in G.I. Jane. It was not until the Lord of the Rings movies-The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and The Two Towers in 2002-that people really began stopping him on the street.
The Lord of the Rings movies are among the biggest moneymakers in history: Fellowship earned $860 million globally and Two Towers $919 million. The third has the potential to be the most lucrative of all, and Mortensen saturates the film.
It's a long way from Tex, the good-natured cannibal who delivers soliloquies about savory qualities of roadkill in 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. His film debut had actually come in 1985 as one of the Amish farmers in Peter Weir's Witness. He then got a part in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, but it was cut. In 1988 he co-starred in Fresh Horses-a massive, pretentious flop-with Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald. His son, Henry (with then wife Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the art-punk band X), was born the same year. After Henry learned to read, he had the good sense to become a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's.
By 1990 it looked as if Mortensen was headed for the Where Are They Now? file, and fast, with roles in Young Guns II (one critic called it "double-barreled cowpuffery") and Leatherface ("The best that can be said of it is that it runs for less than 80 minutes")
"If I really think about it, there isn't any one movie I would wipe off my slate," Mortensen says, however. "Even during the worst experiences, there was somebody I got to know, or something about the place we were in, something memorable. A lesson." Happiness or satisfaction, to Mortensen, is not something that one can actively seek. A sense of well-being does not depend outside events, but rather how we interpret them, he explains.
"Seek not the favor of the multitude," he says. "It is selsom got by honest and lawful means. But seek th etestimony of the few, and number not the voices but weigh them."
Kant, he says. I am wildly impressed.
In 1991, Sean Penn cast Mortensen in The Indian Runner, as a tormented Vietnam vet. Dennis Hopper, who starred in the movie with him ("I'm an old barkeeper he murders at the end," Hopper explains), calls it one of Mortensen's best roles ever. "He's not a good actor, he's a great fucking actor," Hopper says. "I'm not a fan of Sean's other two movies, but this is a hell of a movie. Don't live another day without seeing it. Mortensen is it. He's the real deal."
Next came Carlito's Way, with Mortensen as the cringing, wheelchair-bound informer, Lalin, then a brief macho period, doing Boiling Point, with Hopper and Wesley Snipes, and Crimson Tide, and his role as the menacing drill sergeant in G.I. Jane.
Around Mortensen's 40th birthday, he made two movies playing the siren lover who liberates wives suffocating in domesticity. In A Perfect Murder, he was the artist boyfriend of the patrician Paltrow, a fashionably greasy-haired bad boy whose overripe physical presence you could practically smell coming off the screen. If you are a woman you will remember the way he slid his hands backward over her cheeks as tehy made love in his grimy loft. The canvases in the film were his own, painted in Dennis Hopper's studio. And in A Walk on the Moon, Diane Lane had to chose between her television-repairman husband (Liew Schreiber) and her hippie boyfriend, played by Mortensen, who makes love to her under waterfalls, introduces her to pot, and takes her to Woodstock.
"I knew I wanted him for that role in such a way that I was saying, Please take soem of my money and give it to him," Lane says. Pass up money? "Because he gives immeasurable depth to what he does, full commitment, full conviction.
"He's a man of mystery, for sure-that's rule no. 1," she adds. His exotic lack of ego, her theory goes, won't hurt him in Hollywood. That mystery acts like a narcotic on a community of people who always chase the one thing they cannot have, and as with a spurned lover any distance only increases their ardor.
"He's being true to himself. And people here are not really used to that or comfortable witht that. And I love the fact that, as far as i have been able to see, he has not given away any of his mystery. People want to figure you out so they can move on." His muse, Lane says, is the tramp. "He can be a debonair as he wants. For that afternoon. But then the tramp will call him again."
Working with such women as Lane, Paltrow, Nicole Kidman In The Portrait of a Lady, and Julianne Moore in Psycho didn't faze him. "in the end, when you got to work, it's about the person you're playing, not who's next to you," he says. "It could be someone's first movie, and some people are harder to work with than others, but alot of times you find the same problems and work through them."
What the career lacked was the monster hit, until The Lord of the Rings. In the fall of 1999, Peter Jackson gathered the cast and crew in New Zealand to begin work on a marathon 15-month shoot that would form the backbone of all three movies. He had cast 26-year-old Stuart Townsend in the role of the warrior human and reluctant king Aragorn, but Jackson soon realized the actor was too young to convey the broodinh, displaced monarch. When Mortensen got a phone call asking him to be on a plane the next day , he hadn't read-had barely heard of-the J. R. R. Tolkien books. But Henry, then 11 years old, assured his father it was a good part, and the books were great, and that Tolkien was genius. The next day Viggo was on his way to New Zealand.
Elijah Wood, who plays the hobbit Frodo in the films, says that Mortensen is one of the strangest and most charismatic people he has ever encountered. "When I frist met him, we sat down in this real crusty place, the Green Parrot, and I remember not being able to hold a conversation, because I was so intimidated," Wood says. "There is something beautiful and quiet about Viggo, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized how insanely brilliant and crazy he is-how he has this insane wild side." Like when Mortensen's tooth was knocked out during a scene and he asked to have it put back in with Super Glue. or when his car hit a rabbit in the road and he decided to roast it and eat it. Or when he slept in his costume for weeks at a time.
"Yeah, he's mental," Wood says. "But in a good way."
Life is short, Mortensen says. "And this is all a big crapshoot. I'm lucky. I've been in a good movie once in a while. If I hadn't been in Lord of the Rings, or that movie didn't do well-well, who knowswhat might have happened?"
Mortensen's peripatetic childhood may have had something to do with his resilience. His parents met in December 1957. His father spoke mostly Norwegian and Danish, his mother mstly English, but somehow everything sorted itself out, and Viggo was born in October 1958. His father's various jobs took the family-which included Viggo and two younger brothers-from Denmark to Argentina and Venezuela. By the time Viggo was 11, his parents' marriage was over, and the three boys and their mother went to live in upstate New York.
"I didn't have friends when I was little that I know now-there wasn't any sense of continunity like that," Mortensen says. "But I got to see alot of things and learn alot of things. And I learned o rely on my imagination, and on myself."
Even Mortensen's memories of early childhood are deeply spiritual. he tells me about the time he crawled into the woods and fell asleep. "I was sleeping under a tree, and it was very peaceful," he says. "And then a dog started barking, and that's how my parents found me."
You are always escaping, I say.
Yeah, he says. He calls his mother-on my cell phone, because he doesn't have one-to double-check his recollection.
"Hi, it's Viggo. Sorry to be calling so late," he says. "Oh shit. You're in the middle of it? That's funny. Is it a tape? [She was watching a tape of The Two Towers.] O.K., sorry, it's just a quick question and then I'll let you get back to what you're doing. Remember there were a couple of times I ran away? And the time the dog came and found me in the woods? How old was I then? About one and a half. O.K. But, anyway, the dog came and found me and I was sitting undre a tree? Happy? Sleeping, right?"
Big look of consternation.
"I was sitting in the middle of the woods crying? I thought I was sleeping. Are you sure?"
Although Mortensen's marriage to Cervenka lasted only a few years, they remain close. She still preforms with some of the original members of X. "It's interesting for Henry to see that," says Mortensen. "He grew up with her, and to see her performing and to see Billy Zoom [the original guitarist for X] play, it makes him conscious of his parents' life."
Mortensen hasn't ruled out another marriage, even though his relationship with Lola Schnabel, 23, the daughter of painter Julian Schnabel, ended last year. "You never know. It could happen," he says. "It's always the thing you think won't happen that does."
Mortensen's circle of friends consists less of Hollywood actors than of writers, poets, artists, and musicians, although he remains close with Lord of the Rings cast members Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd, who played Pippin. The two joined him last year in a jam session [as did Dominic Monaghan: Webmaster's note] with the Japanese guitarist Buckethead, who has toured with Guns N' Roses and has a cult following, but is otherwise known chiefly for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket over his head during performances. ("He's very shy, and he doesn't want people to see him," Mortensen explains.) "I did some percussion, and Buckethead had this bag of masks, which we all wore while we were playing," Wood says. "It was wild."
Mortensen's best friend, he says, is Henry, now 15 years old.
"Now you read something like that and think, Oh, this guy. His best friend is his son. Right. He's playing the father card. But Henry's just really smart-a great person. He's so curious. When he gets into things, whether it's music or movies or art or history, he gets really into it."
Mortensen lives in a nondescript suburban house in Topanga Canyon packed with art, drawings, photographs, clippings-and environment constructed for creative ferment. L.A. has long been criticized as being void of culture, but, he says, that's a misinterpretation by people who don't know the city. "You're been hearing that refrain for 50 years," he says. "But thats wrong. There are a lot of artists making very interesting things here, but it's not presented to you on a platter."
Not suprisingly, Mortensen has strong political beliefs. On The charlie Rose Show, while promoting The Two Towers, he wore a T-shirt that read, NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL, and he is happy to be wound up and set loose on the subject of Iraq. "i think we're in a very dark period," he says as surfers glide and dolphins leap in the waves infront of us. "At what point do you admit iyt was a mistake and get the hell out of there? How much damage has to be done? How much damage has to be done to the credibility of the United States? This is a disturbing time, and you don't have to be of any political persuasion to be disturbed or troubled by it. I think we're in a time of deliberate cruelty and deliberate lying, and , frankly, i think it's the very bottom of humanity."
The fact that some viewers and critics have interpreted the Lord of the Rings movies as a triumphant metaphor in terms of U.S. conflict with Iraq upsets him. "i mean, movies are entertainment. This is a story. It bothered me how much some people misapplied the story to the invasion on occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. It's like the way Hitler misapplied Norse mythology and literature to validate the Third Reich."
The sand has gotten chilly and damp and is no longer plesant to walk in, so we scramble back up the rocks to the chain seafood restaurant next to the parking lot. Mortensen walks through the restaurant barefoot. I order a margarita. He orders a whiskey and a beer.
the writer sees a notepad on the table and his celebrity antennae pop up like Ray Walston's extraterrestrial ones in My Favorite Martian.
"So just who is interviewing who?" the waiter asks.
This is a formality. he's pretty sure that this is the guy from The Lord of the Rings. I start to reply, but Mortensen holds up his hand. "She has just set the world record for the longest distance windsurfed by a human being," he says, tilting his head in my direction.
"No!" the waiter gasps.
"She windsurfed from Hawaii to the mainland," he continues. "Sure, there was a boat that followed her, and she slept at night, but still. That's what, how many miles?" He looks at me.
"Um, thorty-seven hundred?" I say. I have no idea.
"And not even a man has done that yet," Mortensen tells the waiter. "isn't that cool?"
The waiter asks me to sign a menu.
A few whiskeys, a couple of beers, four margaritas, and two tequila shots later (the last, courtesy of the waitstaff, to congratulate me on my incredible athletic achievement), we're sitting in front of the pounding ocean in my rented LeSabre listening to Mortensen's new CD, an activity that serves two purposes: I get to hear his latest songs (his car doesn't have a CD player), and we both get to sober up before the drive home.
The music is dark, spooky stuff. Most of it comes from the jam session with Buckethead. We smoke American Spirit cigarettes as Mortensen, on the CD, recites over ominous guitar tracks a poem in Danish about a warrior who must leave home to avenge his country. We get into a long boozy discussion about why he does so much stuff, why he is so bursting with creative energy that he can't just be an actor.
"People who are creators create," he says. "People say to me all the time 'Why don't you just focus on one thing?' Why can't I do more? Who makes up these rules?"
Dennis Hopper, a good friend, gets mad about the same thing. "Why does everybody have such a preconceived idea that an actor can only be an actor?," Hopper asks me on the telephnoe a few days later. "i am just a farm boy from Kansas, but I always thought poetry and art and acting were...not exclusive to one another. Creating is creating. And when you're an actor you have time to do other things besides sit and wait for your next job." If Mortensen were locked in a box in a prison in total darkness, with no pens, no tools, no books," Hopper says, "he would make something amazing out of it."
"There's one qoute from Rilke," Hopper continues. "He says to the guy-this is Letters to a Young Poet; are you familiar with that book?-he says to the guy something like: You must ask youself in the stillest moment of your night, If it were denied you
Viggo Mortensen looks to a future of indie art -- ''The History of Violence'' star talks about carrying around a fish, his looks, and living a quiet life in L.A. by Missy Schwartz
During production on David Cronenberg's thriller A History of Violence last fall, Viggo Mortensen carried around a fish a 12-inch, anatomically correct plastic trout. It was a peripheral prop, a toy brought in for his character's young daughter, but Mortensen decided to adopt it as a secret talisman of sorts. Every day, he tucked it into his back pocket, his cowboy boots, his bag, anywhere that was out of Cronenberg's sight. ''It was like a compulsive thing after a while,'' the actor explains. ''I felt like it was unlucky not to have the trout, so I would sneak it in. It became this game to see if I could keep getting away with it.'' He did until the last day of shooting, when his finnish friend fell out...on camera. Says Mortensen, with just a touch of mischievous pride: ''David saw it and was appalled.''
Welcome to the quietly eccentric world of Viggo Mortensen, a man who quotes British philosophers and Adam Sandler in the same breath; who publishes his own poetry, artwork, and music; and who, after starring in one of the biggest epics of all time, is still more comfortable walking barefoot in the dirt than strutting down a red carpet. His turn as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy made him an international star, but he has resisted trying to parlay that popularity into a matinee-idol career. ''I've never really had a certain set of goals,'' the 46-year-old Mortensen says between bites of fish-and-chips at a low-key Irish pub in L.A. ''I think it's the same as [wanting to be] happy or in a relationship. It's just something you have to find by being open and not planning. So you read scripts, and every once in a while, something comes your way.''
A twisty drama infused with the kind of dark humor we've come to expect from the director of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, Violence seems tailor-made for Mortensen's sensibility. ''If David hadn't been directing it, I don't know if I would have wanted to do it,'' says the actor, who stars as Tom Stall, a husband and father whose small-town life is upended by revenge-seeking mobsters. ''I don't know if another director would have explored the violence of everyday coexistence.'' When the movie premiered at the Cannes film festival last May, it got a passionate standing ovation, with audiences heaping praise on Mortensen. Though not the highest-profile project he has taken on post-LOTR (that would be 2004's big-budget horse-racing underwhelmer Hidalgo), it is arguably the most mature of his career. ''It's ironic that Lord of the Rings is what made him a star, because it's not his most complex role,'' says Cronenberg. In casting the lead, the director needed someone who could bring both a commanding force and familial gentleness to Tom Stall, and as far as he was concerned, Mortensen was it period. ''Viggo has the charisma of a leading man, and the eccentricity and naturalistic presence of a character actor,'' Cronenberg says. ''He's the kind of actor I love.''
Mortensen speaks slowly and softly. When he answers a question, he takes his time, peppering his replies with lots of thoughtful I supposes and mmms. Humble and unassuming, the man whom Rings pals nicknamed ''no-ego Viggo'' does not much care for being the center of attention. ''He's not full of his own s---,'' notes Violence costar Ed Harris. ''Which is so refreshing. He doesn't let the pressure of people wanting to pump him up into something get to him. He works hard, and is just a really good man.'' At lunch, Mortensen is constantly steering the conversation away from himself, onto any number of topics, including Canadian ice hockey (he's a fan), the Bush administration (not a fan), and the sophisticated sense of humor of Maria Bello, who plays his wife (major fan). His rugged handsomeness high cheekbones, icy blue eyes, strong chin is the No. 1 topic of many a fawning website, but he is, as Cronenberg puts it, ''blissfully unaware of how attractive he is.'' When asked for his opinion on the matter of his physical appearance, Mortensen just seems puzzled. ''Um...,'' he begins. ''I don't think it's the main thing that people mention or think about when they're talking about me.''
The eldest son of an American mother and a Danish father (Viggo senior), Mortensen was born in Manhattan in 1958. He spent years 2 through 11 in Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark; following his parents' divorce when he was 11, he moved to northern New York with his mother and two younger brothers. His itinerant childhood gave him the gift of multilingualism (he speaks English, Spanish, and Danish ''all about the same'' and can ''get along okay'' in another five languages) and ignited in him an intellectual thirst, a desire to gulp down as much as he can while on earth. ''It made me more curious...about the world, and interested in different ways of looking at the exact same situation,'' he explains. ''All of which are helpful to an actor.'' He tries, for instance, never to watch the same film twice. ''You can spend your whole life looking at movies made outside the United States [alone] and never see them all,'' he marvels. There is at least one exception to this rule, however: Adam Sandler's 1996 comedy Happy Gilmore, which he will watch any day, any time. The very mention of it makes him launch into his own Sandler imitation, which isn't half bad. ''It's just one of those charmed movies,'' he says.
As a child, Mortensen was constantly dabbling in some form of artistic expression. ''I always drew, like most kids do,'' he recalls. ''As a teenager I started taking photographs and writing little stories and poems.'' A shy boy who ''would have been terrified'' to join the drama club, he did not even consider acting until after graduating from St. Lawrence University in 1980 with a degree in Spanish literature and government. When the idea did occur to him, it was more out of curiosity than ambition. ''It was something I wanted to try,'' he says, citing Meryl Streep's performance in The Deer Hunter as an inspiration. ''Just from seeing movies and wondering how people did it, how they made something seem so believable what's the trick?''
In the early '80s, he took drama classes in New York and was soon living the life of an aspiring actor, enduring the ''usual rejections and frustrations.'' His very first roles in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift ended up on the cutting-room floor. But he kept on, scoring a small part as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's 1985 drama Witness. Mortensen has only a few minutes of screentime watch his fresh, 25-year-old face size up Harrison Ford at the picnic table but it set off something inside that persuaded him to keep going. ''The same day I was offered Witness, I was offered a Shakespeare in the Park production I think it was Henry V,'' he recalls. ''I made a choice to try something I didn't know much about, which ended up being the right thing, because it was a good story and I got to work with Peter Weir.'' But, he concedes, ''I was probably spoiled by having that as an initial experience.''
It's true, his rιsumι from the subsequent years reads like a Sunday-afternoon cable-TV guide. In 1987, he appeared in the televangelist satire Salvation!, where he met his future wife, punk chanteuse Exene Cervenka of X, with whom he had a son, Henry, in 1988. (The couple later divorced.) More stinkers followed (Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Young Guns II) until 1991, when Sean Penn cast Mortensen as a volatile Vietnam vet in his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. ''He was dazzlingly committed all the time. He literally brings the kitchen sink for a character,'' says Penn, who delighted in seeing Mortensen arrive on set each day with a ''Santa Claus sack'' full of various props he'd chosen. ''He's an often solitary, very poetic creature, Viggo, and all of that worked [for the movie].'' Mortensen's critically hailed performance led to more memorable collaborations with directors like Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way), Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady), and Ridley Scott (G.I. Jane). Then, in the late '90s, he smoldered opposite Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder) and Diane Lane (A Walk on the Moon). Still, he hardly had job security. ''I'd be the first to say that out of close to 40 movies, most of them you wouldn't consider anywhere near really good,'' he admits. ''But that being said, I don't think my career is that unusual. Very few actors can string together an incredible list of [hits]. I've been lucky to make a living for quite a while at it.''
Mortensen has no regrets about any of his film choices, opting, as he often does, to focus on the positive. ''I wouldn't put any of 'em down. There's always been something good about each situation,'' he reasons. ''I've had a part in telling interesting stories some not so interesting and I've met a lot of interesting people.'' While grateful that The Lord of the Rings has opened doors for him professionally he is, after all, headlining major movies for the first time in his career he would never trade his years of working comfortably under the radar for a shot at earlier fame. ''If that had happened to me, I don't know how I would have dealt with that,'' he says. ''The weird attention is troubling enough now; 20 years ago, it would have been too much.''
Long after lunch has been cleared away, and the dinner crowd starts trickling in, Mortensen orders a cup of black coffee and talks about how much he's looking forward to settling back into his quiet life in L.A. with Henry. He's just returned from Madrid, where he shot the Spanish-language period drama Alatriste, in which he stars as a 17th-century ''sword for hire.'' He considered doing another film in Spain, Teresa, starring Paz Vega, but with Henry entering his final year of high school, Mortensen ultimately declined. Father and son are very close, sharing what the actor calls a ''pals relationship...I just need to be home with my son,'' he says.
When not hanging out with Henry who has appeared in a number of his father's movies, among them The Two Towers Mortensen will get back into the daily dealings of Perceval Press, the publishing house he founded in 2002 to give a voice to more obscure artists, including himself. He's considering exhibiting some recent abstract photographs in conjunction with an Icelandic landscape painter, and would like to finish his latest collection of poems and photos in time for an end-of-year printing. He's also hoping to record new material with Buckethead, the avant-garde guitarist with whom Mortensen has collaborated on six previous albums. (Henry shows up on these too, playing bass.)
Before Middle-earth mania, few paid much attention to Mortensen's extracurricular activities. Now his books are in multiple printings, and his exhibit openings are packed with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved Aragorn. Which doesn't bother him at all. ''It doesn't matter why people come,'' he says. ''I know some people could look at it and say, 'Well, they're not taking me seriously.' But they're there, and are either going to like it or not, so what's the difference?'' So he's not pounding his fist, demanding his true-artist's respect? ''There's a quote that I like from the philosopher Bertrand Russell,'' he says, narrowing his eyes pensively. '''One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.''' He stops, clapping his hands and letting loose a great big guffaw. ''It's perfect!''
~Entertainment Weekly issue 834/835 August 19, 2005
The Hero Returns
His legions of fans swooned during his love scenes in A Walk on the Moon
and clung to his every word in such films as A Perfect Murder
and 28 Days. Now, with Viggo Mortensen's starrin role in Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers, it's time for everyone else to take notice.
Premire Magazine January 2003
Viggo was born On October 20, 1958 in Manhattan
Degrees of Seperation
In The Portrait of a Lady Viggo's character is in love with Nicole Kidman's Isabel who is married to Gilbert Osmond; played by John Malkovich. In 2001 Viggo appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring with Sean Bean of Anna Karenina. In The Two Towers Viggo starred with the lovely Cate Blanchett of Elizabeth, An Ideal Husband (with Jeremy Northam and Julianne Moore), and Charlotte Gray. In 2003's Return of the King Viggo shared the screen with Orlando Bloom of Pirates of the Caribbean (which also featured Geoffery Rush and Johnny Depp) Dominic Monaghan, and Hugo Weaving (who appeared in Proof with Russell Crowe and Bedrooms & Hallways with James Purefoy and Jennifer Ehle).
Last updated: September 12, 2006
Fellowship of the Ring
Return of the King
Portrait of a Lady
Even More Fellowship
Lots More Fellowship
More Fellowship Extras
Even More Towers
Even EVEN More Two Towers
Two Towers Extras
More Return of the King
Return of the King Extras