Viggo Mortensen’s choice of roles demonstrates his broad range, eclectic point of view, and love of complex characters. In David Cronenberg films alone, he has played a hardened Russian gangster in London (2007’s “Eastern Promises”), Sigmund Freud (2011’s “A Dangerous Method”), and a quiet family man thrust into an unusual situation (2005’s “A History of Violence”). But perhaps Mortensen’s most famous role is that of the reluctant king, Aragorn, in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Now, he’s getting the best reviews of his career in “Captain Fantastic,” as a father raising six children off the grid who realizes that holding on too tightly to principles doesn’t always work.
Mortensen got his first mention — his name is misspelled in the credits! — in Variety on April 6, 1984, in a review of the CBS miniseries “George Washington.”
You arrived at acting later than most, as an adult.
I was 22, 23, 24, living in New York, taking acting classes. It was just something I wanted to try. “George Washington” was one of the first things I auditioned for. I only had a couple of lines. I was a French officer. I had to be on a horse the next morning to shoot my scenes.
How did that feel, landing a role in a big network show?
I think at the time I liked the idea. I figured I’d do it until I was 30 and then get a grown-up job.
Most actors would be intimidated by the horse.
I grew up riding horses, so that was OK. Most actors lie about what they can do anyway: Can you skydive? Sure. Can you rock climb? Sure!
What was it like, being on a big shoot for the first time?
I went from the train station to the park in Philadelphia where they were shooting. All the trailers were there. I went into makeup, and they kicked me out. They said Viggo had been here and tried on the wig and left. I went to wardrobe, and they said Viggo’s been here and got the costume. I said, “I’m Viggo!” There was an imposter. They found the other guy and got their stuff back.
So I went back to the hotel. Pressed the button, and the door opened, and there was this guy with a crazy grin who said, “Hi….” I let the door shut and went to the front desk and said there’s a man — he’s stalking me. I had one more day on the set. The next morning I had to get up early. It’s like 4 or 5 in the morning, and in red lipstick on the door of my room was scrawled, “I know where you are.” That crazy man! That was scary. I’ve never seen that man again. I didn’t know him. I wondered, “Why me?”
What was your takeaway from your first acting job?
Happy to be paid for a job, happy to have that experience. You’re on a set, and people are expecting you to hit your mark. You never get rid of the nerves, and you learn to make friends with the nerves. I like the collective aspect of it, the story-telling. You bring the best out of them, and they bring it out of you. Sometimes the business gets frustrating. But I am still seduced by the idea that if we all do everything right, lightning will strike. “Captain Fantastic” restores my faith in the business.
Why is that?
It’s still in theaters in New York. We have a really good distributor, but they don’t have a lot of money to force people to see the movie. Our movie is the opposite; people have seen it and recommended it to their friends. People have decided to see it.
You wear your own Jesse Jackson 1988 T-shirt in “Captain Fantastic.”
I actively campaigned for him. … I thought he was a really great voice at the time.