Friday, September 20, 2013

That Time I Got Drunk and Met Viggo Mortensen



This is a story about how I took advantage of a mentally challenged person in order to meet a celebrity. But it's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Probably.

Many years ago, I went to a community college and worked for their journalism department. I wrote all kinds of stuff, but my opinion columns are what made me well-known. I even got fan mail from professors. Most of my columns were about how George W. Bush was an asshole, or something along those lines.

Anyway, for a while I was the editor of the Arts & Entertainment section, and during that time, I had a writer whom I'll call Jimmy. Jimmy had once been a professional film critic for a well-known local magazine, but a car wreck had left him with a brain injury that ended his career.

Jimmy was in his 30s or so, but he functioned like a child. His dad would drop him off at school every day and pick him up in the afternoon. He walked with a slow, shuffling step, hands clenched at his sides, and spoke with an inappropriately loud voice. I still remember him yelling, "HI, KRISTEN!"

And, God help me, I would cringe. Because Jimmy still loved movies and he loved writing and he wanted to write movie reviews. As the A&E editor, Jimmy's attempts at reviewing movies became my problem.

I have a heart, and I appreciated that this man had once been, by all accounts, one hell of a writer. I felt like he deserved all the respect and help I could give him, but I also had the responsibility to put quality content in my section of the paper. I swear I did my best to work with the broken and incoherent "stories" he submitted, but most of them were simply not publishable without being completely rewritten.

Here's some heart-warming shit, though: Jimmy's old friends and connections still retained a lot of affection for him, and despite the tragic end to his career, they kept him on their mailing lists, so he got emails and media kits and invitations and press releases and passes none of us got. This dude was connected.

He still went to a lot of screenings and other functions, shuffling along with his red backpack, everyone clapping him on the back and saying, "Hey Jimmy!" and feeling fucking horrible inside.

Now, around this time, the third movie in the Lord of the Rings franchise was not long out, and it was common knowledge around the newsroom that I was a total freak for those films. So one day I walked into the newsroom and I heard Jimmy's voice: "HI, KRISTEN!"

"Hi, Jimmy," I said.

"VIGGO'S COMING."

That stopped me in my tracks. "What?" I said.

"VIGGO MORTENSEN IS COMING TO TOWN FOR AN INTERVIEW FOR HIS NEW MOVIE."

"Holy shit, Jimmy," I said. "Jimmy. You have to get me into that interview."

"OKAY, KRISTEN," he said. He was a real sweetheart.

"Jimmy, listen to me. I need to be at that interview."

"OKAY, KRISTEN," he said.

So Jimmy forwarded me an e-mail, but he also RSVPed for the event himself. That led to a situation where I was told that only a certain number of college journalists were allowed to the group interview, and since Jimmy was already on the list for our school, he couldn't let me in.

So I gently explained to the dude - who was really snooty and appropriately named Todd - that Jimmy was not able to adequately report for us, so I would need to be there. I tried to make myself sound kind but professional, just a dispassionate journalist trying to make sure the story got covered.

Todd never responded.

So I did what intrepid reporters have done from time immemorial: I decided to go anyway. Because fuck the man.

But you should probably know I had little to no interest in reporting, and all kinds of interest in basking in the presence of Viggo, because I was borderline in love with him.

I made it my business, in the weeks between being e-snubbed by Todd and the day of the interview, learning every single solitary thing about Viggo Mortensen that I didn't already know, from his fluency in Spanish to his dislike of bathing to his poetry and painting and beyond. I knew he had a son with his ex-wife Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the punk-rock band, X. (I even started listening to their music and remain a huge fan.) I knew he spent much of his childhood in Argentina. I knew he was Danish and spoke Danish. I knew he was super bad-ass at his stunts as Aragorn and was an accomplished swordsman and horseman. I knew, I knew, I knew. All kinds of shit.

I also knew he was a liberal like me. He had links on his website to groups like Code Pink. He loved Cindy Sheehan and Dennis Kucinich and Noam Chomsky.

Since we were meant to be, I wanted him to know it. I bought Noam Chomsky's new book, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Empire, and read (almost) all of it. I was going to be prepared.

***
 
The day of the interview arrived. The purpose of the media round-table was to promote Viggo's new movie, Hidalgo, and it was to take place at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas.

I almost didn't go, because I was in no way invited or technically allowed. But the part of me that has shame was defeated by the part of me that says "Hey, you know what? Fuck it." So I went.

I came up with this plan. The plan went like this: I would show up at the hotel, and then I would... be... at the hotel. And that was about it.

My roommate Michaela drove me because the clutch was out on my old Altima. She and I went into the bar for drinks beforehand. I needed the liquid courage. As we entered the lobby of the luxurious hotel, me clutching my thrift-store bag and my copy of Chomsky's book, we felt incredibly poor. I was standing on a rug that cost more than me, in frayed corduroys, with a nose piercing.

"We don't belong here," I whispered.

As we made our way to the empty bar for $12 cocktails, Michaela and I decided that if anyone asked who we were, we would pretend to be the daughters of a wealthy businessman who dressed shabbily to express disdain for our massive inheritance.

That's how unused to the whole culture of wealth we were: we didn't realize that as long as you act like you belong, no one is going to bug you in a fancy hotel. It's part of what you're paying for.

As we drank martinis, we pretended to discuss our imaginary daddy's birthday present, a mini-humidor for his office. We also systematically ate an entire bowl of complementary nuts. We were hungry, and this shit was dee-lux. They had Brazil nuts!

Then it was time for me to go upstairs and face my destiny. Michaela left to pick up her daughter from school, promising to collect me in a couple hours. Which meant if I got kicked out of the interview by Todd - a very real possibility - I would just have to go back downstairs and drink by myself, which is something I'm even better at than journalism.

So I headed upstairs, belly sloshing with Planter's Deluxe Mix and gin. As I ascended, I realized the fashionably voluminous wool scarf I was wearing, and which was essential to my ensemble, was conspiring with the alcohol in my bloodstream to raise my body temperature to about 108 degrees. But I couldn't take it off. It was part of the awesomeness I wanted Viggo to understand about me.

By the time I got to the press room, I knew I was kinda drunk. I saw a room full of round tables with white tablecloths, and journalists milling around eating finger foods. Jimmy was sitting with some of his old friends. ("HI, KRISTEN!" "Hi, Jimmy.") There was his trusty backpack, and a shopping bag full of Lord of the Rings toys which he was going to ask Viggo to sign.

I stumbled over to the complimentary spread, ignored the cheese cubes and Clif bars, and grabbed myself a bottle of cold water. My body temp was approaching 114 degrees and I was sweating like a lumberjack.

I found a seat and got my little notebook and voice recorder out. Then I realized: there was no tape in my recorder. I was so concerned about bringing the right book and presenting the right image that I forgot to be a fucking journalist. But it was okay, because gin.

I remember literally shrugging and sitting back in my chair. This made some of the other journalists realize I was probably cool, and pretty soon some guy with tattoos and a baseball cap who wrote for a major newspaper was talking to me about something or other.

About this time, Todd came into the room. I had never seen him, but I knew it was him. He was wearing a nice suit - I could tell it was nice because he looked like he knew it was nice - and carrying a clipboard. He looked like someone had put something uncomfortable in his ass a long time ago, and he had just learned to deal with it. I sat there sweating and staring at him, gulping my water, as he looked at each person in the room and checked something off on his clipboard.

Someone came up behind him and said something, and he abruptly left the room. He had never looked at me. I breathed.

Several interminable minutes later, as I attempted to have a conversation while pretending not to be a perspiring drunk person, Todd came back into the room and apologized for the delay. He said it was time for the interview, and would we please follow him. I got up and joined the herd filing past Todd into hallway, as he busily looked at us and ticked things off on the clipboard again.

I was almost past him when he saw me. I had been doing my best to become invisible, trying to tuck my face into my huge wool scarf, which had become so hot it was like wearing a lava flow around my neck.

But Todd's beady little eyes had fixed on me.

"What's your name?" he snapped.

I stopped walking abruptly and almost fell down. I turned to Todd, choosing to ignore the fact that I had almost just fallen to the floor, and told him my first name, which is not the name I go by. Why did I do that? I don't know. It seemed like it might be a neat trick. Because gin.

Todd consulted his list. "I don't have you on here," he lisped menacingly, still sneering at me.

"I might be on there as Kristen," I said.

He looked at the clipboard again, then asked, "Who are you with?"

I told him. His eyes narrowed. He sneered at me again, or more accurately, he never stopped sneering.

"Oh," he said. That "oh" said everything. He knew who I was. He knew I had not been approved. He knew why I wasn't on the list.

I watched the knowledge dawn on him: I was crashing his interview.

At that moment I was ready to run Todd down to get into that room. I was going to present myself before the one they call Viggo if it meant I had to chew Todd's jugular out of his neck with my bare human teeth.

My drunk mind tried to assert its will silently on Todd's consciousness. I'm pretty sure there was visible sweat on my face, and my eyes were probably blazing as I thought "YOU'RE LETTING ME IN THAT ROOM, TODD."

Todd sighed tragically. Maybe he was afraid of the crazy redhead with the facial piercing and the enormous scarf who was sweating freely and glaring at him. Maybe he was just tired. He seemed tired. So he said, "If there's enough room..."

I managed to smile and nod somewhat professionally, then turned and followed everyone else in, hoping against hope. The room was small and narrow, with a window at the opposite end, filled almost completely by a large, rectangular, handsome conference table and about twelve chairs. I went in and sat down in a seat at the far end. I looked around. Everyone had a seat, and one chair at the end of the table was empty. It was the throne of Gondor, waiting for its King.

I looked at Todd. He looked at me. His lips pursed. Then he looked around the room, nodded, said, "Viggo will be just a moment," and shut the door.

I was in.

***


What happens next is this:

Viggo Mortensen walks into the room. I am struck by how small he is. He is not a big, strapping dude: under six feet tall and somewhat wiry. His straight, fine, sandy hair is longish and almost sweeps the collar of his red Hidalgo T-shirt in the back. He has 5 o'clock shadow. His eyes are a piercing grey-turquoise, visible from across the room. He wears jeans. He is barefoot and carries a little wooden ball with a silver pipe sticking out of it.

Because I've done my Viggo homework, I know this is a device they use in Argentina for drinking tea for some fucking reason. One of the first things Viggo says, in fact, is a little joke about having his super rad Argentine tea ball scrutinized at airports, and it does indeed look like a primitive hand grenade or a homemade bong.

The overall impression is of a strikingly handsome hippie in his early 40s, who knows he is terribly good-looking and feels a little apologetic about it.

First thing's first: Viggo says hello, sits down, and invites everyone to pass up their voice recorders, which he carefully arranges in a semi-circle around himself in an adorable manner.

I try to make myself invisible during all this. I have decided not to pass forward my worthless, tape-less recorder, because if Viggo notices I have no tape, he might helpfully point this out, and then I will have to pretend like I didn't know, and then pretend to search for a tape... You get the idea. It could be super awful. So I just disappear behind my scarf and ready my pen above my notebook. Luckily, no one notices.

Most of the interview consists of Viggo talking and three middle-aged fat ladies from suburban newspapers, who are sitting right across from me, giggling their heads off.

I don't remember a lot of what he says. He is talking about Hidalgo, and seriously who cares? I do what all the other women in the room are doing: I stare at him. He has a mellow, slightly high voice. Todd had told us right before he let Viggo in the room that Viggo liked to talk, and there would not be time for us all to ask a question. Todd did not lie: Viggo likes to talk. And everybody is totally cool with listening.

He talks a lot about the horses on Hidalgo and Lord of the Rings. He talks about shooting in the desert and dealing with sand. He talks about how he likes that Disney made a movie about a white guy who goes to the Middle East not to go to war, but just to compete in a race. Blah blah blah.

I just stare at him. Occasionally he inadvertently makes eye contact with me, and it's like being pierced with a turquoise laser beam. Every once in a while, I find a way to casually touch my copy of Chomsky's book, which is sitting prominently on the table in front of me, to draw attention to it.

After about 30 minutes, Todd comes in and declares the interview over. This is the part where we all get to line up for autographs. Jimmy, who is sitting right next to Viggo - I'm telling you, the guy was connected - waits to go last, clutching his shopping bag full of Aragorn figurines still in their pristine boxes.

I line up behind the giggling fat ladies and wait patiently, appearing unconcerned, even slightly bored. I watch him sign each of their photos: "Best wishes, (Name). Viggo."

Now here's something you should know about me: I have been around celebrities a few times, and I always play it totally cool. Not because I am cool, but out of pride. I refuse to admit I am not on their level. I could run into Robert DeNiro at Target, and I'd probably behave as if he should want my autograph. My pride will not let me admit I am anyone's fan.

So when I get up to Viggo, standing as close to him as you are to your computer, and he says, "What's your name?" I do not say "My name is Kristen, and I absolutely loved you as Aragorn, and my favorite painting of yours is the one called 'Selva,' and I love your poetry and I love that you had to go buy a TV so your family could watch you on the Oscars. I understand you in a way others don't. Take me with you to your home in Topanga Canyon. I love you."

Instead I say, "Kristen."

He says, "How do you spell that?"

I spell it.

And as he is writing, something magical happens: he sees my Noam Chomsky book. (It helped that I was holding it down and facing towards him in a very unnatural way so he would see it.)

I see him see it. He does a double take. He looks up at my face. I give him a pleasant, cool half-smile, raising my eyebrows as if to say, "Yes? You wanted something?"

God, I am cool. Also: gin.

"That's a good book," he says, nodding at the book.

"It really is," I say coolly. "I'm enjoying it."

He nods, and looks back down at his half-finished autograph. It says, so far, "Best wishes, Kristen." His Sharpie hovers over the black and white photo of himself riding a horse, and then he writes: "(Heart), Viggo."

I still have it. As far as I know, I'm the only one that day who got a heart. And all I had to do was embrace the beliefs of Noam Chomsky.

I thank him. We make eye contact. He gives me a little half-smile, and the one I return him is the most radiant-yet-dismissive "You don't know what you're missing but, hey, your loss" smile I can muster, as I turn and walk away.

I am triumphant.

Because I write fast, I have enough verbatim quotes to fill out a story. Voice recorder, shmoice shmecorder.

But most importantly: I got into that fucking room. I imposed my will upon the universe. I overcame

I met Viggo.

***


Ten years later, I have come to find that being "in love" with people you don't actually know is overrated, and my days of celebrity crushes are over. I am married to an actual dude who is as different from Viggo Mortensen as night is from day, and holy shit am I happy about it.

You see, my worldview was destined to diverge from Viggo's. It would have ended badly, with me screaming that Cindy Sheehan and Dennis Kucinich are fucktards, and that Noam Chomsky is at least 80% full of shit, and him writing mean poetry about Sarah Palin just to spite me. It wouldn't have worked.

But I still have a lot of affection for Viggo. I heard later that he sat and patiently signed all of Jimmy's toys. That'll bring a tear to your eye. And of course, I still admire him as an actor and artist.

But most of all, I'll never forget the day Viggo Mortensen gave me his heart.

5 comments:

  1. I don't mean to dismiss your school-girl crush, but I respect him for taking the time to sign Jimmy's stuff. That was kinda awesome.

    I remember when he appeared on "Inside the Actors' Studio" with a couple other cast members from LotR wearing a white t-shirt he had written "No War For Oil" on in sharpie and thinking to myself, "Oh, well, he's just another disconnected douche-nozzle from Hollywood. Sad." I say this mostly because while the war may or may not have been the right move, we had already entered it, and the time for debating it was over. Also, if we fought that war for oil, we did a terrible job given that it was almost exclusively foreign companies which got the oil contracts.

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  2. It WAS kinda awesome for him to sign Jimmy's stuff. I also remember that T-shirt, and I remember thinking it was rad. And anything I thought was rad back then probably... wasn't.

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  3. I want a turquoise laser beam and I heart your writing.

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  4. This is the best writing I have read in a long, long time, Kristen. You are a gal after my own heart. This is such a situation I would have gotten myself into in my younger years, but you told it better then I could have, and you went big! I love it.

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