On Wednesday, Dec. 5th, 2003, Jeffrey Overstreet joined several other privileged film critics, including Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), Andrew Coffin (World), Steve Beard (Thunderstruck), Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight), and Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) to talk with members of the cast and crew for the year’s most ambitious, exhausting, and gloriously realized film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This interview was with Viggo Mortensen.
Youve worked with so many of the great contemporary directors, playing smaller roles. And now youve had this enormous responsibility, this great opportunity, working with Peter Jackson. What have you learned as an actor from working with him?
Even more patience. It was a long haul for all of us. It wasnt like a movie that lasts a month or three months even, where you could look ahead [and say] Well, in another few weeks Ill be doing this or that. There was no end to it. The weeks just ran into each other and the days got longer and longer. By the end it was 16 and 17 hours, six days a week, collapse on Sunday and do your laundry, and all of a sudden youre on the set again!
How did that affect your family life?
What family life? [laughs] My son did come and visit quite a bit and stayed for some lengthy periods. But yeah, it made it difficult. For me, the hardest thing was not three-and-a-half months of night shoots at Helms Deepit was those absences from my son, and finding a way to stay in touch consistently.
But I knew going in that it would be kind of like the Fellowship, when they say, Yeah, well go in and join this club and do this thing. They have no ideaeven Aragorn and Gandalf who know Middle-Earth and know what theyre up against Aragorn above all. As Gandalf says in the book, [Aragorn is] the greatest traveler and huntsman of this age of the world meaning all the places we see in these movies hes been to many times. All of the languages, all of the cultures, as aware as he is of the obstacles hes going to be up against he still has no idea how bad its going to be. Each step of the way gets harder.
It was the same. Setting out, I knew the absences were going to be lengthy. And they got a lot longer, and the breaks disappeared completely.
Steven D. Greydanus:
Your character goes through a tremendous story arc, growing in his ability to accept this role of the king. And yet in the first film, hes already so masterful that not only can he take on five Nazgul single-handedly, and not only can he take on an entire army of orcs, but he is the one character in the film who calmly and easily puts aside the temptation of the Ring without freaking out and without a momentary hint of succumbing.
After doing that, how do you develop and ennoble and grow the character [of Aragorn] to the point where he becomes so much more than that that hes finally able to take the crown?
You make it sound easier than it was. I think when he sees the Ring and the Ring calls out to him in the first part of the trilogy, and its in Frodos hand. There is a moment where he thinks about it. But he overcomes that, youre right. There is something in him that is able to do that.
With the Nazgul on Weathertop, he knows that fire is not their friend, so thats something he uses to his advantage.
But yeah, he is psychologically strong, although he does struggle at times, and he sometimes shows a hesitation and doubt, which I think are good qualities for a leader. I wish more leaders in our world had those qualities because that implies a lack of arrogance. It implies a concern with, among other things, the effects of your words and actions on others. A lot of our leaders, including, unfortunately, the one who leads our country, the United States, doesnt show much compassion, in my opinion. He uses those kind of words, but his actions give a lie to that. I wish there was more of that.
And by the endto answer your questionhe has to confront those doubts. As big a battle as the Black Gate is, or coming in with those reinforcements at the Pelennor Fields, is the conclusion of his psychological battle, when he confronts the dead. That is, in a way, his biggest struggle.
There is that, in the third movie, that he has to face up to. But also, when he goes to the Black Gate, its not just throwing yourself out there the way Gandalf does in Moria that individual sacrifice which all of the Fellowship members at some times make [like] Sam literally carrying Frodo but he has to not just do the Lone Ranger thing and go on his merry way. He has to, by the example that he sets and his conviction, persuade the whole army of Rohan and Gondor who have survived the Pelennor Fields, and Gandalf, against Gandalfs initial better judgment and Merry, and Pippin, and Legolas, and Gimli and not only commit suicide himself, but convince all of the others to do the same thing to do what looks like sure death, and would have been if Frodo hadnt gotten there.
The lesson is the union with others is more significant than your individual existence. It doesnt deny the importance of your individual existence; it just means that you are a better person the more you connect with others. Youre going to know more, youre going to be stronger, and youre going to have a better life if you get over yourself.
Over the course of making the trilogy, did you have any kind of a life lesson come home to you that you think would be particularly valuable to pass on to teenagers today.
I dont know how to put it in one quick sentence, but Get over yourself, I guess.
I mean its part of growing up.
My son is 15 and he [smiles] he has a healthy lack of respect for me in a way.
Just as Aragorn has had as his friend and mentor Gandalf for decades just as with any father and a teacher there comes a point where to become mature as a person, whether the decision in itself is good or bad, a moment at some point you have to say, Okay, now I have to think for myself. To judge when that is, its hard to say. But at some point you have to make that break to be an individual.
In the story, at least in the moviewell, not in this one, anyway, but in the Extended Editiontheres a point where there is a hint of that when Aragorn says, I think we should do this thing. We should go to the Black Gate and draw them. When Eomer says, We cannot win with strength of arms, hes saying, Thats suicide. And Aragorn says, Yeah. But thats the best thing we can do. Thats him thinking for himself and making his own decision.
Its good you when you have to do that. Im not saying tell your parents to f*** off immediately.
Maybe it has more to do with your peers. Theres the one side which is Get over yourself and dont be selfish and listen to others. But you have to balance that with Dont believe everything you hear. There comes a point where you have to say, Hmm, the newspaper says this or that. The President said this or that. Youre not forced to, but you can try to inform yourself further and make up your own mind.
Youve passed over a Rubicon from being an actor to being a celebrity. Do you feel a responsibility to use that platform that you have to share your political beliefs, or do you just do that out of who you are?
No. Ive never really done that before. It is really just a reaction that comes out of being told over and overnot askedbut told, as if it is an accepted fact, that in the case of this story there is a direct parallel. In other words, we, the Fellowship are the United States, and the bad guys are the faceless or brown-faced nameless Islamic terrorists. Its a dangerous comparison to make.
Its just as faulty as what Tolkien objected so strongly to, which was to knowingly misapply Nordic cosmology, literature, mythology, to justify the military actions or the racist policies of the Third Reich.
It bothered me, so I reacted. I thought, at a certain point Im seeming to agree with what theyre saying, and I cant do that morally. Do you know what I mean?
And I dont think that its my jobor any celebritys jobto speak out. But on the other hand, I disagree with people who say, Youre a celebrity, so just shut your mouth and do your thing.
You saw that in the Vietnam war, where the government would say things or the media would reinforce that, [saying]: Let the congressmen, let the people in government judge the moral course of the country. There were placed there to judge these things. Let them do it Thats not what this country is about. This government is a government by the people, for the people.
Its wrong to say, Because youre a plumber, a taxi driver, a journalist, an actor, unemployed, a single mother you dont have a right to say anything. The history of the United States and other nations [shows that the practice of] leaving to those who govern the moral decision-making and the course of the country has not been a very successful one.
Given that, what is your worldview, your platform for making these moral judgments?
I believe we have more in common with other people than not. And for the United States, in regards to Afghanistanwhich is treated already as the distant past almost like Vietnam, and the government likes it that waythe consequences of what we did there are still being felt and will be for a long time generations. Forget about the effect on our infrastructure and our standing in the world.
[pauses, searching for the best words]
My point of view is that we have more in common with others than not. If you look at yourself as this countrys government has tried toWere Americans. Were different. If we can use the U.N. as we did in Korea or in the first invasion of Iraq, and theyre going to go along with us, then great. If not, then screw em. Were Americans, we have a right to do things that other countries dont. By separating yourselves as Americans, as Frenchmen, as Iraqis, to separate yourselves from others and consider yourselves as special or different, thats to construct the walls of your own prison. Thats a one-way road going the wrong way.
Aragorns of noble birth, but he doesnt seem to want to accept his kingship. Do you think that individuals have been given special talents or tremendous resources have a responsibility to intervene where we see injustice?
Aragorn accepts it to do well by his fellow men, and realizes that if he doesnt do something it wont get done. [But] those words can be easily twisted and abused. Those kinds of words can be used to justify actions that those who undertake them and have the information available know is misleading that they are misapplying those words and those ideas.
That is reprehensible. Its as reprehensible as what the Germans did, in terms of the high ideals of Nordic literature and Nordic mythology.
I see what your point is, but I dont think the United States has any more of a right to police the world than any other country.
Where we go wrong is in saying that we do not have to adhere to the principles or the ideals of the community of nations we just spat on that, and did what we wanted, and walked right over that, and did what we wanted out of self-interest. That is really what we did. That cannot be questioned. We denied what the U.N. was saying. We said, No whats good for us might not be good for you, but we dont care. Thats what we did.