His “First” Movie
Viggo Mortensen’s “film debut” is trickier to define than you’d think.
A quick glance on IMDb will tell you that his first film is Witness (1985) as Moses Hochleitner, an Amish farmer. However, Mortensen had filmed scenes for another movie the same year, the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Those scenes were left on the cutting room floor though, so he doesn’t appear in any version of that film (this will NOT be the last story about poor Viggo being cut out of a movie…).
Another hallmark of Viggo Mortensen’s career are the many real injuries (and, in two cases we’ll cover, near-death experiences) he’s accrued on film sets. This is because of Mortensen’s insistence on performing his own stunts, which has led to some great (and terrible) moments in his career.
The first one happened in a movie you might not even remember that he was in. Viggo Mortensen was in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) as Tex. Actor Ken Foree and Mortensen share a fight scene, and Foree accidentally broke Mortensen’s ribs. And in an occurrence that will happen AGAIN in Mortensen’s career, the shot where he received the injury is in the final film.
As I said earlier, poor Viggo has a way of ending up on the cutting room floor, but in this particular case he was in good company.
Viggo filmed scenes for the Terrence Malick war epic The Thin Red Line (1998), but they were cut. He’s far from the only actor who filmed scenes for The Thin Red Line that didn’t end up in the final cut though. The full list of actors cut from the film completely includes Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Luke Haas, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, and Mickey Rourke.
A Real Painter
Mortensen’s artistic side beyond acting is pretty bizarre (more on that later), but it’s come in handy for a couple of his roles.
Mortensen is an avid painter, to the point that his work has been featured in galleries internationally, but you may have seen his work in the movie A Perfect Murder. He might be playing a painter in that film, but most of the paintings the character works on throughout the film are original pieces Mortensen made for the film.
Something that’s occasionally lost in the shuffle of the filming of Lord of the Rings is that Viggo Mortensen was NOT the first choice to play Aragorn. In fact, actor Stuart Townsend was originally cast but was let go from the production after everyone realized that Townsend looked far too young to be playing Aragorn (Mortensen is 14 years older than Townsend).
But Mortensen didn’t have much of an interest in the movie at all. He was much more interested in spending time with his family, specifically his son. He off-handedly mentioned to his son that he’d been offered the part of Aragorn, Mortensen not being very familiar with Lord of the Rings.
It turns out that Mortensen’s son was a huge Lord of the Rings nerd and basically lost his [email protected]#t when he heard his father had a chance to play Aragorn. In an extreme case of irony, the family Mortensen intended to spend time with were the ones who encouraged him to take the role that would change his career forever.
Near-Death Experience #1
Any time you read stories about Viggo playing Aragorn, it really seems like Viggo was kind of insane while he filmed it. He would only wield prop swords made of steel, he would do damn near all of his own stunts, and sometimes wouldn’t get out of his costume between takes, which once resulted in New Zealand cops being summoned to a bar after a patron was terrified of what appeared to be a man in medieval clothes with a broadsword sipping a pint like everything was normal in the afternoon.
Mortensen got pretty good at wielding that sword, and it saved his life. In the above stunt where Aragorn deflects a blade, it was based on a timing signal that would go off so that Mortensen could deflect what was a real piece of flying metal (though it wasn’t sharp).
But during a take, the signal didn’t go off and the blade was off trajectory, sailing at Mortensen’s head. He deflected the “blade” for real, and while the blade flying at his head wasn’t sharp, the collision would have definitely required a medical team if it had occurred.
Near-Death Experience #2
Mortensen’s other brush with death on Lord of the Rings was much more serious.
For a scene in The Two Towers, Aragorn’s unconscious body floats down a river before washing ashore. They filmed in an actual river, and a tide sucked Mortensen below the water. He was trapped underwater for long enough that a rescue team sprang into action to try and find him. By a stroke of luck, he managed to find a hard rock on the bottom of the river and spring back up to the surface for the rescue team to snag him.
(Also, we’re not going to spend a whole section on the “Aragorn breaks his toe in that one shot in The Two Towers.” You know the story, I know the story. Let’s move on.)
A Man of Many MANY Words
To go through the incredibly complex upbringing of Mortensen’s childhood is something we’re not doing, but what you need to know is that Mortensen speaks more than a few languages due to moving around the world.
Mortensen fluently speaks English, Spanish, Danish, and French. Additionally, he’s proficient in Catalan, Swedish, Italian and Norwegian. Even more impressive is that Mortensen is an avid writer of poetry, AND writes his poems in English, Danish, and Spanish. He’s even claimed in some interviews that Spanish is a more comfortable language for him to “express himself.”
Speaking of Eastern Promises, there’s a “prop” that Nikolai has on him, known as worry beads. In the world of Russian prisons, they’re made out of melted-down plastic lighters, and somehow Mortensen got his hands on the real thing. The worry beads in the film are exactly that.
On top of that, Mortensen actually spent five days in the Ural Mountain region of Siberia, learned his lines in English, Russian, and Ukrainian simultaneously (he wasn’t required or asked to do that), and read as many books as he could on Russian prisons and gangs. All for one movie, and he hasn’t played a Russian gangster since.
A Bit Too Method
If it isn’t already obvious, Mortensen’s dedication of “method” acting is extreme as [email protected]#k, and happens for almost every movie he’s in. Another example of his method was for the bleak post-apocalyptic film The Road. To appear as if he’d been surviving in a post-apocalypse, Mortensen would sleep in his clothes and starved himself to the point of losing 30 pounds.
This probably explains why he was thrown out of a store in Pittsburgh, who assumed he was a homeless man.
Among Mortensen’s many interests is hockey, with stories saying that he wore a Montreal Canadiens T-shirt under his armor in Lord of the Rings throughout filming. In fact, it seems like hockey was important enough to him that he made it his job.
He worked as a translator for a Swedish hockey team during the 1980 Winter Olympics. As a result of his gig, he witnessed firsthand the “miracle” hockey game (US. vs. the Soviet Union).
A True Honor
To close this out, I want to emphasize just how much stunt performers have enjoyed working with Mortensen and consider him an (insane) equal. As early as 1987, Mortensen did most of his stunts for a film called Prison, and the stunt coordinator gave him an “honorary stuntman’s shirt” when shooting was finished. That stunt coordinator was Kane Hodder, the legendary stuntman who played Jason Vorhees in many of the Friday the 13th movies.
But Mortensen’s relationship with the Lord of the Rings stunt team was INTENSE. While Mortensen could hit harder than he needed, the stuntmen was mostly of Maori descent in New Zealand and loved Mortensen so much that on his final day of filming, they performed a haka (a ceremonial dance) in his honor.
There’s so much other weird [email protected]#t to talk about with Mortensen (like the time he kissed Billy Boyd as a practical joke while filming a wedding scene in Lord of the Rings), but we’d be here all day if we went through every single weird thing about him. I’m just glad someone as weird as he is has found so much success in his (multiple) careers.