He wasn’t the first choice to play Aragorn but Viggo Mortensen’s attention to authenticity and devotion to detail means that the role is now his own.
Enigmatic, brooding, handsome… This is part of the official casting description for the character of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These words go a long way in describing Viggo Mortensen, the actor who has brought Aragorn to life. Reportedly the producer’s third choice (Irish actor Stuart Townsend left the production after only a few day’s filming and Daniel Day Lewis then rejected the role), Mortensen not only accepted the role of Aragorn, he became Aragorn, literally wearing his character like a second skin.
Born in New York City and raised on Icelandic tales by his Danish father, Mortensen draws his influences from many cultures. He lived in Argentina, Venezuala, Egypt and Denmark before returning to the United States to begin his career as an actor. He has appeared in more than thirty films including G.I.Jane, A Perfect Murder, Portrait of a Lady, Indian Runner and, ah, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. A photographer, painter, poet and musician, Mortensen comes across as a softly spoken and thoughtful man. As an actor, he is a chameleon who has thrown himself into a wide range of roles, from an Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s Witness to Satan in The Prophecy. There is a quiet, brooding intensity to him that seems to lie just beneath the surface. And despite his efforts to avoid Hollywood’s star-making machinations, Mortensen has gained a reputation as a scene-stealer extraordinaire.
When Mortensen got the call that he was to play Aragorn, shooting had already been underway for two weeks. He boarded a plane to New Zealand the following day and arrived barefoot with a copy of LOTR in hand. Fresh on set, Mortensen was presented with a sword and Aragorn the warrior was born
Mortensen immerses himself in the world of his characters. Once fitted in his costume, he became Aragorn. At times, he would wander off into the bush and live as Aragorn, even sleeping in Aragorn’s clothes. When his costume needed mending, Mortensen repaired it with needle and thread, as Argorn would himself. “Viggo embraced the character so completely, it’s difficult to imagine the two being seperate now,” says director Peter Jackson.
How was the experience of filming in New Zealand?
It was an ideal, magical environment for the story, so it was that much easier to get lost in the illusion. I loved being there and I look forward to going back. It’s a wonderful place. It was also the hardest thing. I have a son and I didn’t want to take him out of school. He has his friends and everything. So he came over when he could and I came back as much as I could. But that wasn’t as much as we were led to believe. There was a schedule of breaks. But in the end, we had just one short break and one big one that ended up being cut down to three weeks. We motored for the last six months or so. It was six days, 14 to 16 hours a day, constant, just to get it done. So that was tough. It was a difficult thing to be away from him. But other than that, I was happy. I liked it and liked being able to remain immersed in the story. The woods were nearby. A beautiful river was always nearby. No matter how urban a place was, it was never very far away from something that felt more or less primeval.
How well did you know the books?
I didn’t. I hadn’t read them. I got the role kind of late. Everybody else had been in Wellington preparing for a while. When I got the call, they were already two weeks into shooting, so I had to leave the next day. I went and got the book and read it on the plane. I read it very fast and then I read it again a couple of times. I liked it and was relieved to find, not too far into it, that a lot of the elements the story was based on were familiar to me from childhood or adolescent readings of Nordic sagas and Celtic stories. It wasn’t unfamiliar to me.
Do you think you identified with your character and the characters in LOTR because of your Danish heritage?
Maybe. It helped me in the short term because I could see elements in Aragorn’s character, in the overall story and in things like the names of all the dwarves and the elves that Tolkien borrowed freely. I think Tolkien wrote the book because he loved language and mediaeval and Nordic history. It was almost like an excuse to do it. He breathed new air into those old stories. I just happened to like those kinds of stories. Not every kid’s gonna want to read Icelandic sagas but some kids would. And as you get into them, they’re very exciting, as they obviously were for Tolkien. he wrote them in a language that readers in the 20th century could grab hold of. Hopefully, that’s what Peter Jackson has done, breathing new life into Tolkien. It’s a continuation. There’s a connection way back and that feels interesting. There’s somthing about what we were doing that to me felt right. I don’t know that I had an advantage. I mean, it just felt comfortable to me. It wasn’t so hard to just jump right in.
How did you find the character?
Because I had to go right in, I didn’t really have time to go fishing for it. The first thing I was asked to do within days of arriving was a sword fight.The sword master, a man by the name of Bob Anderson, is a legendary character in that field. When he first began, he was fencing. He went to the Olympics fencing for England, then out of that he bacame an advisor on swashbuckling films. I think he worked with Errol Flynn. He gave me a crash course in the first couple of days that I really enjoyed and it was a very intensive few days to kick off. That was my touchstone for my character and it was fun and I guess I got the physical part of him, the way he moved, first. Aragorn is someone who, initially in his guise as Strider, for many years before the first story starts, has gone about doing his part to defend all the various free peoples of Middle-earth in deliberate disguise. And he remains that way throughout most of the first part. One way to go relatively unnoticed is to keep your mouth shut, although Tolkien didn’t do that as much as Peter Jackson will have done with Aragorn’s character. He sits back. You don’t know necessarily what he’s thinking because he’s grown accustomed to years of observing and not always speaking out about things.
I’ve heard that you immersed yourself in your role to a great degree. You lived in the woods at times during production on LOTR. Is that true?
I think people exaggerate that. When I get the chance, I go fishing or wandering. I did a little backpacking and camping. Everybody has a different way of preparing themselves. I like to stay in touch with the story. It’s fun. A grown man getting to be a kid in a Viking story, you just keep finding new things to be interested in.The New Zealand crew was incredible. It looks and feels so right. The illusion made it that much easier for everyone and I think in the end it didn’t matter so much how you prepared because once you stepped onto the set or into a beech forest or into one of those canoes, everything seemed so right.
How was the experience of shooting three movies at the same time?
Confusing sometimes. Not stopping much to think about it or have breaks was good in a sense because you were allowed to pay attention. The scripts eveloved on a daily basis. The writers were always making adjustments. so that was a test of your concentration and your ability to compartmentalise. You had to remember that this happended then and this then, which you always do on a movie, but this was just three times as much.
Did you shoot in sequence?
We began shooting only elements of the first movie but then it was just back and forth all over the place, changing costumes, changing your approach depending on when and where things were happening. By the last several months, it became really crazy. We’d go from one unit to another and jump from first, second and third and back and forth in one day a lot. Everybody really had to pay attention. And also, everbody had to help each other to not make mis-steps, just reminding each other about where we were at. It was a very good team that way. It was easily the best team I’ve ever worked with. By that, I don’t mean just the actors or the director, I mean everybody. It’s always good when you’re working on a movie. For me, it’s just the experience of doing it. I don’t know what this movie’s going to end up looking like, what’s in or out. you have to make something out of the experience while you’re there. And the experience for me being there was how supportive everybody was of each other and how much they were into the books. There were Tolkien books lying around all the time. All the way through, people were interested. Whether it was a grip or a fellow actor, it didn’t matter who. It wasn’t just the continuity person and the director caring about how that particular take or that particular scene went. You can feel that if you’re performing. People are following. They’re with you, you’re with them and that was the way it was.
How much of the film have you seen?
We saw the same thing at Cannes. It makes me curious to see more. Potentially, what will make these movies work on a higher level than most ‘event movies’ is the complexity of the characters. Each character faces challenges and has to summon up the courage to do the right thing. In the end, I think that the most important theme in the story for Tolkien was the exercise of free will, choice. And even though Tolkien was a devout Christian, the cosmology of this story is like Nordic mythology, in that there isn’t a promise of a heavenly reward for doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is its own reward, even if others are not aware of it. And likewise,evil. In itself, the Ring is not evil. I don’t think it’s in the movie but in the book Gandalf says something like, ‘Nothing is evil at the beginning. Even Sauron himself was not so to start with.’ What Sauron has is an appetite to control other wills and each individual can become evil by giving up their free will. The Ring promises great power and everlasting control of other people and reality and you just lose yourself. That’s the big sin, if there is one in the story, the big danger.
The theme of good and evil is a strong one in LOTR. How do you feel about that in relation to the recent attacks on America?
That’s interesting to me. Aragorn is a character who has a long history and knowledge of history before him by virtue of who he is, by the connection men had with elves and elves had with dwarves. And he understands the cultures and languages of the dwarves and the elves and he sees the value in not being an isolationist. I think in the second story, you really start to see how certain noble societies, the Rohan people for example, are very isolated. People can feel in this country that they are righteous, even by virtue of just being attacked. There’s an understandable anger at wanting to do something. You want to see things simply. You want to have an enemy to attack. And when you look at it too simply, you tend to adhere to the notion of ‘the others’ and that they are different and that they are not good. I don’t think it’s that simple. What’s interesting about whether you are a human, like Aragorn is, or whether you’re an elf or a dwarf, is that everybody has flaws in the story. Even Galadriel and Gandalf have their doubts and their moments. They have to examine themselves before they can go out and tell people what to do. And in fact, what’s notable in Tolkien’s writing is that Galadriel, Gandalf, Aragorn and I suppose Elrond are very hesitant to tell anybody what to do. There is advice and there is watching people meandering as they come into their own and make their own decisions.