“The McDonald’s french fry is unbelievable. When you bite into it, you think: It’s so tasty, it can’t be real. As soon as it gets cold, it turns to lard and flubble. I mean, have you ever tried to eat a McDonald’s french fry that’s gone cold? That’s one of the circles of hell. The gulf between the warm, fresh, lightly salted McDonald’s french fry and the cold McDonald’s french fry is as great a gulf as any I know.”
If you leave this article with anything, I want you to leave with that quote in your head. Sure, Kanye wrote a pretty good poem about the french fry, but this is Aragorn Ellessar Telcontar, High King of Gondor and Arnor, weighing in what he considers to be the greatest gulf he can think of – and this is a man who crossed Khazak Dum.
Sword-wielding heroics and fast-food-philosophising are just two of Viggo Mortensen’s many skills. It’s common knowledge that he is an accomplished horse rider, and did many of his own stunts for Lord of the Rings. Many may not know that he is a published author and poet, an accomplished painter and photographer, and previously earned his living as a truck driver and a translator at the US Olympics in 1980. He also has his own line of custom-designed knives released under his name, as well as several jazz albums.
Frankly, he should take a leaf out of his most famous character’s book, and start listing titles after his name – or at least one. Viggo Mortensen: Renaissance Man.
As a side gig to all of these hobbies, he’s also taken some time out to appear in some truly fantastic films. Mortensen consistently delivers nuanced, engaging performances, and he is not just bound to one character type, or even one genre. From fantasy to crime thriller to comedy drama, he is always mesmerising, whether he is vanquishing orcs in LotR, working as a Russian mafia ‘cleaner’ in Eastern Promises, or raising a family in the woods in the upcoming Captain Fantastic.
While Mortensen is best known for his role as Aragorn in the three Lord of the Rings movies, his loose trilogy of David Cronenberg films might be the best display of his talents and range. While there are no direct links between A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method, all draw heavily from the twin wells of Cronenberg’s moody stylishness, and Mortensen’s captivating stillness.
This stillness is Mortensen’s greatest asset. He clearly chooses projects carefully, and his best roles are those which rely on his measured nature. His most memorable characters are often reserved to the point of seeming detached and haunted. Behind those expressive green eyes, something is always hiding – or someone.
Mortensen is clearly interested in duality, as it crops up in so many of his characters. It’s clearly a passion of David Cronenberg as well, and this may be why they have worked together on numerous occasions, until the latter’s recent retirement. In Eastern Promises, Mortensen’s icy mafia enforcer resembles more a caged lion than a Russian hitman – beneath a cold and calm exterior lies a viciousness and cruelty than is just waiting to explode (which of course it does). Similarly, while it would be too much of a spoiler to discuss this outright, A History of Violence is about what can be hidden beneath the surface. As diner owner Tom Stall, Mortensen’s stillness perfectly enhances the surreal, noirish feel of the movie, and makes the sudden bursts of violence that much more visceral when they occur.
Of course, Mortensen’s best characters are not only found in Cronenberg movies. Mortensen was an ideal choice for the haunted father in apocalyptic horror The Road, and received acclaim for his portrayal of a grief-stricken father struggling on in the face of overwhelming darkness. His trademark knack for plumbing hidden depths within characters even crops up in Lord of the Rings, as Mortensen stands out among a strong ensemble cast, even going toe-to-toe with film legends like Sir Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving.
One of the best bits of The Fellowship of the Ring is the relationship between Boromir and Aragorn (and this is as much a testament to the great Sean Bean as it is to Mortensen). Boromir is everything Aragorn is supposed to be, and everything Aragorn fears. In just one short scene, as Sean Bean’s jittery and brash son of Gondor fumbles with a token of their shared ancestry, Mortensen quickly conveys how Aragorn is pulled between his past and his future, his destiny and his desires.
It’s a cliché, but Viggo Mortensen can say more with a glance than many actors can with pages of script – although of course he often speaks with his fists instead. Most of his films feature some form of kinetic brutality that takes full advantage of his enthusiasm for martial arts. His scene in the steam room in Eastern Promises (yes, the nude one) was described by Roger Ebert as a benchmark for fight sequences, and is just one of the reasons he received nods from both the Oscars and the BAFTAs for his performance.
Despite appearing in three of the biggest movies of all time, and seeing costars go on to big success in Hollywood – such as Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method) and Oscar Isaac (The Two Faces of January) – Mortensen has largely eschewed big-budget filmmaking and focused on the independent scene, consistently delivering great performances while shying away from the spotlight. Unfortunately, he’s been unable to avoid it for Captain Fantastic, which made a big splash at Cannes earlier in the year, and is already getting Mortensen a lot of attention for excelling in yet another new kind of role.
While Viggo Mortensen doesn’t have another project lined up yet, you can bet that it will be unmissable. And until then? You probably haven’t marathoned the LotR Extended Editions in a while – maybe it’s time to jump back into Middle Earth.