After 30 films, Mortensen strikes gold in Middle-earth
New York - No-ego Viggo.
That would be actor Viggo Mortensen, the hunksome hero-warrior Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," whose humility earned him the rhyming moniker from the crew during the 15-month-long filming of Peter Jackson's trio of epics.
He pooh-poohs popular accolades, such as People magazine's anointing him one of the 50 most beautiful people. ("You can do the 50 most handsome dentists in Des Moines and it would be equally valid," he quips).
Those labels, even the most flattering ones, don't faze him.
Sipping a South American blend of tea through a silver straw, dressed in black denim and a painted T-shirt that reads "No more blood for oil," the broodingly handsome actor speaks in quiet tones. He quotes Aristotle and Dante's "The Divine Comedy." He smokes an occasional hand-rolled cigarette. And he wears no shoes. Every now and again he lets loose with a self-deprecating laugh.
After 17 years and 30 films—from his debut as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's 1985 "Witness" to memorable turns in "The Indian Runner," "G.I. Jane," "A Perfect Murder," and "A Walk on the Moon"—Mortensen could finally catapult into Hollywood's big league thanks to his expanded role in the second leg of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
But Mortensen refuses to take that to the bank.
"I've been in the business for quite a while," says the 44-year-old Danish-American actor. "And I've supposedly arrived many times and supposedly departed, so I kind of take that with a grain of salt. It's really not up to me, nor is it something that I'm concerned with."
What does concern him is what he fears could be a misreading of the tale that pits good against evil amid the threat of world destruction.
Says Mortensen: "I've noticed that some people had compared the first movie, and in some cases, this one even more so ... with what's going on in the world, particularly the US position vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
"We've been bombing the hell out of civilians in Afghanistan and further destroying the infrastructure, economy, and lives of people and haven't come close to tracking down, much less eliminating [Osama] bin Laden and his people. And now as a distraction we go to Iraq. ... I think those people would look at us as the aggressors, as people who want to control their wills. ... What are we doing? What are we accomplishing?
"It's not a just cause," he continues. "You know that's just my opinion. It's dangerous to think so. I'm not going to stop people from throwing `The Lord of the Rings' into that bag of fun and distraction, and even worse, justification. But for what it's worth, I can say so."
The passion he displays for the impromptu political soapbox sweeps through much of Mortensen's work. An accomplished poet, painter (his work was included in the film, "A Perfect Murder"), and musician, and father to 14-year-old Henry (his ex-wife is punk princess Exene Cervenka), he says he has no preference for one creative expression over another.
"To me they are all the same thing," he says. "Any kind of art, including acting in movies, is a question of observing a thing or a situation and reacting to it without judgment ideally."
New York City gallery owner Robert Mann, who showed Mortensen's work of mixed media and photography in August 2000 and again last July, describes him as "an artist not bound by convention. His work is very volatile and very expressive."
His celebrity status also connected an unlikely audience to his work. "Because of the celebrity factor, he brought in a lot of new collectors," says Mann. "They may have come in as fans, but they left as art collectors."
Another admirer of the many-faceted Mortensen is his longtime friend and Venice, Calif., neighbor Dennis Hopper. The two met during "The Indian Runner," Sean Penn's 1991 directorial debut, and later worked together in " Boiler Room."
"I consider him a fully rounded artist ... one of the most talented actors in world," Hopper says.
These days, Mortensen has also added publisher to his panoply of accomplishments. He recently founded Perceval Press, a small press dedicated to publishing books by artists, "books that might otherwise not get published." Its Web site, percevalpress.com, includes a list of recommended reading and links to other Web sites (among them one for his ex-wife, with whom he remains good friends, as well as for Noam Chomsky and Salon.com).
Through the years, Mortensen says he's grown a bit more comfortable being the subject of someone else's work.
"I used to be afraid of [doing interviews]. Now, I see it as part of my job. You can just have a conversation, and obviously I'm consciously taking the opportunity to offer my point of view of what's going on.
"I still think that I can take things personally or get a little too wrapped up in things than be dispassionate about them, but I'm able to let go of them a little more.
"And in terms of film work, I really have come over the years to the realization that I cannot worry about the end result, whether you like it or not. Just get the most out of it. Be there in the moment."
It's Mortensen's lack of affectation and boundless energy that continues to impress.
"He's a genuine, wonderful guy who is very free-spirited," says Hopper. "There's no pretense. He's doing it because that's the way he's living."
Says Hopper with a laugh, "You don't find a guy every day that will arrive at your door barefoot."