When Viggo Mortensen walks into the Soho hotel room where I’m waiting for him, I have this strange feeling of being taken back in time. The Danish-American actor is wearing what we used to wear in the 1970s: jeans and an old donkey jacket with a woven Peruvian bag slung over one shoulder. He shakes my hand, casts his limpid eyes in my direction and I get a scent of something we all reeked of back then – tobacco.
I have spent much time preparing for this moment. Mortensen is a devoted method actor and so, in his honour, I’ve been experimenting with method interviewing. Just as he immersed himself in cigars, antiquarian books and Viennese copperplate script in order to play Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method, I’ve been wallowing in Mortensen trivia.
For a start, there are the films. I watched him looking beautiful slaying Orcs as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I watched him silent and violent in two other Cronenberg films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
Then I read his poems, mostly about failed relationships, which he sings in a slow, melody-free style. I listened to his music, including Danish jazz-rap and a folk song about envy sung in Spanish (which he also speaks, having spent a lot of his youth in Argentina). I watched clips of him campaigning for Dennis Kucinich in the last US presidential election, and then examined his abstract paintings and his landscape photographs. When I tired of that, I hunted down pictures of his ex-wife, the punk rocker Exene Cervenka, of his grown-up son, and of an attractive Spanish woman who might or might not be a girlfriend.
Finally, I visited the gossip websites, one of which recently asked women which they’d like best: to spend a night with 53-year-old Mortensen or with his co-star, Michael Fassbender, who plays Jung to his Freud. Hundreds of women voted: Viggo beat the 34-year-old Fassie easily.
As the actor, artist, singer, campaigner, photographer, poet and all-round-hunk sits himself down, I make an awkward joke about the chairs, which are covered in a design of prickly holly leaves. Mortensen doesn’t laugh. “It’s actually comfortable,” he states flatly, and starts fishing around in his bag. He takes out an odd-looking silver vessel into which he puts some leaves and pours water from a thermos. He inserts a short silver straw and takes a sip.
“It’s an Argentine tea,” he explains. “It’s like a green tea but it doesn’t make you … It’s healthy, supposedly. To counteract some of my other vices, I suppose.”
For now I reserve the question about what these vices might be, and ask instead about the British premiere of A Dangerous Method, which took place the previous night. I’m finding it hard to believe that this earnest, hippyish impostor is the same person who, with the help of a false nose, brown contact lenses and a few extra pounds, gave such a great performance as an avuncular, enigmatic Sigmund Freud.
“I’m very happy with this movie and, to be honest with you, I think I did what I was supposed to do and the interactions were good, the characters really worked.” He speaks in a languid monotone, his eyes fixed on the light behind my head. “Each time I see it, I think it gets better and I don’t think you can say that about most movies. A lot of times, movies that are in the top 10 lists or maybe even win Baftas or Oscars, you then watch them a year later and you go, maybe it wasn’t so great … ”
It is funny that the actor known for extreme taciturnity on screen should prove such a steady talker. After a bit, I manage to interrupt the flow to ask about his method acting. How exactly does spending ages hunting down books Freud might have had in his library help his performance?
“It doesn’t really help you act, but it helps you make believe. It’s a more sophisticated way of doing what a child does when it says, ‘I’m going to be a prince’, or a milkman. A child doesn’t have to be prompted – it has to be for real. As an actor, you have to find a way to believe it for yourself so that others can.”
As well as prowling round antiquarian bookshops, he spent a long time learning how to write like Freud. I hand him my notebook and pen and ask him to show me, and after a bit of him refusing and me coaxing, he produces a fine “Sigmund” with a very elaborate “S”. I ask him to write his own name underneath, and am alarmed by the vigour – almost violence – of the spiky hieroglyph he produces.
I ask if he got to know Freud well enough to guess what the psychotherapist would have made of Mortensen. He cracks his knuckles and gives his first short answer.
“I have no idea.”
He then rummages again in the bag, pulls out a battered notebook and starts flipping through it looking for a quote from Henry James, of whom he says Freud was fond.
What would Freud have made of him? He cracks his knuckles.‘I have no idea’
He reads it slow and low: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
This leaves me none the wiser and so I ask more prosaically about his vices. All he will own up to is smoking: as Freud he is rarely seen without a phallic cigar between his jaws, but in real life he smokes cigarettes, though has tried and failed to quit.
“I guess I like it,” he says. And then, even though it’s not obviously funny, he gives a high laugh. I note with approval slight nicotine stains on his teeth, a courageous act of defiance for an American film star.
We start to talk about Freud, and I ask if he has any truck with Freud’s idea that everything is linked to sex or death.
“I think to some degree it is, especially to death,” he says, ruminatively. “It doesn’t take that many years for a kid to realise that they’re going to die. It’s always there in the back of their mind the rest of their lives.”
I protest that most kids have limitless interest in sex and none whatsoever in death. He looks sceptical.
“But sex is an unknown until you try it, and then it’s frustrating – or not. Everybody’s different in that sense.”
As I digest this, he says that Freud wasn’t always thinking about sex, what was shocking was his insistence on calling bodily functions by their proper names. The great man’s breakthrough was in making us see how flawed we are.
“I’m always pretty aware of my flaws,” Mortensen says. “It’s easy on a given day to wake up and go, oh, I really don’t want to; I don’t think I’m up for this.”
Was that how he felt this morning? He shrugs. “Compared to what other people go through who don’t have jobs or who are starving to death in the world, I can’t really complain. I’m in a nice hotel having a conversation, after all.”
Though he’s trying to be stoical, his choice of comparison creates the reverse impression.
“I have a roof over my head,” he goes on. “I had a breakfast and a lot of people in the world can’t say that. I’m not going to complain about being interviewed.”
I wonder if he counts his blessings so doggedly because fame and riches came late to him. He was in his forties when he became a global star through the Lord of the Rings films, and before that he spent 20 years driving trucks, waiting tables and playing a series of minor parts.
“If in my twenties I’d gotten one of the two-dozen roles that I did screen tests for and almost got, I think I would have become bored with the awards circuit, the whole hype machine. Some actors learn the habit of promoting themselves as a brand – by dressing in a certain way, by going out with a certain person – it gives them what they obviously want, which is to keep a level of fame. I’m not putting it down,” he adds, even though that is exactly what he is doing.
Since Lord of the Rings, Mortensen has been offered lots of roles in big movies, which he’s turned down on the grounds that the stories don’t interest him. The money doesn’t interest him either. Most of what he’s earned, he’s given away. Some of it he spent on setting up Perceval Press which backs many uncommercial artists, including Mortensen himself. He owns one house, which is in the mountains in Idaho.
I tell him about my method interviewing and my immersion in his creative output. I expect him to be pleased but he looks surprised and a little alarmed. He says he doesn’t mind in the slightest if no one much reads his poems or listens to the music: the pleasure is in the doing.
The PR woman puts a warning head around the door. There is time for one last question. If death is always in his mind, does that mean he is frightened of dying?
“No, he replies. “I just find it irritating.”
Freud would surely not have been convinced by this answer, and neither am I. When I get home I decide on a whim to show the pair of signatures – the fake Sigmund and the real Viggo – to a graphologist. I tell her nothing of their origin, and she studies them and declares that both writers lack softness. The first, she says, follows his logic till the end, is determined and maybe stubborn. And the man who produced the spiky hieroglyph? “He is enigmatic, unconventional and gives nothing of his inner self for others to see.”
‘A Dangerous Method’ is in cinemas this weekend.