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Viggo Mortensen

October 19th, 2008 · No Comments


Viggo Mortensen was born October 20, 1958 in Manhattan. His Danish father had met his American mother skiing in Norway, where she worked in the U.S. Embassy. Mortensen spent much of his childhood in Argentina, where his father found work managing a ranch. His parents divorced when he was 11 and Mortensen returned to upstate New York with his mother and two younger brothers.

He recalled, “I couldn’t believe the swear words, the slang, the music, all the kids were into Blue Öyster Cult and Grand Funk Railroad. I was a closet Carpenters fan. I’d sing ‘Top of the World’ to myself on the way to school, but when I got close to campus I’d shut up.” A member of the swimming and tennis teams at Watertown High School, Mortensen majored in government and Spanish literature at St. Lawrence University. Upon graduation in 1980, he ended up in Denmark, writing poetry and short stories.

Mortensen followed a girlfriend to New York City, where he found a listing for the Warren Robertson Repertory Company. Inspired by Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter, Mortensen arrived for what he thought was an audition for a play. He was instead accepted into the theatre workshop, studying with Robertson while working as a bartender and waiter.

“Right out of the gate, I was auditioning for leads in studio movies. It would get down to the last two people.” His screen test for the role of Tarzan in Greystoke went so well that Mortensen returned from England thinking he had the job, only to learn Christopher Lambert had been cast. Mortensen landed a brief part opposite Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift, but his scene was later reshot without him. A walk-on for a Hollywood party scene in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo also ended up on the cutting room floor.


It was 1985 when audiences got their first glimpse of Mortensen, playing an Amish farmer in Witness. Subsequent roles were far from star making: a vengeful felon in Prison, a babbling cannibal in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Molly Ringwald’s husband in the melodrama Fresh Horses. Impressed by Mortensen’s work in that movie, Sean Penn cast him as a cursed younger brother in Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner.

The 1991 film was not well received by audiences, but got the attention of the industry. Mortensen recalls, “At the time, people: ‘Wow, now you’re on your way and this will get you all this other stuff.’ In reality I don’t think it did, but I learned something doing it and it’s one of the few movies where people seem to think it’s close to being somewhat artistic, I guess.”

Roles as bad guys in cops ‘n robbers fare like Carlito’s Way – in which Mortensen appeared memorably as a crippled snitch – followed. He joined the Tony Scott ensemble Crimson Tide playing a naval weapons specialist caught in a mutiny between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, then wooed Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady.

Mortensen became heavily in demand for character roles in big movies; a cocky adventurer who uses up the last of his nine lives in Daylight, Sam Loomis in the remake of Psycho and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lover in another Hitchcock redo – A Perfect Murder – as a bohemian artist (the murals hanging in his character’s studio were painted by Mortensen himself.) For his role as a verse spouting Navy Master Chief in G.I. Jane, director Ridley Scott permitted Mortensen to recite some of his own poetry.


His appeal remained primarily with casting directors, and with female moviegoers who discovered Mortensen. Cast as the Woodstock-era blouse peddler Diane Lane throws herself into an affair with in A Walk on the Moon, Lane said of her co-star, “I think he has a quality of self-knowing that challenges everyone that he meets, perhaps unwittingly. But the electrical charge of that challenge of ‘How well do you know yourself? Cause I know myself real well.’ You know, that’s kind of the unspoken Viggo experience. He’s also fascinated by other people. And when you combine those elements, it’s very charismatic. It can definitely be interpreted as sexy.”

Mortensen next accepted work opposite Sandra Bullock in the rehab drama 28 Days, but continued to elude stardom. In October 1999, director Peter Jackson was three days into filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy when he parted with actor Stuart Townsend in the role of Aragorn, a world weary mercenary who rallies Middle Earth against the forces of darkness. Realizing Townsend was too young, Viggo Mortensen was approached to take over the role. Jackson received a phone call from the actor.

“Knowing Viggo now, his conversation was incredibly Viggo-like, but at the time it was incredibly off-putting. He was asking about the character: how long has he lived with the elves? Where are his parents? If I didn’t know the answer, I’d make it up. There would be this terrible long silence, and I didn’t know if the phone had disconnected or not, and then he’d ask another question and there would be thirty more seconds of silence. At the very end of the call, I thought it had gone very badly … and then there was another long silence and Viggo said, `I guess I’ll see you on Tuesday.’ ”


Mortensen recalled, “I was called one day and asked if I could come to New Zealand the day after and film for one and a half years, so it was a tough decision to make. The others had been down there for several months and had already filmed for a couple of weeks. And I hadn’t read the books too. The thing that made me decide was my son saying I should take the role, even though it caused me not to see him much in one and a half years. I really had lots of reason not to take the role – professionally I’m not much for taking a role I haven’t prepared for – and I hadn’t even met the director. But I know that I would’ve felt like a coward if I hadn’t taken the chance.”

Arriving in theaters in 2001, 2002 and 2003, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were global box office sensations and landed Mortensen on the lunch boxes and bedroom walls of young fans all over the world. Mortensen has since had starring roles as a long distance horseman in Disney’s Hidalgo and a pair of critically acclaimed adult thrillers for director David Cronenberg, playing a family man whose past is unmasked in A History of Violence and a driver for the Russian mob in Eastern Promises, for which Mortensen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He’s co-founder of Perceval Press, which – among several art books – has published Miyelo, featuring Mortensen’s photographs of a Lakota ghost dance.

When asked in 2003 to comment on his career, Mortensen responded, “I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said this, it was about meandering through a career, or the arts in general, without seeming to have a deliberate plan. He said, ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.’ That’s a great line, ‘To travel hopefully.’ That’s what I’d like to do.”


© Joe Valdez

Screenshots courtesy of Daylife and

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

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