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Viggo Mortensen describes the character he plays in Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s sinuous, dreamlike movie Jauja as “a sort of Danish Don Quixote”. Shot in northern Patagonia and set in the late 19th century, Jauja’s title refers to the mythical Peruvian land of milk and honey. Mortensen plays Gunnar Dinesen, a former Danish cavalry officer seeking a new life for himself and his teenage daughter. When his daughter runs off with a heedless beau, Dinesen dons his old cavalry uniform, mounts his not-so-trusty steed and sets out on a strange adventure to look for her.
As is his way, Mortensen supplied many of his own accessories for this Spanish- and Danish-speaking part, including a telescope, compass, watch, sabre and some of the clothes he ends up in. Dressed in high-topped cavalry boots with clinking spurs and sporting a shaggy moustache, Mortensen plays Dinesen as a well-meaning but faintly ridiculous relic. “I find him an admirable character in a way,” says the 56-year-old actor. “He’s so obtuse, even when he doesn’t know where he’s going or why he’s going or who he is, he still keeps moving forward. It’s his stubbornness which I find both pathetic and endearing and, as I say, admirable.”
Dinesen is the latest in a series of knights errant Mortensen has played for the cinema. Most famously he incarnated Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), then there was an Oscar nomination for his Russian mafioso with a body full of tattoos and a heart of gold in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), and a turn as a dashing 17th-century Spanish knight in Captain Alatriste (2006), a film based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s popular series of novels. When you also consider that the publishing company Mortensen founded in 2002 is called Perceval Press, after the chivalric knight in the Holy Grail legend, an altruistic tendency begins to emerge.
“I enjoy helping other artists get their visions across,” Mortensen says and shyly stifles a laugh. “It’s a lot easier to help another artist edit their photographs or poems or design a book, than to give yourself advice or make a choice; just as with a friend who has a problem, a relationship problem say, sometimes a good friend can listen and give a possible approach for dealing with the problem.”
I meet Mortensen at the Marrakech film festival where he is busy promoting Jauja and another starring role in Far from Men (Loin des Hommes), a French and Arabic language film adaptation of an Albert Camus short story set in 1954 during the war for Algerian independence. Mortensen, who co-produced both films through his company Perceval Pictures, is wearing a red T-shirt with San Lorenzo, the name of the Argentine football team he supports, on the front. It was Mortensen’s love for another sport, ice hockey, that caught the attention of Far From Men’s French director David Oelhoffen.
Mortensen was cast after Oelhoffen saw a video of the actor on YouTube in which he pays homage to his favourite Canadian ice hockey player Guy Lafleur in French. The son of a Danish father and an American mother, Mortensen spent his formative years in Argentina where he became fluent in Spanish. After his parents divorced, he moved to Watertown, New York, with his mother. He lived about an hour’s drive from the Ontario border where he often crossed over to watch Lafleur play for the Montreal Canadiens — hence the French. Now the father of a grown-up son, Mortensen spends much of his time in Spain where his partner, actress Ariadna Gil, comes from.
In Far From Men, which was filmed in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Mortensen plays Daru, a schoolteacher and second world war veteran who has to deliver an Algerian prisoner, Mohamed (French-Algerian actor Reda Kateb), to face trial for murder in a distant town. “It’s the kind of story that you can transpose to many places in the world right now,” says Mortensen. “These two people seem so different and so unlikely to be able to carry on a conversation, much less become friends, but it is possible, only it takes a certain amount of patience and a degree of forgetting oneself, and to really, really listen to someone else.”
Mortensen likens Daru to the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day (1993). “There’s a character who doesn’t show anything for such a long time and when he does it’s moving,” he says. “I think both Mohamed and Daru are those kinds of men.”
Mortensen and Kateb also struck up a friendship during filming, when they often had to walk up to 11 hours a day. Kateb, who was memorable as a prisoner under torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), says of Mortensen: “He threw himself into the film, beyond just wanting to make sure he gave a good performance. The kind of man I saw on this film was someone who wants to tell a story and is aware of everything needed to do that, from the editing to choosing the right crew.”
Both Jauja and Far From Men are slow-burns, at odds with the current brand of frenetically edited and/or special effects-laden Hollywood film-making. “There’s a lot of open-ended questions in these movies which I like, and I also like people who make movies that way,” says Mortensen. “I like directors like Oelhoffen, Alonso and David Cronenberg who set the table for questions to be asked but don’t do any of the answering. I think that’s what a true artist does.”
And how does Mortensen’s Hollywood agent feel about all this? “I don’t think she worries about where I spend my time but she probably is concerned about the amount of independent theatre [in 2011 Mortensen starred in the Spanish-language premiere of Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio] and movie projects in languages other than English that I have chosen to participate in over the past few years,” he says. “I have, however, made a very promising US-based movie this past year, Captain Fantastic, directed by Matt Ross, which I hope will come out later this year.”
And no, for those of you who are wondering, it’s not a superhero film.
‘Jauja’ is out in the UK on April 10 ‘Far From Men’ is out in the US on May 1
Main photograph: Nicolas Guerin/Getty Images