The actor formerly known as Aragorn continues to confound with his film roles. Viggo Mortensen talks to Russell Baillie about playing a Nazi in Good and the ultimate struggling solo dad in The Road
Viggo Mortensen is not a man for short answers. When he gets on a roll - which he quickly does when it comes to talking about Good, yet another movie about Nazi Germany but also a departure from the recent spate of them - it soon turns into a treatise on personal responsibility, society, democracy, and a lot more besides.
You almost feel rude for butting in and reminding him that our chat comes with a time limit which Mortensen takes in good heart. "Sorry for the rambling," he laughs later as our 20 minutes come to an end.
He's been holding court in a Wellington hotel room while on a flying visit to promote the movie and catch up with an old friend or two from his Lord of the Rings days - including a visit to the Kapiti Coast to see Uraeus, the horse he rode as Aragorn and bought after the film.
"He came right across the paddock - I don't know whether I am flattering myself or he just does that all the time. He seemed to recognise my voice."
Since he rose from Middle-earth to stardom, Mortensen has been in two movies named after horses - Hidalgo and Appaloosa and among his many creative sidelines (which stretch to poetry, painting and music, and photography), he's published a photography book The Horse is Good about the gee-gees he has met and worked with around the world.
His acting career since has also been unpredictable for a guy whose face was the poster of the trilogy's 11-Academy Award winning final chapter.
"The success of it gave us all new opportunities. I have always looked for interesting stories - stories that were going to be challenging and I would learn something from. I have always done that pretty much anyway without thinking 'is it a big or a small budget? I guess since Lord of the Rings and the success it had I have been able to not only look at a script and not only say 'I would like to play that' but it could be made with me."
He's done two movies with perennial maverick director David Cronenberg - The History of Violence and Eastern Promises, a Russian mobster role which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He took the lead in Spanish 17th war epic Alatriste - using the Spanish he picked up while living in Argentina as a boy - and now by playing German academic John Halder in Good, the American-born half Danish actor has knocked off yet another nationality. What flag does he want on his CV next?
"I haven't yet played a South Island sheep farmer so you never know. I would have to work on the accent for that."
His profile is about to rise in the coming months, with his role as "The Man" in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's best seller The Road, the riveting tale of a father trying to save his son in a post-apocalyptic world which they traverse on foot. America's Esquire magazine has already declared the movie the year's most important film, given the depth of feeling its readers have about the book. Let's see here, a book with an ardent following featuring a cross country quest with a person shorter than Mortensen ... deja vu?
"Ha ha ha. Yeah, it's every bit as epic but there is no Elf release in it - other than the memory of the wife which I guess functions as a Rivendell of the mind."
"It's by far Cormac McCarthy's most universally successful book because it's his most universally themed story... it takes the concerns of what any parent has - you hope your kid is going to be okay if you are not around - and this takes that fear to an extreme. Without me he really is completely on his own and has nothing."
The film, directed by Australian John Hillcoat, may be Mortensen's highest profile movie in years.
He hasn't seen the finished film yet and won't venture an opinion on how it might turn out, though he suspects the performance to watch is that of Kodi Smit-McPhee, the young Aussie actor who plays the son. "This boy is really something."
But before that is Good, which represents another challenge. Based on the play by Scottish-Jewish writer Cecil Philip Taylor, it tells how Halder, an open-minded lecturer in German literature, is lured into the Nazi party - a transformation from bumbling professor to a slightly dithering SS officer, jackboots and all.
It is yet another of a wave of Third Reich era films. And it could be seen as a bookend to The Reader - in that film the lead character's illiteracy is a reason behind her participation in the Holocaust. In Good it's an over-abundance of literacy that leads to the character's participation.
But unlike the other recent movies of the era, says Mortensen, it offers no easy out for the audience and that is one of the reasons he was attracted to it.
"What makes this movie different to The Reader or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or certainly Defiance, which is just a so-so action movie really, all of those movies have some dramatic release, some cathartic moment - our movie doesn't have that.
"And that can be frustrating or maddening or disappointing to audiences in some sense. But that is more like real life and to me more interesting.
"It's not just 'those crazy Germans - look at what happened, at least we are not that way'. Or 'that could never happen here'."
"It's not a bunch of cliches in terms of characters and I think the story and the characters subvert expectations."
Which Mortensen, reluctant film star, is likely to continue doing too.
Who: Viggo Mortensen
Born: October 20, 1958, New York
Key roles: Witness (1985), Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Young Guns II (1990), The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito's Way (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Albino Alligator (1996), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Daylight (1996), G.I. Jane (1997), A Perfect Murder (1998), Psycho (1998), A Walk on the Moon (1999), 28 Days (2000), The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003), Hidalgo (2004), A History of Violence (2005), Alatriste (2006), Appaloosa (2008)
Latest: Good opens at cinemas on June 11