Late in Gregory Widen’s 1995 supernatural thriller The Prophecy, starring the great Christopher Walken as an angel raging war on Earth, the film is interrupted by an inexpected twist—the arrival of Lucifer himself to level the playing field and give the puny himans half a chance. So, who did Widen enlist to face off against Walken?
Hailed as “mordently witty,” a young vaguely edgy actor named Viggo Mortensen wound up stealing the remainder of the film from Walken, creating one of the most memorable embodiments of evil ever put to screen. “The devil doesn’t really need to yell at people and slap ’em around,” says Mortensen now, six years later, “because he knows he’s powerful. That was one superficial guiding principle I tried to keep in mind. You are it. You are the Dark One and you don’t have to prove it.”
The same can be said for Mortensen himself, whose rugged good looks and string of well-chosen roles in films ranging from the art house to the grindhouse have garnered the actor an air of mystery and a reputation for disappearing into his characters. There was something compelling and dangerous about Alexander Godunov’s Amish brother in Witness (his first performance that didn’t end up on the cutting room floor), the born-bad hellion brother in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner and the shell-shocked young veteran in Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin.
He brought equal passion and gusto to his wheelchair-bound skag in Carlito’s Way, Demi Moore’s unforgiving taskmaster in G.I. Jane and the murderous southern cracker Tex in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Unafraid of Hollywood fare, indie-risktaking and genre films alike, Mortensen next commits what he calls “hack-and-slash mayhem” in the name of all that is right in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in Peter (Dead Alive) Jackson’s ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy (opening worldwide December 19 from New Line), based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga of good and evil.
Generations of readers have in their minds visions of Aragorn, a.k.a. the wandering Ranger Strider, whose secret destiny to become king informs his every move as he joins hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and a fellowship of nine in their quest to destroy the all-pwerful Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron. Tolkien described Aragorn as the “weather-beaten” heir to the fading royal house of a long-lived race of men. At the age of 85, Aragorn is the story’s traditional hero.
Facing the challenge of becoming this multifaceted character, Mortensen found familiar ground in the ancient European and Icelandic myths he remembers from his childhood. “Aragorn is different, more of a modern type of character in that he doesn’t really talk about his deeds as much as similar characters in the sagas did,” says the 42-year-old product of a Danish father and American mother who spent much of his youth in places like Argentina, Venezuela and Denmark. “A lot of characters, Beowulf in particular, weren’t shy about talking about their exploits, whereas Aragorn is someone who just goes about his business. He has various reasons, a couple of important ones, for appearing to be modest or secretive about what he’s up to or needs to do. He is someone who is meant to be king of men, but he has not taken on that responsibility.
“He needs to be anonymous in order to hide from Sauron, because if Sauron knew that there is an heir still alive, then that’s a threat to him,” Mortensen continues. “So, from the time that Aragorn was told by the man who basically raised him, Elrond [The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving], he hasn’t known who he really is. He has more or less been hiding, working anonymously, using other names, and while he’s been good at it and perfectly willing to help people, it has more or less always been a hit-and-run situation.”
Where once he went toe-to-toe with a renegade angel, Mortensen’s ultimate task in Fellowship is to do battle with Sauron himself, the embodiment of the power of true evil in Tolkien’s books. “Aragorn is uncertain and has a fear of taking those reins, of living up to that responsibility, of publicly declaring himself or allowing himself to believe that he is what wise beings like Galadriel [The Gift’s Cate Blanchett] or Elrond tell him he must someday be,” says Mortensen. “And the reason is that his ancestors screwed up so badly. When the temptation of the Ring presented itself, they were not up to the task of refusing the temptation, of keeping their sights on what was best for not only their people and Middle-Earth, but for themselves as human beings. And he doesn’t know he’s got it in him.
“He bears what I suppose is an orphan mentality,” the actor continues. “He was taken and, like Moses, hidden by his mother and raised by elves. On the one hand, he learned a lot, and in the Lord of the Rings story, the people who knew the most about the history of Middle-Earth and the ramifications of the Ring would be Galadriel, Gandalf [Sir Ian McKellan], Elrond, Saruman [genre legend Christopher Lee] and Aragorn. He has the weight of knowledge.
“It would be like if you were some very well-connected spy. On the one hand it’s good to know what’s really going on, but on the other it can be a curse. He has a lot to overcome, even though he is certainly very brave, and if roused there is nobody who is more fierce. But in some ways, he’s young. He is a late bloomer. It takes him a long time to come to grips with what he must do. In the end, he sees it as the best thing for Middle-Earth. He knows that it’s true and he knows it is something he is going to have to do, but he fears that. So he has reasons for being careful and listening more than he speaks and acting rather than talking.”
But Mortensen the actor took the job on the fly, at the urging of his 13-year-old son Henry, a Tolkien fan, and began reading the books on the long flight to New Zealand, where the year and a half of filming (the three movies were lensed concurrently, raising the stakes on almost every level) was to take place. “I didn’t really have as much time to think about it as many of the actors, who had been preparing and practicing, working with bows and arrows and swords and axes and horses,” he recalls. “And getting used to being in New Zealand, getting used to the feel of their characters and wardrobes. I just arrived and was thrown right into it. That was scary, because I didn’t get the time to prepare like I would have hoped to, especially with something that is this important to so many readers.
“But I didn’t really have time to get too nervous about it,” Mortensen continues. “Just roll your sleeves up and go to it. I suppose it was not unlike how it is for Aragorn. He’s just thrust into it. He has to go because Gandalf can’t go to help these hobbits. So, it begins. He has dealt with hobbits before and knows the different races of Middle-Earth, but it’s a job he has to do. He knows a lot more than the hobbits do; Frodo is very wise but he has no idea what he’s getting into, and Aragorn is not going to tell him everything he knows. He just has the obvious charge. He has to protect them and get them from one place to another. And from that place, the group grows and becomes the Fellowship of the Ring, and then the others join and the journey becomes more complicated, more difficult. As in any good yarn, there are twists and turns, unexpected obstacles and small tragedies and triumphs along the way. That’s what it was kind of like for me—just hold on and try not to fall off.”
Once adapted, Mortensen surprised the filmmakers and fellow cast members by living his role—doing things like washing and repairing his costume and camping out in the lush South Island countryside where the film’s dramatic and extensive exteriors were shot. “Viggo’s performance seems to be one of the highlights of the film,” Jackson told E! Online. “All the cast are wonderful, but Viggo has embraced the character of Aragorn so thoroughly it’s difficult to imagine the two being separate now. I’m not sure he even lives in a house anymore.”
“You have to want to do a good job out of your own pride, in my case as a performer—but whether you are a grip or a photgrapher or whatever, you have to have pride in your craft and a sense of responsibility for the story, ideally,” Mortensen says. “There are movies that you work on where you realize that the script isn’t great, but you’re still trying to do your job as best you can. In this case, it was wanting to do my job well and trying to live up to expectations. It’s an important book, and hopefully it’s an important set of movies. And there was something about [Jackson], I can’t really define what it is—others might define it better—that made me want to do a good job for him in addition to those other reasons for doing it.”
Mortensen also echoes feelings that have been expressed by other by the filmmakers and cast alike about mounting this production. “There was a general feeling that this wasa unique experience, a unique opportunity,” he says. “It’s not like they are going to make another Lord of the Rings trilogy in a couple of years. So if I was in a situation that was meant to be beautiful or savage or scary or joyful or moving, I wanted it to be as much of that as it could, which is ideally the way you always work. It’s rare that you feel that from the overall team—and by that I don’t just mean the cast, I mean everybody. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this mass intention or will at work.”
After spending his early life traveling with his family, Mortensen settled in Manhattan but ultimately relocated to Los Angeles, where his work in theatre eventually garnered him a Drama-Logue award for his performance in the controversial play Bent. From there, his screen career began its mercurial path through films like Salvation! (on which he met his then-wife Exene Cervenka , lead singer of the seminal punk band X), the early Renny Harlin chiller Prison and the Brat Pack opus Fresh Horses, followed by Leatherface, which was famously slashed down to a bare-bones 81 minutes in order to achieve an R rating.
Equal parts sick comedy and graphic horror, Leatherface lost much in the translation. “A lot of the humor went hand-in-hand with pretty grotesque things,” Mortensen recalls. “They handed in the movie several times, each time getting an X or triple-X or whatever it was for violence, and unfortunately, by the time they got an R so that they could actually put it in movie theatres and not have it go straight to video, so much stuff was cut out. They lost a lot of funny things. I don’t want to go into it out of courtesy to the director [Jeff Burr], because it wasn’t his fault, but there were a lot of areas that I thought were funny. Once you’re in that situation, you’ve gotta just go for it. There were some bizarre things that happened that had funny dialogue too, but they just said no. And that was disappointing, because then you see it and you go, ‘Shit, they’re not doing it that way.'”
Mortensen sees Leatherface’s treatment at the MPAA’s hands as an endemic, institution-wide problem facing indie and mini-major films. “If you have a smaller studio or company putting out a movie, you’re not going to get the same fair shake that a big studio is going to get,” he says. “Whether it be sexual content or violent content, it’s not an even-handed situation. And that was really clear [with Leatherface]. Not that it’s some lost masterpiece, but it would have been more what it was meant to be, and funnier, if they’d left in what was supposed to be there, which was no worse than many of the things that were allowed through at the time. So obviously, somebody is in somebody’s pocket.”
Mortensen also notes with sadness that his friend Robert jacks, the actor who played Leatherface in the subsequent Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, died August 8, one day shy of his 42nd birthday. Jacks was a great fan of the genre and was proud to play Leatherface, even recording a “love theme of sorts” for the film with Blondie’s Deborah Harry. “He was a larger-than-life character,” Mortensen says. “He was an amazingly knowledgeable person, particularly in horror and scifi. He was proud of having done that job, and it meant a lot to him.”
Following Leatherface, Mortensen took roles in such varied films as Young Guns II, Kevin Spacey’s directorial debut Albino Alligator, Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, the Sylvester Stallone woud-be blockbuster Daylight and two Hitchcock remakes: A Perfect Murder (adapted from Dial M for Murder) and Gus van Sant’s notorious Psycho redux. Then there was The Prophecy, which he found a most enjoyable experience—in partthanks to Walken, whom Mortenen describes as “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. We laughed a lot; I laughed so hard at times that I just couldn’t function. There are certain bits that aren’t in the film that I wish were there that were very funny and a little grotesque, but showed thay he had a real sense of humor. They were just afraid that it would get too silly, but it certainly was fun.
“It was a good cast,” Mortensen continues. “Elias [Koteas] did a good job too, and that was a difficult part. And Virginia [Madsen]. Some of those roles were tough, because they had to react to a lot of pretty out-there characters. The other actors worked on a daily basis with Chris, and if you’re in the right frame of mind it can be fun, but if not it can probably be a little scary. It wasn’t as hard for me as for some of the others, in all fairness.”
Though acting is what has made Mortensen, in other circles he is known as an accomplished photographer, artist, poet and musician who speaks three languages, not including English. A book of Mortensen’s poetry titled Ten Last Night, was recently published by Illuminati Press, and he has recorded spoken-word compilations—One Less Thing to Worry About, Live at Beyond Baroque and The Other Parade—with Cervenka as well as Buckethead, D.J. Bonebrake, Jerry Stahl and others. And his paintings (created for and displayed in Perfect Murder) were recently shown at the Santa Monica, CA gallery Track 16; he expects to have another opening there next spring, when the photographs he took during his odyssey in New Zealand will be exhibited.
“I did take some pictures and do some paintings over there,” he says. “I didn’t think I had done many, but then by the end I wound up with quite a few. In a way, the best thing about the whole experience for me, apart from the group effort, was just the outdoors. New Zealand was different from anything I’ve ever seen, and in some places was so raw and beautiful that it both rested me and gave me new energy.
“People talk about the special effects and there was some of that—quite a bit in some places—but my main memory of the experience there was being in the landscape. It was amazing, whether I was digging 40 minutes to go fish at lunchtime or after work, or just walking in the woods or sitting by a river, by the sea or in the forest. That was a real gift, and that will probably come across in the movies—you’ll feel this place. It’ll feel like Middle-Earth should.”