Meet Strider, shady man of Middle-Earth, prowling the land, sleeping rough and menacing young Hobbits in Bree-land taverns. Underneath the muddy hood and travel-stained cloak hides the noble Aragorn, son of Arathorn, elf-friend, chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor, wielder of the sword that was broken and long-lost heir to the throne of Gondor. Both are played by Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen has spent a decade playing shifty characters: alcoholics, stool pigeons, egomaniacs, drill sergeants, seducers, and even the odd Antichrist. Since his 1985 film debut in Peter Weir’s Witness, Mortensen has been in 37 movies. Despite playing opposite such stars as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman, he’s still not a recognised leading man.
“I can’t remember who said this—I think maybe it was Robert Louis Stevenson,” he says, “but I can sort of relate to it, meandering through a film career or the arts in general without seeming to have a really deliberate plan: ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive and the true success is to labour.’ I like that. ‘To travel hopefully.'” Mortensen garnered raves as the bad-ass brother who just can’t turn over a new leaf in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner. His single desperate scene in Carlito’s Way, as a paraplegic ex-con who fails miserably to double-cross Al Pacino, left an indelible impression. For every Portrait of a Lady (he shone as Kidman’s long-suffering suitor), there’s been a Psycho (going through the motions in Gus Van Sant’s remake). For every A Walk on the Moon (sweeping Diane Lane off her feet), there is a Prophecy ( ripping out Christopher Walken’s heart and chewing on it like an orange). Through it all anonymity has claimed him: the 43-year-old has been hailed as a newcomer so many times it’s getting ridiculous.
Those days are likely to be over now that the long awaited first of The Lord of the Rings movies has arrived. Sure, his character in the trilogy, Strider/Aragorn, is only one of the Fellowship of the Ring, the motley band of nine appointed to accompany Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on his mission to destroy the One Ring of Power before the Dark Lord Sauron can use it to take over Middle-Earth.
Aragorn is the one with maximum appeal to both teenage boys (he’s a laconic, sword-fighting, Ranger dude) and teenage girls (he’s a sensitive Númenorean hunk). He is Han Solo to Frodo’s Luke Skywalker—and like Han, Aragorn gets the girl (Liv Tyler’s Arwen).
The Road Goes Ever On
Still, Mortensen is not about to let the stardom thing go to his head. “You can shut yourself in your caravan and be on a cellphone and be very involved in the business of being a movie actor or a personality and miss out on getting to know different kinds of people or places in a full way,” he notes. “Or, if you’re curious, which I am, you can learn a lot from every [movie]. In the end, it’s the journey.”
On 11 October 1999, after four years of planning, director Peter Jackson’s wildly ambitious project to film one of the best-loved novels in the world went before the cameras in New Zealand. Bankrolled by New Line Cinema to the tune of US$270 million, all three Lord of the Rings movies would be filmed in one go for planned release over three successive Decembers. A few days after shooting had begun, Viggo Mortensen took a call from his agent at his modest suburban home in Venice, Los Angeles. The actor cast as Aragorn, 27-year-old Irishman Stuart Townsend (Shooting Fish, Queen of the Damned), had been fired by Jackson due to ‘creative differences’ and the role was being offered to Mortensen. “I don’t know [Townsend] personally but what I gather indirectly is that he was probably relieved, because I think he may have had doubts about his rightness, in terms of age anyway,” Mortensen explains. “This part requires sort of an older dog.”
Mortensen had not read the books and despite the entreaties of his Tolkien-savvy 11-year-old son Henry, he was unsure about plunging unprepared into a protracted shoot in a foreign country. “I guess in the end I did it because I would feel that I had been a chicken shit, really. I had to leave the next day, so I’m on the plane reading, looking at this gigantic book and thinking, ‘What the hell have I done?'”
As he turned the pages the actor, whose father is Danish, realised Tolkien’s debt to the Scandinavian sagas he grew up on. Aragorn was actually in his blood. He also decided to turn his lack of preparation into a strength. “I realised that that’s what this character is dealing with too, his own private fear. He doesn’t lack courage or intelligence, but he’s not sure why he should succeed when the greatest of his ancestors [Isildur] succumbed and was not strong enough to resist the temptation of the ring.”
Three days and a crash course in sword fighting later, he was on a grassy set in a wellington studio, defending the four hobbits played by Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood, from an attack by the Black Riders. it was the first scene in a schedule whose staggering complexity would keep the actors on call six days a week for the next 15 months. “We’d have Sunday afternoon to do laundry and have a beer,” Mortensen recalls, “and then before you knew it you were back on the battlefield.”
Still, the working environment offered many consolations. “The South Island in particular, it’s extraordinary. It was a pleasure to be in the places we filmed in, I love fishing and it’s probably the best place in the world for that.” He rates the army-size cast and crew as “the best team I’ve worked with, easily. basically everybody involved had read the book or was reading it and was into the story they were telling. I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to work again on something with that same team feeling.”
He praises 20-year-old Wood for “his self-control. His ability to be still and receptive in even the most pressured situation is remarkable in some his age.” Ian McKellen, who plays the sorcerer Gandalf, had “more tricks than a bag of merlins and he really used them all.” Of Cate Blanchett (the elf queen Galadriel), he says: “I can’t imagine anyone else playing that part, period.” and as for Jackson: “He was able to keep so many plates spinning, constantly, it was just amazing.”
Mortensen himself comes in for some strong praise from Rings producer Barrie M. Osborne on the films’ official website. “He’s incredibly dedicated. He’s the kind of actor who one day had his tooth knocked out by a sword and actually asked if the could superglue it back on so he could finish the scene. He became Aragorn.”
Reports even had Mortensen bedding down under the stars in an attempt to capture the mindset of the ranger—which he denies. “On the weekends sometimes I’d go camping and stuff and it was probably helpful to remind me of what Aragorn was familiar with, [but] I’ve always been like that, since I was a boy. If I’m by myself in some natural setting I never feel that there’s a second wasted.”
Another rumour involved Liv Tyler’s character, the elf princess Arwen. In the novel Aragorn and Arwen’s affair remains firmly in the background and word that the romance would be expanded in the films resulted in a minor fan outcry. “We pretty much followed the book, but we took elements from the appendix. Tolkien himself admitted that he hadn’t explored the relationship fully and said that that was one of the most important appendices.”
While he has not yet seen The Fellowship of the Ring and has to return to New Zealand next year to complete pick-up shots on The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Mortensen is fiercely proud of the trilogy. “I think that people will see The Lord of the Rings and sit and talk about it afterwards and maybe even argue. And the special effects are great, though they’re not the sole reason for telling the story.”
Mortensen has absorbed the deeper moral implications of the epic tale—so much so that, when we start talking about recent, catastrophic events, he draws an instant connection. “Aragorn is aware that a long time ago humans and elves worked together, when the different peoples hadn’t become isolationist and therefore racist and intolerant of each other. The whole fellowship of the Ring symbolises races working out things together. Not making an effort to understand those who are different is playing into Sauron’s hands.
“The reason there’s so many problems with religion in this world is because people take literally what were symbolic elements. They all believe the same thing essentially and yet they’re willing to die about the details. But religion, myth and fairy tales need to be reinvented and those who manage to do that cleverly are the ones who are saving us from ourselves. I think that Peter Jackson has done that with this story. It’s a reinventing of old myths in the best possible way.”
Mortensen was born in Manhattan on 20 October 1958, the first of three brothers. His father, “sort of a restless person,” changed employment frequently and took the family to live in Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt and Denmark before Viggo had reached his teens. As a consequence, the actor speaks fluent Spanish, as well as Danish, and has made two films in Spain.
Having studied government at St. Lawrence University and acting in New York City with Warren Robertson, he was cast in three movies—including Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo—only to end up on the cutting-room floors of all three. After finally making it to the screen in Witness he moved to L.A. Bartending and truck driving jobs kept him flush in the late 1980s, in between movies such as Fresh Horses, Young Guns II and the bizarre low-budget gem The Reflecting Skin. in 1987 he met and married Exene Cervenka of punk band X; now divorced, the two remain “good friends.”
In the mid-1990s Mortensen scored high-powered parts in two military movies: Crimson Tide and G.I. Jane, the latter memorably requiring him to beat up Demi Moore’s aspiring Navy Seal. “She actually got me in the balls a couple of times,” he recalls with a laugh, “but it was unintentional, I’m sure.” The actor expresses regret that G.I. Jane’s sexual politics went above the heads of the cineplex crowd. “A lot of people thought [my] character was just a sadist,” he laments, pointing out that the master chief is arguably doing the honourable thing in treating Moore as harshly as he would one of the male candidates.
Indeed, Mortensen seems happiest inhabiting roles tinted with shades of grey. Softly spoken, contemplative, uneasy, you never quite feel you know him on screen. On the one hand this makes him problematic star material. Like the 1,000 page Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen’s story comes with appendices that are vital to an understanding of the whole. Painting, photography and poetry are a way of life for him. When he is not acting, he is constantly creating in other media.
“My mother says I’d always go around with a pencil and make drawings. I think everybody naturally makes things, unless they have it beaten out of them by the school system… I just feel worse at the end of a day if I haven’t done a lot of things.”
The author of two published books of poetry, Mortensen is also a photographer. Mortensen’s next show will feature work from the Rings set: eerie images possessed of a Tolkienesque magic all their own. He’s also a painter. His style will be familiar to anyone who saw A Perfect Murder, where Mortensen played the artist with a criminal streak and got into character by knocking up the film’s canvases himself. “I thought, this guy’s masquerading as a painter but his work must be somewhat interesting or original to fool someone like the character Gwyneth Paltrow was playing. So I showed them some samples and they said, ‘Make them a lot bigger and make a lot of them in the next couple of weeks.'”
Does he have an artistic credo—besides ‘more of everything?’ “There are a lot of moments that I treasure, whether they happened in rehearsals or on film, magical moments between people. It’s the same thing if I walked down the street with my camera. That’s ‘travelling hopefully’ to me. I think I’m essentially hopeful and the reason that I paint or photograph or listen to someone who is speaking to me is that I hope something might happen.”