During production on David Cronenberg's thriller A History of Violence last fall, Viggo Mortensen carried around a fish a 12-inch, anatomically correct plastic trout. It was a peripheral prop, a toy brought in for his character's young daughter, but Mortensen decided to adopt it as a secret talisman of sorts. Every day, he tucked it into his back pocket, his cowboy boots, his bag, anywhere that was out of Cronenberg's sight. ''It was like a compulsive thing after a while,'' the actor explains. ''I felt like it was unlucky not to have the trout, so I would sneak it in. It became this game to see if I could keep getting away with it.'' He did until the last day of shooting, when his finnish friend fell out...on camera. Says Mortensen, with just a touch of mischievous pride: ''David saw it and was appalled.''
Welcome to the quietly eccentric world of Viggo Mortensen, a man who quotes British philosophers and Adam Sandler in the same breath; who publishes his own poetry, artwork, and music; and who, after starring in one of the biggest epics of all time, is still more comfortable walking barefoot in the dirt than strutting down a red carpet. His turn as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy made him an international star, but he has resisted trying to parlay that popularity into a matinee-idol career. ''I've never really had a certain set of goals,'' the 46-year-old Mortensen says between bites of fish-and-chips at a low-key Irish pub in L.A. ''I think it's the same as [wanting to be] happy or in a relationship. It's just something you have to find by being open and not planning. So you read scripts, and every once in a while, something comes your way.''
A twisty drama infused with the kind of dark humor we've come to expect from the director of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, Violence seems tailor-made for Mortensen's sensibility. ''If David hadn't been directing it, I don't know if I would have wanted to do it,'' says the actor, who stars as Tom Stall, a husband and father whose small-town life is upended by revenge-seeking mobsters. ''I don't know if another director would have explored the violence of everyday coexistence.'' When the movie premiered at the Cannes film festival last May, it got a passionate standing ovation, with audiences heaping praise on Mortensen. Though not the highest-profile project he has taken on post-LOTR (that would be 2004's big-budget horse-racing underwhelmer Hidalgo), it is arguably the most mature of his career. ''It's ironic that Lord of the Rings is what made him a star, because it's not his most complex role,'' says Cronenberg. In casting the lead, the director needed someone who could bring both a commanding force and familial gentleness to Tom Stall, and as far as he was concerned, Mortensen was it period. ''Viggo has the charisma of a leading man, and the eccentricity and naturalistic presence of a character actor,'' Cronenberg says. ''He's the kind of actor I love.''
Mortensen speaks slowly and softly. When he answers a question, he takes his time, peppering his replies with lots of thoughtful I supposes and mmms. Humble and unassuming, the man whom Rings pals nicknamed ''no-ego Viggo'' does not much care for being the center of attention. ''He's not full of his own s---,'' notes Violence costar Ed Harris. ''Which is so refreshing. He doesn't let the pressure of people wanting to pump him up into something get to him. He works hard, and is just a really good man.'' At lunch, Mortensen is constantly steering the conversation away from himself, onto any number of topics, including Canadian ice hockey (he's a fan), the Bush administration (not a fan), and the sophisticated sense of humor of Maria Bello, who plays his wife (major fan). His rugged handsomeness high cheekbones, icy blue eyes, strong chin is the No. 1 topic of many a fawning website, but he is, as Cronenberg puts it, ''blissfully unaware of how attractive he is.'' When asked for his opinion on the matter of his physical appearance, Mortensen just seems puzzled. ''Um...,'' he begins. ''I don't think it's the main thing that people mention or think about when they're talking about me.''