Nearly every young actor in Hollywood wanted the role of Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Viggo Mortensen is looking every bit the bohemian, barefoot and sipping a special Argentine tea, as he talks about his role in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three Lord of the Rings films.
Actually, Mortensen isn’t so much answering questions as asking them, wondering aloud whether people who haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books will understand his character, Aragorn, the woodsman warrior who joins the quest to destroy an evil ring.
It didn’t help that Mortensen, 43, was cast at the last minute, when director Peter Jackson decided that actor Stuart Townsend was too young for the role.
“Viggo exhibited what can only be described as a huge amount of courage,” Jackson says.
“It was like, ‘Well, Viggo, if you want to do the film, you’ve got to get on a plane tomorrow, you’ve got to come to New Zealand for 15 months.’ I think Viggo has to be admired for his sheer courage in saying yes to that.”
In the end, the experience helped Mortensen understand the character.
“He’s brave and he’s capable, but inside he’s afraid,” the actor says. “I certainly could identify with that as an actor, being thrown into the situation. I was cast, I assume, by Peter, because he had seen something else I had done…and thought I was the right guy for the part, but that’s easy for them to say.
“Inside, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can pull it off this time.’ You know what I mean? I think Aragorn feels that way.”
Such matters worry the contemplative actor, who’s also an accomplished photographer, painter and poet. Before doing the movie, he hadn’t read Tolkien, although he was familiar with earlier literature that inspired it.
Of cutting down Lord of the Rings for film, Mortensen says, with all sincerity, “I miss the poetry that could have been there if the movie was eight hours long.”
Born to a Danish father and an American mother, Mortensen spent much of his childhood living around the world, in Manhattan, then Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark. He started acting in New York, moved to Los Angeles and had his screen debut as a young Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s Witness in 1985.
He followed that with a variety of roles, from the bad-seed brother in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner to Gwyneth Paltrow’s treacherous lover in A Perfect Murder.
Mortensen says he shares a love of the outdoors with his Lord of the Rings character, as well as the mentality of a wanderer.
“All actors are by necessity somewhat nomadic and somewhat displaced and at best flexible and adaptable creatures,” he says. “That’s what actors are and that’s what Aragorn is.”
Aragorn is also a warrior, and Mortensen had the bumps and bruises to show for it, along with a chipped tooth. He says he enjoyed leaping into the fight scenes as soon as he arrived in New Zealand.
“I basically got there and had a couple of days with (fight choreographer) Bob Anderson and then was thrown to the cameras,” he says.
“But that was a good way to start in a way, with swordplay, because I got the physical start to finding this character, and that was a huge help.”
As for the grueling shooting schedule in New Zealand, Mortensen offers a quote from Lord of the Rings spoken by the elf warrior Legolas:
“‘The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long stream.’
“And that’s what it was like being there as well…it was a real epic journey for us.”