Weary of war, burdened by his bloodline, Viggo Mortensen leads the charge into final battle as heroic Aragorn.
Viggo Mortensen’s long and winding trek through Middle-Earth is nearly over—or is it? “I’m still thinking about what it means to have been a part of this,” says Mortensen, who portrays Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “If somebody asked, ‘How did this change you?’… What is it they say? ‘The jury’s still out.’ We have months of promotion for The Return of the King. We’ll be in Japan in January. So I’ve got a while.”
There was, however, an actual end of shooting, and that happened during summer 2003, when RINGS leader Jackson wrapped one last period of additional principal photography. During those weeks in New Zealand, the director shot new bits and fine-tuned Return of the King. And as each of his actors finished their final scene, Jackson emceed a modest ceremony in which the performers were presented with their final clapperboard, some personal mementos and a screening of some of their character’s scenes and outtakes.
“Everybody had their own goodbye,” Mortensen recalls. “Have you ever been surprised or broken a bone? I felt sort of in a state of shock. I wasn’t numb, but I didn’t function properly. I couldn’t really express myself well. There were so many emotions [going on] at once that it was overwhelming, even though I was prepared and saw the others bid farewell.”
“Each one of the farewells was tailored to the individual and the character they played, but mostly to the individual. Everybody was very gracious. Each goodbye wasn’t so much love toward any individual as much as it was an excuse for the group to thank themselves. Everybody was celebrating the effort we had made as a group. At least, that’s what it felt like. Everybody was speaking with each other and embracing. It was genuine. As people can see when we’re together now [during publicity gatherings and premieres], there’s something there that’s partly the result of working together so long, but partly just because of the kind of people who ended up working [as a group] om this particular story. I was given my sword, and two very impressive hakas were performed. It was overwhelming for me.”
His Kingly Destiny
Overwhelming is the word of the day when it comes to Return of the King The Fellowship faces overwhelming odds in its struggle to gain Frodo (Elijah Wood) safe entry into Mordor, where he must destroy the One Ring. Aragorn—a.k.a Elessar and Strider—is the last surviving heir of Isildur of Dúnedain, and he must contend with the overwhelming weight of history, destiny and expectation as those around him look his way for leadership.
Aragorn is the best man to serve as King, and Mortensen says that he welcomed the opportunity to chart a believable emotional arc across three films, ending with Aragorn’s inevitable coronation ceremony. “Aragorn was well-schooled, and he has had decades of experience in Middle-Earth,” notes Mortensen, who adds that part of the appendix’s “Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” will play out in Return of the King. “He’s described as being the greatest traveler of his age. Nobody else has been to so many places and met as many different kinds of people as Aragorn. He has an understanding of history and the present time in Middle-Earth. So he is well-suited to be a ruler”
“He also knows, historically, that it is—to some degree—his destiny to be King. It’s like somebody calling you from the Republican or Democratic Party and saying, ‘I know you don’t want to run, but we really need you. If you don’t, so-and-so is going to win.’ It’s something like that for Aragorn, I suppose. But it isn’t as if he has to be convinced, even if he resists and says to Elrond [Hugo Weaving], his adopted father, in the extended version [of Fellowship of the Ring], ‘I don’t want thatpower, I’ve never wanted it.'”
“Aragorn realizes that if the rightful heir to the throne doesn’t go through the process of taking his place, that will affect, in a big way, the chances of saving Middle-Earth,” comments Mortensen (who previously discussed the trilogy in Starlog #295 & #308 and Fangoria #208). “Knowing that he’s the lone heir, it’s obvious to Aragorn that he’s going to have to do this. He resists it because, maybe on a surface level, he resents being told that he must do something, when he has operated so independently for such a long time. I also believe that there’s an element of fear and a crisis of confidence, which you find in each one of the Rings characters.”
“Eventually, as you’ll see in Return of the King, Aragorn has to travel to the Paths of the Dead, which is the place where, if he isn’t pure, he can’t assume the throne. He has doubts about how pure his bloodline is and how much of a rightful heir he is. Is he as great as his forefathers? For example, Isildur was a great warrior and noble in many ways, even if—when faced with the temptation of the Ring and what it symbolizes—he was too weak and proved again that, like Elrond said, men are weak. If they couldn’t do it, how can Aragorn—this orphaned, watered-down, distant-relative version of these great ancestors—think that he can go into the Paths of the Dead—which nobody has ever been able to do—and convince these specters to help? What makes him [confident] that he’s going to be able to do that his ancestors couldn’t, when they were so much more pure-blooded and noble?”
“That was interesting to play,” Mortensen says. “And let’s say I’m portraying somebody who’s completely evil—well, there has to be something that isn’t evil [about the character]. I personally don’t believe that there’s such a thing as absolute evil or absolute good. People, no matter who they are, need to work on themselves all the time. It starts from within. People have to search within first, and that’s what the characters in this story do. I think that people may subconsciously—and sometimes consciously—relate to that, to the characters’ imperfections.”
His Uncrowned Head
The Two Towers, the second entry in the Rings trilogy, delivered nearly equal measures of action and heart. Return of the King (which premieres December 17) promises to do more of the same, while also tying up all of the major running storylines. Emotions will no doubt roil further as the characters meet their fates, but the action is another matter. How do you top—or at least differentiate between—Two Towers’ stunning Battle of Helm’s Deep and Return of the King’s final fight?
“For one thing, Return’s battles happen in the daytime,” Mortensen says, referring to the raging warfare that occurs at Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate of Mordor. “For another, there are huge amounts of cavalry in Pelennor Fields. There are giant elephants, Nazgûl flying around, pirates and ghosts. It’s insane. Just in sheer numbers, ambition and special effects-wise, it’s different. It’s also incomparable in the potential cost. If there’s a major defeat, that’s it. Helm’s Deep wasn’t [make-or-break]. This is it, and yet there’s another battle. The Ring still hasn’t been destroyed. But Pelennor Fields is a must-win war within the greater quest. The battle at Black Gate is also impressive. What’s amazing about it is how uneven the odds are. During the Pelennor Fields conflict, although it isn’t a fair fight, at least it’s a reasonable one. But at Black Gate, there’s no question that we’re all going to die. There’s just no doubt about it.”
“And it doesn’t matter how special my sword is. It isn’t like Gandalf [Sir Ian McKellen] fighting a dragon on his own and buying time for the others to escape. Aragorn is bringing his friends, his horse and all the armies of men. That’s how he’s using the respect that he commands in this position that he’s moving toward. He’s doing the difficult thing—like a good leader is able to—of convincing thousands of people to die with him for the good of Middle-Earth, for these two little guys who are crawling toward this volcano. Aragorn’s trying to buy them more time, just like Gandalf bought us time to get out of Moria. Aragorn’s sacrificing himself, and telling others, ‘All of you, join me. Let’s all die.’ He also does it with Legolas [Orlando Bloom] and Gimli [John Thys-Davies] in Pellenor Fields [though they insist on joining Aragorn on that adventure].”
“In a sense,” he adds, “Théoden [Bernard Hill] performs that same role, too, when he makes the charge to the cavalry. What J.R.R. Tolkien did so successfully was ramp things up in the different narratives and keep matters interesting, and that’s Peter’s job on the films. He does have to reach an emotional level at some point—probably halfway through Return of the King—and then he must sustain that and build and build on it. That’s a real juggling act. It’s like a symphony. He needs to pull all of these instruments together and keep building, then take it down, and then bring it up a little. That’s what the whole story has been.”
His Final Battle
Many fans of Tolkien’s masterwork took away from the saga the idea that those who desire power shouldn’t have it, and that those who don’t want it, deny it or otherwise shy away from leadership positions might be most deserving of them. “That often seems to be the case in government,” Mortensen points out with a sardonic laugh. “I don’t know if that’s true in The Lord of the Rings. I assume you’re referring to, among others, Aragorn’s reluctance to accept his rightful place and the expectations that go with it, as explained ot him particularly by Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel [Cate Blanchett]. They’re his mentors and the people who know the most about him and his place in Middle-Earth. But I think that Aragorn is, in some sense, no different from the other members of not only the Fellowship, but of the greater fellowship, which includes Théoden, Éomer [Karl Urban] and Éowyn [Miranda Otto].”
“That’s one of the beauties of the story, and one of the reasons why I think people connect and will always connect with it. What grounds Rings is that none of the heroes—and there are many, not just one individual—are without flaws or self-doubt. That’s what engages me when I read the book, and I think that’s something Peter and the rest of us have managed to get across in the films: That everybody has moments of conflict within themselves. We all [find ourselves in] scenarios where we can shoose the right way—by putting the group first and the individual second—and choose to avoid the temptaions. After all, temptation is what the Ring represents. The Ring is the downfall of both Sauron [Sala Baker] and Saruman [Christopher Lee]. There’s a temptation to want to control other people’s choices.”
Speaking of choices, Mortensen now enjoys freedom of choice in his career, and that’s a direct result of his participation in the Lord of the Ring’s trilogy. He has completed work on Hidalgo, director Joe Johnston’s action-Western about Frant T. hopkins, a real-life figure considered the best long-distance endurance horse rider of his time. The actor has also pursued other artistic endeavors, publishing books of his poetry and photography, and displaying his paintints at art galleries around the country.
Mortensen—who assumed the role of Aragorn only after Stuart Townsend departed the project—realizes that he’s a lucky man. And, no, he’s fast to point out, no one associated with Lord of the Rings ever dared consider the trilogy a sure thing. “I don’t think anybody could have known—even if the had hoped, believed or thought it might happen—how successful these movies would be, and not only how much money they’ve made, but how much people have connected with The Lord of the Rings beyond the box office results.”
“It means something to people,” Viggo Mortensen concludes. “They’ve related it to their lives, the times and society, much as each succeeding generation has and will with the book. We didn’t know what would happen. We can look back now and go, ‘Of course.’ But we didn’t know.”