Poor Viggo. It sucks to lose your wallet, but to do it the day before you and your 13-year-old son are going to fly from Spokane, Washington, to your home in Los Angeles is really bad. And to do it while you’re with a journalist who’s profiling you, looking for the symbolic nature of your every gesture, is beyond the pale. Is Viggo Mortensen bucking at responsibility? Is he rejecting his recent pecuniary stability thanks to his starring role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Or is he just out of sorts with his new, much-vaunted place in the world? What does it tell you?
“It tells me that maybe I should quit my fucking job,” Mortensen grumbles as he empties his bags for the third time, thrusting his arms into the side pockets, hoping the missing item will mercifully appear. He rifles through the piles of Native American books and costumes in his trailer, on the set of Hidalgo, here in the northwestern plains of Montana. The movie, a big-budget Disney epic to be released this summer, centers on Mortensen’s Frank Hopkins, a 19th-century Pony Express messenger. Hopkins, who is half-Lakota, races his mustang, Hidalgo, against the Arabic steed of a Middle Eastern sheikh in a quixotic search for redemption. After more than 15 mostly obscure years in the business, the 44-year-old actor has his first solo lead in a major Hollywood movie.
“Maybe I should just do this one and be done with it,” Mortensen says with frazzled exhaustion. And he’s not bluffing. After all, he does have another life (or two, or three): Mortensen has published five books of his paintings, photography, and poetry, and has had five gallery exhibits in Los Angeles and New York City. He has also released several CDs of experimental music.
“Certain people don’t have a lazy bone in their body,” says his good friend, producer Don Phillips. “Viggo is that kind of person who has to be continually on the move. He may sometimes bitch and moan about it, but he loves being busy.”
Currently running on a perilous diet of about five hours of sleep, he’s juggling the journalist; the dropping off of his truck at his brother’s place 300 miles away in Idaho; his son; and his starring in Hidalgo, for which he has to fly to Morocco in three days to continue production.
“I’m just like everyone else here—discombobulated,” he says to a concerned crew member who offers him gas money for the drive home. Mortensen has pretty much resigned himself to the probability that the wallet was mistakenly thrown out by an overeager production assistant cleaning up his trailer. Of course, it could have been stolen, but he prefers not to think that way. Without ID, he won’t be able to fly, so he’ll have to drive the 1,300 or so miles to L.A. in order to make it back in time to “get all this shit done” (including the photo shoot for this magazine) before he flies to northern Africa.
But despite the low-grade grumbling, Mortensen doesn’t seem angry. Or entirely surprised. With a self-deprecating shake of his head, he packs the last of the bags in his Dodge truck. “Oh, man, I’m fried. Refried. And fried again,” he says, with a tired smile. “But I’m already thinking this’ll make a pretty funny part of your interview.”
This is our aragorn; Isildur’s heir, Lord of the Dúnedain, son of Arathorn, the last of the Númenóreans. The one who would be king. Also known as Strider, he is a ranger, a skilled swordsman, and a world traveler. In director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is the valiant human who helps lead the nine-member fellowship—a motley crew of hobbits (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), an elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and another human, Boromir (Sean Bean)—in its quest to destroy the Ring, a source of evil that, in the hands of the dark lord Sauron, would unleash a reign of terror that would befall all of Middle-earth.
The Rings trilogy opened last Christmas with The Fellowship of the Ring, introducing Tolkien’s tale to those few who had not read the book and launching the fellowship on its way toward Sauron’s lair in Mordor. The film ended with Boromir’s betraying the fellowship and being killed by the evil wizard Saruman’s orc henchman, and with the fellowship in disarray. Considering Jackson’s faithfulness to Tolkien’s text so far, this December’s The Two Towers will no doubt follow the fellowship as it splinters into three groups, each of which faces various obstacles along the way toward Sauron’s Dark Tower of Barad-dûr and Saruman’s Tower of Orthanc in Isengard. We’ll have to wait until next December’s The Return of the King for the odyssey to culminate, and the king—that is, Aragorn—to ascend his throne.
The Fellowship pulled in 13 Oscar nominations and more than $860 million at the global box office. With the two other films on the way (all three were shot in one unprecedented span over 15 months in 1999-2000) and potentially billions in total profits, the Lord of the Rings juggernaut, and all those connected to it, will be riding The Fellowship’s elfin coattails deep into the year 2004.
Mortensen’s sudden Hollywood heat, especially as a hunk for the post-adolescent set, is one of Rings’ many success stories (which include New Line’s brilliant business gamble, Jackson’s joining the A-list of directors, and various special-effects landmarks). Which is not to say that he wasn’t an accomplished actor before. Over the years, Mortensen has quietly created an impressive body of work: as a loose cannon in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner; as a sadistic drill sergeant opposite Demi Moore in G.I. Jane; and as the forbidden fruit to both Gwyneth Paltrow and Diane Lane in, respectively, A Perfect Murder and A Walk on the Moon.
“Sure, we thought he was going to make it after The Indian Runner,” Phillips says. “Viggo’s turned down quite a few things that might have made a difference in his life because he just didn’t connect with them creatively. Viggo is his own man. He’s not dictated by the Hollywood horseshit machine. We thought he was going to make it after G.I. Jane. We thought he was going to make it after this, that, whatever. And now he’s in the biggest movie of, well, maybe of all time.”
But “biggest” movie and Hollywood “hunk” are conventional notions of achievement that Mortensen couldn’t care less about. “For Viggo, I think it’s the experience of doing the work and achieving his high standards that are his measure of success,” Diane Lane says. “It’s nice being able to morph and disappear and morph again and reappear. He’s like Hollywood’s secret weapon. The only problem for Viggo might be that it’s not a secret anymore.”
The truth is, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the summer of 1999, while Mortensen and his son, Henry, were taking a 15,000-mile road trip, visiting relatives and friends across the United States, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend was preparing for his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But, already weeks into preproduction in New Zealand, Peter Jackson was realizing that the 26-year-old Townsend just wasn’t the right man for the job.
“Every time I talked to Peter about it, he would say, ‘Well, I want him a little bit older,’ ” says Rings makeup artist Jose Perez, who tried adding more and more gray to Townsend’s beard, but to no avail. “We were forcing it. And Stuart and I knew very well that what they wanted was an older man.”
On the morning of the third day of shooting, it was announced that Townsend would be leaving the production. “A couple of us were crying,” Elijah Wood recalls. “If you can imagine, you spend two months with someone that you assume you’ll be spending the next year and a half with. We had formed a tight bond with this guy. Whether it was right or wrong, it was traumatizing.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Mortensen was painting and focusing on Henry’s getting back to school when he got a call from his agent. She was offering him the role of Aragorn—the caveat being that he’d have to fly to New Zealand the next day. Not having read The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen turned to his son.
“Henry asked, ‘What character?’ And I had to look at what I had written down and I said, ‘Strider?’ ” Mortensen recalls. “And he goes, ‘That’s great. He’s cool.’ ”
Aragorn’s first scene was going to be shot within a week, but Jackson was not confident that he was going to get his man. “We were told it was highly unlikely since Viggo had a reputation for taking a ‘long time’ to commit,” says Jackson, who recalls shooting the scene in which the hobbits are talking to the Bree barkeeper and are just moments away from seeing Aragorn sitting in the corner. “And we had no Aragorn,” he says. But in the middle of shooting, Jackson was rushed off the set to field a call from Mortensen.
“He asked me a series of very intense questions about Aragorn’s character. I stumbled my way through the answers,” Jackson says. “As the questioning continued, I started to realize he wasn’t going to do it. He was somber, very serious, rather dour. Then, without warning, Viggo suddenly said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you in a couple of days!’ ”
Mortensen says he made the leap on the strength of his son’s enthusiasm and the belief that “I would regret not doing it.”
Within 24 hours he was on a plane, thumbing through a copy of the trilogy. It didn’t take long to see that the book “was so densely packed with allusions to so many archetypes and mythological elements,” says Mortensen, who has long held a passionate interest in the power of myth. “Whether it’s out of a 12th-century French poem, something Native American, or certain Muslim tales, it doesn’t matter. There are certain things, like the hero’s journey, that all those stories have in common.”
And as he continued to read, he developed a deeper affinity for Aragorn. “I found that he, too, had misgivings and was hiding something,” Mortensen says. “You use what you can as an actor. And the fact that he was someone seemingly as brave and honorable and self-sacrificing as he was, but, at times, also so plagued by doubt and insecurity about what others—and he himself—might expect of him, I thought, ‘Well, yeah, I can relate to that.’ ”