With The Lord of the Rings‘ forthcoming release on the big screen, Viggo Mortensen shares his excitement with Ian Spelling on portraying the role of Aragorn in the trilogy.
Viggo Mortensen, to hear his co-stars, director and producer tell it, took his Lord of the Rings role as Aragorn/Strider about as seriously as he possibly could. Fellow actors speak of his passion for the training, while Peter Jackson tells of Mortensen’s understanding of the character and his place in Middle Earth, while producer Barrie Osborne shakes his head in amazement as he recalls Mortensen cracking a tooth during a scene, but insisting shooting continue. So just how into Lord of the Rings—which tells the story of the epic quest to destroy a Ring and also features Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Liv Tyler as Arwen—was Mortensen?
“I think, like everybody, I didn’t want to let my end down,” replies the actor, who joined the cast late in the game, after Stuart (Queen of the Damned) Townsend, who’d been cast as Aragorn, left the project once Jackson and Osborne decided he was simply too young to portray the character. “I wanted to do my very best. It was a very long period, a year and a half, but it’s one chance to really do justice to the character and to be a part of the story. I always do my best whatever job I have. This happened to be one of the better jobs, better opportunities, I’ve ever had. The material it’s based on, the mythology that Tolkien borrowed from, whether it be Norse mythology or Celtic or Finnish, were things I’d grown up with to some degree, was familiar with. And I wanted to do right by that. The thing that fascinates me about the Fellowship, generally, is that each individual has his private struggle, his self-doubt. There is no one hero, really, no matter how one may want to simplify it. No one [person] in The Fellowship is the hero of the story. Everybody has his flaws.
“I can’t imagine anybody else doing it better than Pete or having the endurance to do it. He really worked as hard as possible to ensure that the characters worked on many levels and in many situations. There are other epic movies, not to name names, where they may borrow from the same mythology, but it doesn’t feel as complete or thorough because the characters and the relationships between the characters aren’t as fleshed out. Pete really went for detail. As much as you get the big picture, the scope of things, there’s a lot of nuance in the characterizations. Nobody stays the same all the time. All the characters have ups and downs.”
Everyone in the massive production that was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King—which will be released, respectively, in December 2001, 2002 and 2003—repeats one of two phrases like a mantra. And those phrases are “16 months” or “a year and a half,” the lengths of time most of the main cast toiled on the ambitious trilogy, which was shot back-to-back-to-back in Jackson’s native New Zealand. “It became a round-the-clock thing,” acknowledges Mortensen, an actor best known for his work in The Indian Runner, Crimson Tide and A Perfect Murder. “But the cast and crew was living the story as it was told. Sometimes on movies, you feel like the crew likes the story they are telling. It’s not just making something and getting a paycheck every week. This was a cast and crew that were on board for a long time. There were pregnancies and deaths and divorces and marriages and injuries.
“It was tough. All of a sudden somebody was over in the corner crying. Somebody [else] would go over and put their arm around them or take them for a walk. There was interaction between cast and crew. It was a complete team. It was, in a sense, a fellowship of thousands of people who traveled from place to place. I didn’t always feel safe, in the sense that you’d just be diving into a scene where you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off right now. Here come the clouds. We get one crack at it.’ At the end of the day, though, I always felt that there was a certain safety in the family we were a part of, in isolation from the rest of the world. I thought it was good that we shot, not in Europe, not in North America, but in this place that was different.”
Mortensen goes on to explain that even though he was, in effect, portraying two characters—Strider and Aragorn, though he goes by other names as well, among them Elessar—he thought of them as one. He also looked at the three films as the parts of a whole, as chapters in a single story. “I didn’t see them as separate,” the actor says. “I know that Tolkien when he began to write the character of Strider, [made him] someone who was a forest guide, someone skilled in hunting and woodcraft. He didn’t really know where it was going to go. But I had the benefit of knowing, as does anybody who reads the book, who he really is. In one sense, he is an orphaned soul who does know—as opposed to Boromir—another aspect of the history of Middle Earth because of his upbringing. He understands the dangers of the Ring in a different way. Boromir is less likely to trust elves and dwarves, whereas Aragorn, because of his upbringing with the elves and the knowledge of his own history, places a value on the different intelligent species in Middle Earth. So he sees the value of alliance throughout [the Fellowship’s quest]. On the other hand, by having a knowledge of knowing what his antecedents had done—who were strong individuals, but in the end succumbed to the temptation of the Ring and lost their individuality and, therefore, their souls, so to speak—he does not know whether he will be able to do right by it. In a way, it’s a curse, having too much knowledge about the Ring. He would never even touch it, whereas Boromir, on a practical level, understandably thinks, ‘It’s a nuclear weapon. Let’s use the damn thing.'”
Anyone who reads the Lord of the Rings trilogy realizes that the Aragorn-Arwen romance, while pivotal, receives little in the way of development. In fact, it’s only detailed in an appendix. “She’s kind of Aragorn’s inspiration, on some level, throughout,” Mortensen says, speaking first of Aragorn’s bond with Arwen, then his own bond with Liv Tyler. “She’s his nuse. There’s a faded aspect to that relationship. I think he is always conscious of it and troubled by it, that it is his destiny to be with her somehow. Also, as much as he feels guilt over his own heritage and what damage was done by his forefathers, he also feels guilty that if he were to end up with her he’d rob her of her immortality. If an elf is with a human, they lose that. And working with Liv was good. She was part of the team. Everybody was supportive of each other and I felt the same thing from her.”
Acting ranks as just one of Mortensen’s many skills. He’s also a poet, a painter and a photographer. Not surprisingly, Mortensen’s Lord of the Rings experience spilled over into his other interests. Or perhaps it was the other way around. “I took photographs while I was there,” he acknowledges. “I think I wrote a little bit. But it was definitely on the side. I didn’t have much time for it. I would do it at night sometimes or if I couldn’t sleep. New Zealand itself is an amazing country. It has so many things in a relatively small geographical area. You drive around a corner and a half an hour later there’s a jungle, then a glacier, then a primeval forest. And the weather changes so much. That place will always be imprinted on my memory.”
In the end, Mortensen believes that Jackson pulled off the impossible, or at least, the incredibly rare: he’s created a fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the little things, from costume details to character development. “Personally, when I watch fantasy movies, I don’t usually enjoy them because I find an appalling lack of attention to detail and gritty realism in them,” Mortensen concludes. “I think that what Pete did was to get the most fantastic shots and imagery and thought-provoking dialogue and visuals. But he coupled it with a really grounded [sense of reality]. It was rough when it needed to be and it was cold and messy when it needed to be. No matter how extreme the conditions, he shot so much of the characters in close-up. There was nowhere to hide in that sense. It didn’t matter if you were the enemy or in the Fellowship. You see in every character’s eyes what’s going on and where their weaknesses and strengths are. It’s like acting and being this close, and we were often that way. He shot it that way. It’s not that pretty. That’s why Lord of the Rings is different.