Viggo Mortensen’s turn as Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” gave him the potential for a couple of cinematic identities, all lucrative: He could be an action hero, or a smart woman’s sex symbol. But in the 13 years since he left Middle-earth, only two of his last five leads were in English. And he has a fondness for turning familiar genres inside out in films like the Athens-set thriller “The Two Faces of January” and the experimental period drama “Jajua.”
“I guess you could call the movies I do off the beaten track,” the 57-year-old — who’s also a painter, photographer, poet, and publisher through his own Perceval Press — says by phone from Spain. He’s working on his poetry before heading to Cannes for the premiere of “Captain Fantastic,” in which he stars. “I’m not willfully ignoring studio movies. I’m just looking for stories I think are worth telling.”
The producers of those smaller films are grateful for his commercial draw. “The Two Faces of January” garnered $4.5 million worldwide, and “Jauja” took in $60,000 in its limited U.S. release. Mortensen should help target the boomer crowd when Bleecker Street opens “Captain Fantastic” theatrically on July 8.
“I’m happy to make one really good movie a year,” Mortensen says. “The process does take a toll. It’s hard just to get a movie made and find attention for it.”
So far, that hasn’t been a concern for “Captain Fantastic,” the only Sundance title selected for the official Cannes lineup this year (in the Un Certain Regard section). Mortensen plays hippie patriarch Ben, whose idyllic life raising his five children in the Pacific Northwest forest comes to a halt with news of his wife’s sudden death. Back in civilization, Ben must confront the shortcomings of his radical parenting.
The second effort from actor-director Matt Ross, “Captain Fantastic” magnifies the good and bad of modern society. “It’s one of those movies that has its finger on the pulse of what’s happening, like American movies in the early ’70s,” says Mortensen.
Ross says Mortensen’s relationship to the material was essential to the role; the actor brought many of his own props to the set and knew the character’s philosophical reference points well. It was a striking contrast to the comedic actors some agents suggested for the part. “They were picking up a tone that wasn’t really there,” Ross says. “There’s something about Viggo — he’s a man’s man, but he’s also physically fit, and believes intellectually in the words coming out of his mouth.”
His linguistic flexibility — Mortensen grew up in South America, speaking English, Spanish, and some Danish — has in-fluenced his global career. “The more things you’re willing to try,” he says, “the more possibilities you have for storytelling.”
Eric Kohn is the chief film critic and a senior editor for IndieWire as well as the manager of the CriticWire network.