A Small Town Local Writer’s Encounter with an International Star
by Lisa Morgan
There are people who inspire you by the things that they do, the way they speak and live, or through what they create. Some are inspired by actors, actresses, musicians and others whose notable fame has brought their gifts to the forefront of our attention. But very few of these “stars” hold up to the image or our expectations once we see them in person; we realize they are just people like the rest of us, flawed and vulnerable. This is the story of my brief encounter with a man who I had merely known as the characters he played in only a couple of the movies he had made: I knew and loved him as “Aragorn/Striker” in the Lord of the Rings movies based on an epic, high fantasy novel written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien. I loved in Hildago, the 2004 film based on the legend of the American distance rider Frank Hopkins and his mustang. I had only become aware of his extensive career in art, poetry and music because of the AMFM Festival. Here at this event, Viggo Mortensen did not even come close to meeting my expectations. He blew them out of the water, and in doing so, heightened my expectations of myself.
Viggo Mortensen was to be the recipient of the Dennis Hopper award at the first annual, AMFM Festival in Cathedral City. Some of us wondered whether or not he would make it, as he was in the middle of filming his latest movie project in Argentina. There was no line of paparazzi or much news media there to give him the exposure many of the Hollywood set seem to require. Those of us in attendance knew how important, inspirational and life changing this event was, even though our other local print medias only seemed to want to critique the attendance numbers the Thursday prior to the weekend long event. Viggo knew. Viggo was there.
He arrived in a Prius without entourage, casually dressed in jeans and sneakers. As part of his introduction at the award ceremony, a film clip compilation was shown reminding us all how many incredible characters Viggo had played. There was the role he played as the hard core drill sergeant in GI Jane with Demi Moore. There were scenes from movies where Viggo played alongside Dennis Hopper in Boiling Point and The Indian Runner among many others highlighting the many characters Mortensen portrayed with intense credibility.
To a standing ovation and ringing applause, on to the stage he walked. Unassuming, gracious and humble, he addressed the crowd: “This is a hell of an honor, especially because of what this festival is about and its connection to Dennis. It couldn’t be more meaningful to me. I think, just listening to the people here and the spirit of this festival… those other award ceremonies are a load of self-important crap compared to this, so I’m very happy to be here. It (the AMFM Festival) is a great idea and I think it will grow.” He prefaced his acceptance speech by stating, “I’ve written it down, because I’m just an actor and without a script, well, you know…,” he shrugged and chuckled. “I wrote it this morning, because much like other things, the words you pick have to do with how you feel on that day, and what the moment is.”
Viggo read what he had written down on a few sheets of what appeared to be hotel stationary, admitting that, for some reason, he was more nervous than he would be at any of the other aforementioned award ceremonies. “Dennis Hopper is not generally considered to have been a recluse or a hermit. Even during his periods of self-imposed isolation and heavy substance abuse some four decades ago in Taos, New Mexico, he often managed to share his moments of creativity, and of wild excess, with friends and strangers alike. I think it is safe to say that he was socially active by nature, always curious about people, about the way they think and create. He was never too far from the life of the party. However, he always emphasized, even at the end of his life, that to be an engaged and conscious artist is to be essentially alone. To express honestly what they see, hear, and feel artists have to seek out their particular individuality, regardless of what others may think of them or their work.”
“Artists need to come to terms with their personal fear of death and the other mysteries that we all eventually face,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean that any of us have to go around brooding and cursing our fate. On the contrary; the absurd side of being alive, for however long and for whatever reason we are, can be the source of joy if we allow it to be. Fear and the absurdity of being afraid of what cannot be understood was part of Dennis’ everyday life and, in some way, of all his conversations and observations that I was witness to. His regular fits of in-your-face cackling and unrestrained laughter were as important as weapons against darkness and loneliness as any of his cameras, words, or colors. The joke was always on him, always on all of us, he constantly seemed to be saying and celebrating. To be a serious artist, you’ve got to be able to take a joke, to look for one, to be one. There is a lot to be worried about in the world these days, as there always has been and always will be, but everything is possible when you can laugh in life, laugh at and for yourself and everyone else.”
Mortensen closed his acceptance speech to the audiences’ pin-drop silence, as they hung on every word of what was to be the events most powerful reading: “A couple of months before Dennis died; he was recognized with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. On that occasion, I tried to honor the fearlessness and honesty that he inspired in others by reading a short poem by William Stafford, a very wise writer from Dennis’ native Kansas. I offer it to you, and to Dennis, again now:
‘There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being’
When he took hold of the award, a trophy consisting of a number of bronze spray paint cans and camera lenses (symbolizing Hopper’s love for the street artist and photography), he said, “That does look dangerous. I won’t try to go through security on the way home with it.” Event co-founder and friend, Rich Henrich commented that it was an art bomb in jest. Little did they both know that their friend Dennis Hopper would, as usual, get the last laugh. Reportedly, Viggo, was pulled over by Riverside law enforcement and detained as the trophy apparently looked dangerous to them as well. He was allegedly detained until 2:00 in the morning over the ordeal that somehow escaped the attention of local and gossip news media alike.
Henrich had shared with me that Viggo felt very comfortable with the writing I and CV Weekly had done for this event, and that Viggo would take some time to answer a few questions from this newbie writer. So, in this exclusive opportunity, in which I had a limited time to prepare for, I had to ask Viggo, “After receiving the Dennis Hopper Award, do you feel you are more dangerous. We’ve heard rumors about the award causing a few security concerns?” He responded graciously, “The trophy is beautiful actually, even though, from a distance, it looks like one of those World War II mines that ships sometimes ran into. It represents, in part, Dennis Hopper’s artistic pursuits, being made up of paint spray-can tops and camera lenses.” Perhaps identifying the origin of the debacle, he shared, “I did get some funny looks when I stopped into a diner to grab a bite on the way home from the ceremony and put it on my table. I don’t think I’ll chance packing it in my carry-on luggage, as its appearance might cause security personnel at the airport to become alarmed.”
So much has already been documented and written on his acting career, I wanted to learn more about his art and his motivations. “I’ve always jumped around from one medium to another, sometimes combining them,” he explained. “It’s just a continuation of what I used to do as a child, what all children do naturally and unselfconsciously. As one gets older, an additional effort is required to relax and allow one’s self to let go and simply play, but it is possible to get back to child-like free-association and imaginative freedom.” I asked if he had a preferred creative outlet and he stated, “No. I like them all equally. In fact, I believe that all artistic pursuits are at root the same thing, really, coming from the same impulse to interpret what is around us. Different creative disciplines are connected, always waiting for their ‘solo’, ready to be included in the ongoing song.”
Having recently discovered the musical side of this artist, I was completely intrigued. I was fascinated with his musical partnerships and influences. His music falls right in the wheel house of the kind of music that I love ~ reminiscent of the classic country of Bob Wills and Hank Sr. with a bit of the Bakersfield sound in the mix. But most intriguing was his collaboration with Buckethead (a well-known guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who has worked within several genres of music). I asked him how this came about. “Buckethead played guitar on a spoken-word track I had recorded in 1996 for Dove Audio. It was for an educational CD of interpretive, original pieces based on Greek myths. My contribution had to do with the god Poseidon. When I heard the finished piece, I asked the record’s producer who had played the guitar track. I eventually got hold of Buckethead and asked if he’d like to get together in my friend Travis Dickerson’s recording studio in Chatsworth, California and play together. We got on well right away, and have done lots of things together over the ensuing years. In fact, the past two days I have been mixing some tracks we recorded recently for a new record.”
I noted to him that in my recent exposure to his other art forms that, for me, his work emits a certain tranquility or serenity. I asked him where this comes from; is it an expression of what he is experiencing or what he is searching for? He answered, “I’m not sure why I sound the way I do, or make the things I do. It does not matter to me. I think my voice reflects an interpretation of what I read, what I feel the poem asks for. My artistic production does not always result from subject matter or feelings of serenity, but I probably am generally attracted to a certain tranquility and harmony in relation to the world around me, no matter how negatively I may feel or act at times.”
Of course, I had to ask him about his love for horses and what motivated him to participate in the Spirit Ride, retracing the fateful journey of Chief Big Foot to Wounded Knee on horseback through the brutal winter of the Midwestern planes. “I learned to ride as a boy when my family lived in Argentina, and liked horses from the very start. Some of them have like me, too, I have sensed. One never forgets those things.” In regard to the Spirit Ride, “like many other people, I have been interested in the Lakota for a long time, since I was a boy. I’d long been aware of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the annual commemorative ride retracing the hard journey made by Chief Big Foot’s band. When I was preparing to play Frank Hopkins for the movie Hidalgo, I met two very wise Lakota men named Mel Lonehill and Sonny Richards, and they encouraged me to take part in the ride.”
With my last opportunity to get at what makes Viggo Mortensen “tick”, at what is at the heart and soul of this multifaceted artist, I referred to something Rich Henrich had pointed out to me; Viggo and he had a shared interest in philosophy, more specifically, the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, author of The World as Will and Representation, in which he claimed that our world is driven by a continually dissatisfied will, continually seeking satisfaction. In response to the reference, he shared, “Some things stated by Schopenhauer I connect with, especially as regards the concept of compassion, and some other things not so much. What tends to motivate me and some other artists I know is an instinctive yearning for harmony, a tendency to look for connections, however tenuous, without value judgment. To survive and to explore is why I ask questions and make things, why I observe and interpret what is happening around me. To borrow from another German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, I think aesthetics is unrelated, is irrelevant to morality. It seems to me that Will is neither good nor bad, can neither be dissatisfied nor contented. We are driven to interpret the world around us, and no one person ever will see it as it may really be, as another person may see it. It may be perceived as a good or bad activity or impulse, but I think the desire to interpret the world is beyond those concepts. It does not matter to me if the world actually exists without my interpretation of it. I am interested in a detailed way in what I perceive to be the past and the present — though I’m much more interested in the present, but I am not under any illusion that any of that actually exists. The future is not that interesting to me, because I cannot imagine that it actually exists. It is always later, if at all. I do not need to own reality or understand it, only to imagine what it might be. Please keep in mind that I might well give you an entirely different answer if you were to ask me the same question tomorrow, assuming such a thing as tomorrow comes around.”
“What drives you today,” I asked. “I operate on the assumption that life is short, and want to explore it while it lasts. That, I suppose, is a positive hunger or desire. As far as I know, it does not have, as a point of departure, any kind of dissatisfaction.”
For this writer, a refreshed hunger to explore other forms of artistic expression and inspiration has been ignited. But more importantly, by Mortensen’s example, I am moved to do so, fearlessly; to go beyond BEING inspired and to BE an inspiration. It became obvious to me, in observing this man, that the value of fame, recognition or acknowledgement cannot even begin to compare with the power of someone living in the beauty of their own genuine, unique, creative force and finding ways to express that to those around them who will pay attention.