With “The Lord of the Rings” a decade ago, Viggo Mortensen went from a perennial character actor to someone who could do whatever he wanted. And so he has. Since then he’s been pickier about what films he does, sometimes only doing a film every few years, and not often in Hollywood. A part-time painter and photographer who also has over a dozen experimental albums, Mortensen’s travels have now taken him to “Jauja,” a full-on art film from Argentine minimalist Lisandro Alonso (“Los Muertos,” “Liverpool”). The actor plays a Danish soldier in the 19th century who, while searching for his runaway daughter, winds up lost in an unforgiving and increasingly dreamy landscape. (He’s of Danish descent and was raised in Argentina.) And Mortensen is surprised most mainstream viewers don’t find it an impossible sit.
Alonso tends to work with non-actors. Did he change his approach up very much, could you tell, while working with you and other professional actors?
He realized right away that with me and the other actors that, if needed, he could get us to repeat things or understand things on a different level. In the past he would just put them in a situation where he would say, “Here’s what you need to do,” and that would be it. At first he was a little nervous, but he’s got great instincts. At the same time he’s an open book. Unlike a lot of directors, he’s not insecure in the sense that he’s more than willing to say, “I’m not sure what that’s about” or “I’m not sure if that works or not.” On the first day he said to me, “What do you say to them?” I said, “Who do you mean?” He said, “Actors.” I said, “Well, I’m an actor.” [Laughs] He asked if there was a certain thing he should say to the girl playing my daughter. Just the fact that he would ask that, it was endearing and great. I said, “I don’t know, why don’t you just do a take and if you like it, tell her you liked it.” I lot of directors forget that’s important. And he asked, “What if I don’t like it?” I said, “Tell her you liked what she did and ask if she wants to do another take.” [Laughs] And he quickly got the hang of it.
What about his previous films drew you to him?
They’re all quite different. I like some more than others. But I generally like his sense of rhythm and time. It’s not like other filmmakers. Some do remind me a bit of [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s work or [Aleksandr] Sokurov’s work. There’s something about the treatment of landscape and time in his storytelling I find attractive. I realize it’s not really commercial. But it’s something I like to watch.
You seem to be have become more free to do films that aren’t very commercial after “The Lord of the Rings.”
I’ve always done that. I’m always looking for something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to see 10 or 20 years from now. There were certainly movies before “Lord of the Rings” I did because I need to pay the rent or gain experience. But when I started getting more responsibilities after my roles became bigger, I started spending more time on preparation and the responsibilities on the shoot and, most importantly, the time and energy you put into promoting the movie, to help the movie be seen. Now I choose very carefully because it’s a lot of time.
Did you get the sense that, unlike a lot of independent movies with name actors attached, it would have trouble getting funding without you?
Lisandro didn’t need me to be in this movie to get it made. He was going to make this movie anyway. He makes his movies for nothing. What did help was an actor and as a producer, there’s now another layer, an extra dimension. He had been at Cannes before, but maybe now he had a little more attention, just because he’s working with actors and with an actor who’s relatively well-known. All those things help get it to the public or to the attention of critics, at least, where they’ll at least look at it. But he was going to make the movie anyway, and he would have probably have made a really good movie with or without me.
There’s a real sense in this film of someone being lost in and swallowed up by nature.
Landscape in his movies is always an additional character. You see several times where the landscape is there, a human being enters the landscape, they leave the landscape, and the landscape is still there. In a way it’s a statement that we are impermanent. [Laughs] Life is fleeting and the landscape is bigger than us and can overpower us. It’s also a metaphor for what happens to my character. He gets lost and meaning goes out the window.