Viggo Mortensen on His First Movie Role and Why It Didn’t Bring Him Instant Success

Actor Viggo Mortensen

“I’ve always stuck to a similar approach with each job. Show up on time and prepared, and pay attention.” – Viggo Mortensen

Actors, take note: What seems like the obvious choice may not be the best choice for your career. Viggo Mortensen could tell you that. He was going to pass on a one-day shoot in a Peter Weir movie titled Witness in order to do Shakespeare in the Park. However, as he tells Vulture, that one-day shoot turned out to be something far greater and had a much bigger impact on his career.

Mortensen explains:

The part as actually written to be just a day’s work: It was the funeral scene at the beginning of the movie where there are some Amish men and boys walking through a cornfield, down to the farm where Kelly McGillis’s character’ family lives. It was a funeral for her husband. I think I had one word in German and that was it. It’s funny, the same day that I was offered the Witness job in Pennsylvania — I was living in New York at the time — I was also offered a part in a production of Shakespeare in the Park for that summer. That was the thing to do obviously, I thought, but my rep, Bill Treusch, said, “Not so fast. It’s not often that you have someone like Peter Weir coming through town and casting a movie. You can do a play anytime. Trust me, just go down and do this thing.”

So I took the train down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, did the day’s work and at lunch Peter Weir came over to the table where I was sitting with some of the other actors and asked, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I felt like maybe I said the thing in German wrong! He looked very serious. He says, “What are you doing the next six weeks?” I said, “I don’t know, nothing?” He said, “I was looking at [co-star] Alexander Godunov and I think I will make you be his brother if you are willing to hang around. Wherever he is, especially when he’s interacting with Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford, you are sort of the audience’s eyes watching and seeing their relationship develop, and your brother get jealous. I can’t tell you what you will be doing, but we will figure it out as we go along.” I worked once or twice a week at most, mostly just background. That movie gave me the absolute wrong idea of what filmmaking is like because the director was polite and there was no yelling, and everything ran smoothly and professionally.. [Laughs.] Work always finished on time or a little before. It was like, “Wow, what a great business!” Then it took me another 20 years to have another experience like that.

Of course, though it was a major supporting role in a studio film, it didn’t bring Mortensen instant Hollywood success. He continues:

The movie came out in 1985, but it took me a long time to get going after that. I eventually moved out to California in 1986, and in 1989 or so and I got a role in Young Guns II. I was getting jobs here and there. I worked a little in TV, small parts in movies. I did a lead in a horror movie set in a prison in Wyoming. Somebody had seen me in a play here in Los Angeles in 1987, Martin Sherman’s Bent, then Sean Penn cast me in his 1991 film The Indian Runner and that helped to some degree, but not immediately. Then [Captain Fantastic casting director] Jeanne McCarthy was involved in Crimson Tide, the Tony Scott movie with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, and cast me in that. It was all bit by bit, slow but steady progress.

Still, Mortensen struggled getting the roles he wanted — which were to play villains. He recalls:

Bad guys were the ones I wanted; they seem more fun and more of a challenge. But because of the way I looked, and what they had seen me do in Witness and other projects, it wasn’t going to happen. Every part I was offered was sort of “a nice young man.” But you still learn a lot, just in the doing, with any role. Making Crimson Tide, for example, watching Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman spar was great, and seeing how Tony Scott worked with those actors. All those experiences added up and helped give me a shorthand on how to be useful to a story and a director. I’ve always stuck to a similar approach with each job. Show up on time and prepared, and pay attention.

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