The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Viggo Mortensen

With his unmistakable whetted jawline and chiseled good looks, Viggo Mortensen appears to be straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Were the American-born actor of Nordic descent old enough back in that glittering era of Tinseltown, Mortensen would no doubt be starring alongside the glam likes of Lauren Bacall or Rita Haworth, making him a rival, perhaps, to a similarly chin-heavy star of the era, Kirk Douglas.

But Mortensen is an actor of the '80s and onwards, having first graced the big screen with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in "Witness." And perhaps it is because he's reminiscent of a bygone era that he's never felt safe or secure in the trappings of Hollywood, these days opting to star in lower budget passion projects than recreate the glory days of "The Lord of the Rings," the role for which he is most famous (Mortensen apparently wasn't the biggest fan of the trilogy, but more on that later). As Mortensen told Vulture, he didn't have success after "Witness," despite his undeniable, albeit fleeting, screen presence. Accordingly, he struggled for years to make ends meet, only really finding fame as he was steadily approaching middle age.

The actor's journey has been blighted by sadness and isolation, as well as devastating personal loss. This is the tragic real-life story of Viggo Mortensen.

The actor's parents had a bitter divorce

From the outset, Viggo Mortensen's life was marked by darkness, especially that of the quintessentially Nordic kind. "As a baby, I crawled out of the crib twice, and they had to look for me," he once told GQ. "Found me with a dog one time in the woods." 

Per Esquire, Mortensen's parents divorced when he was 11 and their relationship soon became acrimonious. Following the break-up, his dad began cavorting with other women, taking in various partners. This roused immense anger in the young Mortensen, as he believed his father was deliberately disrespecting his mom with these dalliances. The lack of a father figure was difficult for him, particularly since Mortensen Sr. hardly visited. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder and so forth, but looking back, he didn't come to see us that often," he reflected to GQ. He also highlighted his father's fixation with hypermasculinity, taking his son hunting and fishing, which, as Mortensen said, were stereotypically heterosexual male pursuits before the sexual revolution.

Despite Mortensen's fractured relationship with his father, he could always count on his mom. He told The Telegraph that it was her who first instilled a love of cinema in him, as she would frequently take him to the movie theater. His close bond with his mom aside, Mortensen grappled with his fatherless life. Following the divorce, his mom moved the family from Argentina to New York, where he struggled to fit in since he only spoke Spanish.

Viggo Mortensen has always been obsessed with death

It is fitting that Viggo Mortensen often plays dark, brooding characters, seeing as he has been plagued by deeply morbid thoughts ever since he was a young child. "I think about death all the time. I mean, when I was a little kid, some of my first memories are waking up and going, 'Ugh, I'm gonna die,'" he told Esquire. However, he conceded that the inevitability of death makes him angry as opposed to depressed.

Ultimately, he said, it was important for him to cherish every moment. Therefore, he took it upon himself to record major life events as a means of preserving his memories. "I still think about death when I wake up. It's the first thing that enters my mind," he confessed. "But I think that's what makes me want to try things, you know?" Speaking with The New York Times, he suggested that it was this preoccupation with the dark side of life that led to his fascination with cinema. As he mused, movies offer a break from a bleak world. "Movies are light and time. Before the movie begins, there is darkness and nothing is happening," he reflected.

In an earlier Vanity Fair interview, he discussed his morbid sensibilities, suggesting that his loneliness as a child, and consequent isolation, cloud his world view. Since he didn't have friends as a young child, he was left entirely with his own, often dark thoughts and macabre imagination.

Being a celebrity isn't his thing

Viggo Mortensen lived from paycheck to paycheck for many years, struggling to find work. "For a long time after I started out, I couldn't get anything. ... I wasn't making a living at it," he told The New York Times. However, when he did make it big, Mortensen did something no one expected: he rejected the trappings and materialism of Hollywood and forsook superstar status, per Esquire. For instance, he is far more content wearing vintage clothes he bought decades ago than wowing on the red carpet with designer tuxes. "I mean, how much f***ing money do you need?" he pondered.

Likewise, he explained to The Telegraph in 2013 that he has no interest in purchasing a smartphone and would rather use his old flip-phone, believing that an overconsumption of and reliance on technology leads to people taking their surroundings for granted. "You can fall into a habit to such a degree that you don't even realize that you've lost something: silence," he philosophized.

In a later interview with The Telegraph it's noted that he turned down what he terms "stupid money" flicks in favor of preserving his artistic sensibilities. Despite his good looks and screen presence, he never really thought of himself as a great actor. But when the outlet recalled a quote from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who exalted Mortensen's talent, the actor was palpably moved. "That's the nicest thing that anyone's ever said about me professionally," he admitted.

His parents died two years apart

In 2015, Viggo Mortensen's mom died. He lamented to GQ that watching her fade away from dementia was painful, though he tried to focus on all the pleasant memories he had of her before her death. Two years before her passing, he spoke to The Telegraph about the difficulties of seeing his mom's cognitive degeneration. "She knows who I am, but she gets things mixed up," Mortensen said, sharing that she thought he was in the old Hollywood movies she enjoyed watching in her final days.

By 2016, his dad was also dying of dementia and he took some time off from work to care for him. As noted by Esquire, he slept in the room next to his father, keeping watch of him with a baby monitor. His father ended up surviving longer than expected: "He's a tough son of a b****," the actor mused. Mortensen's dad died in 2017.

On his website Perceval Pictures, Mortensen discusses watching both his parents slowly disintegrate. After returning from his mom's funeral, he said, "I couldn't sleep; my mind was flooded with echoes and images of her and our family at different stages of our shared lives." He explained that her death also highlighted to him the imposing role that his father played in her life; as he watched his dad gradually slip away, he was shaken by the ultra-macho, sometimes aggressive patriarch regressing to a childlike state, having declined to such an extent that he began confusing Viggo for his own father.

Dementia runs in Viggo Mortensen's family

The specter of dementia hovers over Viggo Mortensen. In addition to his parents suffering from the disease, he lost all but one of his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even his stepfather to dementia, per USA Today. To honor the memories of those he lost, Mortensen made the 2020 film "Falling," his directorial debut, which is inspired by his own experiences with the disease. Through the film, he sought to depict dementia in a far more realistic way than many Hollywood predecessors, which he believes often rely on sanitizing the serious disease.

When speaking with Esquire, he discussed his anxiety at witnessing his father's mental degeneration. He noted that the elder Viggo suffered outbursts of rage, believing that people were trying to steal his farmland, despite the fact that he had already sold it. "He calls me up one night and says, 'Someone's on my property, I'm gonna shoot them.' I said, 'You can't f***ing shoot them, you don't own it anymore!'" the actor recalled.

Subsequently, having dealt with loss through dementia on numerous occasions, Mortensen believes it's an inevitability that he, too, will decline as his parents did. "I was telling a friend of mine about this: 'I guess it's only a matter of time before I get it,'" he told GQ, though he said that a blood test suggested he didn't have the genetic markers for the disease. Even so, he hasn't ruled it out entirely. "Life is unpredictable, as we've seen this past year, certainly," he said.

His personal life has been troubled at times

In 1987, Viggo Mortensen married a fellow quirky creative: punk musician Exene Cervenka. The couple had a son, Henry Mortensen, per The New York Times. Despite being an arty match, the pair divorced in 1998. Viggo is incredibly close with Henry, but admits that his work schedule often means he doesn't get to see him as much as he would like to. Speaking with Esquire in 2006, he said that he missed his son's poetry reading due to work commitments, which was a particularly harrowing experience for him. "It just killed me that I didn't make it," he said, adding, "It was his f***ing day. His private day."

In 2016, he admitted to Esquire that he is no stranger to heartbreak. Per Vanity Fair, he briefly began dating Lola Schnabel after his divorce from Cervenka, but his hopes of finding true love again were slim. "It could happen," he said. "It's always the thing you think won't happen that does."

Regarding being viewed as a sex symbol, Viggo previously told Esquire that such a moniker ultimately hinders his chances at love, believing that it objectifies and dehumanizes him. "For some people, that would be like, 'Great! That's half the reason I got into this!'" he said. "But to me, that's not exciting. It's someone looking at you and not seeing who you are on most levels. You become some possession to have." He did ultimately find love with Spanish actor Ariadna Gil.

Viggo Mortensen almost died when filming LOTR

When filming the Black Gate of Mordor scene for "The Lord of the Rings," Viggo Mortensen narrowly avoided being killed in an explosion. As detailed in the book "Anything You Can Imagine" (via EW), Aragorn's momentous speech was filmed in a New Zealand desert used for military training, meaning that Mortensen was surrounded by undetonated weaponry. "Jackson remembers waiting for the explosion," author Ian Nathan darkly wrote. "Having found their perfect Aragorn, they were going to watch him get blown up by an unexploded New Zealand bomb." Thankfully, Mortensen avoided this chilling fate unscathed, albeit narrowly.

In addition to almost being killed thanks to Jackson's madcap ingenuity, Mortensen has been heavily critical of the film process as a whole, deeming it sloppy and unprofessional. "It just wasn't done at all," he told The Telegraph. "It needed massive reshoots, which we did, year after year. But he would have never been given the extra money to do those if the first one hadn't been a huge success."

He later clarified his remarks to The Independent, insisting that he didn't hate the films or Jackson. The actor explained that he owed much of his success to the New Zealand filmmaker, even if the trilogy wasn't to his personal sensibilities or aesthetics. Rather, he said, he felt that big budget blockbusters stifled creativity: "It's just an opinion. I feel the same way about Batman movies — after a while, I feel I've just been punched in the head so many times."

He faced public censure for his 'blood for oil' tee

As noted by Salon, Viggo Mortensen infamously wore a t-shirt that read "No more blood for oil," as a protest against the U.S.'s potential invasion of Iraq, during a 2002 appearance on "Charlie Rose." Per Esquire, he decided to go public with his activism after being moved by the story of a mother, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq. The last film she had watched with her son before he died was "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." And when she met Mortensen, the interaction triggered memories of her dead son. "It was weird for her," he reflected. But his political activities led to a huge backlash; indeed, there were attempts to cancel Mortensen before cancel culture was even a thing.

Regarding right-wing pundits criticizing his anti-war stance, he told Esquire that he believes conservative patriotism is ultimately rooted in hypocrisy. "One of the most effective tools that the Cheney-Bush junta has used to marginalize dissenting or even mildly inquisitive American citizens has been the accusation of being unpatriotic. ... Saying you are a patriot does not make you one," he argued.

In an interview with GQ, he discussed the negative impact that the widespread vilification had on both his life and career, which, being a public figure, he deemed inevitable. "It's just life," he conceded. "If you're sort of in the public eye, people have opinions about you, whether you like it or not."

His close friend died unexpectedly

Making friends has never been easy for Viggo Mortensen. As he once explained to Shortlist, he'd failed to make any Hollywood pals, claiming that the notion of casts and crews becoming one big happy family during filming is merely a façade, a fallacy presented to the general public to sell movie tickets. It comes as little surprise, then, that the select few people who have been welcomed into his inner circle are outsiders, and as far away from Hollywood as possible.

Mortensen was close friends with Icelandic painter Georg Guðni Hauksson. The artist was known for his evocative and desolate landscape paintings, per Iceland Review. In 2005, Mortensen released a book, "Strange Familiar," about his friend, in which he discussed how Hauksson's works resonated with him on a personal level, leading to the pair becoming best buds. "He was somehow as familiar to me as his paintings were ... as if we'd known each other a long time," Mortensen poignantly recalled.

Hauksson died in 2011 at age 50. The loss devastated Mortensen, who penned a tribute to his prematurely departed friend. "I heard that you had left us in a hurry, around the time the summer reached the north. That tragic news saddens me indescribably and fills me with pain;" Mortensen wrote, per DV. He continued, "I hope to be able to follow your beautiful example in watching, listening and feeling, all the days and all the nights given to me here on earth. Thank you for your life and friendship."

His beloved pets died

An Esquire profile recounts a heartbreaking story Viggo Mortensen wrote about his dog, Brigit, whose body had to be taken in a bag to a crematorium after being euthanized. As he transported the dog to be cremated, the body accidentally fell out of the bag, and at that moment he realized the veterinarian had given him the wrong dog. "It was sad. But it was funny," he recalled.

Speaking with NME, Mortensen revealed that the horses he adopted from "Lord of the Rings" had also sadly died. After filming wrapped up, the actor took a liking to the two horses he rode on screen, as well as a third. Subsequently, he bought all three of them, gifting one to a stunt person. "That one is still around, but the other two have passed away," he shared. "They were of a certain age already when we were shooting and that's 20 years ago now."

In an earlier interview with IGN, he discussed the special bond he developed with his horses, sweetly noting the comparisons between himself and one in particular, Eurayus, whose helplessness echoed his own experiences during filming. "He kind of came into the movie similar to the way I did," he remarked. "You know, didn't have much preparation and was just thrown in and had to swim, basically. ... We got to be close and I wanted to stay in touch with him." This meaningful and symbiotic bond makes the actor's dual loss all the more devastating.