A young Australian[sic] actor was initially cast in the key role of Aragorn–the mysterious stranger who joins the fellowship, protects Frodo (Elijah Wood) from a thousand dangers and ultimately plays a key role in the fate of Middle Earth. But just as the production got started, director Peter Jackson had to fire the actor, either because he was simply too young for the role or he wasn’t willing to really throw himself into the part, or both. (The director says the former; other sources say the latter.) Jackson quickly turned to Viggo Mortensen, whom he’d never even met.
As luck would have it, he was a natural. His fortitude, his love for Tolkien, his swordsmanship and mostly his abiding cool knocked everyone out on the set. The filmmakers–cast and crew alike–still talk about him as if he’s some kind of folk hero who arrived at the last minute to save the day. Mortensen spoke with Newsweek‘s Jeff Giles about the making of The Lord of the Rings.
JG: You replaced another actor right as filming began, and you’d never even auditioned for the role, I take it. Did the Lord of the Rings folks at least give you a couple of weeks to decide if you wanted the part?
VM: It was essentially, ‘Do you want to fly to New Zealand tomorrow and work on a movie for a year and a half?’ It came out of the blue.
JG: Aragorn is such a great role. Was taking the part an easy decision to make?
VM: Obviously, I knew that it was a special opportunity. But I had not read the books. I had not met these people … It wasn’t that easy for me, actually. There were many reasons, very justifiable reasons, for not doing it. Like the time away from my family-and also knowing that this was a big undertaking, and knowing that I would not get the time to prepare for this role as well as I would have liked to before being thrown in front of the camera. In the end, I had the blessing of my son, which meant a lot to me. And I guess my feeling was that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it in some way. I would have felt cowardly in not taking the challenge because it was such a unique one.
JG: I know that you eventually came to really love the book. Were you concerned that the movies wouldn’t be able to reflect the depth of Tolkien’s vision?
VM: The movie is not the book. They’re different mediums. It’s not been possible in the movie to emphasize language and poetry, for example, as Tolkien did. Nor do we get the attention to detail regarding various characters’ backgrounds and interrelationships. It’s not possible unless it’s three 12-hour movies, I suppose. And, you know, as authors, Tolkien and Peter Jackson have different sensibilities. While Peter obviously cares a great deal for Tolkien’s writing–otherwise he wouldn’t have given so much of his life to it–what seems to have drawn him most as a filmmaker was the pure adventure aspect of the tale. The heroic sacrifice of individuals for the common good. All the breathtaking sequences–he really poured himself into those. The more I explored Tolkien, the more I felt I had two bosses: Tolkien and Peter Jackson. I tried my best to be loyal to both of them.
JG: Everybody says that you really threw yourself into your role-that whenever they saw you, you were wearing your costume.
VM: I didn’t really have days off as a rule and so when people saw me, they generally they saw me as Aragorn-that’s just on a practical note. I did also like the character and the character’s journey. I was doing everything I could to be faithful to what Tolkien had written and there’s so much to explore.
JG: You couldn’t have had no days off in a year and a half.
VM: I mean, occasionally we had some days off. But toward the end of filming, it was six days a week and rarely less than 14 hours a day–for me, anyway. There was one gigantic battle sequence that some of us worked on all night every night for three months straight, which is insane. It was dark and wet. That was a real tough one for the cast and crew and it forged strong friendships. People made an effort to enjoy themselves and spend time with each other because we became part of each other’s lives one way or another. On a shoot that long, people get together, people come apart, marriages falter, people get ill, people get pregnant, people get injured. It’s just like a giant traveling circus.
JG: New Zealand itself must have been an inspiration.
VM: I was very sad to leave. In fact, I stayed on a little while afterward. I can’t imagine that I would ever grow tired of the place or the people. I don’t know. I can’t describe it. And no matter where we were or how [difficult the shooting schedule was] we had a sense that we were all on an epic journey. That was palpable on a daily basis. You don’t get that feeling very often on a movie set–and you certainly don’t get it every day for a year and a half.