Viggo Mortensen: Why Don’t Spanish-Language Films Get Any Respect?

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Mortensen is upset his new film was not released in time for Oscar season, but he expresses more bewilderment than ire

Viggo Mortensen has spent the past half-hour talking about his new movie, “Everybody Has a Plan,” when the thoughtful, mild-mannered actor begins to gripe.

Though the movie opened in Argentina last year, Fox International has decided to wait until the end of March to release in the United States. It will debut in Los Angeles and New York on Friday before expanding to other cities.

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Mortensen plays two brothers, a pair as different in temperament as their respective homesteads. Pedro is a timid, well-educated, middle-class doctor in Buenos Aires, Agustin a beekeeper in the delta region that commits assorted nefarious acts to supplement his income from selling honey. 

(At left, Mortensen with director Ana Piterbarg at the Toronto Film Festival.)

At a certain point in the movie, for reasons we’ll leave opaque, Agustin moves into Pedro’s home and attempts to adopt his life.

Mortensen is upset the movie was not released in time for Oscar season, but he expresses more bewilderment than ire.

“The reactions have been really positive, especially after the premiere at Toronto,” Mortensen said, describing that premiere as one of his “best ever.” “It’s a movie that could have…”

He pauses. It’s clear what he’s thinking. The movie may have contended for some awards if released last year. Movies released in the fall and winter stand a better chance than movies released in March.

“Maybe it would have gotten lost in the shuffle." Or not.

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Mortensen doesn’t begrudge his distributor, because Fox took the same approach almost every Hollywood studio has used for Spanish-language films.

“Typically in the United States, a movie that comes from Spain, unless its [Pedro Almodovar], goes to a couple of arthouse theaters where it’ll be largely an Anglo audience,” he noted. “Film buffs.”

“That’s the way they always do it. They’re afraid it’s not possible to get a crossover, a movie people would like.”

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Mortensen's passion for Argentine film comes from more than just the new movie.

Not long after he was born in New York, his dad got work in South America, moving the family first to Venezuela and then Argentina, where he lived for most of his youth.

He has returned to the country frequently for three reasons — movies, friends and soccer. But this is the first Argentine film he's ever done.

“I’ve always wanted to do an Argentine movie, but the ones I thought were interesting have been unavailable and the rest of them I didn’t think were that good,” he said. “I didn’t want to just do any movie, and when this one came along it came along fortuitously.”

He was outside a club in Buenos Aires when Ana Piterbarg, who would direct the film from a script she co-wrote, approached him at the front door. She had a script she thought he was perfect for.

“Most if not all the scripts I receive in that way by mail or someone leaves at a hotel are pretty bad,” the actor said. “They are never very original.”

This was different.

“Immediately just a few pages in I realized this was a very interesting movie, a film noir thriller that was global. This movie is very Argentine in its feel and look and sound, but a movie that a Japanese person could watch.”

The hardest part of the movie, he said, was "acting badly" when Agustin was trying to impersonate Pedro. It’s sort of an impossible task. Much as Agustin looks like Pedro and knows about his past, there’s no way to capture that essence because the two brothers have been estranged for years. 

“You’re playing a guy who doesn’t play the other guy well. You’re trying to do it in a way where you’re not being overtly comical or exaggerating too much.”

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For guidance, he turned to David Cronenberg, who directed Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers,” a psychological thriller about twin gynecologists. The Toronto native also directed Mortensen in “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method.”

Those movies, in which Mortensen plays a former gangster from Philadelphia, a member of the Russian mob and Sigmund Freud, may be the three most commercial movies Mortensen has made since he played Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Cronenberg, whose last movie took place almost entirely in a stretch limo driving around Manhattan, will never be confused with James Cameron. 

“I’m not trying to be Don Quixote and looking for movies that are impossible to be distributed,” Mortensen said. “If I give you my word that I’ll shoot a movie, I’ll do it. A lot of actors commit to a project that’s difficult to get financed and in the meantime get offered something else that’s juicier and dump the other one. I stick with it.”

In the case of "Everybody Has a Plan," he also chose to produce a film for the first time, to help out his first-time director. He’ll do the same on two projects this year, including one he’s working on with Lisander Alonso, in which he plays a Danish military officer who goes to Argentina with his 16-year old daughter. So he speaks Spanish and Danish.

"I wanted make sure the director's vision was respected," Mortensen said of "Plan. "I was making sure she got to show the movie she wanted and the subtitles were correct. Foreign movies won't subtitle everything that's said, crucial things that are said."

What about ensuring it gets a wider release?

“That has to do with the courage of a distributor,” Mortensen said. “I’m certainly not against making their money back, but I don’t quite understand it.”