It was just a rumor—but it gave hope to the Danish relatives. An affair with Gwyneth Paltrow? Well, she would have him comb his hair more often! But no. Someone had made it up, and the hair stays unkempt, and—despite the un-do—Viggo Mortensen became more famous by the day. The fact that he gives interviews to the world press about his role of the warrior Aragorn in the film epic The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills is a sign that he has made it. And the fact that he runs around barefoot and with oil paint in his dark-blond hair is the proof that he didn’t have to give up his unpretentious hippy-lifestyle for it. Which is of advantage even in his profession: On the New-Zealand Lord of the Rings set he didn’t even complain when he got a piece of a front tooth knocked out during a sword-fighting scene. He had it re-attached with super glue and continued on… [sic]

First impression: Viggo Mortensen is unconventional, without trying to be, and he has surprisingly good manners. He is not pretty in the common sense, but the 45-year old was voted into the list of 50 most beautiful people by an American magazine in 2002. ELLE-correspondent Martina Fischer talked with him.

ELLE: You have been in over 30 movies (Portrait of a Lady, A Perfect Murder, 28 Days), and critics confirm that you out-played co-stars like Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas. Despite that many still believe you are a “new face” in the movies. How do you deal with that?

Viggo Mortensen: Well, if it means that people aren’t tired of me yet. I seem to have a long shelf life. Not so well, if I still haven’t managed to establish a reputation as a character actor.

ELLE: How did the method actor Viggo Mortensen end up in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth?

V.M.: I was at home with my son Henry when I got a call, and it was “If you want this role you have to get on the plane tomorrow and spend the next year-and-a-half in New Zealand.” Henry, at that point 11 years old, was standing next to me. When I put down the phone he said, “The books are cool—you should take the offer.” I had doubts because I couldn’t imagine being separated from my son for that long. But he gave me his blessing. (Henry stems from a now divorced marriage to punk-singer Exene Cervenka and they share custody)

ELLE: So the decision was not easy.

V.M.: Well, I was a bit scared. I was to replace another actor. Filming in New Zealand had already begun. And I am someone who likes to take his time for decisions. I did it because I felt that I would regret a ‘no’ someday. Not because it was a huge Hollywood production—these criteria are not important for me. But I knew that I would forever feel like a coward if I hadn’t tried this.

ELLE: Did you know the story?

V.M.: I had heard of the Tolkien books, but I had never read them, and I wasn’t aware of the enormous fan cult that existed around the trilogy and its characters. I started reading the first book on the flight to New Zealand. It took but an hour before I discovered the archetypes and story lines that had been familiar to me from the Nordic Sagas since my youth in Denmark. I realized that I would play a type of Viking warrior—a heroic character with all his weaknesses and self doubts which affected the best bravest of these legendary heroes.

ELLE: It is said that you rarely took off the costume during filming, and that you even slept in the woods several times.

V.M.: I went fishing by myself a couple of times. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places I have seen, but I did not live in the woods. That wouldn’t have worked because I would have missed the wakeup call. And I do like to shower at least once a week.

ELLE: You got around quite a bit as a child. You were born in New York, grew up in Argentina, Venezuela and Denmark…

V.M.: Yes, and now I became an adult in New Zealand. All together I spent almost 2 years there. Once more there was a lot to learn for me.

ELLE: How did you become an actor?

V.M.: Like most people I loved to go to the movies as a teen. But I reached the point some day where it wasn’t enough anymore to be entertained, but I wanted to know how the actors on the screen did it. So I went to New York and attended Warren Robertson’s Theater Workshop.

ELLE: And in-between you sold popcorn…

V.M.: …together with ice cream and movie tickets in New York. And roses and vetches on the city streets of Copenhagen. I drove a truck and worked as a bar tender. Studied a bit. All the stuff people do when they are young. Well, and then I returned—indirectly—to selling popcorn.

ELLE: Similar to your acting colleague Dennis Hopper, whom you are friends with, you also have a solid reputation as a painter.

V.M.: I’ve been doing that much longer than acting. As a child I didn’t go anywhere without my pencils. There is a drawing titled “Red Ridinghood” in one of my old notebooks which I did when I was about 7 years old. Rather wild, very colorful and very abstract. I still like it today. But across the drawing someone had written with red pen and double-underlined “Very poor.” There are still teachers who think something like this is motivating.

ELLE: At a recent exhibit opening in a gallery in Santa Monica you had about one-and-a-half-thousand mostly female visitors….

V.M.: Yes, that was a bit overwhelming. Many brought their cameras and Tolkien memorabilia with my picture, and I was asked for lots of autographs. While that was somewhat uncomfortable, I thought that while they are here they will look at my art, and maybe some will even like it…