Religious Moment Where Something Might Happen
Date: Dec '02
Viggo Mortensen is one quality individual. Not only does the man have
a film schedule that might make the most seasoned actor reach for caffeine
pills (or worse), but he delves just as deeply into his other passions
- poetry, painting, photography, politics, music and more - as he does
into his roles. And as much as the legendary accounts of Mortensen's
dedication on the set of the canonical-text-turned-classic-film, Lord
of the Rings - where it was rumored that Viggo disappeared into the woods
in his Aragorn costume to really sink into the role - might raise your
eyebrows, his determined loyalty and continual involvement in Los Angeles'
other (read: neglected) arts scenes should elicit your respect. Before
the world went haywire over Mortensen's turn at the Tolkien canon, Viggo
had already embedded himself deeply in the arts community through his
poetry (from 1993's Ten Last Night to this year's Coincidence of Memory),
his painting and photography (several gallery exhibits to his credit),
and spoken word recordings and readings with the likes of his ex-wfe,
Exene Cervenka (one-fourth of LA punk icons, X), Buckethead, Jerry Stahl
and Karen Finley, among many others.
So it seemed apropos that Viggo would agree to not only a reading/signing
at Santa Monica's invaluable yet independent bookstore, Midnight Special
- which recently declared that it could no longer afford the skyrocketing
rent of that town's increasingly chain-stored Promenade - but also
an interview with Morphizm. All of this after flying into town in the
wee hours of the AM the morning before, fried and exhausted from a
shoot in Montana. To no one's surprise, Viggo showed up barefoot, clothed
in an American Indian Movement long-sleeve, and encouraged a rapt crowd
to pick up Noam Chomsky's 9/11, before reading a few poems from his
new collection, Coincidence of Memory, published by the equally independent
And although both Viggo and Perceval's editor, Pilar Perez, planned
on keeping the time of each signing down, that didn't stop the tireless
renaissance man from giving each fan the kind of one-to-one attention
that they dream of. He shook their hands, posed for countless pictures
and even let some take photos of his bare feet. Which is why when I
got tired standing for hours behind him - since our interview was postponed,
I figured I'd help the awesome Midnight Special keep the peace - I
didn't sit. Or complain.
By the time it was over, the clock struck 2AM and I felt like an asshole
for even suggesting the interview. But he was just as enthusiastic
in the penultimate hour of his night as he was in its commencement.
Plus, he sent me on my way with a bottle of whiskey.
Like I said: a tireless individual.
of Memory closes with a famous quote from Kant: "Seek
not the favour of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful
means. But seek the testimony of the few; and number not the voices,
but weigh them." How does that quote inform your work and what
does it mean to you?
Well, I think it's good to listen to others. But if you're making things
for approval, then … that's not exactly what the quote means,
but it makes me think of that: to not do things -- and I don't -- for
an audience. I mean, I'm doing this signing for an audience, as thanks
for buying the book, for driving from wherever. Some of these people
drove from Texas, Las Vegas, Canada, and I do not know where.
I thought someone came from Australia.
I don't know if they did or not. But that's happened! (He laughs).
Some people came from Japan. You know, it's the least I can do is
sign the books and thank them, but the work in the books is not made
with them in mind, I don't make it for them. I wouldn't put anything
in a book, thinking, "Somebody might like this." There
are images that I know have sold before that I might include in a
show, but that's as much out of consideration for the gallery. You
know, at least something has a chance to sell. (Laughs). But it's
not going to be something I didn't like. It's just something I put
in a show and it happened to do all right, a photograph or something.
But I'm sort of rambling...
That's ok, keep rambling.
Make it purely to please yourself and then there's a chance to please
someone else -- that's what it means to me. Everyone has a few friends
that they can listen to. You don't have to agree with them, but their
opinion is worthwhile. If you're trying to please everyone, then
you're not going to make anything that is honestly yours, I don't
think, in the long run.
Because it's an artistic process - looking inward rather than outward.
Yeah, you can probably make nicely crafted things, whether they're
poems, sculptures, paintings, records, CDs, whatever. But they'll
just be that - nice. They won't be unwieldy in any way as personal
expression often can be.
Yeah, they'll just be easy to digest for a certain, what do you call
it? For an average group of people but no one in particular. So then
you're not really making it for everyone; you're making it for a
vague mass of people. It's not the way to do things I think. It may
be profitable, but not satisfying.
Kant's quote stuck out for me because you're signing at Midnight Special
Books, which is an independent bookstore getting priced out of the
now high-profile Santa Monica Promenade. What are your thoughts on
this? I mean it's a trend, revamping entire areas everywhere with chains
swallowing up the independents.
Well, I've never done a book signing or reading of any kind at Midnight
Special. I've been to several really good events here and I've always
come here to buy books, because I live not that far from here. So I
would always come to Midnight Special rather than the chain stores.
Not that they don't have good books; they sometimes have the same books.
But these guys are special and make an extra effort. The events that
they have and the authors they get in here are people you wouldn't
get to see otherwise. Knowing that they were going to have to move
from this location … I mean, I didn't think that I'd do this
thing to help. It's nice if it does well, like it did tonight, but
it's not going to make a difference to help them stay, by any means.
I wanted to have it done here to honor Midnight Special. I like this
place and I am a loyal customer.
It's a huge question, of course, but what do you think it would take
to keep the more independent places like Midnight Special alive and
thriving, rather than getting priced out of a market like this?
Big bombs. (Laughs).
Big bombs? Isn't that a Spinal Tap song?
Big Bottom". (Still laughing)
that's right! No, I'm kidding. Let's talk about Coincidence of Memory.
Talk about its genesis. It's a 25-year
retrospective of your work.
Yeah, I don't know how it ended up being that. I wanted to do a poetry
book for awhile and, at the time, I had a certain amount of poems that
I felt comfortable with, felt that they were done. And I thought that
I might as well put some from Ten Last Night -- which has long been
out of print -- that had connections in a way to Beyond Baroque, and
some of the authors that came out of there in the '80s and early '90s.
But all through the '80s, Illuminati Press was making some unique books
and Peter Schneider, the editor, asked if I wanted to do one, which
was flattering. So I did a book there -- this was when I was still
regularly going to the workshop at Beyond Baroque. It was a very small
run; people keep asking for them. I didn't even have one of my own
-- I'd given them away -- so I borrowed one from a friend that had
a copy and looked at the poems. I included some of those in Coincidence.
But while I was trying to remember when I wrote them, I decided that
it was almost like a journal. I put the years on the poems and, in
some cases, rewrote them, adding this year to the original published
date. I ended up doing the same with the paintings that I hadn't put
in other books (or a couple that had the same years on them.) For someone
who's maybe bought some of my other books or has been interested in
my artwork, it might be kind of interesting to know the chronology.
And it was also a good thing for me to have, to remember old things
and new things. And there's this series of photographs in Signlanguage
where I used a camera that was broken and had this electrical short...
The one that gave you those orange flares?
Yeah, there were a lot more in that series, so I put some that weren't
in Signlanguage in Coincidence also.
I was trying to figure out the process for those flares. I thought
that burn came from the development process.
No, it was in the camera. The wiring that advanced the film and activated
the flash got messed up. I was fishing and dropped the camera and it
got wet. When it dried out, it started doing that. I shot a roll, saw
it and thought, "Oh, shit." But when I looked at them, I
thought that some of them looked kind of interesting. So on the next
roll, I tried moving the wire all the way to one side and the flares
would go to that side. Then I moved it to the middle, the right, and
on the bottom and shot maybe eight rolls of film before it stopped
That's an interesting physical manipulation, like the one David Lynch
used in Lost Highway, where he actually takes the lens off his camera
to get a blur you can't get with any kind of other manipulation. You
work in many different mediums. Which do you feel is the most rewarding?
Do they all bring you the same satisfaction?
I look at them all as being the same thing. The only difference, practically
speaking, is movies. There the finished work is out of your hands.
I like acting, I like the whole process of movie-making, the team effort
of it. No matter how big the film is, it doesn't have to be impersonal.
However, as an actor you do not, so to speak, finish the painting.
I'm working on a job now and I've got this whole crew sitting up on
a hill in middle-of-nowhere Montana. A couple days ago, there was this
hail. And everybody's just sitting there, kind of setting up the scene
with clothing from 1890 and a herd of close to a thousand horses. And
the waiting is almost like a ritual, like preparation for a religious
moment where something might happen. You have words for the ceremony,
the vestments, and all the elements and you're hoping that something
good happens. So it's still interesting, the group getting together
and doing it. But the end result of what I do individually as an actor
isn't mine. I don't always recognize it that much as being mine, depending
on what someone does with it. Whereas with the other media, for better
or worse, the process and the results are both mine.
poem "Edit", from Coincidence, makes me think of that.
The "graveyard that smells of popcorn".
Yeah, I wrote that about 10 or 11 years ago. When I wrote it, I was
being sort of tongue-in-cheek - trying to have a bit of a sense of
humor about the situation - but I probably got more angry about it
then than I do now. I've learned to accept that that's just the deal.
That's the nature of it: the director or whoever is in charge of the
editing. It's their painting and I'm just a part of it.
Which one of the media that you work in still offers a challenge?
Not to suggest that you've mastered them, but some must come to you
easier than others.
It depends on the day. You know what I mean? There are certain things
that I know. As far as acting, no matter how difficult it seems, I'll
get through it somehow because I've gotten through things before that
I knew were difficult. The same goes for the others. I guess painting,
since it is the newest for me. But I've learned that I can ruin it
and keep going because it'll become something else.
It's always in process.
Yeah, I don't have to freak out about it. I can just keep going. I
can take a piece of sandpaper and sand the whole thing off if I want
to. And I have. Even that process can become something interesting.
Like taking the lens off as you spoke about earlier, which I've done.
I have a camera with a broken lens - I was actually doing it two
days ago in Montana. There were all these horses running and I was
taking pictures and then the lens was just all screwed up. So I took
it off. I don't know what it's going to look like. It's hopefully
just going to be a good flow of shapes and color.
With Coincidence, you took a lot of pictures in New Zealand and elsewhere.
Do you take your camera wherever you go? A place like New Zealand must
just boggle you.
Yeah, I didn't think I'd taken that many because I was working every
day, pretty fried all the time. But over that period, I did take quite
a few. I don't generally do it on a set; it's always peripheral to
that. But I did end up taking a lot; I've already taken a lot on the
job I've been on now. It's interesting when there's animals involved
in the story. I'm pretty much on a horse all the time in this one.
Any vivisected pigs, like the ones from Coincidence?
I'm not going to give it away, but there is a dead animal already in
Also like Lynch.
Is that what he would do?
He's had photos of carcasses that he's manipulated into something
surreal. I wanted to ask you about the tension between pursuing your
independent work in other mediums and what might amount to your exploding
popularity from the next Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers and
Return of the King. How do you resolve being such a presence with trying
to stay out of the public eye to pursue the things you want to do?
Like something like tonight's signing, which goes several hours past
what you might have expected and you're just fried.
Yeah, there were a lot of people.
And you're so gracious with them.
Yeah, well they are pretty nice people! It's just easier to try and
get along than not... I sound like I'm on morphine. When I started
off the reading, I thought, "Shit man, I can't even speak".
I don't think anyone noticed. Everybody was going crazy.
It was like a game show atmosphere, wasn't it?
Yeah, but it was a blast. Lord of the Rings was a massive enterprise.
And now the central thesis of The Two Towers and Return of the King
seems to revolve just as greatly around Aragorn as it does Frodo. So
I'm guessing the exposure is going to be insane. How will you balance
that with the desire to maintain your independence, your distance from
When I do something like this, book signings, there are usually more
people who show up now. And you get all these things, there are all
these letters and gifts, sometimes strange ones; most of the time it
can be really nice. But at the same time, it's overwhelming. Because
I know I'm going to have to look through it. Most of it is filling
the corners of my house and I can't respond to it all right away.
What's the weirdest thing?
No, you know, just letters and things where people are convinced that...
most of the mail is friendly and interesting but every once in a
while there is something weird.
Some think you're actually Aragorn.
Yeah, for example. Or their father, son or something. But it's also
just weird getting that much fan mail from strangers, which I am
sure is the case for the other actors from the Lord of the Rings
trilogy. There's so much of it. I may just have to say that if I'm
doing a book signing or you catch me on the street, then fine. But
otherwise I cannot do it anymore. It takes hours everyday and it
takes too much time away from other things I must do.
From your poetry, photography, painting. That was basically my question.
It can. And I think I'm going to just try and eliminate that somehow.
If someone is there and I see them, that's one thing, because most
fans are well-intentioned. But if you write back, sometimes they
write again and want to cultivate a relationship.
You don't want to look like the bad guy when you cut it off.
Well, yeah. So I'm thinking it's a question of how much time it takes.
And I don't want to do what so many do, which is you get a stamp
or a signature put there by someone else. That's so impersonal, you
might as well not do it. But it's nice that people like the work
and write about it. And not just the acting - they'll write about
other stuff too. That's nice. I do appreciate it, but I find that
I don't have time to sleep. Because that's what suffers - I already
don't sleep enough.
Hey, I said we could stop!
(Laughs). No, no. We're almost done. The other thing is if I'm going
to do something, I like to do it right.
( Pilar Perez: I was also going to say earlier - in the same spirit
of independent outlets - is that's what Perceval Press is all about.
We're also fans looking for something, like the list of recommendations
on the Perceval Press site and this book signing. It's really expanding,
Yeah, and it's weird that there is a big group of people in different
parts of the world who are buying and ordering these books. Right away,
it establishes Perceval Press to the point that we can put out other
books. Books that no one would ever think about. I have some different
ideas for books that I don't think anybody would otherwise see - artwork
and stuff from different places like Cuba - that people aren't going
to know about. Especially here.
Is there a way to negotiate all of this to where you can get independent
stuff from Perceval Press out there and succeeding?
I'm well aware of the fact that it is because of the newfound attention
resulting from the success of Lord of the Rings that we can sell so
many books on nights like tonight and in this past week. If I wasn't
in that movie, maybe we would have sold ten last week and then tonight
there would have been 50 people here. Which would have been cool. But
in the past, before that movie, I had been doing poetry readings for
a long time. I've done poetry readings in LA or San Francisco where
there were a hundred people. But I've also done them where there were
only five, sometimes in places that could hold a hundred.
And you just do it. But now more people will show up.
And it's bringing some well deserved attention to poetry. In a sense,
poetry was a sublime form within the last few centuries, but with the
proliferation of media, it still needs to be propped up.
A lot of people read it. A lot of people that were here tonight said
something about their writing, but were too embarrassed by it. And
I'd ask them about what they write and encourage them to pursue it.
People sometimes seem to feel that poetry is just this little thing
you do privately, like your diary. But in reality it's something that
you can work at in many ways, that you can share, that you can take
as far as you like.