Viggo Mortensen has been acting since the 1980s—you may remember his early roles in high-profile films like Witness, Carlito’s Way, Crimson Tide, and The Portrait of a Lady—but his life changed forever when he landed the part of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). As one of the franchise’s main protagonists, fans everywhere fell in love with Mortensen—his rugged sex appeal and on-screen intensity proved irresistible to women.
Now 57 years old with a new film, Captain Fantastic premiering at Sundance, Mortensen is opening up about his life post-Lord of the Rings. During The Hollywood Reporter’s Indie Actors panel in Park City, Utah, on Saturday, Mortensen said the epic role afforded him the luxury of telling stories he’s passionate about, even if it means working for free at times.
“After Lord of the Rings, I just kept trying to find really interesting stories,” the actor said. “Everybody had an opportunity to do more things. Suddenly if I read a story, no matter how strange it was, by virtue of me saying ‘Yeah, I’ll play a role in that,’ then it got financed, and that’s great.”
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Mortensen added, “When you start to make some money, you have the luxury of being able to wait or try to find something, or even do something, where you’re not paid anything, which I’ve done several times. I didn’t change my point of view; I just tried to find good stories without thinking about the budget or the nationality or anything.” And Mortensen chose his projects well, making films like The History of Violence, Eastern Promises (which earned him an Oscar nomination), and The Road after the trilogy ended.
In Captain Fantastic, Mortensen tackles the role of a father raising his children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, forced to reenter mainstream society and rethink his parenting. In real life, he is dad to son Henry. He’s also taken to producing movies in recent years, and is “an amazing artist,” according to fellow panel member, actress Diane Ladd. “We did 28 Days together and he gave me a book of his artistic work. I have it right on my coffee table and it’s brilliant.”
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A lover of independent film, Mortensen said one of his main concerns now is making sure movies are seen in theaters before home video—a somewhat controversial statement in this time of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon deals. “I think no movie reaches its full potential, no matter how good or bad the movie is, until it is seen on a screen in a movie house by people who have bought tickets of their own freewill,” he said, calling himself “old-fashioned” but sticking to his convictions. “As long as I stay in the business, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to send movies into movie theaters. That’s why I got into it.”
Mortensen credited his mom for his love of the theater, which ultimately led him to pursue acting. “My mom took me to movies all the time when I was little, even movies that were much too grownup for me,” he said. “I loved seeing movies and seeing it through her eyes and talking about it afterwards.”