A Hollywood Moment on the River Plate

The American actor Viggo Mortensen returns to Argentina, the country of his youth; Clarin interviewed him while he filmed a movie with a local director. Mortensen’s growing up in Buenos Aires has left an Argentine stamp on him, all these years later.

The trip in the car goes on for hours, taking us farther from the city until it’s nothing more than a distant spot the eye can longer make out. Next the boat, going slowly up the river until it arrives at an island, inhospitable and desolate. The freezing cold envelops everything, making it lugubrious, spectral. Wind and more wind. In the back, behind a few shacks in ruins and tents half-pitched, people dressed in white from head-to-toe are gathered in a small opening covered with dry leaves. Are they the survivors of a plague? Astronauts?

The location for “We All Have a Plan” has it’s own fiction. The heavy cables mix with garbage on the ground and a trunk burns in a barrel, giving off smoke, sparks and heat. People don’t speak much, they seem tired, and they look at the visitor with certain disdain, like they are observing someone from a different cult. It could be a scene from “The Road”, where Viggo Mortensen acted, or a chilly episode of “Lost” that never ran, or a shot from Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” that was never filmed.

The people dressed in white are obviously not astronauts. They are Mortensen himself, (Argentine actress) Sofia Gala, director Ana Piterbarg and part of the crew, filming a difficult scene that involves handling dangerous bees. It’s not easy. Besides the narrative complexities of the scene, which shouldn’t be revealed here, they have to face the unpredictable insects and bad weather. And even though there are two cameras capturing everything, the scene has to be repeated again and again.

During a break in filming, Mortensen takes off the netted hat that covers his face and looks for a comfortable spot to talk. He chooses a shack that serves as an improvised trailer, possibly one of the most depressing trailers in the history of cinema.

“It’s so cold the bees don’t want to come out,” he says, explaining the unforeseen problem with the scene as he sits down on… something.

At this point, it’s not surprising to chat with Viggo like one chats with a neighbor, and to start talking about River Plate’s relegation or the subsequent riots. Neither is it surprising that he drinks (the Argentine tea drink) yerba mate and his thermos is adorned with the coat of arms of his soccer team, San Lorenzo. In the middle of this desolate panorama, his calm presence and tone of voice are familiar, comforting.

In the first Argentine film of his career, the actor from “A History of Violence” plays twins, Agustin and Pedro. The first lives in Buenos Aires and appears to have a normal, if a bit frustrating, life, until he finds out about the death of his brother, who lived in the river delta where the two of them grew up. Agustin goes there and ends up taking on Pedro’s identity without knowing his brother was wrapped up in a criminal underworld and his life will soon be in danger.

“These are themes that have to do with the first movies I did with Cronenberg,” Mortensen says, referring to “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”, but leaving out the recent “A Dangerous Method”, where he plays Sigmund Freud.

“The theme of identity, of how we present ourselves to our family and friends– even though it might only be slightly different, we present a different personality to each person depending on how we feel and what we want. We learn it as children.”

“In your case, the difference must be big. There’s Argentine Viggo, American Viggo, Danish Viggo, Viggo the celebrity.”

“It is. Every time I come back here I think about things from my childhood. Now I’ve been working with Argentines for a while and all of the sudden I see something and it reminds of ways of doing and saying things. This is the personal side that also has to do with my coming back to Tigre to the river delta, reliving that. And then playing one brother posing as another, for an actor that’s like doubling the work. Pedro plays Agustin, trying to replace his brother. That’s an actor’s job– observing what the other does, paying more attention. For example, if I have to play you, I observe you more closely than normal: how you speak, how you sit down, how you walk, those things. Even though this brother knows some of the gestures, he’s not an actor. And even if he were a very good actor, it’s harder than he thinks when he meets someone who knows his twin. That makes him nervous.”

“Which one are you now?”

“Right now I am Pedro, but 70 to 80 percent of the time I am Pedro trying to be Agustin. Generally he does well, but he doubts many things. ‘When that guy is looking at me, does he know me or is he just looking at me? How do I treat the guy at the store? Or that dog on the pier, is it mine? I don’t know.’ But at the same time with pretending so much and literally putting yourself in another person’s shoes, you grow to understand them better, and you grow to understand yourself better. At some point he stops being nervous and doesn’t care as much and starts to like it.”

“It seems like a plot made for you.”

“Yes, Pedro left this area at 11 years old with his brother. The brother came back on his own and they didn’t have a good relationship. Acting like his brother, he gets to know him better after his death. The same thing happened with my relationship with Argentina, which is stabilizing after spending more time here.”

“You have two brothers, Walter and Charles. Do they remember your time here?”

“They were eight and six when we left. I was 11. They recall images. The one in the middle remembers more. But the youngest didn’t speak a word of English. He understood it, but spoke only Spanish and my parents were worried. I remember on the plane when we left, we spoke Spanish between us. Later we started speaking English and after a week my little brother let go and completely forgot Spanish. I got it all back when I returned.”

“The plot seems like a fictional representation of these personal things: different identities, the brothers who took different paths, leaving a place at 11 years old.”

“Filming here is like returning to my childhood. Speaking of brothers, there are pictures in the movie that are mine with one of my brothers. There’s something mixing in there. When you go to the city as an adult, you lose things from your childhood. You forget and that can’t be recovered. There’s an interior world at work here that has to do with the loss of innocence, with something physical and mental inside. The character, being here, starts to remember: the house, the pier, the creek, their grandparents’ home where the kids grew up until 11 years old, and that’s when I left. It’s very similar. You slowly remember things.”

“In respect to the way of working here, do you feel it’s different than what you’re used to?”

“No, it’s somewhat similar to the way they do independent cinema there. There’s obviously a cultural way of being that is different, but in general it’s done just as well. There’s a different way of speaking to each other. And I like kissing everybody on the cheek in the morning.”

“What do you think of (director) Ana (Piterbarg) doing such a complex first movie?”

“She’s pretty calm. She must feel a lot of pressure, but you don’t notice. She’s very careful and doesn’t want to waste the opportunity. But it’s a big challenge, filming in the delta during winter. We have a lot of respect for the script she wrote. We search for things. We talk. We have a good relationship. There are always changes and differences, but it’s all very faithful to what she wrote.”

“You are getting into contemporary Argentine literature. Have you been watching Argentine cinema as well?”

“A little bit more now. When I come here I watch things. For this movie I watched “The Lion” (by director Santiago Otheguy) and it’s beautiful to see how people are in the (north of Argentina), see the landscape.”

“How has it been working with Argentine actors?”

Soledad (Villamil) and I did some very difficult scenes and did them very well. (Daniel) Fanego and I also did a key scene that turned out well. He’s an amazing presence on screen. And Sofia is great. We rehearsed a lot, more than I usually rehearse, but I like it. We have all prepared as well as we can, because when the filming starts what comes out is the work you did before.”

“What does your agent say when you show up with projects like this?”

“He probably wants to kill himself (laughs). But it’s just that this is what I like. I’ve received offers for piles of money, and no, that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t refuse to do big movies. I do what I like. But when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. There are actors who say, ‘This is bullshit but they’re going to pay me a million dollars and then I’m leaving’. I don’t do that. If I would have taken on a studio movie before getting this script, I couldn’t have done it.”

“But this must not be the first Argentine script you’ve read.”

“When I come I always leave with a few. And Ana’s script was interesting and I could do it. I haven’t been working lately. My mom got sick and my dad had problems. I had to quit some things to be with them. The last two years have been difficult. Until six months ago I was spending a lot of time with my parents. I quit some things and luckily I can do that. In the Cronenberg movie I replaced another actor. He said, ‘I know that you’re with your parents, but we can film it all at once and if you have to go back you can go back’. So I did that and a short part in “On the Road”, by Walter Salles. I played Old Bull Lee, based on William Burroughs.”

“Are you going to participate in “The Hobbit”?”

“My character is not in “The Hobbit”, but I still have a part to pull the two movies together. I still don’t know anything about it, but if Aragorn is going to return, I would rather it be me who plays the part.”

Diego Lerer