There are no angry, nose-less Orcs slithering around L.A. today. No mammoth-like Mumakil, up-tusking publicists into the relatively smog-free air. As far as one can tell, no Dark Forces are afoot threatening to upset the safety and security of men, or Elves.
The sun is out. The sky is blue. A lady-in-waiting delivers a roast beef sandwich with Russian dressing. And a brownie. And a cookie.
It’s good to be the king.
And it’s not bad being the star, either—although around here, star isn’t the wisest word. Amid the circus-tented, mini-Middle-earth that’s been erected on the grounds of a veterans hospital by New Line Cinema to promote “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”—opening Wednesday everywhere—the paradigm is parity, the code word fellowship, the ethos one of brotherhood and equal time.
“We really bonded as a cast. We really enjoyed each other’s company and had a lot of fun,” says Orlando Bloom, who portrays the very blond Elf archer Legolas. “It was all about the group.” And we hadn’t even asked.
Still, unlike the previous two installments in the Tolkien-inspired trilogy—”The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) and “The Two Towers” (2002)—”The Return of the King ” has a title character. And he’s played by Viggo Mortensen. Frodo, the Hobbit Ring-bearer, may be humanity’s only hope. Gandalf may be the coolest wizard ever to wear white. But Aragorn—heir to the kingdom of Gondor, the bearer of the sword Andúril, forged from the shards of Narsil—is the movie’s poster warrior.
Today, the king has no shoes. He is wearing a suit, some kind of denim-meets-serge set-up with a blue plaid shirt. His steely hair is brushy. His blue eyes are, to use a totally appropriate cliche, piercing.
Like Bloom, he seems a little sad that the whole four-year shebang is over—although it isn’t, really.
“Not only are we going to continue to promote the trilogy and its third part, but also the extended version next year,” Mortensen says, dutifully plugging not only the movie but the DVD. “It’s going to go on for a while, and I’m not in any hurry to finish. And I won’t be, in the sense that we’re all going to be friends now and will remain friends. I mean, we went through too much together, good and bad, for that not to be the case.”
Mortensen, 45, New York-born product of a Danish father and an American mother, has had an up-and-down career. The downs include “G.I.Jane” and “A Perfect Murder,” in which he played the homicidal Gwyneth Paltrow’s boyfriend. The ups have included Gus van Sant’s remake of “Psycho” and “A Walk on the Moon,” in which he got to frolic with Diane Lane.
Aragorn, however, has put Mortensen on the A-list. Next year, for instance, he stars in Disney’s $90 million “Hidalgo,” in which he races an American mustang against Arabians in Arabia. The two previous “Ring” films have earned close to $2 billion worldwide. Reflected box office, like reflected glory, is hardly the worst thing in the world.
But at Mortensen’s age and temperament—he is a writer, a painter and a photographer who has exhibited in L.A. and New York—an actor can be preoccupied with other things. Among them, the trilogy’s fealty to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), Oxford don and author of a body of literature that has long generated religious-type fervor among its fans.
“I always felt from the very beginning that I was being directed by two main directors, one being Peter Jackson, the other being Tolkien,” Mortensen says. “The third, aside from assistant director Carolynne Cunningham, was my conscience. But that’s always the case.”
Although he was no Tolkien-ite before being cast in the films—”I got the job, and a couple of days later I was shooting, basically”—he clearly has developed not only a devotion to but a knowledge of the “Ring.”
“There were many times that we took words or dialogue, or songs, directly from the books, and I was especially pleased when we could incorporate that in some sort of organic, moviemaking way,” he says. “Especially when we spoke Elvish. And I was very pleased that I was allowed at the beginning and at the end of the trilogy to include an Elvish song.”
One, “The Lay of Luthien,” which Mortensen sings in the extended edition of the first film, is about characters not unlike Aragorn and his love, the Elf maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler), who must decide between immortality and the good cause. Like them, the song’s subjects—the mortal Beren and the Elf maiden Luthien—have problems getting together. What Mortensen says he appreciated especially was how the song served to foreshadow events to follow and illuminate characters in ways both effective and Tolkienesque.
Another song comes at the end. Mortensen recites the words:
“From across the sea I am come to Middle-earth
In this place will I abide
And my heirs until the ending of time”
“And while he didn’t, literally, any more than his ancestors since Elendil, I liked the idea that each of the kings that have been crowned since Elendil has spoken those words,” Mortensen says. “And whether they have or haven’t, it’s nice that Aragorn does it, because he gives a nod to the past and tradition. He also speaks about the present—’This is where I am’—the future—’This is what I intend to do.’ It’s very good for the story, and given that it’s right out of the book, it was a nice way of returning the favor to Tolkien.”
“The Lord of the Rings,” one of the most ambitious and successful film projects of its kind or any others, has at its center one unquestioned star: technology, something director Jackson uses to extraordinary effect. It’s the computer, ultimately, that is the star of “ROTK”—and its predecessors, too. Mortensen knows it.
“If an actor was looking for a chance to give a standout, stand-alone performance, they were in the wrong project,” he says. “It wasn’t that kind of movie. So I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t disappointed that in the first movie, for instance, half or more of what my character does is gone. Fortunately, we have these extended versions, and you get to see that.
“I think Tolkien’s reasons for writing the book had a lot to do with showcasing his interest in language, linguistics, history, mythology, particularly the literature and mythology and cosmology of the north, Scandinavia, the sagas and all that. I think that Peter Jackson’s motivations are largely about the medium. He was inspired, and he said so, by Ray Harryhausen, probably by Fritz Lang [‘Metropolis’]. He’s one of those kinds of director—a Cecil B. DeMille, a George Lucas. This was a chance for him to explore the technology and that kind of vision. But he not only matched in the third film anything George Lucas has done, he passed him by a mile. And it’s going to be a long time before anyone matches what Peter did in this third movie.”
Mortensen eats some sandwich. It’s been a long day—and a long four years for him, a long seven for Jackson, in getting “Lord of the Rings” completed. Just to kill a few moments of chewing time, we mention a Danish friend who loves Mortensen but says Danish people find his name amusing, because it’s, well …
“Corny?” he says. “Yeah, I know. It would be like being called Oscar. Or Otto. It’s an old name. A really, really old name. And a little bit corny. Like Oswald or something …”
“Yeah! Elmer. Yeah,” Mortensen says. “I think there’s a comic strip in Denmark, a Dennis the Menace character, and his name is Viggo. He’s all over the place.”
It’s been remarked on before, by co-workers and journalists, that Mortensen has something strangely beautiful about him, and he does. A measured rhythm to his speech, a willingness, if not a need, to please. He is remarkably cooperative with a photographer trying to get him into a tree for a shot to go with this story, and even if he weren’t a photographer himself, one senses he’d still make the effort.
He doesn’t separate one vocation from the other.
“I wrote and took photographs and drew and all that long before I even thought about becoming an actor,” he says. “They’re all part of the same thing—efforts to notice what’s happening, efforts at being here, being present. For an actor, if you want to grow and get the most out of yourself and tell the best story, then reacting is essential, being open to changing your mind. It’s a good thing to be as aware of your surroundings as possible.
“You don’t even have to take the picture,” he says, back to photography. “But you have the camera with you, it’s in the car, you get in the habit of looking. Whether it’s writing or painting or just having a conversation, you’re exercising those observation muscles more often and more thoroughly.”
The photographer, Anacleto Rapping, mentions that one of Mortensen’s books got a friend back into taking pictures. Mortensen is understandably pleased. “I have had people write me,” he says, “or I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I’ve had this camera I haven’t used,’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to write, and now I’m going to do it,’ and they figure if I can do it so can they.”
Since we’ve been talking politics, it’s suggested he send a book to Washington.
“Bush take up photography?” Mortensen asks. “Just to sort of be maybe vaguely aware of what’s going on? You have to care about what’s going on.”
Perceiving connections is what it’s all about, even in the “mixed race’ (Elf-man-dwarf) coalition of “The Return of the King.”
“What this story is about, and what the experience of working with these people is about,” he says, “is celebrating the idea of fellowship and community, celebrating the effort to find common ground and considering that we really do have a lot more in common with others than not.
“I think in these times,” he says, “there is a temptation to consider yourself different, perhaps better than other people and other countries, not obligated to follow the rules of human conduct or common decency, that the laws that apply to what I think is a very good idea, a community of nations, or, say, the Kyoto Protocol, or anything like that, that they don’t apply to us. We’re Americans, for example: We don’t have to do this; we don’t have to do that; we don’t have to listen; we can do our own thing.
“When you do that as an individual, you separate yourself from other people, or as a nation from other nations; you are building the walls of your own prison, brick by brick.”