating to a big, effects-driven franchise: Lord of the Rings in your case, and Star Wars in his. Did you have any advice for him?
I think these sorts of things are unspoken. Whatever he got from working with me, and certainly what I got from working with him, was watching another way of working. And it wasn’t like I was going to give him advice; he’s a very smart and experienced actor. Like me, he’s learned by doing, playing a pretty good range of supporting roles in small movies. I’m glad I didn’t have the pressure of being given some huge role right away, before I was prepared to work in an efficient way with the crew and the camera.
As Aragorn in 2002’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’
The final installment of The Hobbit arrives in theaters in December, closing out the whole Middle-earth saga. Looking back, what are your feelings about being part of such a landmark film franchise?
It was a really good adaptation that captured the spirit of Tolkien really well. It had a really big impact on people, and they still care about it, and will talk about it for years. It was an important, milestone in many ways, both in terms of movie storytelling and technology. I’m very happy that Peter Jackson picked me to play one of the roles. Without that stroke of luck, I wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunities I’ve had since. It’s still one of the reasons that I can say, “Yes” to a small movie like The Two Faces of January, and it means something as far as raising money. I’ll be forever grateful to Peter for that and a lot of other things, too.
Have you been keeping up with the Hobbit trilogy?
I’ve been there opening day for each film, front-row center, with my 3D glasses. I’ll be doing that with the third one, probably. I’m looking forward to seeing how they end it.
Your son was instrumental in getting you to accept the role of Aragorn. Do you watch the new movies together?
The first time I was in Argentina, and I took some kids I was hanging out with there. The other one I saw in Madrid, and wasn’t with him then, either. This December we may be together, so I imagine we’ll see it together. He’s older now, obviously, but I think he’s still interested in that world, and the connections he can make with actual mythology.
Since making the Lord of the Rings movies, you seem to have largely avoided Hollywood films, working extensively overseas and sometimes in other languages.
I’m not trying to consciously do movies in other countries and other languages. That’s just where my eye has taken me—it’s not from the lack of wanting to be in a studio movie. I’ve just tried to find stories I like, regardless of budget or nationality, stories I’d want to go to the movie theater and see, something I wouldn’t be annoyed to be in 10 years from now. That’s my rough approach.
With Ed Harris in 2005’s ‘A History of Violence’
Well, we are coming up on the tenth anniversary of A History of Violence next year, which launched your three-movies-and-counting collaboration with David Cronenberg. How do you feel about that movie these days?
Yeah, we filmed in that in 2004, and then premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. In retrospect, having seen the other movies in competition that year, I definitely think that movie should have won either Best Director or Best Movie. Juries are weird; who knows what goes beyond closed doors when there are directors on a jury and they’re judging a director—maybe there’s resentment or jealous, who knows. David’s movies seem to be challenging on the surface. You’re like, “What is this? This is messy, this is weird.” But then, when he executes it and people see it, at first glance, they’re intrigued. It’s only on a second viewing, after it’s settled in their bodies and minds, that realize just how amazing it is. When people see A History of Violence [a second time], they realize it’s a real masterpiece. It takes time when you’re ahead of your time, and I think that’s what happens with David.
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Photo credits: Jemal Countess/Getty Images, Magnolia, New Line Cinema/Warner Bros., New Line Cinema