Viggo Mortensen

Source: Stern Speziel Biografie

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© Lindsay Brice.

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Honor? Power? Glory? Don't even bother him with this!

The noble warrior Aragorn from "The Lord of the Rings" fights for only one treasure: to stay curious llike a child.

You have to imagine him a little different. Less majestic.

Aragorn, son of Arathorn comes from the bathroom and we shake hands, he had rubbed his palm dry at his trousers, a little boy's gesture. He's slightly embarrassed, his handshake is gentle, his hand gnarled like a root of a tree, but smaller, more like a Bonsai. He wears no shoes, no socks, he plucks at his toe occasionally. Tomorrow, after the group interview some of the journalists will speculate quietly this Aragorn, Isildur's heir might be a little off his rocker.

This is a tough judgment and above all it's wrong. He's just not wholly from this world. Especially not at this moment and at this place: Regency Hotel, very noble, many skyscrapers around, Manhattan, Midtown. Viggo Mortensen, the man who is Aragorn -- the most heroic warrior in the most heroic movie of all times, "The Lord of the Rings", glides onto his chair. Viggo is barefoot, he holds a wooden brass decorated cup with a silver straw and some greenish fluid inside. He slurps. It's Mate tea. Viggo -- was it mentioned already? -- well, he's different.

Everybody says so. He is, one dare say, a star. Maybe a "super" will be soon put in front of it. Maybe it won't. One is for sure -- his career was never predicable, just like the guy himself. Some people say his PR is not the best because he isn't able to articulate everything what's in his head. Some people say there's pretty much in this head. "Viggo" says Dennis Hopper, "is a free spirit with no glint and affectation". Hopper is his friend. He says it is not an everyday thing to know somebody who might appear at your door in LA barefoot, and he appreciates that.

Tomorrow one of the journalists will make a stinky feet jokes, today Viggo is sitting in a dull light of the floor lamp, looking tired but alert. Viggo the king. A childhood dream? He leans his head upon the hand: "Every child dreams to be some important person. You can be in the middle of a city or in a jail and imagine you are the first human being walking in this dark woods. Kids use their imagination this way." He speaks slowly, low voice, long answers.

Viggo the child: born 1958 in Manhattan to American mother and Danish father, Viggo Sr., son of a farmer himself, changing occupations in a small trade and at farms. "He was restless", says Viggo jr. Before he turns 11, his father travels around the world with his family. From New York to South America. They shuttle between Argentina and Venezuela, then they go to Denmark. Viggo is 11 years old when his parents divorce and he goes with his mother and two brothers back to the USA.

Hard times? "No, kids are flexible, they have the courage of the innocent" says Viggo. Without the beard and without his sword he doesn't look like a warrior. His shapes are clearly handsome and noble, but his sharp nose and chin give his face an almost rascally expression, as he bends curious toward his dialog partner. He often clamps his hands between knees. "And this is what you need as adult person to grow -- to save the courage to make new experiences", he continues.

He seems to be a rather shy boy in the high school. He walks around with his camera in search of motives for his snapshots. After the high school he studies politics and Spanish, than he returns to Denmark. With a certificate under his belt he works as a truck driver and sells roses on the street to earn his living. To dream, to write poetry and short stories. After a while he follows his girlfriend back to New York. He becomes interested with acting, impressed by Ingrid Bergman and Meryll Streep. How does this kind of art work? Viggo attends the Warren Robertson Theater Workshop, he believes to apply for admission but it is an exam for an acting class. This way he becomes actor.

"Viggo is one of the most talented actors of the world" says Dennis Hopper now. Well, in any case, he is the one who carries his sword around all the time and mends his own costume, he's even said to sleep in the wood as Aragorn the Warrior and Ranger. He is the one who lives for weeks in his movie apartment. He goes to the training camp of Chicago White Sox and Phillies even though in "28 Days" he has only a supporting role. Viggo says that's the best in acting -- you can always learn something new.

Sean Astin, the fellow actor from "The Lord of the Rings", says: "He is the most dedicated actor I know.'

Viggo who?

He wasn't really famous before becoming Aragorn. It's hard to say how many times he had his breakthrough. "Apparently you need words like this to describe certain situations" he mumbles, "I understand this." He is careful using words about acknowledgment or fame, maybe because of the price he must pay to keep his heart of a child. To merge in things he does, to defend the qualities "that one can loose easily, that can be driven out by the society." At seven he makes a drawing "Little Red Ridding Hood", a picture has survived till now. His teacher wrote across it with big letters "VERY POOR". At 45 Viggo still comes back to this story. He tells he likes this picture, a little abstract as it is, and that he cannot understand the teacher's ignorance. Moments like this still happen in his adult life. And they hurt no less -- if one carries a heart of a child.

Soon after the acting school Viggo gets his first roles: in movies as big as Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo". 1985, the movie starts, Viggo stays at home while his family members go to a theater to see what Viggo was working at with his typical Viggo-like passion. The movie runs for 84 minutes. Later at home they say: "Viggo, you had no part in this movie!" Woody Allen edited his part completely and without mentioning it. This would happen for three times in a row.

"The man you were / For one short season / Has been pruned, / Removed / To a well-groomed graveyard / That smells like popcorn', he writes afterwards, in a poem called "Edit". He decides not to tell anybody what he's working at. Asked why he haven't gave up, he gives another very Viggo-like answer: "I was curious, how it would go on."

And it goes on. Even though he's so shy that every admission is a torture, as well as every interview he has to give afterwards. Finally he makes it into the movie "Witness" as Amish farmer beside Harrison Ford. Later he gets a part in an independent satire "Salvation" with the punk icon Exene Cervenka, the singer of the band "X". She is also a shy poet. They fall in love and get married. One year later their son Henry is born and the family moves to Idaho. They flee -- and it's Exene, not Viggo, whose name is well known in L.A. Idaho is a quiet place. Idaho is not a good place for a movie career. But Viggo gets his first leading part as traumatized Vietnam veteran in Sean Penn's debut "Indian Runner".

"He's going to be a gigantic star", says Penn after six weeks of shooting.
Viggo -- a star?

One day, after "Indian Runner" is finished, Viggo drives with the producer Don Philips along the Sunset Boulevard and comes across a huge "Indian Runner" poster showing his face. They stop and Viggo says: "Don, this scares me." More than a dozen reporters from all around the world wait outside in Regency. Viggo puts one foot on the chair and wraps his hands around his knee. "I was afraid if the movie would succeed I wouldn't be able to do my stuff the way I wanted", he says. But the movie came and was gone, what remained was only a certain cult status. He speaks without any bitterness. Fame? "I don't even think about it. I'm not pleased by it, it doesn't help me to make my job any better." To make things the way he wants. Maybe this is the main obstacle for what others call career.
At least "Indian Runner" gets positive reviews. And most of them praise Viggo. "Sensational performance" writes "Rolling Stone", "Fascinating Actor" writes "New York Times". Viggo could become a known name. Viggo could get a breakthrough. But he takes only roles that are interesting for him. He works as waiter or a truck driver if necessary, he chooses big parts in ambitious small productions and small parts in pretentious big productions. He shines, he steals some big star's scenes. He plays beside Al Pacino in "Carlito's Way", beside Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in "The Crimson Tide", beside Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich. But no one of these movie makes his name known.
It's hard to plan a career with Viggo's strategy: "I always try to make something interesting as long as the money lasts and then I take the best offer I can get at the moment. That means trash jobs like "Daylight" with Sylvester Stallone, or the Devil's part in "God's Army"("The Prophecy"). He plays a drill sergeant in "G.I. Jane". He prepares for it totally isolated, without a trainer, because the drill sergeant is a lonesome person too. The movie is poor, but Viggo shines. A breakthrough? Finally reached the goal? These are only silly words.

Viggo looks a little glass-eyed, as if he was looking in some cosmic spheres. He philosophizes: "A goal is something imaginary. After reaching it you just go on. The life goes on." A critic wrote once, Viggo's earnestness is not good for his career, because people like heroes making fun. But it might enrich his life as well. One story about Viggo's earnestness goes like this: In 1998 Viggo makes a movie, he plays a painter. He lives in his movie loft for weeks. He was drawing before, why shouldn't he try to paint. He suggest to the director he wants to make some paintings for the film. He makes the first painting in his life. The director wants some more and bigger ones. Viggo paints 40 in few days. The movie is "A Perfect Murder" with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas. Since than Viggo the actor, poet and photographer becomes also a painter.

"An adult person being bored -- there is no excuse for that", he says.
After "A Perfect Murder", friendly divorced from Exene, he turns his house in Venice Beach into a studio. He paints often days and nights without a break during a period of time, as long as he can keep his eyes open, and he sleeps in his clothes in the studio so he can continue right on after he wakes up. A "Mortensen" cost up to 5000 USD today. His photographs were exhibited at the widely respected "Robert Mann Gallery", he published six books with poetry, photographs and paintings, as well as music CDs; he founded a company "Perceval Press" that publish book by artists who would be normally overseen.

Viggo says he sleeps three to four hours a night. "I should sleep more. But one cannot have everything, so I decide to sleep less and do other things instead." He stops, thinks for a moment. "I mean I like to sleep: to dream to drift away. But I wish I could do this when I want to, that it would be no physical necessity." A naive thought? A childish thought? Or brilliant? He rises, the press is waiting outside. He was a short term replacement for Stuart Townsend for Aragorn's part, he had only two days to make up his mind and after that he worked 18 months long on the the set of "The Lord of the Rings" -- one of the greatest films ever made. Viggo's breakthrough. Again. The movie "Hidalgo" starts in March with Viggo in his first leading role in a big budget production. The fame had to come one day. "But the things I feared, wasn't that scary", he says. "My life hasn't change. I still believe it's the way what's important." He sneaks out of the room, barefoot, tired but animated, like an Indian in the desert. Maybe a superstar. If you think so...
Last edited: 22 March 2005 19:11:44