LOS ANGELES — As odd as the connection might seem, there is something about “Lord of the Rings” actor Viggo Mortensen that unearths memories of “Apocalypse Now.”
Marlon Brando’s enigmatic, cerebral Col. Kurtz was, as co-star Dennis Hopper says in 1979’s blow-your-mind Vietnam War film, “a poet-warrior in the classic sense.”
“The man’s enlarged my mind,” Hopper’s character says. “He’ll grab you, he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, ‘Do you know that “if” is the middle word in life?’ ”
Mortensen is a much saner character than the insane, fictional Kurtz, of course. But the actor who plays the title warrior in “The Return of the King,” the final installment in director Peter Jackson’s popular J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, is in real life a poet whose words surge with Kurtz-like power.
“The journey is more important than if you get there or not,” Mortensen says while recently promoting the movie at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel. And he’s just getting warmed up. “It’s not where you are, it’s how you are,” he adds. And, later: “You make what you want of any experience.”
After two decades of playing small parts, often in romance films like “A Walk on the Moon” with Diane Lane or sexy thrillers like “A Perfect Murder” with Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, the actor with the philosophical bent, has swiftly, unexpectedly climbed to the top of mainstream consciousness.
He’s the virtuous king in “Return of the King,” the rugged, long-haired, immensely handsome Aragorn in Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasy of hobbits, wizards and epic battles of good against evil. Aragorn is interested in love and honor. In “Return of the King,” he can lead an army of ghosts into fierce battle and, later, sing a gentle song of peace in the language of elves.
Mortensen is ruggedly handsome, too. He’s 45 and looks like he’s going on 36—the dimpled chin, the bare hint of beard stubble. Age lines have, somehow, been mostly forbidden to trespass his face. His hair—mostly dark and sandy, with the slightest touch of red—is cut shorter now than fans have ever seen him wear it. His eyes are the intense blue of Caribbean waters. Acting is just part of what he does. He writes poetry and is a photographer. He paints. In conversation, he’ll quote Joseph Campbell (“The privilege of a lifetime is being yourself”), Walt Whitman, even Immanuel Kant.
“He’s got an immensely capable exterior face and an immensely rich interior persona,” observes Jonathan Rhys-Davies, who plays “Rings’ ” fighting dwarf, Gimli.
Liv Tyler, who portrays Mortensen’s love interest, the elf Arwen, in Jackson’s sagas, puts it more succinctly: “Women go nuts over Viggo.”
Mortensen takes a jocular approach to his newfound fame and sexy image, which has intensified as he’s been spotted out in public more often with “Rings” co-stars such as Elijah Wood (who plays Frodo), Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin).
“Every time my pockets get full of strangers’ phone numbers, I empty the contents of one pocket to Dominic and the other to Billy,” he says with a smile. “And then it’s their problem.”
“Rings” has meant more film offers. In March, he will star in the $90 million Disney movie “Hidalgo,” in which he plays Frank T. Hopkins, a seasoned Pony Express-style rider in 1890 invited to compete in a 3,000-mile race against Arabians in the Middle East.
But Mortensen isn’t expecting “Rings” to completely alter his approach to life, either personally or professionally.
“I don’t think I’ll change the way I run my career, which is not to run it at all,” he says. “I try to find—or hope it finds me—a good story or a challenging story, or I run out of money. And 99 percent of the time, it’s because I run out of money. Then whatever I am lucky enough to find to get out of debt or pay the rent, that’s what I do. That’s what I’m comfortable doing. Every once in a while, you get lucky. Every once in a while, you get a phone call about a movie in New Zealand.”
His off-screen life is uncelestial, considering that he’s getting ever closer to the status of bankable Hollywood star.
Mortensen doesn’t possess a cellphone. His car has no CD player. One thing he did buy for himself: T.J., the steed he rode in the upcoming “Hidalgo.” He lives modestly in California’s Topanga Canyon, roughly 30 miles west of Hollywood, in a suburban home full of art, drawings and photographs.
He’s part owner of Perceval Press which publishes books from various artists. Mortensen’s own book, “Miyelo,” involves his series of large-scale photographs of a Lakota Ghost Dance that he shot with a single roll of film in March. The colorful prints use blurred images to illustrate the re-creation of a dance originally performed by members of Chief Big Foot’s band in 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek, S.D. His photographs also grace “45301,” a book of abstract images and scribbled phrases from poems involving the actor’s trips to Morocco, Cuba and the northern plains of the United States.
“I know that ‘Lord of the Rings’ has helped,” Mortensen says of his publishing effort. “It’s made people curious. They might go to an exhibition of one of the [artists].”
He has created music and spoken-word recordings with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Buckethead and some of his “Rings” co-stars in a CD called “Pandemoniumfromamerica.”
His paintings are large abstractions, often splashed with strong reds and blues, and sometimes featuring simple written messages like “get out more.” Some of his paintings, which he created in off-screen friend Dennis Hopper’s studio, filled the loft of the artist Mortensen played in “A Perfect Murder.”
Women might label some of his poetry “dreamy.” “Just Coffee,” for instance, begins like this: “He wanted bigger love, had to have it like he had to dream himself to sleep.”
Acting, writing, painting. They’re all equal to Mortensen.
“They are like branches of the same tree,” he says. “They feel similar, and all have to do with being in the moment. Not just walking by and not noticing your surroundings. Once you get in the habit of, say, taking a camera with you, whether you use the camera or not, the potential that you might means you are already looking at things in a different way. It’s a start, isn’t it?”
While acting, he’s known to get deep into character. Michael Douglas says of his “Perfect Murder” co-star, “He’s a method-actor in a leading man’s body.”
During a break in the filming of “Rings,” Jackson says he met Mortensen at a restaurant and, as a lark, called him Aragorn in conversation for a half-hour. Mortensen, Jackson says, never noticed.
Mortensen admits he does absorb the character he’s playing. But unlike many actors, he never lets the personality go.
“You hear a lot of people saying, ‘I want to get rid of that character’ or ‘It took me days, weeks, months, years to shed the skin of that character,’ but I don’t,” he says. “We’re all going to get old and die, and if we live long enough, we’re going to forget things or lose our memories. That’s just what happens in life. So why be in a hurry to forget something or undo something?
“Any movie or experience, I want it to be a part of me.”
They are words Mortensen speaks with the ease of conviction. They are words you’d expect Hopper in “Apocalypse Now” to immediately understand.