In the past 12 years, since The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) made him a star, Mortensen has appeared in only two studio productions — Hidalgo (2004) and Appaloosa (2008).
The rest of his films — and he makes far fewer than most movie stars —have been of the independent variety, albeit most of them critical favourites, a list that includes David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), as well as Good (2008), The Road (2009) and A Dangerous Method (2011).
His latest film, Everybody Has a Plan, is yet another risky outing. The low-budget drama is written and directed by a first-time filmmaker, Ana Piterbarg, and — oh yeah — it's in Spanish.
"My agents and I have a good dialogue, good communication," Mortensen says with a chuckle, "but I'm sure they scratch their heads and probably bang their heads against their desks once in a while. Or maybe they used to. Maybe they've gotten used to it.
"I'm not really looking specifically for any kind of movie or genre or budget size or nationality or any of that," he says. "I'm looking for interesting stories that are original. I'm looking to do movies that I wouldn't mind seeing again years from now.
"It's hard to find really good movies of any kind or size," Mortensen says, "and, when you find something original and interesting, it can take a long time to get those financed. What happens a lot of times, and I completely understand this, is that actors get impatient or their agents get impatient and, if something comes along that's bigger and has financing and will be better distributed, they'll say, 'Sorry, I can't wait any more,' and go do that other film. I try to keep my word a little more, maybe, than a lot of my colleagues do.
"In the case of Everybody Has a Plan, it took us almost three years before we got to shoot it," he continues, "even though it was a low budget and, it seemed, pretty straightforward. The moment I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it,' it seemed like we were going to get it together, and then it didn't happen.
"Other things came along that I could have left to do," Mortensen says. "I guess they would have accepted it, but they wouldn't have been happy and the movie probably wouldn't have been made, or certainly not for a long time. But I keep my word."
"So I've ended up doing more of the smaller films than the bigger-budget ones," he says. "I don't have anything against doing a big story. Fortunately I'm still offered those once in a while. I just haven't been available in that moment, because I was committed to something else, as I was just describing, or I just didn't like it.
"The bigger the budget is, the less original something tends to be," Mortensen continues. "If you have a director who's really clever — Nolan or, if he ever wanted to direct a big movie again, Cronenberg, there aren't that many guys — he can take a somewhat formulaic-on-the-page story and turn it into something different, something that has some artistic merit and surprises you. It's possible, but it doesn't happen as much as it does in independent movies.
"I'm sure there are just as many, or more, bad examples of independent cinema," he adds. "It's just where I've tended to find the movies I like. I realise that there's a price to pay for not doing more studio films. People can forget about you, but I hope that, when you do a good story, do good work, even if it's not in that many theatres, people will see it eventually and that it will lead to other good work."
Set to open in limited release on March 22 (US), Everybody Has a Plan casts Mortensen as Agustin, a respected doctor in Buenos Aires. Agustin is profoundly dissatisfied with his life and, upon the death of his estranged twin brother, Pedro, Agustin assumes Pedro's place. Unfortunately Pedro lived in the Rio de la Plata Delta, where he and Agustin had grown up, and lived in poverty. Worse, Pedro had criminal connections, and those come back to haunt Agustin.
"I read this script and, after a few pages, I thought, 'Wait a minute, there's something going on here,"' Mortensen recalls. "It's a film-noir thriller, very Argentine, very original, really, incredibly well written. I kept reading and turning pages and thinking, 'OK, when is this going to fall apart?' Right to the end it never did, and it had me.
"I liked the idea of playing identical twins, but it wasn't just that," he says. "I liked the whole setting, the questions it asks about identity, about what in your deepest heart you want in life. It's hard to know that, sometimes, until you're up against it in a crisis situation. Agustin seems to have the perfect life — a beautiful and smart wife, a really nice apartment they live in, a nice medical practice. But he's not happy.
"I don't want to ruin the movie," Mortensen continues, "but circumstances present him with this unexpected opportunity to take the place of his brother, who leads this completely different experience in a place that's like the bayou, and it's a chance for Agustin to just disappear and become someone else. Agustin realises very quickly that he could never really pass for Pedro with people who knew Pedro, but, instead of panicking and running away, he stays there and, strangely, the path of lying completely about himself takes him to a greater truth about himself and about life."
Mortensen was raised in Buenos Aires, living there until he was 11, and speaks fluent Spanish. Other than a few brief trips for visits and promotional chores, however, he hadn't spent a significant amount of time back in Argentina until he returned to shoot Everybody Has a Plan.
"I loved being back," the actor says. "I probably hadn't been there for more than a week at a time in years, and I was in hotels, so I wasn't living a day-to-day existence. The time I spent preparing to do the movie and then shooting it, it was a period of months, and I really liked it. (Ian Spelling/The New York Times News Service)