Fellowship is hell. Just ask Viggo Mortensen, who took a beating over the course of the 15 months he spent portraying the heroic Aragorn (a.k.a. Strider) in Peter Jackson’s ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“We had long battle sequences,” says the ruggedly handsome actor, whose credits include The Prophecy, A Perfect Murder and the remake of Psycho. “I got a tooth knocked out, broken toes, and lots of cuts and sprains and pulled muscles. Everybody had something. When my tooth got knocked out, it was lunch time, so I went to the dentist, came back and we continued the scene after lunch. The action was pretty intense.
“We would get something ready and then, knowing we only had a few takes, just go as hard as we could,” he explains. “We became a team to [the point] where we would trust each other, because sometimes we had to make adjustments on the day or on the apot or from angle to angle. Someone might do a fluid move with a sword, and then you might head-butt another guy or just scramble or crawl away or bite or kick a person. Everybody got hurt a bit. And the more you did, the more chances you had of getting hurt. But I’ve got to say the stunt guys really took some hits, so anything we went through really didn’t compare.”
Aragorn is the mysterious human hero who joins the group of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and humans to form the Fellowship, nine crusaders tasked with bringing the One Ring to Mount Doom in order to destroy it before the dark forces can use its unequaled power. Aragorn is no mere mortal, however; he comes with a hidden past and a secret destiny. And the love of his life is the Elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), who would gladly give up her immortality to be with him.
“I hadn’t read the books until I got the job,” admits Mortensen, who assumed the role after the previously cast Stuart (Queen of the Damned) Townsend left the project. “I got the job and had to be on the plane the next day. I really didn’t want to do it at first, but my son said,’You have to do it.’ He’s 13. He knows the stories. I thought, ‘Well, jeez, I don’t even know what it’s about.’
“Then I started reading it and I realized, ‘What am I going to do? These actors have been there for months getting ready.’ But most of the material is based on Norse and Celtic mythology, and on fairy tales that we’re all familiar with. So I thought, ‘OK, this is something I play-acted when I was a kid. This will be fun.’ Just like every character [in the story], Aragorn has his self-doubts and his weaknesses as well. That’s what’s good about the Fellowship and why there isn’t one true hero. Everybody has their weak moment and needs to be supported by the others.”
Mortensen found his own support system in the person of his director. Jackson tackled the massive Rings trilogy by shooting the three films back-to-back-to-back in his native New Zealand. “Pete counted on all the actors and the crew really bringing as much as they could to it,” Mortensen remarks. “Rather than being somebody who was nervous over the budget and was like, ‘Just do it. Just stand here,’ Pete didn’t do that. He was always looking for detail.”
New Zealand, enthuses the actor, was a revelation. “I had heard it was beautiful,” he says. “My brother had been there. He’s a geologist and he had been around, mostly in the south end. New Zealand was a great asset to the movie, because most of the film isn’t special effects. Most of it is in real places, and much of it is gritty drama with complex characters. To have New Zealand, the special places there, be a backdrop, was wonderful. As a person who likes the oudoors, it was just a gift.”
In the end, the actor thinks the Lord of the Rings series will be a gift to both J.R.R. Tolkien fans and general movie audiences. “I want them to have fun and see a good story well told,” says Viggo Mortensen. “As a kid—maybe it happens more, but as an adult less and less—you would walk out of a movie theater and you might not even say anything. You would just be like, ‘Wow!’ You were drawn into that world, and you would come out of the theater and think, ‘Oh, it’s summer in Omaha, Nebraska,’ or wherever you were. You realize you had just been transported, as you hoped to be and rarely are anymore. Hopefully, we’ve done that.”