Viggo Mortensen on Getting Lost and Saying No to Superheroes

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Photo: Jemal Countess /Getty Images

It's hard to get a read on Viggo Mortensen's con man in The Two Faces of January, and that's awfully fitting, considering who plays him. Since the Lord of the Rings trilogy made Mortensen bankable, he's mostly spent that capital on unexpected character roles in a series of modestly budgeted indies, including this throwback thriller (adapted by Hossein Amini from the Patricia Highsmith novel), where Mortensen and his wife Kirsten Dunst are thrown together with Oscar Isaac after an accidental murder in 1960s Greece. No one is who they seem, and their alliances are always up for grabs, and Mortensen had a ball with the ambiguity. "It’s always fun to have secrets," he told Vulture, "but when you’re playing a con man, you’re having secrets within secrets within secrets."

The film reminded me of A Perfect Murder, where you and Michael Douglas are vying for Gwyneth Paltrow in a story about deceit and murder. Only this time, you're playing the Michael Douglas role.
That’s true! That is very true. I hadn’t thought of that really, but it was fun. And there are a lot of similarities, too, to good film-noir thrillers from the ‘50s and ‘60s, even the ‘40s.

What is it about Patricia Highsmith that makes her able to write these characters we feel for, and yet do such amoral things?
You just sense a mean streak in the author. [Laughs.] She delights in deconstructing her characters, putting them in embarrassing situations or weak moments. Sometimes the plots aren’t as strong as the characters, but the characters are always interesting.

Did the plot of The Two Faces of January need any touching up?
Amini's adaption was, I think, an improvement on the book. Take Kirsten’s character, Colette. In the book, yeah, she’s interesting, but she’s somewhat superficial, as Patricia Highsmith's female characters often are. They’re objects, or they’re devices or catalysts for interesting things to happen to the male characters. In the novel, Colette is pretty superficial, kind of slutty, and there’s not much there, but in the adaptation that Hoss [Amini] wrote and in the way Kirsten plays it, she’s much more layered, and she’s clearly turning a blind eye to the things she’s not comfortable with. There’s a tension there, with her not wanting to know but gradually finding out what her husband’s really about, and being disappointed and disillusioned, even angry about it.

How much did your character change? I have to say, I enjoyed seeing you play rich and civilized.
My character’s a lot more interesting, too, just because in the book, he starts out already as being sweaty and desperate and paranoid, and he’s not as bright. In the movie version, it’s still essentially the same guy, but he starts out seeming to be something else entirely: clever, well-read, well-educated. He and his wife seem to be the ideal couple, and things rapidly fall apart, which is great to watch — and it’s nice to play, too. It gives you somewhere to go as an actor, those layers and those weak moments and that sort of seamy side of the character. It’s fun. By the end, you’re like, “I don’t even know what this guy’s real name is.”

The characters couldn't get away with that sort of reinvention today. It's almost romantic to think that in the '60s, you could still go somewhere new and change your identity.
We have footprints that we leave everywhere now, whether we want to or not. This movie couldn’t have been set in modern times, or even any time after the late ‘70s, because it wouldn’t be as credible. Back then, you could so easily falsify passports, cross borders, and change your name. No cell phones, no cable TV, no digital tracking of people or documents. It was a whole different world. A different pace, a different rhythm.

Can you relate to that? A lot of actors are adept at becoming other people, after all. And you're sort of a peripatetic guy, by nature.
A lot of actors have those kinds of childhoods, when you're growing up curious about other points of view, the way other people think, and the way they see the world. It is something that interests me, and it’s essentially how I see my job: At the heart of it, I do my best to imagine that I have the point of view of someone else, a point of view quite different from my own. That's something we learned how to do as kids, really, that act of make believe, that we’re someone else. You don’t need a director and you don’t need a second take as a 4-year-old, but when you get older, you get more inhibited about that stuff, more self-conscious.

You've made a lot of small movies since Lord of the Rings raised your profile. Do you turn down superhero movies?
I was offered some but unable to do them. Sometimes I was busy doing something else, and even if it’s a little tiny movie, I kind of stay with it no matter what comes along. It takes me a while to commit to something but once I do, I’m there, and I’m not gonna get swayed by money or anything. But I have been offered a couple of things: The last Superman was one of them, Snow White and the Huntsman was another. And then I remember just before doing Lord of the Rings, playing Wolverine in the first X-Men movie was a real possibility, but that I couldn’t do either, so. I’m not against it. Some of those things are pretty interesting, you know.

What happened to the Eastern Promises sequel you were supposed to make with David Cronenberg?
I don’t know. Making movies is like a lottery. First of all, it took a while for them to be able to find any kind of financing, and then there was the question of, "Is it the ideal follow-up?" I mean, I guess if it was gonna be as good or better as the original — which I think is the reason to make any sequel — it would have probably already happened. Also with David, he keeps changing gears and testing himself and wants to try his hand at new kinds of stories. I do hope I’ll get to work with him again soon. We have a good relationship, we stay in touch. I did see him in Toronto briefly, where he was presenting Maps to the Stars, and I thought he really succeeded in doing what he wanted with that movie. It’s too bad it’s not coming out in theaters this year in North America — I don’t know why that is, but it’s unfortunate. It’ll come out, obviously, but probably not until January or February, I’m told.

Is there any performance you've given that you'd want to redo — either because it could use improvement, or because you had such a good time inhabiting the character?
All of them. [Laughs.] You can always improve. If we already got the shot, and the director offers me another take, I’ll always take it — you never know what might happen. There is no character I had, no matter how the movie turned out, no matter how small the character was or creatively interesting the story was, that I didn't learn from or enjoy playing. But you can always do better. You just do the best you can at any given moment, walk away, and it’s in someone else’s hands to edit and hopefully distribute in an intelligent way. It’s kind of a crap shoot, because normally, your fate is in someone else’s hands and your work is in someone else’s hands, normally. But yeah, I'd do all of them again.