Screen Tests: 5 Early Roles of Viggo Mortensen Before He Was Aragorn

A look at 5 important roles that helped the actor earn his way to stardom.

Welcome to Screen Tests, where we look at the career of an actor’s, actress’s or director’s early work leading up to their big break, recognizing the many smaller roles and hard work it took to get there. Today we celebrate …

Viggo Mortensen is best known as Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings franchise, but like most actors, was working hard in the movies long before fame found him. Beginning in the early 1980s, he took roles in Soap Operas before landing his first film role. Continuing for more than a decade, he found steady work and attention, slowing building traction. Of these movies, we’ve chosen five that show his progression, ones that served as tests for audiences and studios before success earned him his place in cinema history. Let’s look at Viggo Mortensen.

Witness (1985)

Viggo Mortensen
Witness, 1985 © Paramount Pictures

Starring an already world famous Harrison Ford, Witness is a unique crime drama set in Pennsylvania Amish country. It follows the investigation of a murder, seen by a young Amish boy (Lucas Haas) in a Philadelphia train station bathroom. Ford plays John Book, a detective assigned to the case who ends up going undercover in the boy’s village to serve as protection, eventually falling in love with the kid’s mother (Kelly McGillis). Mortensen, in his screen debut, plays an Amish farmer named Moses Hochleitner, a small part in the film who, like many of the others, is a little uncomfortable with Book’s methods. Despite his limited screen time, he has great presence and easily stands out amid a few high profile faces as the time, including Alexander Godunov (in his English language film debut), who plays his bother, interested in courting the same woman. It’s easy to see why Mortensen attracted attention, but he had years to go and plenty of small parts to play. This is 1985, and it would be five more years before his next break, even if it was a small one.

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Viggo Mortensen
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, 1990 © Nicolas Entertainment

They say all good actors must pay their dues and it’s in horror movies where you’ll find many pay the highest price. After the phenomenal success of Tobe Hooper‘s 1974 original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sequels were inevitable, and by time the third came out sixteen years later, the quality and innovation had pretty much dropped off to nothing. The story is mostly a rehash with more victims facing off against the cannibalistic and murderous family, this time with a driving hardore metal soundtrack. Mortensen plays ‘Tex’, a hitchhiker at the start with a few surprises of his own as the showdown builds. An expectedly over-the-top performance, it’s almost hard to watch him here knowing where he’ll end up. Mortensen would have a bit part in Young Guns II this same year, but it was three more until he got the chance to really shine again. And this time, in another big production with some big stars.

Carlito’s Way (1993)

Viggo Mortensen
Carlito’s Way, 1993 © Universal Pictures

Now we’re getting somewhere. In this tense thriller, star Al Pacino plays a former hardcore criminal just out of a five-year stint in prison looking to go legit. He ends up back in the hot water though when a deal he gets pushed into goes sour. Using stolen money, he buys a night club and tries to save big so he can retire with his girl Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). It’s not so easy though as his doeped up, unethical lawyer (Sean Penn) gets him into even further trouble. Mortensen plays Lalin, a former playboy who ends us a paraplegic with useless legs, confined to a wheelchair using diapers and unable to have sex. He’s a slimeball, down on his luck and is pressed into wearing a wire by the D.A., hoping to catch Carlito in something nefarious. It’s a sensational performance that almost gets lost in a movie that is nothing but great character turns from some pretty heavy hitters. Doors opened and he was busy the next two years with some smaller films and small roles, but then came … a submarine.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Viggo Mortensen
Crimson Tide, 1995 © Hollywood Pictures

Director Tony Scott‘s action thriller about a nuclear submarine caught in a cat and mouse game between the US and a Russian rebel stars Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. A big, bombastic nail-biter, the film centers on a new Executive Officer named Hunter (Washington) who finds he’s serving under a trigger-happy Captain Ramsey (Hackman), and just when a Russian maniac near the North Korean border gets his hands on a nuclear missile installation. Mortensen plays Pete “Webs” Ince and it’s a big meaty role where he is friends with Hunter but torn between that friendship and loyalty to Ramsey when an incomplete order is received and the two commanding officers can’t agree on the best way to carry them out. Mutinies and weapons control become a huge problem and Weps has to make some serious choices or risk the lives of potentially millions of people. But which side to choose? It’s a big part for Mortensen and he delivers even as he gets a little buried in the brash and flashy performances of the leads. Turns out Mortensen wasn’t finished with the military yet though, nor working with a Scott.

G.I. Jane (1997)

Viggo Mortensen
G.I. Jane, 1997 © Caravan Pictures

Mortensen continued getting parts and staying busy, including a role in the Sylvester Stallone actioner Daylight, though it wasn’t substantial. Two years after Crimson Tide, he got his next big break in a semi-leading role in Ridley Scott‘s (Tony’s brother) war drama G.I. Jane, about a female candidate (Demi Moore) trying to be the first woman to complete the (fictional) U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team, a course similar to the S.E.A.L. Team unit. It’s no picnic, with most recruits dropping by week four. Mortensen plays Command Master Chief John James Urgayle, who runs the compound and pushes soldiers to their breaking point, trying especially hard to put Jordan O’Neil (Moore) through the ringer. While the movie itself is not as sharp as it should be, and Moore doesn’t truly bring the role the proper weight, there’s no taking away from Mortensen who absolutely rules the roost and makes this film all his own. It officially put him on the map, and paved the way to his biggest role yet.

What Followed

Viggo Mortensen
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, 2001 © New Line Cinema

Mortensen would have a few more good roles in the years that came after G.I. Jane, most notably with Sandra Bullock in 28 Days, a romantic comedy, and as Sam Loomis in the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. But then it all changed in 2001 when he was cast as Aragorn in Peter Jackson‘s epic fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings (replacing an already cast Stuart Townsend who was dropped a few days into shooting for being too young). The role made him a household name and an international superstar … and it only took 15 years to get there.