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“It’s very unusual, first of all, to find an original story, a screenplay, as well written as Captain Fantastic,” says that film’s lead actor Viggo Mortensen as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “It’s even more unusual for the movie to be as good as that script. And it’s even more unusual for that movie to be supported and be around and have such good word-of-mouth and for that to mean something months and months later. It’s very unusual. I’ve been around long enough to see that that doesn’t usually happen, so I’m very happy about that.”
Mortensen, 58, who is best known for playing Aragorn in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), does some of the best work of his 32-year film career in Matt Ross‘ 2016 dramedy, which premiered last year at Sundance and brought Ross the best director prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. In the film, he plays a former college professor raising his six kids off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, and for it he was nominated for the best actor (drama) Golden Globe Award and is nominated for the best actor SAG, BAFTA and Spirit awards. Additionally, the entire principal cast of Captain Fantastic is nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award. “That’s the one that made me the happiest,” he says. “When I heard that, I was jumping — and they were, too!”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, Sting, Natalie Portman, RuPaul, Sheila Nevins, Justin Timberlake, Nicole Kidman and Denzel Washington.)
Born in the U.S., but raised in South America before returning stateside at the age of 11, Mortensen had no interest in acting until after graduating from New York’s St. Lawrence University. At that point, be began consuming great movies from around the world, which motivated him to begin taking acting classes himself. One acting teacher, Warren Robertson, recommended him to an agent, after which he moved out to Los Angeles and began working in theater, TV and then, with a small part in Peter Weir‘s Witness (1985), film.
Early in his career, Mortensen struggled to gain traction. Many parts that he thought were his — in high-profile films like Jonathan Demme‘s Swing Shift (1984), Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Oliver Stone‘s Salvador and Platoon (both 1986) — instead wound up on the cutting-room floor or in the hands of other actors. “I had some close calls,” he says. For 16 years, Mortensen worked largely under-the-radar in films such as Sean Penn‘s The Indian Runner (1991), Brian De Palma‘s Carlito’s Way (1993), Tony Scott‘s Crimson Tide (1995), Jane Campion‘s The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Ridley Scott‘s G.I. Jane (1996) and Tony Goldwyn‘s A Walk on the Moon (1999). “I was learning,” he notes. “Little by little, I was getting jobs, and somewhat bigger parts, and more responsibility, and making my way slowly.”
Then, at the end of 1999, he got a call from Peter Jackson. The filmmaker wanted him to become a late replacement for another actor who was to play Aragorn in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Mortensen — who hadn’t read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s book, had limited experience acting in front of a green screen and wasn’t as prepared as the other actors already on the set in New Zealand — demurred. “I didn’t want to do it,” he recalls — but his young son urged him to, so, the next day, off he went. The three films were shot more or less simultaneously. “Even though Peter Jackson had a lot or most of it in his head — he’s a remarkable person with a remarkable brain — it was very chaotic, and it became more and more chaotic,” he says. “People look back now like it was a sure-thing; I don’t think anybody knew it was gonna be the huge success it became.” Each of the three installments was nominated for many Oscars; the third, The Return of the King, won for best picture.
Mortensen feels that the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s popularity may have had something to do with timing: America was becoming embroiled in the Iraq War, which was presented as a battle of good vs. evil, at the same time that the films were offering their own version of such a struggle. He chose to follow it — when his commercial value was at its greatest — with another big-studio movie, Hidalgo (2004), which proved far more divisive. By the time that film hit theaters, the Iraq War had descended into chaos and, he volunteers, “It wasn’t like the most popular thing to go see a cowboy in a horse race against a bunch of Arab horsemen.”
Over the years since, Mortensen hasn’t made another studio film — not deliberately, he insists, but just because that’s the way things have worked out. Instead, he’s garnered great acclaim for three very different films that he made with horror auteur David Cronenberg — 2005’s A History of Violence; 2007’s Eastern Promises, for which he received a best actor Oscar nomination; and 2011’s A Dangerous Method — as well as his performance in John Hillcoat‘s under-seen 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s best-selling dystopian novel The Road.
Along the way, he also turned down an invitation to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I just felt funny about judging art, I guess, in terms of voting,” he explains. “But I have been thinking about it since, to be honest with you, since you brought the subject up … I’ve also been asked to be on juries for festivals and things — also for photography and things — [but turned them down too] because I didn’t want to judge art. … But I’ve changed my mind since then. It’s all a crap-shoot. … If I had another chance, I would probably say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.'” This year, he acknowledges with a laugh, Captain Fantastic, the little indie that could (and did), needs every vote it can get.
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