VIGGO Mortensen plays the wheelchair. The 1970s vehicle, used in the film "Carlito's Way," sounds different on different surfaces, says Mortensen, star of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Hidalgo," an adventure saga that opens today.
Besides making movies, the soft-spoken actor plays jazz piano, keyboards, drums and makeshift percussion instruments such as a motorcycle muffler and wheelchair, which is featured in a number on his "Pandemoniumfromamerica" CD. The chair makes different sounds depending on where you pluck the spokes, Mortensen, 45, says during a recent stopover at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. The CD is dedicated to American linguist Noam Chomsky. The title was inspired by a William Blake poem. It includes spoken material by Jonathan Swift and Mortensen as well as eclectic instrumentals.
And it makes you realize that the man who makes women's hearts go pitter-pat -- Mortensen was named one of the "50 Most Beautiful People" by People Magazine in 2002 -- is not just another pretty face.
A Renaissance man, Mortensen writes poetry, takes photographs, draws, owns the publishing company Perceval Press and paints -- he painted the murals in his character's studio in the 1998 Michael Douglas-Gwyneth Paltrow drama "A Perfect Murder."
All of his artistic expressions come "from the same place," Mortensen says. "Participating in life by recording it, commenting on it, offering your own notions and responses. It's a way of being in your life and paying attention. ... They all use different parts of the brain and perception to react or communicate."
It's amazing how well Mortensen communicates after spending the entire day on an assembly line of media appearances pegging to "Hidalgo."
Mortensen stars as Frank T. Hopkins, an angst-laden, alcoholic former Army scout and endurance-race rider who takes his mustang Hidalgo to Arabia in 1890 to compete in a 3,000-mile race across the desert. The Moroccan shoot took place under grueling conditions including sudden 30 mph sandstorms that were like "a wall of wind" that shut down production, "Hidalgo" director Joe Johnston says. Johnston credits Mortensen's humor with keep things light for the crew.
"He was really helpful in helping us not feel sorry for ourselves," the director says. "Viggo is extremely funny and has great comic timing. He started ad-libbing with the horse. The horse would make a sound and Viggo would pretend he knew what it was saying, and they'd start to talk back and forth."
Johnston says he cast Mortensen mostly from his photo. "There was something about his face," the director recalls, "sort of a dark quality to it. It was a little bit vulnerable. It reminded me of Montgomery Clift, slightly twisted and mysterious. And for the ladies, he was really good-looking."
When told of the Montgomery Clift comment, Mortensen takes it in, chews it over and looks bemused. He's the analytical type, someone who enjoying mulling over new ideas or insights. Despite his blue eyes being clear as the afternoon sky, Mortensen looks tired. He's wearing a casual jacket, T-shirt, denim overall bottoms, blue socks, no shoes. But he appears beyond relaxed, as if in slow motion interspersed with gentle riffs of mental energy.
Sometimes his mind veers into mush and he gets lost in tangents about religion as metaphor, family, fortune, responsibility and fame.
But after 30 films, starting as an Amish farmer in 1985's "Witness" and continuing opposite Sandra Bullock in "28 Days" and Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane," Mortensen understands the situation. And, with a little nudging, he gets back on track.
He was born in New York. His mother is American, his father Danish. At 7, he was sent to boarding school in Argentina. Back in New York, he proved good at sports and languages in high school. After graduating from St. Lawrence University in New York, he started writing.
He spent a long time searching for the derivation of his first name. "It's a bit of a dork name," Mortensen says, "like being called 'Oswald' or something."
The first results suggested Viggo was Danish for something like a point of land or a bay. Later, he discovered it derived from "stridesmand," which, he says, "means warrior, also someone standing up for you to do battle, (and) to take up a cause."
Near the beginning of his career, Mortensen married Exene Cervenka, singer in the punk-rock group X. Now divorced, they share time with their son Henry, 16.
Henry loved the Tolkien books. And he convinced Mortensen to take the role of Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, despite that meaning his dad would be away working on the project for 11/2 years.
"I visit Henry whenever I can, and he comes with me," Mortensen says. "There have been absences, and you don't get that time back. It is a loss and it's definitely a price to pay. When I'm gone, he stays with his mom. All through his life he's been on tour (with his mother's band or Mortensen on location)."
Mortensen, who lives in Southern California to be close to his son, spends entire summers with Henry when he can.
Henry also provides perspective for the unassuming actor when his celebrity proves inescapable.
"I don't think he sees me buying into it or exploiting it," Mortensen says. "I think (he agrees) it's not connected to our lives."
Mortensen finds fame "somewhat flattering, but more strange than flattering because (it involves) all these people I don't know. Mostly, I take it as a compliment that something I do is working."
Mortensen considers himself fortunate to be working at all. He doesn't plan. "I try to find things I can learn from, or hope they find me. Good luck comes around once in a while. "
He believes he got lucky when asked to replace Stuart Townsend in "Lord of the Rings." That decision has led to a deluge of other acting offers.
But he knows enough not to let the attention go to his head -- even though his head fills the entire "Hidalgo" poster. (Mortensen calls it "the big-head poster.")
"Popularity comes and goes," the actor says. "And it involves as much good fortune as diligence in applying yourself. "
That leads into a discussion of responsibility, an issue that applies to his being both an actor and a dad.
"With acting, if you earn people's trust by your behavior and your consideration, and give and take, it (the experience) is more pleasant and you do better work.
"As a father, it involves simple things like admitting when you don't have an answer. "
That requires reflection, something at which Mortensen is a natural. Asked if he has a gift, Mortensen says, it's "being curious about life, being interested."
All of which is very Renaissance.
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