Step right up ladies and gents–and let me tell you all about the incredible shrinking leading man. Throughout Hollywood’s history we’ve seen our fair share of rugged manly-men, willing to risk it all in the name of a good cause or perhaps the right girl. Back in the day, we had Gable, Brando and even John Wayne (okay, the early years), to drool over.
These were the type of guys you’d not only want watching your back, but rubbing it as well. So who do we have to pawn over today? Nowadays it seems like we’re stuck with comic relief from the Juniors Club as Matt Damon attaches himself to Greg Kinnear or as Will Smith repeatedly slimes aliens.
If you were in a real jam do you think baby-faced men of action like Keanu Reeves or Leonardo DiCaprio could do anything about it? Do they even shave yet? Hell, even Tom Cruise has lost his appeal. But just when I thought I had given up hope on finding a true modern hunk with heart… in walks Viggo.
Starring in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Viggo Mortensen is perhaps the perfect leading man. In addition to being easy on the eyes with solid acting chops to boot, he has a certain gentleness about him that’s undeniable. Basically he’s a cross between Jesus and James Dean.
While the former truck driver & jazz musician made his film debut as an Amish farmer in Witness (1985) before gaining bigger & better roles in Carlito’s Way, G.I. Jane, and Psycho–it’s been his role as Strider/Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that has put him on the map to superstardom.
I caught up with Viggo recently and asked him how the journey has been. Here’s what he had to say….
I understand you really enjoyed your time in New Zealand filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Can you talk about your experiences with the people there?
One of the things that was such a pleasant surprise about New Zealand was that, compared to any other country I have been to, including North and South America, in terms of how the native, indigenous population is integrated in society and respected, New Zealand is remarkable.
The Maori are not second class citizens there. On all levels they worked on this movie. In the society there, you tell a lot by what kind of jobs people have and what the quality of the jobs are. They are in all parts of society. Even the whitest most freckled, light eyed person in New Zealand (which is largely made up of English, Irish and Scottish immigrants) takes pride in being able to pronounce the Maori names of the country as well as knowing certain songs and words. There’s not real interest [of indigenous people] in this country, unless you live by the reservations or have a particular scholarly interest in Native American culture. You’re not going to speak Lakota or Navajo.
Was there something special about that place that has remained with you?
I think for all of us that place was special. People say, “Well, you were there such a long time so of course you bonded with the people and the place,” but in reality it could have gone the other way. We could have hated each other after being together such a long time and having to keep telling the story. But it went the other way. Not just because of the values of Tolkien’s book, which are a live community and looking past perceived differences… but it had to do with the place we shot in and the people who were on the crew who were New Zealanders.
Director Peter Jackson assembled a team of actors and technicians that he hoped would get along and that would work in that way, handling their problems together rather than going on an ego trip or something. I think he just wouldn’t have had the energy to deal with it any other way. It just wouldn’t have worked and I don’t think the movie would’ve turned out as well. But being in New Zealand, being in a place where people are accustomed to working together, to grow and get over having different political leanings–in that community, when it’s about doing a job, you out that all aside and well, you just do the job.
In this country and in most other countries I think it often takes a little something extra, like a natural catastrophe or something for people to put aside their differences. But I think it was essential that it was shot there–essential to the way the movie feels, beyond the special effects.
How did living in New Zealand affect the way you perceived The Lord of the Rings? Did living there make a difference?
In the sense that you had the option, and for me it seemed like a necessity, to resort to the book and to the ideas behind the book–it encouraged me to revisit things that I had loved as a kid. It made stories that I found interesting, in terms of mythology and history and rituals, that are interesting to read about and really good yarns and all that… it made them very real, because we were applying the lesson, that people have learned in the past. The reason why Tolkien wrote it was to explore the things that he was interested in. I think he was showing a respect for the people as long as thousands of years ago.
It made these stories real and you see why people wrote about those things or retold those stories in the oral tradition. Tolkien was respecting people who saw wisdom for its own sake, who had tried to make a connection with the environment they were living in and to look past the differences that they had with others. In a sense, Peter was respecting that same tradition. With that old saying, “If you ignore history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” and it’s true, that’s what Tolkien was talking about and that’s what Peter tried to show.
The same respect for telling the same old story that’s been told a thousand times in different ways. But it’s the same story about individuals who are given an opportunity to do something and it’s up to themselves to join the fellowship. It’s how you get through those difficult moments that forges your own character and makes for what we call a community. It’s not just because Peter’s visuals and special effects are unbelievable, but it’s because people can apply it to their own daily lives.
Watching The Return of the King there seems to be a strong metaphor about what is going on in the world today. Did you find a particular relevance that this heroic battle against a faceless evil force could be applied to what is happening in the world today?
I say you can apply it to any time or any place. There’s also a danger in that and I’d say that people two years ago were doing it in regards to September 11th. People have tried to relate the two and there’s nothing wrong with applying it. That’s the strength of the story–that people are inspired to see lessons for themselves.
But Tolkien resisted making it be about World War II and so forth. It’s not about that. He was a veteran of World War I and had a son in World War II and so obviously he was not fine with what was going on and he was very upset when Hitler and his PR people of propaganda applied those great stories of Scandinavian literature and mythology to justify what he was doing. He was really upset about that and he was concerned about the damage that would be done to that great tradition.
But I was just as upset when people were increasingly–not asking the question–but just stating it as if it were obvious that the good guys in our story were clearly the American government and the rest of the faceless dark skinned “unbelievers” who were the enemy.
So what’s next for Mortensen? In addition to pursuing his acting career, he’s recently become publisher with his own company called Perceval Press, which specializes in art, critical thinking and poetry. The intention of the press is to publish works that otherwise might not be published in the mainstream media.
He is also working on his third book of poetry and recently exhibited a new photographic series, Miyelo at the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles. While you can currently catch him up on the big screen in The Return of the King, he can next be seen starring in Hidalgo for Disney.