Until Peter Jackson called him to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this actor, painter, writer and photographer of confused nationality was rarely stopped on the street, but that is over. Now, Viggo Mortensen is the adventurer Aragorn, a new star within a veteran and multifaceted artist.
A Chameleon Actor
He spent 18 months plowing through the layers of a bygone New Zealand: Middle Earth as described by J.R.R. Tolkien and visualized by Peter Jackson. For almost two years, Viggo Mortensen became Aragorn, his character in The Lord of the Rings, and today, in Móstoles (Madrid), traces of that character still linger in him. He stopped there, in Móstoles, to supervise the printing of the catalogue of his new exhibition. Mortensen may be a sudden star, but, for some years now, his light has shone forth over the fields of painting, poetry, photography, acting and, above all else, over the pursuit of his own identity.
He is like a chameleon, an actor who submerges himself in his role: he has interpreted more than 30 different characters without ever repeating himself. Almost no genre, no nationality, no budget has resisted him: since his debut in Witness (1985), he has worked on such disparate projects as one of the mediocre sequels to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ruby Cairo (1993), Portrait of a Lady (1996) or La Pistola de mi Hermano (1997). Faint scars remain to remind him of those characters he once was: “It may well be, yes, maybe I’m an artist to battle against forgetfulness. I like remembering impressions I’ve had. Many actors talk about how hard it is for them to get rid of the characters they have portrayed and I just can’t understand that. With time, details are lost, you forget what you have done. The cinema happens quickly,” he says laconically. Maybe that is why first you recognize him, and then you forget. “It always happens. People never remember who I was in the movies,” he confesses in measured words. Viggo is like that: an imposing presence, but talkative; intimate, yet selective.
[The diversity of his artistic interests mirrors the diversity of] his own life, which started in the United States, where he was born, continued in Buenos Aires where he lived till he was 11; a city he left for Denmark where he stayed till he was 16 [sic]; since then, he has lived everywhere. He speaks English, Spanish and Danish. He’s a bit of a nomad himself, and feeds on art as a means to decipher the different nationalities of his complex emotional geography. “Movies are interesting because they’re a cooperative effort, but the end-product belongs to the director, not the actor whereas in painting, poetry and photography the results belong to you. The difference is in the rhythm: in the cinema and the theater you can’t stop once things are set in motion. On the other hand, when you work on your own, you stop a lot more; sometimes, you can stand still for a long time,” he reckons in a narcotic, hispanic cadence.
To interview Mortensen means to insert commas, change the meaning of sentences, blink, take swigs, exhale smoke: a drifting conversation. It flows at a strange speed. When all is said and done, he’s a pioneer: he and his co-stars have taken part in one of the longest projects in cinematic history, the first one to shoot three movies back to back. The only difference is that he lived as this character for a much longer time. “But when I perform, I don’t ever stop; I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I stopped investigating. I arrived two weeks after the shoot had started and I had no time to get nervous,” he says confidently, as if he never had vertigo, and then points out: “Although a little vertigo is good.”
Viggo Is Afraid
“When you feel too comfortable it means that you haven’t asked yourself the right questions. I’d be ashamed to work without fear,” he says, slowly, without stopping. Fear like one feels when confronted by the mythological Evil described by Tolkien, and so deftly visualized by Jackson. That evil which presumably infects those who touch the Ring, but which, in practice, may affect even those who only have knowledge of its mighty powers. Viggo separates himself. “If the Ring fell into my hands, I wouldn’t touch it,” he says. What is not so clear is if performing could also possibly become a possessive, vampiric force; about his character, Aragorn, he says: “This is probably the most complex character I’ve ever interpreted. It’s a character that captivates, a lone ranger, who comes from an almost extinct bloodline. He knows that the wisest among his ancestors were unable to resist the pull of the Ring. And if they failed, he cannot believe that he could do better.” At first sight it seems that Aragorn and Mortensen have overlapping identities. Mortensen resists a little, even though he recognizes having something of a nomadic nature: he has lived different lives in different places. “It’s true. But in reality, that is a description that, by nature, is applicable to any actor. What happens here is that, in Tolkien, the characters have many more layers than the film can reveal. It’s a pity that some things had to be left out, that not everything we lived gets to be shown, and that people will only glimpse a small part of something much bigger.”
Between Tolkien and Jackson
You might say that Mortensen has grown intimate with Tolkien, that he has incorporated Tolkien into his life, into his closed-lipped conversations. “I started reading the book on the plane to New Zealand. That way, both the book and the movie grew evenly inside of me. Tolkien wrote this book to pour forth his huge knowledge of languages, cultures and literature, especially the Nordic ones, in which he was an expert. In this movie, I had three directors: Tolkien, Peter Jackson and, of course, my own conscience. Tolkien and Jackson are different media, different men, but I’ve worked for both of them. While the first was very interested in exploring codes, poetry, history (in fact, he tried to make a creative re-invention of history), the second is a film maker who likes entertainment, and that’s why he centered his work more in the action episodes than in the reflective ones,” he postulates. And makes slow circles with his fingers, while adding: “But I believe that a lot of the poetry in Tolkien’s words took shape, on the screen, in many of the movie images. In the journey as well as the battles. Even so, I found my strongest link to this author when I got to know the tongues, the languages that he made up for each race. That is why I miss certain things from the book, like some of the songs and above all, the languages that were born of this incredible man. He has also created languages with different dialects.” And now the nomad finds himself in some unpopulated point in the outskirts of Madrid. “Being an actor, photographer, or whatever gives you the opportunity to pay more attention to your surroundings. I don’t dwell on results. A friend told me once that it was better to travel hopefully than reach your destination. To me, since then, the important thing has been not where I am, but how I am,” Mortensen concludes.