What the career lacked was a monster hit, until The Lord of the Rings. In the fall of 1999, Peter Jackson gathered the cast and crew in New Zealand to begin work on a marathon 15-month shoot that would form the backbone of all three movies. He had cast 26-year-old Stuart Townsend in the role of the warrior human and reluctant king Aragorn, but Jackson soon realized the actor was too young to convey the brooding, displaced monarch. When Mortensen got a phone call asking him to be on a plane the next day, he hadn’t read – had barely heard of – the J. R. R. Tolkien books. But Henry, then 11 years old, assured his father that it was a good part, that the books were great, and that Tolkien was a genius. The next day Viggo was on his way to New Zealand.
Elijah Wood, who plays the hobbit Frodo in the films, says that Mortensen is one of the strangest and most charismatic people he has ever encountered. “When I first met him, we sat down in this real crusty place, the Green Parrot, and I remember not being able to hold a conversation, because I was so intimidated,” Wood says. “There is something beautiful and quiet about Viggo, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized how insanely brilliant and crazy he is – how he has this insane wild side.” Like when Mortensen’s tooth was knocked out during a scene and he asked to have it put back in with Super Glue. Or when his car hit a rabbit in the road and he decided to roast it and eat it. Or when he slept in his costume for weeks at a time.
“Yeah, he’s mental,” Wood says. “But in a good way.”
Life is short, Mortensen says. “And this is all a big crapshoot. I’m lucky. I’ve been in a good movie once in a while, if I hadn’t been in Lord of the Rings, or that movie didn’t do well—well, who knows what might have happened?”
Mortensen’s peripatetic childhood may have had something to do with his resilience. His parents met in December 1957. His father spoke mostly Norwegian and Danish, his mother mostly English, but somehow everything sorted itself out, and Viggo was born in October 1958. His father’s various jobs took the family—which included Viggo and two younger brothers—from Denmark to Argentina and Venezuela. By the time Viggo was 11, his parents’ marriage was over, and the three boys and their mother went to live in upstate New York.
“I didn’t have friends when I was little that I know now—there wasn’t any sense of continuity like that,” Mortensen says. “But I got to see a lot of things and learn a lot of things. And I learned to rely on my imagination, and on myself.”
Even Mortensen’s memories of early childhood are deeply spiritual. He tells me about the time he crawled into the woods and fell asleep. “I was sleeping under a tree, and it was very peaceful,” he says. “And then a dog started barking, and that’s how my parents found me.”
You are always escaping, I say.
Yeah, he says. He calls his mother—on my cell phone, because he doesn’t have one—to double-check his recollection. “Hi, it’s Viggo. Sorry to be calling so late,” he says. “Oh shit. You’re in the middle of it? That’s funny. Is it the tape? [She was watching a tape of The Two Towers.] O.K., sorry, it’s just a quick question and then I’ll let you get back to what you’re doing. Remember there were a couple of times I ran away? And the time the dog came and found me in the woods? How old was I then? About one and a half. O.K. But, anyway, the dog came and found me and I was sitting under a tree? Happy? Sleeping, right?”
Big look of consternation.
“I was sitting in the middle of the woods crying? I thought I was sleeping. Are you sure?”
Although Mortensen’s marriage to Cervenka lasted only a few years, they remain close. She still performs with some of the original members of X. “It’s interesting for Henry to see that,” says Mortensen. “He grew up with her, and to see her performing and to see Billy Zoom [the original guitarist for X] play, it makes him conscious of his parents’ life.”
Mortensen hasn’t ruled out another marriage, even though his relationship with Lola Schnabel, 23, the daughter of painter Julian Schnabel, ended last year. “You never know. It could happen,” he says. “It’s always the thing you think won’t happen that does.”
Mortensen’s circle of friends consists less of Hollywood actors than of writers, poets, artists and musicians, although he remains close with Lord of the Rings cast members Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd, who played Pippin. The two joined him last year in a jam session with the Japanese guitarist Buckethead, who has toured with Guns N’ Roses and has a cult following, but is otherwise known chiefly for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket over his head during performances. (“He’s very shy, and he doesn’t want people to see him,” Mortensen explains.) “I did some percussion, and Buckethead had this bag of masks, which we all wore while we were playing,” Wood says. “It was wild.”
Mortensen’s best friend, he says, is Henry, now 15 years old.
“Now you read something like that and think, Oh, this guy. His best friend is his son. Right. He’s playing the father card. But Henry’s just really smart – a great person. He’s so curious. When he gets into things, whether it’s music or movies or art or history, he gets really into it.”
Mortensen lives in a nondescript suburban house in Topanga Canyon packed with art, drawings, photographs, clippings—an environment constructed for creative ferment. L.A. has long been criticized as being void of culture, but, he says, that’s a misinterpretation by people who don’t know the city. “You’ve been hearing that refrain for 50 years,” he says. “But that’s wrong. There are a lot of artists making very interesting things here, but it’s not presented to you on a platter.”
Not surprisingly, Mortensen has strong political beliefs. On The Charlie Rose Show, while promoting The Two Towers, he wore a T-shirt that read, NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL, and he is happy to be wound up and set loose on the subject of Iraq. “I think we’re in a very dark period,” he says as surfers glide and dolphins leap in the waves in front of us. “At what point do you admit it was a mistake and get the hell out of there? How much damage has to be done? How much damage has to be done to the credibility of the United States? This is a disturbing time, and you don’t have to be of any political persuasion to be disturbed or troubled by it. I think we’re in a time of deliberate cruelty and deliberate lying, and, frankly, I think it’s the very bottom of humanity.”
The fact that some viewers and critics have interpreted the Lord of the Rings movies as a triumphant metaphor in terms of the U.S. conflict with Iraq upsets him. “I mean, movies are entertainment. This is a story. It bothered me how some people misapplied the story to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s like the way Hitler misapplied Norse mythology and literature to validate the Third Reich.”