Viggo Mortensen: A Full Heart and an Empty Nest

7 minute read
Mortensen is an actor who stars in Captain Fantastic
Henry Mortensen, age 7Courtesy of author

In Matt Ross’ recently released movie, Captain Fantastic, I play a father named Ben. He and his wife, Leslie, played by Trin Miller, have followed an extreme model of conscious parenting in raising their six children, three boys and three girls. They live in splendid isolation in a wilderness area of the U.S. Northwest, completely off-the-grid, rigorously engaged in spartan pursuit of physical and intellectual excellence, with an emphasis on egalitarian discourse and collective problem solving.

As the story begins, we are deprived of Leslie’s presence, making the intensely pro-active parenting enterprise even more challenging for Ben. The eldest of the home-schooled brood, Bodevan, aged 17, has secretly applied to and been accepted at a number of top universities, including Ivy-League schools Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The fact that Bodevan has shown resourcefulness in getting himself admitted to these demanding institutions of higher learning ought to make Ben happy and proud, regardless of the fact that the feat was accomplished behind his back. In fact, all of the teachings and values Leslie and Ben have offered their children are geared to their eventually going off into the world extremely well-prepared to fend for themselves. The value of self-sufficiency and independent-thinking within the family collective has always been promoted. However, being a loving parent and, like most human beings, a person with contradictory thoughts and feelings, Ben becomes distraught and resistant when it comes to accepting the reality of Bodevan leaving the proverbial nest. He suddenly feels a desperate need to delay the inevitable parting of the ways.

As George MacKay, who plays Bodevan, and I acted out that part of the movie, I came to think about how I felt on the occasion of my real-life son Henry’s departure to study at university back in 2006. I was proud of him and knew he was ready, that it was a positive step forward for him. Nonetheless, I was sad to see him go, and found myself questioning whether I’d spent enough time with him as he was growing up. Probably all actively-engaged parents feel similarly when such a moment comes.

None of the fathers or mothers I know of can easily devote 100% of their time and energy to child-rearing, can truly be there every minute of the day to raise their kids as best they know how. Practically all parents have jobs and various responsibilities outside the home—not to mention personal interests—that make literal full-time parenting an impossibility. No matter how devoted they have been, when their child grows up and it is time for her or him to go out into the world alone, a concerned parent sometimes resists the leave-taking out of protectiveness, fear or self-doubt. In 2006 I wrote the following lines expressing part of my misgivings at seeing 18-year-old Henry go away:

I have a photo of you at age 3, wearing light-brown cowboy boots, a tan fringe-sleeved jacket and a red cowboy hat with a black yarn stampede string in the parking lot of what was then the main truck stop of Biggs Junction, Oregon. You are running around on a windy winter’s day, rosy-cheeked and laughing, being towed across the broken asphalt by your exuberant new puppy, Brigit. I think she had a red leash then, or was it the green one? My recollection is that your hat blew off right after the picture was taken. We were headed south with your mother, who may have taken the picture I have in mind, and a full load of clothing and household goods, taking Brigit to Los Angeles for the first time.

We sometimes used to pick up chunks of basalt on our trips through that area to use in landscaping our garden, especially the pieces that were crimson-hued from oxidation. I wonder if that is illegal, if the state of Oregon or federal authorities might object to those borrowings. Not being anywhere near the Columbia River at this moment, I am going by recent memory of tangible representations of that time, like those red rocks that now border our roses, and that snapshot of you and Brigit which I cannot find this morning.

Mostly I am guided by abstracted glimpses of our shared past—fallen trees I helped you clamber over, bee stings, skinned knees, your warm tears, dusk-stained clouds reflected in your eyes, your first bicycle ride without training wheels, your first solo swim in the deep-end of a pool. These subjectively retrieved fragments help me feel you near, but I am wary of them keeping me from fully being the person you are with when we are alone together. They are not really us. I am here, and you are gone.

Often, when you asked me to play “Fight,” “Village,” or “Dinosaurs” with your plastic friends, prehistoric creatures, farm animals, and your sticks, strings, stones, blocks, ribbons and rags, I answered: “Wait a minute, just let me finish writing this down… I’m washing the dishes… As soon as I finish this call (see? I’m on the phone?)… Let me just lie down for a minute, I’m tired… Can we do it later?… We just played that, didn’t we?… I’ll read you a story in a while instead…”, and gave any number of fairly reasonable excuses for not dropping whatever I was busy with in order to get down on the floor and join your ephemeral, perfect worlds. Your mother nearly always understood the privilege of your persistent entreaties, and wisely accepted most of them in those early years.

Every time I did go along and allow you to take the lead in eliminating everything outside of those intricately imagined landscapes, I found myself immediately grateful to be included, awed at your intelligence and commitment. Thankfully, I recall your eyes and hands now, the sound of your young voice, your delight at sharing even the simplest game. Although I suppose I must have known that your single-minded enthusiasm for those make-believe sessions would probably dissipate and evolve into other preoccupations, it seemed that there would always be time for them later, in the morning, in some tomorrow. What I did not understand was how irrevocable, how final the transitions would be. There would be no making up for lost time, no use in my pleading, years later: “Let’s do it now; there’s time and I’m ready to play!… You can kill the commander but my other guys are still alive, OK? … I’ll be Godzilla this time, and you can be Mothra… Let’s make a caveman village and have an earthquake…”

Even when you made the transition to “Let’s wrestle, Papi!”, and “Come see the Viking warrior outfit I made!” or “Let’s build an ambush!”, I still occasionally found reasons to turn down your invitations. You continued to create history on your own while I used up time in other rooms. Now I wish I had always joined in; nothing could possibly have been as important as what you had in mind. Over the years we have done many things together, visited all kinds of faraway places to learn a bit about our finite world, but I know I lost far too many chances to share in your singular adventures.

Today you left home as a young man, moving over a threshold and across the country to begin a new life. We will continue to see each other, and I’ll continue to be tempted by distractions from your naturally less-frequent requests to play. Hopefully, though, I’ll remember from now on that our play days are limited, and to make every effort to say “yes” for as long as we have us.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.