Another significant omission at the Oscars was "A Dangerous
Method," which got no nominations at all. Surely Viggo Mortensen's sly, subtle,
and surprisingly moving portrayal of Sigmund Freud deserved some recognition.
At least he is getting the Coolidge Award for career achievement, which, judging
from this recent conversation I had with him on the phone [he is living in Madrid] might be a more
substantive acknowledgment of his accomplishments than the often capricious ,
superficial, and trendy Academy choices.
This is the long version of the Backtalk
with Mortensen that appears in this week's issue [March 2] of the Phoenix. I spoke with him
for over an hour, with a short break in the middle due to my clumsiness with
our new telephone system (I tried to put him on hold to deal with another call,
and cut him off).
Come to think of it, isn't that how the unconscious manifests
itself, as Freud might suggest, by breaking off a train of thought when it
becomes too sensitive? Or maybe it has more to do with the Jungian notion of
synchronicity. Indeed, Mortensen's conversation, jumping from topic
to topic at length with a seeming free associativeness that reveals itself to
being unexpectedly organized, had a kind of similarity to a psychoanalytic
session. So naturally one of the first subjects was the Super Bowl.
PK: Congratulations on the Coolidge Award.
PK: And since I know you're a Giants fan, on the Superbowl
VM. Thanks. I watched it here late at night. The last one
was a surprise. Nobody expected them to win. This time it wasn't such a big
PK: You're getting jaded. And cocky. Moving on to other
matters, let me join the chorus of those who think that your performance in "A
Dangerous Method," and the movie in general, got robbed by the Academy.
VM: I've seen that happen before, not just with movies I've
been involved with but other movies as well. I suppose if in the end I really believed that those awards - critics awards,
all the different Academies, Golden Globes - really rewarded excellent work and
its degree of difficulty,
if I thought that was what was recognized
all the time I suppose I would be upset about it. But since it doesn't happen,
for whatever reason, it's hard to take it too hard - except that on a business level
it would be helpful. But I must say the movie is doing pretty well. It's doing
steady business. So I don't know why that happened but I appreciate what you
PK: The Coolidge Award is some compensation as it honors an
VM: It was a surprise honor. A lot of important people
have received that award so I was very honored to be asked.
PK: I thought that "A Dangerous Method"
was one of David Cronenberg's best movies. The scene in which Freud collapses
and Jung comes to his side and Freud says, "How sweet it must be to die" choked
me up. But maybe I should save that for my shrink.
VM: I also felt that it was [one of Cronenberg's best] at
the time. That was very vulnerable moment and David shot it very well.
Supposedly he [Freud] passed out completely. In the movie you can't tell that was what
happened because everything passes quickly, but it was an effective scene. I do think
it is a movie that will wear well. I would say that about most of his other
movies, certainly the last ten years of work. Like "A Dangerous Method," they
get better each time you see them, revealing more layers. They become more rather
than less profound. Like most important works of art do.
That's not usually the case. Usually it's the opposite. Even
lauded movies, critically acclaimed movies on second or third viewing don't
hold up as well. Usually they go the other way around. But it has a lot to do
with promotion and distribution and timing and God knows what else. I think
David's movies are, to a certain degree, an acquired taste. It takes a while to
realize what is really great about them, I think. Not everybody is going to like his movies, of course, but with the passage of
time they tend to grow on you more and more. People who at first like
them will love them the second and third time around. They'll just
see things they hadn't seen.
I find with other movies when I watch them again I find more and more flaws.
Maybe it's a late blooming kind of thing. Maybe it's instant
gratification that wins awards. Maybe that's why David hasn't been nominated.
He has been for the Canadian
Academy -- the Genie Award --
he's been nominated there and won several times. But here in the U.S. he's never gotten any
great recognition. It's almost like he's invisible to the American
Academy, and also the British Academy.
PK: You got a nomination for "Eastern Promises" , didn't you?
VM: I did. It was quite surprising. I don't know if it was
because it was an acting stretch or if it was the naked knife fight.
I don't know why
people vote for what they do. I was honored. Flattered. That was the only other
time I was nominated for a Golden Globe, and the Giants won that year too. So I
guess we're good luck for each other. [laughs] I didn't win either time, but
PK: When the NFC wins in an election year I believe that's
supposed to mean the Democrats win.
VM: Is that right?
PK: I'm not totally sure but I think the exception was when
Gore won. Or rather lost. But really won. But the Super Bowl tells the truth.
VM: Well, in 2008 Obama won. So maybe it will happen again.
PK: You're better known for "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy"
but with "A Dangerous Method" you've also completed a trilogy with David
Cronenberg. Do you see any parallels between the two?
VM: They're three movies, but they're quite different. David's. And
with "Lord of the Rings," I actually look at that trilogy as one long story.When I think of it in general terms, I don't really separate them. In
the same sense as the Godfather 1 and 2 are one long movie. But it's even
more so with Lord of the Rings, because it was one long book, and one long
PK: I don't know if there's any plan to do something to
cover the time gap between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," but it
seems like your connection with the project is over at this point. Do you feel
any kind of sadness about that?
VM: No. I mean, obviously if they had decided to bring my
character back in whatever bridge story they may be doing - I understand they're doing two movies - it'd make
sense. Now, they may simply be doing two in order to be able to tell the whole
story, but I've heard the same rumors you probably have that the idea was to do
some sort of bridge between the end of "The Hobbit" and the beginning of "The
Lord of the Rings." There's a 60-odd year time span between the two, so they could feasibly have done that. Aragorn lives much
longer than humans do, being part Elf and all that. Sure, if it seemed like
something they wanted to do, I guess I would have done it, and it would probably have
been fun. It's a good feeling being there. I really enjoyed working with New Zealanders as crew members, as
teammates. They're great, and it's a beautiful country. It's one of the most
beautiful places I've ever been to, and I've traveled quite a bit. It's a good feeling being there. I had a lot of fun with most of the people that work on "Lord of the
Rings," too. Some actors did get to go back, some who were obviously central to "The
Hobbit." Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, and I guess Elijah went back
for a small part, and Orlando Bloom as well. I know that they've had a
I go back there [New Zealand] occasionally. I have
friends there, and go back there when I can.
It would have been nice to have the work, too, but when I go back to New Zealand, I don't have a strong contact
with the filmmakers, don't spend much time in Wellington. I do see a few of the actors here and there in my travels once in a
while. It's something that was an important part of all of our lives, that shoot, and I
have fond memories of it. If it would have been possible I would have returned
[for the new movies.], but I don't really feel sad - nostalgia, yes, in a sense. I
have that for many experiences, for many people I've known, places I've been. But
I don't feel sad. I don't feel like suddenly it's over now, or something. It
was over when we finished it. I look forward to seeing what they do with "The Hobbit." It'll be fun to see the way they've adapted that book.
No fraud as Freud
PK: Do you think you'll ever do another movie with David
Cronenberg? Has anything been discussed?
VM: I'm sure I will. We talk regularly and we write back and forth about lots of things, not just
movies. He's always got a couple of stories in the works. Because he's
kind of eclectic and so original - what I was talking about before, it takes
people a little bit to catch up to him, or get what he's doing in some cases -
maybe for that reason it's also so difficult for him to... He doesn't get his
movies financed as easily as someone like, say, Woody Allen does, even though he
has a very good track record, critically and in terms of making the money
back. He finishes shoots on time or before time, and on budget or under
budget. He couldn't be more efficient as a director, more of a guarantee of
quality and efficiency, in terms of the economics of movie making. But it
takes him a while to get something together. He's got a couple of things
he's been talking about. I don't know which will happen first, but I'm sure
we'll do something together because we have a good time working together. We
have similar tastes and a similar sense of humor. Obviously he knows he can
count on me to work in a way that he likes, and I know that he works in a way
that makes me comfortable.
PK: You almost didn't take the role of Freud, though, I read
somewhere. You didn't think it was for you at first.
VM: I was surprised, you know. Just in terms of the way I
look, I'm more of a Jung type, I suppose. So I was a little surprised. But it
was David, after all. When he first offered it to me I wasn't available, so
he cast someone else [Christoph Waltz ].
But that person left and David came back to me and said, "Can you do it now?" This
was half a year later or more. And I said, "Well I actually could if you think
I could do it." And he said, "Yeah, definitely." He doesn't make those
decisions or offers lightly. He's very careful about his casting, always. I mean, it interests him, basically. And as soon as I started learning more about Freud in doing the research, I gradually got more and more excited because I knew it
would be interesting, it would be fun. But like with any new role, anything that's
unknown, it was a little nervous-making at the start. It was more dialogue than
I was used to. It was more of a stretch in terms of characterization,
physically, than other movie roles. There was a lot of new ground for me as an actor,
but it was fun. It's nice when you can try that.
PK: Not as much sword fighting or violence.
VM: No, no. Well, there's some, I suppose. There are different
levels of emotional violence or verbal sparring going on, but it's true that there's not as much physical gesture speaking for me, although there is quite a
bit. Small things. There's a difference in how we walk and sit and smoke. His posture's
different. He does all those things differently than I do, the character. The
voice is different, the intonation, the ironic tone. All of those things were
challenges. But yeah, you're right: There are no fights or anything.
PK: I understand you smoked a number of cigars in order
to get into the role.
VM: Well I had to do what he did, basically. Smoke a lot of
cigars for every scene. Except in one brief one, I have a cigar either in my
hand or in my mouth, and I smoke it in the course of every scene. In keeping with
the photographic record, he's almost never without one in any setting: with
kids, with adults, at work, at play. He always had them going. He was supposed
to have smoked 20 to 22 of those cigars a day. It was quite a bit.
PK: You didn't have to smoke that many yourself, I imagine.
VM: You know what, I smoked probably close to that.It seemed like I smoked a lot, everywhere. I stopped doing that as much once I
got the hang of it, but I was always working on how he held them and how
he smoked them, and getting comfortable with speaking with a cigar in my
mouth so it didn't seem or sound weird. So as to be intelligible and seem
natural. So I was smoking also between setups and scenes just to get the
hang of it, but after a while I didn't need to do that so much
anymore,didn't go home and smoke cigars.
PK: So is it true that a cigar is just a cigar based on your
research and your movie?
VM: I think a cigar is always a cigar. Just like a gun is
always a gun. But all kinds of things can happen with cigars and guns.
Sometimes a cigar tastes terrible and sometimes it tastes great. I don't know.
Jung at heart?
PK: I would take you to be more of a Jungian, based on what
I've read about you and your movies and so forth, than a Freudian. Do you fall
into either camp?
VM: Well, it's true I'd read more by and about Jung before
we started. What I like about the movie is it seems quite balanced
academically, and in terms of painting a fair portrait of both Jung and Freud I
think it's pretty evenhanded. Although I'm interested in a lot of the ideas
that Jung had, I'm probably nearly as skeptical about the mystical aspects of
Jung as Freud was. The direction he was going in, which was the direction Freud feared, was toward being as much a a religious figure as a scientist. That did happen. I'm
not so much concerned with that. I'm interested in the things that Jung touched
on, in the things that Joseph Campbell
found interesting about him, his interest in mythology . I don't know that I
would find everything as connected as Jung did, in terms of reincarnation and
the collective unconscious, that sort of thing. I'm not 100% sure about that
to be honest. Freud was as interested and knowledgeable about mythology,
archeology, anthropology as Jung was, but that didn't mean he felt he had to
put it into his work. We touched upon that difference of opinion in the movie. I kind of agree
with Freud that. I don't think you have to be a religious person, to
believe in any kind of god or otherworldly existence, supernatural beings, life
after death, or any of that to have a real interest in mythology.
PK: How about synchronicity? Does that ring any bells for
VM: Yeah, it's interesting but I like to deal with the here
and now. Imagining you are someone else, imagining... I like to thing about where
my family came from and what life was like for them. I imagine they're strains
genetically in me, behavior that repeats itself. But beyond that... I don't
believe in the scene when Jung speaks about coincidence, I more believe in what
can be observed.
Analysis terminable and interminable
PK: A friend of mine who's a Wiccan asked me to ask you,
because she heard you were a Pagan.
VM: What did she mean by that?
PK: She didn't specify.
VM: I recognize what it means, but it's a broad subject. I
believe in what happens in nature and what I can see, and I don't mind that
there are certain things that I don't know and that I can't know. And I think
Freud would have been the first to agree with that. He felt that science was
the best way of gaining knowledge, of learning things, of finding out about
things, but he also recognized that science would never... you would never figure the true nature of things. It's impossible to ever really know how things work. To
completely know how we work, how our minds work, what's going on in nature. But
that doesn't mean it's not worth making the effort. There's no such thing as
perfection for an athlete, for a scientist, for a machinist, for a teacher, for
a violinist, for a writer, but that does not mean it's not worth striving for.
There's a contradiction there, obviously. It's somewhat paradoxical. Just because
you're going to die, it doesn't mean you should stop wondering about things. Or that you should stop reading books,
educating yourself, improving yourself just because life is finite. Just
because you'll never really know the answers, it doesn't mean you shouldn't look
The main thing, in my view - I feel like Freud and Jung were
not that far apart, honestly. They seemed to go further and further apart as
time went by, and certainly after Freud died, Jung went in a direction that
Freud was afraid of, had worried about. But I think, essentially, that they
were on the same wavelength, that it was more about personality differences, a
difference in backgrounds. There were some significant differences - the
main one being, just on a practical level, that Freud said "We're not going to
cure anybody" in terms of how their mind works or how they feel about
themselves. All we can do is help them understand themselves." He felt there was
a difference between helping and curing, and that they're not the same thing.
And Jung felt he was going to cure people.
Jung once made that crack, a joke, something that Freud wouldn't even say
in jest. He said, ‘Show me a sane man and I'll cure him.'
There's an arrogance
to that, even if you're just making a joke. I guess that's the sort of sense of humor that he had - that he was able to
crack a joke, too. But, really, what Jung was saying was "We're going to
cure people. We're going to fix them. We're going to make them be who
they've always meant to be, and so to help them." And Freud always maintained,
even as his theories evolved (though he'd change his mind about certain things,
he'd never change his mind about this), that "We're not going to fix you, but I
can help you - the patient - understand yourself, understand the patterns of
your behavior, why you think the way you do, why you do some of the things you
do. Help you find some answers so you can maybe avoid repeating certain
patterns, save yourself a certain amount of trouble, save those around you a
certain amount of trouble." It's an ongoing effort. Just like any person's
evolution is. Any relationship, any friendship requires regular work. Just like
staying alive and functioning physically does. If you don't go for a walk and
you just sit there, if you don't feed yourself, take care of yourself, you're
going to decline rapidly. You'll function better if you work at it. A
relationship will remain strong if both people try to evolve together -
separately and together - to make it work. He was saying, "Maybe they'll
be able to grow. Certainly they can avoid pitfalls or negative patterns, but
they will still be troubled."
think the thing that really upset people, including Jung, about Freud was not so
much that he wanted to talk about the body in a very direct way, including
sexuality - not beat around the bush, so to speak. What really bothered
people was that he said everybody has a destructive impulse, everybody had has
that negative, that dark side to them and that it's not going away. No
matter how civilized we may seem as human beings, as civilized as human society
can seem to be, there's always going to be a savage, destructive part.
Destructive towards others, destructive towards oneself. And if you don't look
at it in an honest way, examine it, those fears - those insecurities - that lead
to violence towards others and oneself, that unpleasant side to each person will
come out eventually in ways that are less manageable. In ways probably more
destructive towards oneself and others.
I think that's
what upset people, that he kept saying, "We're messed up. And we're never not
going to be messed up, but it's worthwhile learning about it." It's like
saying," You're going to die, and there's nothing afterwards. Get over it."
It upset a lot of people, including Jung. A son of a pastor and a guy who,
as I say, went in a more and more religious direction. I do like the
directness and the fearlessness, that stoic side of Freud. I had misgivings
about some things in his work, but I think the story's very interesting. These
people were very ambitious, arrogant, competitive, and insecure. And had big
an interesting story. You don't need to know anything about, or care about,
psychoanalysis to watch it and be interested in what happens between these
people. How pride gets in the way, how egos get in the way. I do admire
what I know about Freud, as far as how he lived and how de died. There's a stoic
approach to life and work and death. I felt it was quite admirable.
PK: He faced down the Gestapo, that's pretty good.
VM: He said he'd be sure to recommend them to anyone. They were too
stupid to realize he was making fun of them, I suppose, or didn't care. I'm not
PK: Speaking of violence, you're going to be doing a Q&A
VM: ...Mark Twain was someone who has a great quote about
cigars. I don't know why that just occurred to me. I mean this is the kind of
humor that Freud liked a lot. And they met. He was an admirer of Mark Twain.
He liked Twain and Oscar Wilde for the same reason, because they liked satire
and wordplay. They got around censorship, they got around taboos. He admired
them for that. I think politically, he was on the same wavelength as both of
them. Twain once said, "I've made it a rule to not smoke more than one
cigar at a time." Which is simple but it's great. Freud liked that kind of dry
wit. Sometimes goofy, kind of silly.
PK: Did you read his book, Psychopathology of Jokes, or
something? ["The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious"]
VM: Yeah, that's a pretty good book.
PK: It's not very funny.
VM: No, but it's an interesting study of why people tell
jokes and what are they saying when they're telling jokes. Very, very
PK: Like "Interpretation of Dreams," it's a good book to apply to movies sometimes. The mechanics of how dreams work
are often paralleled in movies. Anyway, so you plan to do a Q&A after a
screening of "Eastern Promises." Was that your choice?
VM: Apparently they... That's what I think we're doing. I think
they're showing "A History of Violence." During the days of that week I think
they're going to show the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "A History of Violence," "A
Walk on the Moon." And the day I'm there I guess they're showing "Eastern
Promises" before the Q&A. Kind of weird to go back to that, in a way.
No Shame in that
PK: Strange how Roger Ebert said that film ["Eastern Promises"] was a landmark
because of the scene that you mentioned, the nude fighting scene in the sauna.
And now you appear in a movie with Michael Fassbender, who was also naked in
what some think was a very taboo-breaking performance in "Shame." Did you ever talk about that while you were making the movie?
VM: We didn't. I hadn't seen it at the time. I finally just
got around to seeing it now. Honestly, I don't understand what the big fuss about
it is. I don't know what taboos are being broken. It's not that groundbreaking,
with all due respect to the movie, in my opinion. What's so groundbreaking about
that movie? Maybe you can explain it to me.
PK: Well I don't think it's groundbreaking, certainly when
you compare it to European movies...
VM: Well that's the word on the street. All these people
have been raving and raving, and I go see it and it's nicely made. Quite
well-performed. But it's not breaking new ground in terms of cinematography,
[The call is dropped because of my inability to understand
the new phone system. Viggo calls back about fifteen minutes later.]
PK: I'm awfully sorry
VM: What were we talking about? Synchronicity? I don't think
there's a pattern to seemingly unrelated events, but I do think it's
interesting, the connections that we can make. And I'm inclined that way, to
favorably compare things or to look for what we have in common, what other
people... If I travel somewhere and I recognize the landscape, I try to see
it for what it is and learn whatever's new about it, but New Zealand reminded me of when I lived in Argentina -
same latitude, some of the vegetation was similar. Those experiences that you have when something rings a bell or you make
certain connections - when a certain person reminds you of someone you know or
someone in your family - I think they say more about the person that makes those connections than that it confirms that things are related.
It's more about what we make of the world, than that the world
is a certain way. There's something about that urge to decide that things are all connected.
It's nice to look for connections, but I don't think they're there necessarily,
not all of the time. Most of the time they are not. But I think it's a
very positive trait that a lot of people have, including myself, that we try to
find common ground.
I don't know what else we were talking about. Oh yeah, "Shame."
I think it's an interesting movie, it's a good movie. But I don't know... If the
movie was really groundbreaking and really transgressive, it certainly wouldn't
have been winning all those awards. I guess people's taste is fairly conservative and they have pretty much a herd
mentality. Many times, on these Top 10 lists, people tend to dismiss,
overlook good movies until a year or more later. It's kind of absurd. I don't think "Shame" is
one of those odd movies. I think "Shame" is a very interesting movie, but the
things that I'd heard about it... well, they didn't seem true, at least to my
taste. But, to each his own. It didn't seem groundbreaking in terms of
photography, or movie storytelling, script writing, acting, directing. I didn't
think on any level it was a new wave of moviemaking that we were seeing the
birth of. I think it's a very well made movie, like other movies that are quite
well made, but I don't know what all the taboo-breaking fuss was about. It's
really not about that at all. It's fairly straightforward.
PK: I take it you didn't discuss it much with Michael when
you were making the movie.
VM: No, because I hadn't seen it until just the other day.
PK: With all the hype it must have been disappointing.
VM: No, it wasn't disappointing. I was just surprised. I
appreciated the things that were good about it, and good about his performance. But the aspect of - "This is the most bold, brave, blow your mind kind of thing"
- I just didn't get that from it. It's a well made movie. It's a nice follow-up
to "Hunger." But it wasn't much more than that. It was a decent piece of work.
But then I don't understand why people make a big deal about a lot of things.
If I hadn't have heard all the hype I would have said, "Oh, nice." It was
pretty good. Good job. It was a probably a very hard role to play.
Congratulations. I'm talking about... It's not about the filmmaker, or the
actors. It's the reactions, how it's categorized, how it's described - I find
fault with that. Not fault, but... I just don't comprehend it. It doesn't make
any sense. It's just like, "What's the big deal?", as far as transgressive,
because it isn't.
PK: How was it working with Michael in the making of "A
Dangerous Method?" Did you guys get along?
VM: We had a good time, yeah. He's obviously a very good
actor, but he's also a good work companion. He's very funny, has a very good
sense of humor. He has a good singing voice and enjoys singing. He's very well
prepared. He shows up having worked extremely hard on the script. I'm sure
that's probably how he always works. He shows up ready to go to work and give
his best, but he's also relaxed and fun. We got along very well, cracking
jokes. It's a good way to keep things light, especially when you're dealing
with heavy material or lots of dialogue. The worst thing you could do with playing Carl
Jung or Sigmund Freud is to take yourself too seriously, because you're going
to bore yourself and others, I think. It's important to keep it light. I think
that was also David's attitude.
[A dog barks in the background. Or does it?]
PK: I'm sorry, I have to ask you what kind of dog you've
got. I heard a dog barking in the background.
VM: What kind of dog do I have? I don't have one right now.
But I used to have a Border Collie, well, a cross of Border Collie and
something else. A sheep dog, you know. Black and white dog you see all over Scotland, up north.
Classic sheepherding dog.
The Road goes ever on
PK: Anyway, speaking of top 10s, I put "The Road" on my Top 10 list in 2009. I was surprised that it didn't get much attention.
VM: Well thank you. I like that movie, too. I was proud of
that movie. But I understood why it didn't do well. It was dumped by the
distributor, unfortunately [Weinstein, ironically]. But that was a movie that
deserved a lot better. They didn't put it in all the theaters, by a long shot, or do the promotion they
contractually had agreed to do. The director, myself, and a couple others
had worked very hard to promote the movie with that in mind, and when it came
time to release the movie they didn't do much of anything.
They put their money into other movies that they had. I guess it was too much
of a gamble, I don't know.
But there was a big audience out there. It was a best-selling
novel. A lot of people were waiting to see the movie, a lot of people were very
frustrated and wrote to their newspapers. I read some of those things. Like, "Why
wasn't this in Maine?
Why can't I see the movie?" That was unfortunate. As with Cronenberg's movies,
there are other ones that have been overlooked. That deserve to be seen or are
interesting, not the usual fare. They will eventually get to their audience, in time. On DVD, in other ways.
On TV, on cable, on airplanes, or whatever. People will eventually see
it, but you want them to go see it in the movies theaters. You hope they'll go
see it in the movie theater. The ones who did see "The Road" enjoyed it. A lot
of people come up to me and say they really like that movie, that it's kind of
disturbing but very beautiful. It's nice to hear you say it. And
Cronenberg's movies: they too have a long shelf life.
And "Shame" was fortunate in that it did get praise. It hasn't got the most easy subject matter, a movie like "Shame," but it got very good
notices, good reviews. It did get a lot of attention while it was in theaters,
which was nice for it. It hasn't got the most easy subject matter, a movie like "Shame," but it got very
good notices, good reviews. It did get a lot of attention while it was in
theaters, which was nice for it. That kind of movie usually fares about as
well as "The Road" did, is seen very little. Usually only movie business people
talk about it, some critics. If you see it ever you end up seeing it on DVD. But
a lot of people got to see "Shame" in theaters, which is really good.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the case in the United States with "The Road." But
since then it's done quite well, in other media, on DVD and in other ways. If
not, not so many people would come up to me and talk about that movie the way
PK: So do you choose movies, what you were mentioning before,
because they break new ground? What are the criteria you use to decide that you
VM: I don't have any formula, I'm just looking for an
interesting story. People think actors who work regularly have a lot more say. All I can say is "No" to roles, really, or "Yes," but people have to offer
them to me. It's not like I can decide what I'm going to do next, that I
can choose anything at all. If I'm lucky enough I'll get an offer that's viable,
something that's really going to go. I read lots and lots and lots of
scripts, and most of them don't ever get made. They often make the ones that
aren't very good. If someone wants you to do something, and it's an
interesting story and something you haven't tried before, that you're afraid of,
that's the kind of thing that usually I'm drawn to. Something that scares
me. As long as it's got a solid, good story. If I'm afraid of it, that's a sign
that I should do it, assuming that they want me. Because what we're usually
afraid of is the unknown, what we don't know, what we haven't tried before.
In the case of Freud,
as I said, partly it was being afraid of a lot of dialogue. How do I get that ironic tone?
How do I look like that sort of person? Once you crack it, or feel you have,
feel comfortable with the character, it can be a lot of fun to do something
completely new. That's what interests me.There are other actors that have another, sort of zen-like way of looking at
things, who choose very similar characters and do variations on a theme, in a
way. They play in an area that's comfortable. There are infinite
possibilities for variations. There are actors like Clint Eastwood who are able
to reinvent themselves, to a degree, playing similar characters.
I like to play things that are quite different sometimes, from
myself or from other characters, just for fun. Just to see what happens.
PK: You did your first Argentinean movie, is that correct?
VM: Yeah, I played twin brothers in that, and that was
interesting. I'd never played twins before so that was an interesting
I've done other foreign movies in Spanish, but this last one
was in Argentina
where I was raised until I was 11. It was my first chance to make a film there.
PK: Did you recognize the places where you used to live in Argentina?
VM: Yeah, but I've been going back since 1995. I've been
going back every year at least once. But it was different to be shooting there, because you know you're going to be there for months. And plus we were shooting
outside of the capital, and it was nice to be out in nature, in the outdoors
during the wintertime. It was an unusual movie location.
PK: Are you working on anything right now?
VM: I just finished a play, an Ariel Dorfman play called "Purgatorio."
He's a brilliant
writer who also wrote "Death and the Maiden."
This was a new play, the first time it'd been done in Spanish anyway. It'd been
done before in English. But, in the process of rehearsing this play, he [Dorfman]
ended up discovering a lot of new things about it, rewriting it and tightening
it. I think this will be the definitive version. He's now translating it back
into English and into other languages. It was an interesting experience for me.
I hadn't been in a play in over 20 years. Talk about being frightened - that
was definitely frightening in a very positive way. Scared me into doing
something different and learning a lot.
PK: Were your fears realized or did it all go well?
VM: Yeah. I was terrified, but it was fun. I loved it. I
really enjoyed it. I guess it was the next step after doing Freud, having a
part with so much dialogue and then to do a play where you're on stage for an
hour and 45 minutes. Just you and another person and you never leave the stage,
basically. You never stop talking to each other. That's a tall order, but it
ended up being a lot of fun. It was a nice theater, we were very close to the
audience. We had them on three sides. It was a good experience, I liked it. It
was a good challenge.
More Road work
PK: Did that prep you for doing another movie? Do you have another
movie in mind?
VM: I don't know, I don't know what I'm doing next yet. I
have that Argentinean movie called "Everyone Has a Plan,"
the one you were talking about, that one's coming out soon. And I have a part in Walter Salles's adaptation of
Kerouac's "On The Road." Since you're speaking to me from Boston, that's more of local
PK: Going from "The Road" to "On The Road," huh?
VM: Yeah, exactly. It was fun. Again I got to play a character who
was a mentor to younger, like-minded thinkers, the Bull Lee character based on
PK: Do you read much Burroughs?
VM: Yeah, I've read everything he wrote, I think. A lot of
articles, too, and a lot of other things. I listened to a lot of aodiorecordings. And video
recordings were very helpful for this part. I was trying to be pretty faithful
to his sound, his rhythms.
PK: Did you ever meet the guy?
VM: Never did. Would have loved to.
And Kerouac's work was more geared to a more youthful, populist kind of
taste. Not mainstream, but closer to it. And Ginsberg, in terms of Beat
poetry, was the man. But I think that, in some ways, the work that holds
up the best is Burroughs'. As a writer, as a literary contribution. I
think that "On The Road" was a really well-crafted, cultural contribution, kind
of a watershed moment of sharing the Beat movement in '57, the repercussions of
But William Burroughs's use of language, his
wordplay, is very original. His landscapes and characters. The mixture of
realism, in terms of slang and colloquial language. And his imagination was sort of fantastical, paranoid, other-worldly,
disease-ridden... [laughs] I don't know. I think his will be more of a
lasting contribution. Of those guys he was the most substantive or what
have you. There was just something about him... he had more of a sense of
humor. In terms of literature I think he's going to hold up longer than
either Kerouac or Ginsberg.
PK: What'd you think of David Cronenberg's adaptation of "Naked
Lunch " (1991)?
VM: I thought it was really interesting, original. I mean it was only
50% Burroughs', if that, with Burroughs's blessing. I thought it was completely
in the spirit for Burroughs. It was very interesting. That was a hard shoot for
David. With the political problems and unrest in North Africa where they were
shooting and to go to Toronto
and reinvent all that. In terms of set construction and art department work,
they did a great job with it. They didn't miss a beat. It is very thought-provoking. It's been a while since I've seen it. But I remember
thinking it was a pretty good hybrid of Cronenberg and Burroughs.
Ring of power
PK: So with the trilogy, with "The Lord of the Rings"
trilogy, you must have gone from a life of relative obscurity to one where a
lot of people are kind of worshipping you as a demigod. Has that proven to be a
positive experience? How are you adjusting to it?
VM: I focus on... It has allowed me to sell books [via his
Perceval Press], to have more people come to
poetry readings. It's allowed me turn a lot people who are suddenly interested in me as an
actor that hadn't been before, turn them on to writers and artists that I like,
that I'm interested in.
In terms of me being an actor, it allowed me
to work with David Cronenberg, for example. If it hadn't been for the trilogy,
he wouldn't have been able to cast me, no matter how much he wanted to, in "A
History of Violence" (2005). That was important to me.
I look at it as a win-win situation - good all the way around. Yes, it's
weird when suddenly people on the street think they know you better than they
know their own family. That's odd. Until you go through it, I suppose, there's
no way to know how to prepare for that.
I keep to myself. I'm
not someone who goes out, hits all the hot spots. In any case, I am in the
world. It didn't affect me that much, just once in a while. I might be caught
unawares, when people come over and interrupt you when you're eating at a restaurant.
But mostly it's just at a premiere situation where you know there are going to
be a lot of people. There are events - public events - poetry readings, photo exhibitions.
There's going to be a lot of people who come. I don't feel any
resentment at all.
I don't feel
any resentment. It's only brought me a lot of new opportunities in terms of
work and exposure and travel. I'm most grateful to it.
PK: It also gives you more of a presence when it comes to
expressing yourself politically. You were involved in the presidential campaign
in 2008. You don't seem to be as noticeable this year for this campaign. Is
there a reason for that?
VM: I am active in
terms of the Dennis Kucinich re-election campaign. He's in danger because of Republican
engineered re-districting. He's been able to withstand that kind of thing
before and be reelected because people really value him in that district. I think he'll go down in history as one of the great... not just great
politicians, but American statesmen. He has put his money where his mouth was.
About Iraq, Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, and about Syria now.
He's someone who speaks truth to power as much as Howard Zinn and Noam
Chomsky. He's a national treasure.
But as far as presidential politics, there's not a hell of a
lot to talk about. Obama has unfortunately but predictably caved in in almost
every area. He's doing what he needs to do to win the reelection. In every
area, in terms of his promises, and what people hoped would change drastically
in the country. And it's not all the doing of the Republicans who have stymied him
along the way -- even though they've done a lot of that. It's his own choice. The kind of statements he makes abroad which are ridiculous. His policy in
terms of the Middle East. He's come very late to the game of acknowledging
the Arab Spring, what happened in Egypt, and not supporting people like Mubarak. What
I think was a mess in terms of Libya,
what I think is a very dangerous mess in terms of Iran. He's not so different from
Bush at all, so there's not much to talk about there.
That being said, I would rather see him reelected - the
lesser of two evils - than anybody in the Republican camp. It's just absurd. It
would be funny if it was not so dangerous to the United States and the world.
Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, or any of them. Ridiculous, ridiculous people. I
don't see much to be excited about in terms of presidential politics on either
But I am an optimist. I will definitely vote and I will keep
paying attention. Dennis Kucinich is one of the most optimistic politicians
in the history of the United
States, but he's also the most realistic
one. Considering what the stakes are, in terms of war and foreign policy,
social inequalities and all the things that are problematic. He is the most
forthright, courageous and optimistic at the same time. He makes for a good
example, like Howard Zinn, like Noam Chomsky. He's fearless in talking about
things as they are but that doesn't make him defeatist.
PK: Since you are
coming to Boston,
I noticed that you like to go someplace that's indigenous to the place that
you visit, because you don't know when you're going to go back there. Is there anyplace you're planning on visiting when you're here?
VM: Do you have any recommendations?
PK: I would say the Isabella Stewart
VM: I'll look for that. Isabella Gardner.
PK: And of course Fenway
Park. Unless you're a
Yankees fan, too.
VM: Nope, I'm a Mets fan. [laughs]
VM: Bill Buckner... Poor guy.