Exactly Two Questions With: Viggo Mortensen
This Friday the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a theatrical run of Jauja, the product of an unusual collaboration between Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso and American star Viggo Mortensen. It’s not the first foray by Mortensen into unfamiliar terrain, and “terrain” is the key word: the setting is 19th-century Patagonia, at land’s end, where his character, a Danish military engineer, ventures into the backcountry in search of his daughter. Mortensen (who delivers both Danish and Spanish dialogue) also produced and created music for the film, which was co-written by poet pal and fellow San Lorenzo fanatic Fabián Casas.
Born in New York but partly raised in Argentina, the actor hereby adds to a growing list of artistic activity: publishing (through Perceval Press), photography, and of course soccer blogging. He attributes the germ of Jauja’s idea to imagining the aftermath of an unnerving personal story: a female friend of Alonso's moved to live with a lover in the Philippines, only to be found shot dead years later. As the film’s story takes its own extraordinary (and mind-expanding) turns, Jauja opens more questions than it seeks to answer, and last May, at the Cannes Film Festival, I happily snuck in the chance to ask Mortensen two myself.
I’d like to talk about some of your specific decisions as an actor in the movie, because in your performances you are often so specific with physical aspects—your face, body, posture, the angle you hold your head, all these things. Could you talk about how you were inhabiting this character?
I’m always conscious of how best to get things across, but I also have a sense of what works with the camera, and as a photographer, what works in terms of camera framing, light, lens size, all that. But essentially, I’m doing things that the character would do, and that’s based on me searching—well, I’m finding, too. This guy’s a military man from Denmark, and at the age of the character in that period, he will have been in two very important wars against Germany: in 1848, which Denmark won, and 1864, which was a brutal defeat against the Prussians. Those uniforms are very specific, and for the guys who were in both those wars, the details are specific. The little medal he has, which I was able to find in an antique shop in Denmark, has two heads on it—the king of Denmark in the first war and the second. Every soldier, no matter if you’re a private or a general, got this service medal. Most of the soldiers in those wars were farmers, and you’d see them 50 years later, in the turn of the 20th century, working with pigs or in the fields, and they’d be wearing their medals.
There’s something like Don Quixote about a guy in Patagonia who says: “It’s OK, I’ve got a job to do. I’m going to put my uniform on and my medal.” It’s ridiculous, but for him it’s not ridiculous at all. It’s what you’re supposed to do. And then it gets more ridiculous when they steal his horse and his rifle and his hat. He just keeps going, because he believes in what he’s doing—just like he believes he’s going to make sense logically of many things. He’s got this Western, Northern European attitude, which is: things happen, and there’s an explanation for everything scientifically. There are names of things—tribes, people, races. There is North, South, East, West. There is sunshine. There is darkness when it’s night, and so on and so forth. It’s all: “I’ll find her.” By the end of the story, he’s hearing this imaginary voice that’s asking, what is it that makes a life function, make sense, and move forward? And he says, “I don’t know,” and smiles and finally gives up, and kind of makes sense of everything.
I saw one reading of the film as having an element of commentary on imperialism. What’s your take on that?
I read something about that. Obviously we were conscious of the fact that we were showing a period when the westward expansion was happening. It was the same thing that was happening at the same time in North America, in Canada and the United States, and also in Australia and New Zealand, although in New Zealand they never really conquered and eradicated in the same way as they did in Australia and the United States and in Argentina, where the war was called “The Conquest of the Desert.” It was a brutal war, a genocide, basically a clearing of the Argentine frontier for settlement and agriculture and exploitation.
But the guy I’m playing is just there. He’s got a job as an engineer. The ditch that they’re digging was a real historical thing they did to keep Indians out of the province of Buenos Aires. They dug this long ditch, which was like the Maginot Line, but maybe it worked out better than the Maginot Line did. But as far as this film being a commentary on imperialism, that’s a leap. Whenever a movie is interesting and thought-provoking—and a movie works—it gives rise to all kinds of speculation. If a movie isn’t interesting and is annoying, people don’t go to the trouble to find these fantastical explanations.