Film-Related 2008

Portrait: Viggo Mortensen - The Actor As Artist

Source: DVD Special (Germany)

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There is in the present dream factory only a handful of actors who refuse to take part in the usual Hollywood party scene and instead see themselves as artists who want to have nothing to do with it, they seldom play in big films and, apart from that, they indulge in their artistic bent as well. Viggo Mortensen is such a man.

It was the year 1995, when Viggo Mortensen stole the show from the star Christopher Walken with a role that had a screen time of about five minutes. In Gregory Widen's religious horror film God's Army/The Prophecy Walken was the Archangel Gabriel, who despised mankind and waged a war against the Lord, to ensure that the angels returned to their legitimate place at his side. And Mortensen was Gabriel's counterpart - Lucifer!

Diabolically good

Mortensen, however, chose a performance that is far from the usual portrayal of how one imagines the Prince of Lies should be. Mortensen, with long hair and full beard - his outward appearance reminding one more of Jesus Christ - played Lucifer with an impressiveness that was burnt into the audience's mind forever. He didn't yell, he didn't lash about, but he still seemed to be menacing. The devil knows his power. It is not necessary for him to demonstrate his power and to seek self-affirmation - all his terrible strength lies in his calmness.

With that, Mortensen provided a portrait of the devil, as it had not been seen to date. And, at the same time, he once again gave proof of the extraordinary talent that slumbers within him.

But it was not the first time that Mortensen had been noticed. At that time, he had been active as an actor for more than ten years and had played in films of varying quality, but they all had one thing in common: an outstanding performance by him!

As Mortensen said in an interview with the magazine Fangoria later on, there are moments in which every actor realizes that the script is not worth too much. But even then, one makes the best of it that is possible. It is with this philosophy that Viggo Mortensen works, he not only play his roles, but he really lives them.

Years of travel

Mortensen was born on October 20th, 1958 in Manhattan, New York, but grew up in different countries. His mother is American, his father Danish. The family lived in New York, but when Mortensen was two years old, they first moved to Venezuela and later to Argentina, because his father's business required this. In 1969 his parents got divorced and his mother went with the children - Mortensen has two brothers - back to New York. He inherited his love for travelling and his talent for languages from his father. He speaks Spanish and Danish fluently and can communicate in French, Italian, Swedish and Norwegian.

After graduating from college, Mortensen moved to Denmark, where he lived with his grandfather and tried out various jobs - even as a truck driver. In 1982 he returned to New York, determined to become an actor.

He opened a newspaper and was looking for the drama school with the most pleasant name. Shortly afterwards he studied at the Warren Robertson Acting Workshop and took part in various plays.

To make the breakthrough in the industry was anything but easy, even for Mortensen who never went looking for the big star roles but always for the interesting parts. As a result he participated in a lot of independent films, but they were rarely successful and he was frequently forced to take employment as bartender and other similar jobs.

After a small role in the epic mini-series George Washington, he shot two films, including Woody Allen's Purple Rose Of Cairo, but his scenes fell victim to the editing and were cut out. Therefore, his official cinematic debut was in Peter Weir's excellent thriller Witness, in which Mortensen played Moses Hochleitner, the brother of Alexander Godunov's character. The role was small, however, it left a first impression and also showed that an actor had appeared, whose future career could become very interesting.

Hard Horror

After supporting roles in Beth B.'s ultra weird religious Heavy-Metal-trip Salvation, in which Viggo played with his future wife Exene Cervenka (he was married to this lead singer of the punk band X from 1987 to 1997) and the Molly Ringwald-kitschy film Fresh Horses, Mortensen finally had the chance to shine in a leading role.

The Finn Renny Harlin, was making his debut in the United States with the violent prison horror Prison for Empire Pictures (who ceased to exist a long time ago) and he engaged him to play the prisoner Burke, who coincidentally resembles the ghost of a man who was condemned to death for a crime he hadn't committed and is now up to no good.

The film, shot on location in a prison in Wyoming, is certainly not a milestone of the genre, but it is entertaining with actors in a good situation - and, for the first time in his career, it gave Mortensen the chance to fully reveal his charisma.

Two years later - but before that he was in pursuit of terrorists in Tripwire - Mortensen stood in front of the camera for a horror film once again. It was Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, produced by New Line Cinema, in which he played Tex, the head of the notorious Saw-Family. Mortensen enjoyed the interplay of grotesque scenes and no less wacky humour of this film, that was accompanied by scenes showing bloody effects. The latter scenes were almost entirely cut out of the film in order to obtain the required R rating in the U.S. Although the film is not a masterpiece even in the "unrated" version, it comes closer to what it was supposed to be. Not to mention the fact that it is a good deal funnier as well.


The risk of being fixed in certain type of roles never existed for Viggo Mortensen because, after his two trips into the horror genre, he turned to completely different issues. In Philip Ridley's hypnotic film The Reflecting Skin - reminiscent of one of David Lynch's works - about a boy who has a vivid imagination and is living in a rural environment in the '50s, he played a war veteran who was suffering from a severe trauma, while in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's debut as a director, he played the angry brother.

In the following years Mortensen performed in various films and usually confined himself to supporting roles, however, they always gave him the chance to work with either interesting actors or the opportunity to master new challenges with his art.

In the rather calm thriller Boiling Point he played together with Dennis Hopper and delivered a convincing portrait of a somewhat stupid hoodlum. The thriller Ruby Cairo was so specially-tailored to Andie MacDowell that barely more than one great scene was left over for Viggo shortly before the end of the film. In Brian de Palma's gangster drama Carlito's Way he had the opportunity to take part in a movie with Al Pacino. Another small but impressive role was in Danny Cannon's powerful debut as director in Young Americans, in which the London police must find an American who is turning young people into ice-cold gangsters. In the refined the little B-movie American Yakuza in 1993 he was a FBI agent infiltrating the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and finally having to decide where his loyalty belongs: to the FBI or his new boss. The film is of average quality, without question, but it's Mortensen's performance that raises the film above average. Here, the actor showed that he could be a leading man and add more class to a movie just by his mere presence.


With the films that he had shot up to now, but also with those still to follow, Mortensen showed another quality that is rarely found in an actor in this pure form: the joy of acting. It is precisely this joy that a thoroughbred actor can only feel when he constantly tries harder and harder and accepts the most diverse roles.

Viggo Mortensen was never interested in becoming a big star, but preferred to pick films or roles he was interested in, where he could demonstrate that he was a serious actor for whom the process of acting itself was very important - fame and money was only a pleasant side effect.

Of course Mortensen was seen in films that were successful or were estimated to be blockbuster material - Crimson Tide and Sylvester Stallone's disaster film Daylight come to mind here - but he never sold out and he didn't consider a film role in order to become a big superstar.

Moreover, it is the small, sometimes strange films, that appeal to him. A perfect example is Philip Ridley's The Passion Of Darkly Noon, in which he played Clay, the lover of Callie (Ashley Judd). She cares for Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) - raised by religious fanatics - who is confused after the death of his parents and gradually falls in love with Callie. However, as Darkly, observes that Clay and Callie are a couple, his slow descent into the darkness of insanity begins....

Among his many films of the coming period were Kevin Spacey's original thriller Albino Alligator, Charles Robert Carner's action-packed remake Vanishing Point, Ridley Scott's military drama G.I. Jane and Sandra Bullock's 28 Days in rehab.

In 1998, Mortensen played in two remakes of Alfred Hitchcock classics. In Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho that copied the original closely even in the smallest takes, he had the relatively lacklustre role of Marion Crane's boyfriend Sam Loomis. However he succeeded once again in adding vividness to the part. Far more interesting was A Perfect Murder, based on Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, and showing Mortensen as a sensitive artist, who turns into a paid killer. The paintings that are shown in his studio were made by Mortensen himself.

Versatile artist

Viggo Mortensen is not only a gifted actor but also a painter, photographer, musician and poet. His first collection of poems Ten Last Night was followed by other books, in which he mixes photographs and paintings with writings. During the long filming of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy Mortensen let no grass grow under his feet, taking pictures of the wonderful landscapes that are the background of the saga. At the end of his stay in New Zealand he had a gazillion photos and pictures, although he actually thought that he had made just a few.

He celebrated the first exhibition of his photographs in July 2000 when many of his works were shown at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York. The paintings that are shown in A Perfect Murder that were made by Mortensen were presented at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica in 2001. The following year, he also presented those works there that he had made during his stay in New Zealand.

The artist is even more versatile. Painting, photography and writing are only a few of his talents. Mortensen also loves music and has already released a CD with jazz songs.

The quiet man who always speaks in a very low voice during interviews, prefers to let his art speak for itself. He wishes to express himself and his feelings, and it doesn't matter in which artistic medium.

Two years Strider

In 1999 Mortensen received a call from his agent. Peter Jackson had offered him the role of Aragorn that was previously going to be played by Stuart Townsend. Since the shooting had already begun, a very quick decision was necessary.

For two days Mortensen thought about it, he followed a train of thoughts about how he would not be able to see his son Henry for more than a year. In addition, Mortensen would have appreciated to have more time to think about it and to develop the role in advance, but this time it was not possible. That's why he spoke with his son, who was familiar with the novel and who told him to accept the offer - so two days later Mortensen sat on the plane to New Zealand.

During the long flight, he read up on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and realized that he could identify with Aragorn very well, because Aragorn feared facing the challenge of fighting as king of his people against Sauron, just as Mortensen feared the challenge to become part of this enormous film.

Mortensen empathized with his role very quickly. He trained with the sword and made it a part of his arm which greatly impressed the sword master on the set. The shootings were, of course, no walk in the park for all the people involved.

The night shootings alone for the long battle of Helm's Deep lasted months, so the cast and crew had to change completely their rhythm of life.

How highly motivated Mortensen was and how much he lived his role, is also demonstrated by an incident during the shooting of the first part of the trilogy. During the fight against the Dark Riders, one of the stuntmen took a big swing and knocked out Mortensen's tooth. Peter Jackson wanted to stop the shooting to allow his star to be treated for the injury, but Mortensen clenched his teeth in the full sense of the word and got the scene over and done with - it is simply not his way to give up!

On another occasion, Jackson spoke with Mortensen and addressed him as Aragorn all the time, without him realising that he was actually doing it. Viggo Mortensen totally lived up his part, kept on the costume of Strider (the ranger name of Aragorn), washed it and mended it, if necessary.

Peter Jackson even remarked in an interview that he wasn't sure whether Mortensen had ceased to sleep inside a house, but had set up a bivouac outside.

The shootings for The Lord Of The Rings lasted two long years but were a more than rewarding experience for Viggo Mortensen. After all, he got to know New Zealand not only as a country that appeals to him a lot personally, but he also became a big international star, and there can be no doubt that he is one of the big winners among the cast of this trilogy.


After this experience he decided to take part in Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston, as his next project. Here he played Frank T. Hopkins, a breeder of mustangs in 1877 and a few years later, he took part in an endurance race that led him and his horse from the Persian Gulf through Iraq into Syria. With this film, based on the life story of Hopkins, Mortensen proved once again that he is interested in unusual stories. The film was not a success [sic], but Mortensen took a fancy to his horse, bought it and brought it home.

He was enthralled by the script for A History Of Violence, based on a graphic crime novel that, apart from the basic plot, strikes out in a new direction. It seems that Mortensen found a soulmate in the director David Cronenberg. Mortensen played Tom Stall, an ordinary man, who kills two robbers in an attack on his café and reports about this incident are broadcast nationwide. But this brings men to the scene who have been searching for Tom for years and the history of violence must come to an end once and for all...

A History Of Violence is an excellent film, one of Cronenberg's best works, that investigates the impact of violence on the individual and society, but does not gloss over it. Cronenberg and Mortensen were so much tuned to the same wavelength that only two years later they filmed Eastern Promises in which Mortensen's shadowy character Nikolai belongs to the Russian mafia. Mortensen explained in an interview, why he is so happy to film with Cronenberg: "It is nice to know a director that simply makes a good film."

An equally unusual project, which Mortensen approached in 2006, is the Spanish film Alatriste. He played Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, a soldier who fights in Flanders and promises his friend, who is killed in action, that he will look after his son. The monumental, almost three hour long epic was successful in Spain. By the way, Mortensen played his part in Spanish.

Already finished is Appaloosa, directed by Ed Harris, a Western in which two friends are hired in order to protect a town, but this becomes complicated by the arrival of a widow (Renée Zellweger). Also in post-production is the drama Good, based on a play, it shows how good people amidst the Third Reich turned into morally questionable followers.

At the moment, Mortensen is filming The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. In the post-apocalyptic thriller he plays a man trying to get his son to safety.

Viggo Mortensen doesn't like to give interviews too much, but when he does he allows you to gain an insight into how he really is as a man and as an artist. He knows very well that The Lord Of The Rings has changed a lot of things for him, but he has not changed. He is not interested in taking part in another twenty blockbusters. He only wants to make good films.

"When everything is said and done, I'd like to claim that at least, there are some things of which I'm proud. I don't want to look back and say 'I was featured in so-and-so many magazines.' Concerning money, there is a proverb in Denmark: 'The last shirt has no pockets.' You can not take your money with you. You can gather up all the money in the world, but who cares?"
Last edited: 23 May 2008 10:26:06
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