So many of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars seem like overgrown kids that the studios often turn to Brits and Aussies for their manly men. Viggo Mortensen, however, is that rare American actor who is both muscular and humane, tough and sensitive, fighter and lover. He seduces us with a threat of danger, his chiseled Nordic physique and stunning blue eyes. Never over the top, for Mortensen, less is more. His performances are slow reveals of hidden information and emotion.
Having landed one Oscar nomination for playing a Russian hitman in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, this fall Mortensen takes on another degree of difficulty with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road, in which he fights to survive with his young son in a grim post-apocalyptic landscape. Another Oscar nomination seems likely, if only because Mortensen feels overdue. (The NYT features him here.) At this year's Telluride Film Festival tribute to Mortensen, the range and quality of his work since the mid-80s was striking.
Here's my flip cam interview (in two parts) with Mortensen from Telluride:
In his peripatetic youth, the poet/artist/musician moved around the globe, from Argentina and Venezuela to his father’s native Denmark to his mother’s base in New York State. He started out in Manhattan theater and in 1985 landed a juicy supporting role as a young Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s Witness. It makes sense that actor-turned-director Sean Penn would lean on Mortensen’s athletic sensitivity as a damaged Vietnam vet trying to control his emotions in The Indian Runner.
Mortensen broke through in Hollywood as a seething Navy lieutenant caught in an epic battle between rival officers Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s 1995 submarine epic Crimson Tide. He shines in other military roles such as the Master Chief in Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane, who whips recruit Demi Moore into shape—with compassion.
The actor choses his films carefully, putting craft above stardom. His son talked him into playing the iconic noble warrior Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings saga, which increased Mortensen's options as a globally bankable star. The actor used his new clout to play an American cowboy racing his steed across the Arabian desert in the period western Hidalgo, and to deliver fluent Spanish dialogue as a swashbuckling 17th century swordsman in Alatriste.
A character actor with range who fits into any time frame, Mortensen is equally convincing as a 60s hippie sexily romancing Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon, a gunslinger trading quips with Ed Harris in the western bromance Appaloosa, in a drawing room as well-spoken Casper Goodwood in Jane Campion’s adaptation of A Portrait of a Lady or a careerist struggling to find his place in Nazi Germany in Good.
Mortensen followed up the Lord of the Rings trilogy with two layered performances for David Cronenberg that explored man’s propensity for gentleness and violence. The actor wowed critics in 2005 as a happy family man trying to bury his former identity in A History of Violence, and earned his first Oscar nomination playing a hardened Russian Mafioso in 2007's Eastern Promises. Critic Roger Ebert was not alone in his praise for Mortensen’s infamous nude fight in a steam room.
Mortensen keeps himself steady with other outlets of expression: poetry, publishing, photography among them. But he has indicated that he is tired. With his nakedly vulnerable performance in The Road, it feels like Mortensen may be coming into his own.