If Hollywood had to nominate a Renaissance man, Viggo Mortensen would be at the top of the list. The versatile Danish-American actor is also a poet, a painter, a photographer, a musician, and a fluent speaker of five languages. He’s had his photography featured in expositions around the world, released over a dozen spoken word albums, and authored over a dozen books of poetry, paintings, and photographs. His first poetry collection, published in 1993, is called Ten Last Night. He also started a publishing company in 2002 called Perceval Press to give lesser-known authors and artists a platform for their work.
Mortensen himself was an obscure, yet deeply committed artist long before he became an iconic actor. After graduating from St. Lawrence University with degrees in Spanish and political science, he led the poet’s life, writing in his spare time as he worked a series of odd jobs around Europe – truck driver, flower seller, dock worker. His wish, when he returned to the U.S, was to become a successful author.
Though this particular dream wouldn’t immediately materialize, another one was in store for Mortensen. Back in New York, he began taking acting classes, and it wasn’t long before he landed small parts. (His agents actually encouraged him to change his name to “Vic Morten” – advice he luckily refused.) His first role was as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s crime thriller Witness (1985). Throughout the next decade, he appeared in other crime films, including two Hitchcock remakes: Psycho (1998) and A Perfect Murder (1998). In the latter, the paintings we see inside his character’s loft are in fact Mortensen’s own work.
He also made his mark on the theater scene, at the Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles, as a sadistic Nazi officer in Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama, Bent (1987). The play’s portrayal of homosexual men inside the concentration camps was timely – sharply resonating with the AIDS epidemic and queer bashing that plagued American society during that decade. For this role, which Mortensen played with eerie emotionlessness, he received a Dramalogue Critics’ Award.
It wasn’t until his role as Aragorn, however, that he would achieve worldwide renown and become one of Hollywood’s instantly recognizable faces. After reading the script for Lord of the Rings, he had almost decided not to do it, protesting that it would take too much time away from his son. Ironically, it was his son, a huge fan of the Tolkien series, who urged him not to turn down the role. When he came on board, he replaced the much younger Irish actor, Stuart Townsend, who had already been training on the set for two months. Peter Jackson was infinitely relieved to have Mortensen instead; he lent the character much more gravitas than Townsend had.
The production for Lord of the Rings proved tumultuous, and the accidents that Mortensen suffered on and off set have permanently entered Hollywood’s annals of bizarre and thrilling anecdotes. In one fight sequence that got carried away, Mortensen broke his tooth, insisting that the producers allow him to glue it back in so that he could finish the scene. Another time, while he was surfing with the crew – they did this every day – he got an enormous bruise on his cheek, hence why Jackson only films the left side of Mortensen’s face during the famous Moria (Middle Earth) sequence.
Amidst the mayhem of the production, Mortensen fully embraced his role. He kept a diary of his time in New Zealand, eventually publishing it in the form of a multimedia book, Sign Language, which recounts the filming of Lord of the Rings through a mixture of poetry, painting, and photography.
Mortensen recalls becoming so fused with his character that, one time, when Jackson addressed him as Aragorn for more than half an hour, he didn’t even notice. He also insisted that the director alter the script for all three films to include dialogue of Aragorn speaking in elf-tongue. A practiced equestrian, Mortensen also bonded with the horses off set and bought them both as soon as production wrapped. His riding skills would reemerge in his next film, Hidalgo (2004), for which he performed his own stunts.
His next award-winning performances would come with his collaborations with David Cronenberg – first, in A History of Violence (2005), and then in Eastern Promises (2007). Mortensen claimed that A History of Violence, in which he plays a diner owner with past mob dealings, is one of the best movies he has ever seen, explaining that it epitomizes what the film noir genre is meant to be. He holds great admiration for Cronenberg, saying that it was “comforting to be working with someone you know will make a good movie.” The feeling was mutual. Cronenberg called Mortensen a brilliant actor. He also felt that Mortensen, despite his Danish heritage, had “a Slavic look to him,” hence what brought them back together for his next mafia opus, Eastern Promises.
Mortensen undertook serious preparations for the role of undercover agent, Nikolai Luzhin. He trained with Ukrainian actor-performer and dialect coach, Olegar Fedoro. He spent weeks in Russia before the production started, listened to spoken word tapes, did research on trafficking rings operating in the Ural region, and watched “The Mark of Cain,” a documentary that his friend, Alix Lambert, had made about maximum-security prisons in Russia. Cronenberg was stunned by Mortensen’s ability to immerse himself in the underground world of Eastern Promises. “I wrote the lines,” he said. “But the heart and soul of Nikolai is really from Viggo . . . He brings the intensity and humor and subtlety to Nikolai that he brings to every performance.”
Cronenberg’s assessment certainly bore out in Mortensen’s next major film, The Road (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel), in which he plays a father trying to survive with his son in an apocalyptic wasteland. In his latest film, Captain Fantastic, his ability to capture a complex range of qualities likewise gripped audiences and garnered nominations. One might even say that Mortensen is similar to the character of Ben Cash in his eclectic intellectual scope – the way he delves into a dozen endeavors at once. The difference is that the real Mortensen does it not with zealousness, but with humility.