Critically acclaimed supporting actor Viggo Mortensen made his feature film debut playing Alexander Godunov’s Amish brother in Witness (1985). The suave, handsome actor has subsequently portrayed a wide variety of characters, often unapologetic bad boys, opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular actors, including Sean Penn, Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore, and Nicole Kidman.
Born in New York City, on October 20, 1958, to an American father and a Danish mother, Mortensen spent his first years in Manhattan and the rest of his youth living in Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark. Returning to Manhattan in the early 1980s, he studied acting at Warren Robertson’s Theatre Workshop and then embarked upon a stage career before moving to Los Angeles.
Following his debut in Witness, Mortensen began working steadily in a number of diverse films, becoming a familiar but not instantly recognisable face to filmgoers. He did some of his more memorable work as a series of louts and villains, in such films as The Indian Runner (1991), which cast him as Sean Penn’s morally questionable brother; Carlito’s Way (1993), in which he played a paraplegic ex-con who tries to snitch on Al Pacino; and The Prophecy (1995), which required the actor, in the role of Lucifer, to rip out Christopher Walken’s heart and then eat it.
Replacing Irish actor Stuart Townsend in the role of Strider (Aragorn) shortly after production had begun on director Peter Jackson’s eagerly anticipated film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Mortensen secured a strong screen presence through this year with the release of the trilogy’s second instalment, The Two Towers, and into 2003, with The Return of the King.
What were some of the rewards of working on Lord of the Rings?
New Zealand and the New Zealanders are incredible people and there was a fantastic crew and a great team of actors. I mean, it was really roll-up-your-sleeves time and no room for prima donnas or the usual thing that you sometimes see, certainly on big movies. This was a real group effort, and whatever the end result is and how people react, it’s, in a way, less important to me.
When they called you, did you have to think about it because it was a commitment of almost three years?
Oh yeah. I mean, they called me at home and I was shocked and flattered.
At home in Los Angeles?
I was just at home with my son and I said, ‘1 don’t know that it’s a great opportunity, but to go for that long and I haven’t read the book.’ I knew that some of the players had been there, some of them for months, rehearsing and horseback riding and swordplay getting familiar with the place, the crew, the costumes, everything, and now, they’ve been shooting for two weeks. I just felt professionally that I was at a disadvantage and I didn’t want to let the side down if I … you know, you want to make a good contribution.
Why did it happen that quickly?
There was an actor, but he was way too … he was much younger than me. He was like the guys playing the hobbits, you know. So, my understanding is that it was a mutual decision. It was like, ‘It’s going to be like trying to make you look older all the time, trying to make you look like you’ve had this life experience,’ and Strider is someone who is not only older than them, but he’s much older. He’s of a race that has a double life span. He’s really, like, in his late eighties or something, he’s been around a long time and many of the people that he meets, in the second movie, this king seems older than him, but in reality he fought along side his father when he was a baby, and things like that. It’s weird and he’s not what he seems.
So you left for New Zealand?
The next day.
Did your family get to come to visit?
Yeah, [my son] came quite a bit. It is far, and it’s like flying from, I guess, like from New York to Buenos Aires or something. How long is that, 12 hours? I think that it’s 12 hours.
When did you get back to LA?
Well, that was October and I came back for Christmas, and then my son came over on his vacation. We were meant to have off almost two months in the middle and it ended up being only three weeks, and then we were meant to have two more short breaks after that, and we never had any more, I didn’t anyway. So, for example, I went back for those three weeks and since it was summer, I took him with me back there and he stayed for a month and a half. So, it was great and he likes that stuff, he loves it and he’s always making drawings, his whole life, of swords and axes and he’s crazy about that. So, he got to really see some crazy things in the workshop where they were making things and they actually put him to work.
So you weren’t familiar with the books at all?
No, I was on a plane the next day with this big book in my lap, trying to get through as much as I could before I had to go in front of the cameras.
How did you catch up with the other actors?
I just worked on whatever I needed to do immediately. When I started reading the book I was like, ‘What the hell is this’ but once I got past the shire and the hobbits, then I started to see that it wasn’t totally unfamiliar. He drew from everything in a way, but especially Nordic sagas and mythology. A lot of the archetypes, a lot of the characters and storylines were really familiar to me. Like, many of the characters’ names, really, were just taken straight out of that, and Aragorn is certainly a composite of many Nordic heroes. But at the same time, he’s a little bit more of a modern type of character in that he does all these amazing deeds and sometimes extra human things, like he understands the language of birds and bees, he can summon the dead and he has this long life span. He’s capable and has learned different fighting styles and ways of doing things from different cultures and languages. But at the same time, he has this burden because he understands what happened in the past, how his forefathers, even the noblest and the bravest of them, screwed up and succumbed to the temptation of the ring and you know, he feels, almost, I think, why should he do any better than them.
What do you think is the best part of your job in general and what’s the worst?
The best part is what you learn if you want to. I mean, if you stay in your trailer and you’re on your phone and you’re thinking of results, you take a part [for] more money, then you’re going to miss out. For me, it’s the process that is the best thing. I get to go to these countries, I get to meet people, I get to know thoroughly, as thoroughly as I want to, the character that I’m playing. So, it’s like I’m always going to school, in a way that pleases me. The worst thing is that unlike, say, if I’m making a photograph or painting or writing a poem, the result is not as directly connected to me as the process. Your vision of what you’re doing is always compromised because it’s in someone else’s hands, no matter how well they handle it and how much you might appreciate their point of view, it’s not my work, fully. Do you know what I mean? That’s the worst! But that’s the nature of it. It’s not like it’s going to change.