Danish in origin, Viggo took an acting course with Warren Robertson in New York before making his debut on the stage. The role of Aragorn which has made his fortune and glory was initially destined for another actor, Stuart Townsend, whom he replaced at the last moment.
He has known all the proofs, the small roles cut from a film. At 45 years old, after crossing the desert, king Aragorn offers him a place in Hollywood.
For a long time, he has vegetated in supporting roles in small films. But Viggo Mortensen, more passionate about poetry, painting, jazz and football than the cinema, is today, at 45 years old, the new flavour (?) of Hollywood: he only needed three films and one single role, that of king Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy to suddenly make him a huge star. Fan of Bergman, Dreyer, Pasoline and European filmmakers of whose existence Californian producers are barely aware, this atypical actor invests himself completely in the characters he portrays. He will soon be, beside Omar Sharif, the hero of the next super-production from the Disney Studios, Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston.
With his raw Viking sex-appeal, he should have been a star long ago. But his role model is Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Dreyer….
Viggo Mortensen hates wearing shoes. It is therefore most often on bare feet, in jeans, sipping a tea with revitalising properties or a glass of Bordeaux and chain-smoking cigarettes that he receives reporters from all over the world in order to promote Lord of the Ring . How he will emerge from the media whirlwind in which he has been submerged since the start of the trilogy has not hit him yet. How he will prove that it will not change him…an enormous success: the two first films have brought in nearly 2 billion dollars, and the third, The Return of the King is top of every box-office on the planet. Which seriously sets off sparks. But Viggo, no. The man is not stupid. With his Viking sex-appeal, his gaze at once severe and mischievous, his magnetic charm, his attitude of “I am good looking but I endure it” he should have been a Hollywood star long ago, collecting all the clichés inherent in that state: record fees, princely dwelling in Beverley Hills, every act spied upon, two or three marriages with gorgeous actresses, shares in the Planet Hollywood restaurants..
None of this is his. Viggo is an outsider, an atypical actor and man, discrete, on the margins, more often in effective supporting roles that women remember than a hero prepared to die to save the world. BHL has written of Sharon Stone that she has a feeling of “becoming such a stranger in the spotlight that she disconnects”. That could also be applied to Viggo, though he has had less of a taste of the weight of celebrity. It is that, for him as for Sharon, the light has been slow to find them. His cinema debut was laborious, not to say catastrophic: his first role in 1984, at the age of 26, in Jonathan Demme’s film Swing Shift, ended in the bin of the cutting room. The next year, he had a part in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. Same story. Not a trace of him in the final cut. He persevered, and at last the Australian director Peter Weir offered him his first appearance on the screen, in Witness, in a third barely noticed role next to Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. It was not yet the promised land, but at least he could say goodbye to the multitude of small jobs, popcorn seller, waiter…. And settle in Los Angeles, where all aspiring actors in search of glory end up. A radical change of life. But Viggo is a nomad with the soul of a tramp. He was born in New York in October 1958, his father Danish, his mother American. He spent the first years of his life there with his two little brothers, before his father, who regularly changed jobs, dragged his family on a whim to Argentina, to Venezuala, or to Denmark for holidays.
He was 11 when his parents divorced. His mother decided to move back to the United States with her three boys. The foursome set down their bags in the north of New York State, near the Canadian border. Viggo left home at 18, heading for Denmark, then England for more than a year. “I haven’t kept a single friend from my childhood, I don’t see any of them. So there is very little continuity with my life from that time. But I have seen and learned a lot of things. Notably to develop my imagination and to rely on noone but myself” he says of his wandering years. In London, he hung around art- and experimental cinemas, and discovered the classics of Bergman, Ozu, Pasolini, Dreyer. His calling was clear: “I was going to conquer the world”. But nothing like that happened. Viggo was not fed on the same milk as American actors. “When I started taking acting lessons in New York, it was interpretations like that of Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc that I had as my model. It is not surprising that I didn’t break through”.
In fact, Viggo was far from storming the box office at the end of the eighties. Worse, he accepted a role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Closer to Roger Corman than Pasolini. But he needed to make a living. The more so since he had become the father of a little boy in 1988, named Henry. Like his cinematic loves, his wife at that time was not the usual, in no way the docile spouse of the young lead he was not. Her name was Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of an obscure punk band simply called X. Although they have since separated, the two remain close.
In 1991 the actor was vegetating. Around then he met Sean Penn, who had by chance seen one of his films on a cable channel. “Seeing his face, his expression, I knew it was him, and I had been praying for such a marvelous actor. I was not disappointed”, recalls Penn. What was it? His interpretation, in The Indian Runner, of Frank, a Vietnam veteran incapable of adapting to civilian life, an incorrigible rebel, mutinous, violent, alcoholic, yet at the same time vulnerable and touching, is perfect. His presence is incandescent, dignified like that of Robert de Niro in Scorcese’s Mean Streets.
Finally a role that exceeded his pretty-boy allure. The ideal springboard for exploding onto Hollywood. But the explosion never came. Mortensen is of that breed of actors of whom one never knows what he is, where he really fits. Never in the forefront of a scene, yet never totally in the background either. His name doesn’t click like that of a Brad Pitt. In short, he has everything a star should have without being one. He prefers original films to big productions, although he has sometimes consented to appear in such turnips as Daylight with Sylvester Stallone and A Perfect Murder with Gwynneth Paltrow.
The only interest in that film is that you can see in the background paintings by Viggo himself. Because the man is an artist, a real one. He writes and publishes collections of poetry through a publishing house he has set up, paints and exhibits his canvasses, has recorded four albums and published three books of photographs. He becomes almost agitated whenever anyone asks why he, an actor, also does other things: “And why can one only do one thing? Who makes those rules?”. His good friend and role-model, Dennis Hopper, also a painter and photographer, says of him: “If Mortensen were locked up in prison in total darkness, without pencils or paper, he would still make something incredible”.
Incredible like like interpretation of Aragorn. At first, Stuart Townsend, 26 at the time, was hired. But he turned out to be too delicate, lacking in charisma. Two days before the first shooting, he was fired. In a panic, director Peter Jackson called Viggo Mortensen, an actor whose fame would not interfere with the part, and endowed with a physique capable of enduring Dante-esque conditions. Bingo! On the advice of his son, a fan of Tolkien, Mortensen agreed to take off for New Zealand, location of the filming of the trilogy. He would stay there more than a year, giving it his body and soul. Anecdotes abound of his total dedication. Like when, during one fight scene, he lost part of a tooth. Not serious, and especially with no time to go to the dentist, he demanded that a technician fixed it with glue. He has also admitted that he slept in his costume. Even stranger this story: returning one evening, he hit a rabbit with his car. He immediately decided to cook it and eat it. Afraid of nothing, Viggo, not on the screen and not in life. And it is not at 45, with this first enormous global success, that he will change and give in to the illusions of celebrity. According to the latest news, he still lives in a modest house near the ocean, in the multi-cultural Venice quarter of Los Angeles, often exhibits his large canvasses at gallery after gallery, continues to paint and write poetry, is active against the war in Iraq, has left his little friend Lola Schnabel, daughter of the painter, and has not been in a relationship since.
Next up, he is playing a cowboy of the desert in Disney’s production Hidalgo . Not necessarily at the height of his artistic ambitions, but always true to his motto: above all, never to be bored.