Viggo Mortensen's History of Defiance
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From his choice in roles, nearly all of which portray men who, with varying degrees of reluctance, reveal a brutally proficient violent side (see Gallery), you might expect Mortensen to be inscrutable and intense, even difficult, but in person he is polite and so soft-spoken he can be hard to hear at moments. He does like to talk, however, especially when the topic turns to one of his many passions – the Mets, soccer, or the depiction of violence onscreen.

"I think carefully about it when I am acting out the violence. I try to be realistic about how it's portrayed, and the reasons for it," he says. "But I also understand that it's storytelling, and a lot of times the violence or the way it's shown is a metaphor for a relationship." The extreme behavior and skills of his character in 'A History of Violence,' he says, are exaggerated to make the point that all of us have secrets. "Nobody really knows anybody completely, even if they've been married to 'em for 53 years, you know? That's what the wife of my character has to face: Holy shit, look what I got married to!"

To prepare for Aragorn, the warrior in 'Rings,' Mortensen trained extensively with fight choreographer Bob Anderson, a former British Olympian in the saber and Darth Vader stunt double. Anderson once called Mortensen as good a fencing student as he'd ever instructed. The actor has proven adept with other weapons as well. When he showed up to shoot 'Appaloosa,' director Harris recalls, "Viggo was pretty startled by the size of the 8-gauge shotgun we had for him. But, you know, within two days, he'd made it his own."

And he's equally as convincing with few or no props at all, as in the desperate melee from 'Eastern Promises' in which Mortensen's character grapples in the nude with two Chechen thugs. In the hands of a more self-conscious actor, a steam-room brawl could quickly have descended into camp, but Mortensen played it unbounded, without vanity."Viggo is not particularly self-aware," says Cronenberg, who directed him in that scene. "He really understands that anonymity is a valuable thing for an artist," he adds, emphasizing that Mortensen's tendency toward reclusiveness isn't antisocial, but protective of his craft. "If you are always being observed, and your presence changes everyone's behavior, you lose that wonderful ability to observe things in their natural state. That's why huge stars, surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, end up with a distorted worldview. They never see what's real anymore."

Once, when he was asked where he lived, Mortensen responded, "Planet Earth, mostly." It's easy to see why he resists being pinned down geographically. Mortensen's mother, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Oslo, met his Danish dad while skiing in Norway, but Viggo was born in Manhattan. When he was still a baby, the family moved to Venezuela, then to Argentina, where his father helped manage a ranch. When he was 11, his parents split, and Mortensen and his two younger brothers moved with their mother to Watertown in upstate New York. The transition was jarring. "Only with my mother did I speak English. We only spoke Spanish," he recalls. "And suddenly I'm in a small town in northern New York where nobody speaks it. That was a big change."

In Watertown, Mortensen swam competitively and played soccer, and often visited his father back in Denmark during summer vacations. After high school, Mortensen briefly detoured back to Denmark, where he drove a truck while he tried to figure out his life plan. Later he enrolled at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he majored in government and Spanish literature. Following graduation he started to study acting and landed some film roles but usually ended up on the cutting-room floor. Then, in 1985, a pair of breaks: He got a regular job on a soap and made the final cut of 'Witness,' in which he played an Amish farmer. A few years later, he married singer Exene Cervenka, of the L.A. punk band X, whom he met when they worked together on the film 'Salvation!' The couple, who split long ago, have a son, Henry, now 21. (In recent years, Mortensen has been linked romantically with Spanish actress Ariadna Gil and artist Lola Schnabel, daughter of Julian. A devoted fan site speculated that his romance with the much younger Schnabel foundered on outdoorsman Mortensen's unfamiliarity with a bar of soap. "I'm not that involved in personal grooming," he has confessed in the past. "But I try not to be offensive to people.")