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Acclaimed Actor Viggo Mortensen on the Pope, Poetry and Art in Politics

StoryNovember 05, 2015
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Actor, poet, photographer and book publisher Viggo Mortensen, star of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, reads his poem “Back to Babylon” from his newly reissued book, “Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation.” Mortensen also shares his thoughts on the progressive bent of Pope Francis and speaking out about injustice while leading a creative life.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Viggo Mortensen, I’d like to ask you, because a lot of people—of course, you’re a celebrity, you’re a world-renowned actor. But you’re also very politically engaged. So could you say a little bit about what inspired you to become politically engaged in the way that you have?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always been curious. I like to know what’s going on, you know? I mean, I drove my mom crazy probably as a kid by saying, “Why?” And then she would explain it. I’d go, “But why?” You know, then, “What does that mean?”

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I was born in New York City and raised all over. My parents moved around a lot, in South America and Scandinavia, where my dad’s from.

AMY GOODMAN: You lived for years in when Buenos Aires?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Yeah, in Argentina, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go for a moment to the pope. I think we have a clip of the pope during his historic visit to the U.S. in September. Pope Francis, an Argentinian, addressed Congress and spoke out against the global arms trade.

POPE FRANCIS: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money—money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis addressing an unprecedented joint session of Congress. Never before did a pope do that. Viggo Mortensen, you lived, growing up in Buenos Aires, in Argentina. You knew the pope?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: No, but he’s blessed a chapel that I had donated and had built on the grounds of San Lorenzo, the same soccer/football team that he has supported all his life. So we have that in common, and he came and blessed that place. It’s a place that was built, and when we inaugurated it, where I said, you know, “This is a place for all—for atheists, for Jews, for Muslims, even people from other soccer teams that aren’t San Lorenzo.” I thought that was fantastic, what he said. And he’s done many things, you know, but he’s going against the current within the church. And it’s amazing, what he’s been saying and many of the things that he’s been doing.

You know, I wish I could say the same thing about Barack Obama in his first and second terms, you know, everything he promised, the changes he promised. It’s not enough to say, “Well, the Republicans stymied me all the way,” which is true. There are choices he made, from the people he appointed—you know, criminals from Wall Street right to start with after the 2008 collapse of the economy—and especially foreign policy. You talked about drones. I mean, I could go on and on, and I won’t.

You know, you talked about something about being engaged. There are many ways of being engaged. One is to talk about politics.

AMY GOODMAN: And you speak also, by the way, many languages, right? English, Spanish.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Yeah, well, I’m interested. I like to know what people are talking about, so sometimes you have to learn other languages.

AMY GOODMAN: What other languages? Your father is from?


AMY GOODMAN: So you speak—

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Yeah, and I speak French and—

AMY GOODMAN: Danish, Swedish.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Once you learn a couple as a kid, then it’s easy to learn others.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s easy for you to say.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: But, you know, this thing about—we can talk about politics and talk about facts. Sometimes—as I said, this book, Twilight of Empire, has not only essays and reports from that moment in 2003, but there are also poems by different people. And I have a poem in here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you please read it, actually, “Back to Babylon,” please?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I’ll take the liberty of reading it, because sometimes you can say things with a poem in a different way. And this is written in 2003 right at the point of the invasion, or just before it; in February of 2003, it was written. And it takes place in Iraq, or what used to be Babylon, you know, that part of the world that’s traversed by the rivers, you know, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Anyway, it’s called “Back to Babylon.”

Accept and forget difference or desire that separates and leaves us longing or repelled. Why briefly return to play in broken places, to mock the ground, to collect infant shards, coins, fossils, or the familiar empty canisters and casings that glint from poisoned roots in the blackened dust? We make bad ghosts, and are last to know or believe we too will fade, just as our acrid smoke and those strange flakes of skin and strands of hair will, into largely undocumented extinction. Lie down, lie down; sleep is the best thing for being awake. Do as we’ve always been told and done, no backward glances or second thoughts, leaving sad markers buried in the sand. Sleep now, dream of children with their heads still on, of grandmothers unburdening clotheslines at twilight, of full kettles slow-ticking over twig embers. Ignore boneless, nameless victims that venture out on bitter gravel to claim remains while we rest.

Pay at the window for re-heated, prejudiced incantations. Take them home and enjoy with wide-screen, half-digested, replayed previews of solemn national celebration. Then sleep, by all means; we’ll need all the energy we can muster for compiling this generation’s abridged anthology of official war stories, highlights of heedless slaughter, to burnish our long and proud imperial tradition. At some point, by virtue of accidentally seeing and listening, we may find ourselves participating in our own rendering. Few of our prey will be left alive enough to water the sun with their modest, time-rubbed repetitions, to rephrase their particular, unifying laws. Our version of events has already made its money back in foreign distribution and pre-sales; all victory deadlines must be met.

It can get so quiet, with or without the dead watching our constant deployments. From our tilted promontory we may see one last woman scuffle away across cracked parchment of dry wash beneath us, muttering to herself—or is she singing at us?—as she rounds the sheared granite face and disappears into a grove of spindly, trembling tamarisk shadows lining the main road. We’ll soon hear little other than our breathing, as shale cools and bats rise to feed, taking over from sated swallows. Night anywhere is home, darkness a cue for turning inward, quiet an invitation to review our expensive successes before morning extraction from the twin rivers of our common cradle.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Viggo Mortensen reading “Back to Babylon,” his own writing in Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation, a book that has been released after 12 years, released when the U.S. invaded Iraq and now in 2015. In the last few minutes we have together, what words do you have for young artists, actors—you’re a musician, as well, you’re a photographer—who might be afraid to speak out in the way you have? I mean, in a sense, it’s what makes you the Renaissance man you’re described as. You are not only—you know, are involved in all these different fields in the world, but you speak out on many different issues. What about people who are afraid, feel it will destroy their career, that they can never star in Lord of the Rings if they dare to read something like that?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: I don’t know. I think each person has to make their own decisions. You know, each person has to answer the question, “O say can you see?” O say do you want to see? I would say, don’t take no for an answer in terms of career, whether it’s an actor or writer. Someone who wants to be a director, someone who wants to be a journalist, like yourselves, don’t take no for an answer for something you really want to do. Just stick to it. Stick around. You learn a lot by listening to others, by paying attention, by making a conscious effort to see. I understand, as I said before, that people a lot of times don’t want to know, certainly don’t want to speak about what they’ve seen, because it’s unpleasant. It can be depressing when you start to dig around and find out things.

And there is that fear that you speak of. You know, am I going to lose the job? Is my movie not going to be seen by many people? Are people going to hate me? I mean, those things do happen. You know, people are blacklisted. One of the most important activists of the 20th century in the United States was Paul Robeson. And he was someone who spoke truth to power in the way Howard Zinn does and Anthony Arnove and all these people in Twilight of Empire and all these ordinary Americans throughout the history of the United States in Voices of a People’s History of the United States do. Paul Robeson, because when he would go overseas and perform, spoke about U.S. foreign policy and about, you know, the tyrannical aspect of U.S. foreign policy, so the next time he came home, they had his passport taken away. He was not allowed to travel. And he talked about being a member of the U.S. resistance movement, in the same sense that, you know, there were some in France who were part of the resistance movement against the Nazis. When he equated the two things, people were scandalized.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to wrap up now. But from Paul Robeson to Viggo Mortensen, we hope we can continue the conversation. Viggo Mortensen is a world-renowned actor, editor of Perceval Press, which just reissued the 2003 book, Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. He will be tonight performing in a reading of Voices of a People’s History of the United States at the Atrium at Lincoln Center. And tomorrow night, Friday night, at 7:00, we’ll be together at Jackson McNally Books—McNally Jackson Books.

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