The success he found with The Lord Of The Rings gave Viggo Mortensen the opportunity to pick and choose his roles ... and follow other creative paths as a photographer, painter and poet.
IT WAS two Sundays ago that Viggo Mortensen killed British actor Alan Howard. The man who played Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was on stage in London, receiving his Icon prize at Empire magazine's annual awards ceremony, when he delivered a two-part acceptance speech that brought down the house.
In Part One, Mortensen followed the lead of many other guests that night, gently chiding Russell Crowe (winner of the magazine's Actor Of Our Lifetime award), who demanded that the show's running order be altered so that he could breeze in when he wanted, collect his award and walk straight out. In Part Two, encouraged by several glasses of white wine, Mortensen heaped praise on Howard, the English stage actor who had inspired him in his youth.
In fact, so full was the laudation that it sounded akin to a eulogy. The person sitting next to me that night leaned in and whispered: "When did Alan Howard die?" From across the table came another whisper: "Who's Alan Howard?"
The day after the awards show, I meet Mortensen in the library of a different, but equally fancy, London hotel, and he feels a little embarrassed - not for his comments about Crowe's tinkering with the show's format, but by the fact that more than one person thought that his tribute to Howard sounded like an obituary. For those, like my fellow guest at the dinner table that night, unsure of Howard's identity, he is a CBE, who prospered with the Royal Shakespeare Company and plays regular leading roles at the Royal National Theatre; he starred in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and voiced The Ring in Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy. Alan Howard is, as it goes, very much alive.
"It sounded as though he had gone," cringes Mortensen. "He's not dead; I just made him sound as though he was dead. I don't know how I did that. I didn't intend to. I meant it as a tribute to the kind of actor I aspire to be."
The seeds of that aspiration were sown in the early 1980s, when Mortensen saw Howard in an early performance of Good, a Nazi-era play written by CP Taylor, and it left an indelible impression. More than 15 years later, Mortensen is now playing the same character as Howard - John Halder - in the cinema adaptation, which opens on Friday.
"I saw Alan Howard in the original production of the play at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1981 or 1982, before they moved it to The Aldwych," he remembers. "It was amazing, a really good production. It has, among actors, and among theatre people in England certainly, a legendary status. I saw it when I was just starting out acting, living in New York, and I was sent to London to do a screen test for a movie I didn't get. In my first couple of years I had at least 24 or 25 auditions and I never got anything.
"For this one, I got down to the last two people. I had a day off and I saw a listing, a brief description of the play Good. And when I saw it, it was unlike any other story I had ever seen about the Nazi era or the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. The play was very moving. I might not have got the part in the film I screen-tested for, but that trip to London, and seeing Alan Howard - that had a big effect on me."
On the awards stage the previous evening, Mortensen was highly animated, playing to the crowd and even dipping into a bag of props. Today, however, the 50-year-old actor is his normal, quieter self. His hair has grown long - not like Aragorn's tumbling mane, but it's touching his shoulders - courtesy of his latest work, which sees him play the adult lead in the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize winner The Road. He is softly spoken and very articulate. He even pre-empts my next question, despite the fact that I've yet to steer the conversation in that direction. The thing is," he says, perhaps thinking of The Reader, Valkyrie and Defiance, "there have been so many Nazi-era films this year - people probably think, why do I want to see another one? Well, for the same reason I did it, I would say - because it is different. It's not like others."
"The playwright, CP Taylor, who died in 1981 soon after the production opened in London, sought to explore the conflict between man's ideals and his limitations. In Good, he created the character of John Halder, an academic who is ideologically opposed to National Socialism but is gradually flattered into colluding with Hitler's nascent regime. As so often with Mortensen, it is a thoughtful, gentle performance, set against a grisly backdrop.
"I was lucky to get the chance to do this," continues the actor. "There were obstacles to getting this film made. The play is more concept-driven, the music quite abstracted, so maybe people didn't think it would translate. Our film, however, reflects everything in a more naturalistic style. You open it up and you see the streets and the houses and people's lives more fully. But I've been very lucky not to have to do anything I haven't wanted to for a number of years."
It was The Lord Of The Rings ... that opened the doors to stardom. "I was initially reluctant to join that production," he smiles. "They'd all studied the books, but I hadn't read the books or anything. But when I was finally offered the chance to play Aragorn I became curious, because I thought it might be something that I could regret not doing." And he was right. "If Aragorn hadn't become well known and I hadn't got that visibility, there's no way that any production company would back me to me appear in Spanish movie Alatriste, or would say, Yeah, sure let him play Nikolai in Eastern Promises or Tom Stall in A History Of Violence.' I simply wouldn't have got that chance."
And yet Mortensen has made the most of those chances, forging a bountiful relationship with iconoclastic director David Cronenberg (first in A History Of Violence and then Eastern Promises), indulging in Ed Harris's enjoyably bleak western Appaloosa, and signing up to star in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, The Road (adapted from Cormac McCarthy's book by the director John Hillcoat, who announced himself a few years ago with Australian "Western" The Proposition). The Road follows a father and son on a journey through the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America.
"I like Cormac McCarthy, especially No Country For Old Men and Blood Meridian," says Mortensen. "The Road is so very moving - certainly it brings me to tears. For me it's a hopeful story in the end. It's devastating but it is hopeful and the boy represents that. There is always hope."
It seems typical of Mortensen, finding the positive in what many consider a truly harrowing tale. Maybe Hillcoat has tempered the author's quiet fury, or maybe this is just how Mortensen sees it. He's a positive character, after all. Is there anything he's hoping for at the moment?
He pauses for a moment before smiling. "Yeah," he says, "I hope that if Alan Howard hears about last night, he doesn't mind that I made him sound dead ..." Good is in cinemas from Friday. The Road will open later this year.
Sunday Herald, 12.4.09.