Viggo makes a splash in Karlovy Vary

The Dead Don’t Hurt star on his convictions and shunning the limelight

by Richard Mowe

Viggo Mortensen: 'The people who put up money are very conservative'
Viggo Mortensen: 'The people who put up money are very conservative' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
For someone who professes not to like a lot of attention, Viggo Mortensen - who presented his Western The Dead Don’t Hurt at the red carpet opening last night of the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - seemed to be positively basking in all the adulation.

Mortensen, 65, also looked as if he was relishing being in the limelight as he received the Festival President’s Award from the head of the event Jiří Bartoška at a glittering and glammed up ceremony in the leafy surrounds of the Bohemian Czech spa town.

As with Kevin Costner who found it tricky to get finance for his Western saga, Horizon: An American Saga, Mortensen also faced a wall of indifference from potential funders. He told the film industry trade publication Variety just before the screening: “I thought: ‘I’ll make Falling (his first film as a director) and prove to everyone I can direct.’ But I still couldn’t get this one made, so I went: ‘Well, I’ll make The Dead Don’t Hurt and that will prove I can work with these landscapes, and horses.’ Apparently, it’s not enough.

Viggo Mortensen receives the President’s Award from Festival head Jiří Bartoška
Viggo Mortensen receives the President’s Award from Festival head Jiří Bartoška Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
“The people who put up money are very conservative. It gets harder to retain creative control and I won’t make a movie unless I have final cut. This one’s complicated, but I know it will work. It’s just a question of convincing someone to invest in it.”

He explained that he started writing the film in 2020 during the pandemic. He wanted to make what he described as “a historically accurate Western” and seen through the eyes unusually of woman, played by Vicky Krieps, caught up in the turmoil of the American Civil War. Mortensen who was brought up in Argentina and Denmark and now lives in Spain, took the role of a Danish immigrant. The actor-director also used his musical talents to compose the score, part of his wide range of interests away from cinema and including painting and photography.

In a previous interview he told me about his reticence in the limelight: “There are people who love the attention but I’m not one of them. Like anybody, I would rather be liked than not, but attention for attention’s sake, is not my thing. There are people for whom that’s the biggest reason they are into acting. I know people who are like that, and more power to them if it works for them and they aren’t hurting anyone, but I’ve got more attention than I could have wanted in ten lifetimes over the past years. It’s absurd. But it’s happened to me late enough that I know it’s just freakish luck.”

This is Mortensen’s fourth Western after acting in Young Guns II, Hidalgo and Appaloosa. Joe Johnstone, the director of Hidalgo, has compared him to a Marlon Brando or a Montgomery Clift in the way of his intensity and subtle expressions that the camera seems to pick up.

He likes time alone, likes to go back to Denmark, where he once worked as a truck driver and which he still regards as his home. Most of all, he likes hanging out with his son Henry, whom he calls his best friend. Mortensen was born in October 1958. His parents met in Oslo but his mother Grace, an American and a descendent of Buffalo Bill Cody, gave birth in the United States. Viggo senior was an economist whose job took him round the world, and the family spent time living in Denmark, Egypt, Argentina and Venezuela, with the result that Mortensen is fluent in Danish and Spanish.

The spectacular opening ceremony at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
The spectacular opening ceremony at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary

His multicultural background has left him with an instinctive mistrust of the us versus them attitude. To Mortensen, there is no “them”; we’re all mongrels. “I’ve always felt that I’ve got a mother and father, and that’s two blood sources right there. There is no such thing as a racially pure animal or person. That’s illogical to me, and it’s certainly been harmful down through the ages and the centuries. Thinking in terms of racial purity can lead you into all kinds of trouble. Just like religious purity, or the idea of separateness in general. And in the end, the one who loses the most is the one who thinks of himself as separate. You are imprisoning yourself.”

He worries that his celebrity may colour the way the public respond to his art. More than a 1000 people have turned up for one of his poetry readings which he suspects may be due to a desire to see The Lord Of The Rings’ Aragorn in the flesh rather than purely hanging on his every word.

Mortensen admits to having “this crazy side.” Another The Lord of the Rings alumni Elijah (Frodo) Wood described him once as “mental but in a good way.” Apparently, during a fight scene, one of his front teeth was knocked out. Mortensen demanded to be allowed to glue it back in and carry on with filming, and was upset when the producer insisted that he go to the dentist.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is now on release.

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