Viggo Mortensen, poet-photographer-painter, is better known to many as Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings hunter of Orcs, defender of Hobbits. He returns to the screen this month in the form of actor and heartthrob with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

It could be the set up for a joke: A thousand people show up for a poetry reading in Los Angeles…But the human chain that spills out of the Midnight Special book store and onto the Santa Monica sidewalk is no cheap crack at Hollywood’s illiterati. The women, and seemingly all of them are women, clutch hardcover tomes to their chests, simultaneously eager to meet the author and embarrassed by their own bubbling girlishness. After all, this is a reading, not an ‘NSYNC concert. At least that’s the idea.

“This is really the first time I’ve read any of his stuff,” admits Tessa, 24, who’s been waiting to have her book signed for over an hour. She thumbs through the pages, then looks up with a smile, “I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd.”

So there is a punchline of sorts. Most of these fans were drawn not by a passion for verse so much as a common desire to brush up against a movie star. Viggo Mortensen, poet-photographer-painter, is better known to many as Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings hunter of Orcs, defender of Hobbits. If not for the fictional swordsman, this author of five books might be, like any other poet, facing a handful of bored shoppers instead of signing his work until one in the morning.

But Mortensen, who walks into the room wearing an American Indian Movement T-shirt, isn’t thinking about the shadow Tolkien casts on the evening. He quotes Thomas Jefferson and mentions that copies of Noam Chomsky’s latest book, can be bought at the front of the store. He thanks the fan who sent the care package of Argentinian beer. And then he begins reading. He’s nervous. “I don’t slur when I read other people’s stuff,” he jokes, and the crowd laughs indulgently. But he soldiers on, losing himself in the rhythm of his words.

They were always giving birth, always pregnant, always taking fucking for granted. They were not being brave when they dug up the skulls of their past lovers in the middle of the night and painted them for use as Jack O’Lanterns. It was summer and they were crazy about each other.
(“Hallowe’en” 1990)

Maybe it’s the visceral attack of his writing, or the R-rated shock of hearing Aragorn cuss, but the audience’s attention never wavers. At evening’s end, the bookstore reports brisk business not only for Coincidence of Memory, his latest, but the Chomsky book as well.

By most accounts, the night has been a success. But for every fan who has rekindled a college-age love for poetry, there is undoubtedly one whose copy of Coincidence is a $30 souvenir, the writing within beside the point, ignored. Fame, as usual, exacts a cover charge. The question for Mortensen, who finds his solace in a very private world of art and imagination that excludes Hollywood’s bacchanalia, is whether the price is too high. The line of women snakes forward. Three giggling teenage girls ask to take their photos with Mortensen, who smiles through his exhaustion. “They may be coming because of The Lord of the Rings, but they’re coming,” shrugs Dawn, 30, an aspiring poet who waits toward the end of the line. “I’m not sure if acting is where his passion lies, but it’s been a great catalyst for getting his work out there. I just wonder how he feels about it.”

Viggo Mortensen is barefoot. The sidewalk between his car and the Salvadoran restaurant he’s chosen is gritty with broken glass and cigarette butts, but he waits until he’s on the threshold before dropping the clogs he’s carrying and shuffling into them. “Sorry I’m late, but I had to stop at a couple of places to find everything.” he says quietly, dropping plastic wrapped copies of his books on the table. “Do you want me to sign them?” he asks, automatically reaching for a pen.

There’s a certain charm in visualizing Mortensen slogging through L.A. traffic to buy his own books. Any other star would have a waist-high stack of hardcovers on hand, or at least minions to fetch copies. It’s a kind gesture, but not an entirely guileless one. The books are a hint; he is more than Rings’ Strider, more than the smoldering sexy guy opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, more than A Walk on the Moon’s Blouse Man. It’s a bold statement from a man who rarely makes them.

His face disappears under the brim of his battered felt hat as he writes, and it’s a long, awkward moment before he speaks. Without a character to wear, Mortensen is remarkably shy. “He’s circumspect around people,” says director Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon). “He has high standards, so he’s not Mr. Friendly to everybody. But I think he just tries to be careful, because once he opens up, there’s none of the artifice or barriers you find with most people.”

Mortensen orders lunch in graceful Spanish, choosing a Mexican beer and the #8 chicken plate. “I’ve gotten accustomed to doing an interview, which I used to be terrified of,” he admits. “I remember trying out for a play once in junior high school, and as soon as the audition started, they said ‘Speak up! Speak up!’ And I just stopped and took off. I wasn’t really cut out for it.”

He has yet to entirely make peace with the spotlight. He recently started an independent publishing house, but the website for Perceval Press mentions him only in passing, offering his books for sale and noting that his fan mail should be sent to another address. There are links to the websites of friends (Mortensen’s ex-wife Exene Cervenka of the L.A. pink band X and Dave Egger’s McSweeny’s site), there are none leading to Mortensen’s. He doesn’t have one.

We underestimate damage
done to the sky
when we allow words
to slip away
into the clouds.
(“Hillside” 1994)

In high school, the shy kid began carrying a camera everywhere he went. Structuring his vistas within a viewfinder was a natural impulse. Already he had hopscotched through many disparate worlds, never lingering long enough on any to burn a permanent image. Born in New York to an American mother and a Danish businessman, he spent the following decade in South America, the first nine years of those in Argentina. Summers were often spent in Denmark with his father’s extended family. Then, after his parents’ divorce in 1969, he shuttled back to New York with his mother and two brothers. He was probably the only kid at Watertown High School who was fluent in Danish, English and Spanish.

It was only after earning a “useful” degree in government and Spanish literature from St. Lawrence University and muddling through odd jobs in Denmark that the shy kid stepped out from behind the lens. He auditioned for the Warren Robertson Acting Workshop after moving back to New York. “I didn’t know anyone, so the anonymity of it made it a little safer.” He approached acting with a photographer’s perspective, examining the mechanics of the craft from every angle. “I started watching more movies and looking at things in that light as a potential performance. You get kind of hooked on it, the working of it. You start thinking about how to make something interesting.”

A half-soul in transit
the man you were
for one short season
has been pruned
to a well-groomed graveyard
that smells like popcorn.
(“Edit” 1992)

The camera still goes with him onto film sets, into traffic, around the house. He is still trying to finesse the world around him, one that has become unwieldy and overwhelming with fame. “I left my camera in the car, but I brought it,” he says, smiling. Photography, like his painting and writing, gives him a sense of completion acting doesn’t. “I see them all as the same thing, the only difference being that in acting you have to give it away,” he says. “Unfinished paintings, that’s what I keep handing in as an actor.” His first two movie roles, Swing Shift and The Purple Rose of Cairo, ended up on the cutting-room floor. he is trying, after almost 40 films, to let go. “He copes with it pretty well, but in truth, most actors will tell you that it is the lack of control over our creative life that drives us to other things,” says his Rings costar John Rhys-Davies. “And beacuse he’s capable of far more astute and profound judgements than most of the people he’s around, I think there’s a banality of mind in this industry that a man like Viggo would sort of despair of.”

Instead, Mortensen shapes the art he can control. “When you create, I think it’s an effort to get a perspective on who you are, to see yourself in the world for a few seconds,” he explains. Some of his more recent pictures have featured the cracked bottom of his pool (the subject of the book Hole in the Sun), his 14-year-old son Henry (from his marriage to Cervenka), a tree branch reflected off the top of a car. But there are reminders of another, glossier life. There’s something startling about seeing Gwyneth Paltrow and Diane Lane in Mortensen’s photographs. They remind us that the man behind the camera is, like them, a star.

you leave a theatre
after taking in the
restored version of
“The Hero Returns” and
find yourself wanting to
be treated special.
(“Matinee” 1997)

Mortensen wasn’t supposed to be Tolkien’s bravest warrior. Stuart Townsend (Queen of the Damned) was fired from the New Zealand set of The Lord of the Rings just days before shooting began, deemed wither too young or too inexperienced or simply miscast, depending on which rumours you listen to. Mortensen was, in Aragorn-worthy fashion, called in to save the day.

He hesitated. It was a two-year commitment half a world away, and he had never read the trilogy. It was Henry who talked him into taking the job. “My decision had nothing to do with, Well, I don’t want to miss out because it’ll be a big blockbuster or something,” he says. Instead, it was the daunting responsibility of taking on the trilogy’s pivotal role that both unnerved and attracted him. “If he didn’t get the character right, the film was in deep trouble,” says Rhys-Davies. “A week in theaters and then two DVDs, straight to video.”

Mortensen couldn’t step back from the challenge. “There seemed to be something about it that, if I didn’t try, I would look back and regret not at least having gone through the experience,” he says. “And I know now that it was true.”

The stories of Mortensen’s disappearance into the part have become legend. Reports from the set describe how he would spend each night in the nearby woods, communing with nature, never removing his costume. When he chipped a front tooth while filming a fight scene, he asked that it be fixed with Super Glue so he could continue (producers wisely intervened and sent him to a dentist). “I love these stories and the legendary status they’ve achieved so much, I almost don’t want to comment on the reality of them because it removes the legend,” says costar Elijah Wood. “But was he obsessed? Well, yeah, kind of.”

Wood recalls how Mortensen would spend his weekends working with the horses he rode onscreen, while the rest of the cast slept in (Mortensen, a rider since childhood, later purchased them and hopes to bring them stateside). The chipped tooth story is true. “And he wouldn’t go anywhere without his sword. He kept it by his side in ADR [sound dubbing],” Wood says. “I think Aragorn’s conflict was the same one Viggo had, having to come into this thing and prove he could be this character we all wanted him to be. And he became a real source of inspiration, that total commitment and passion he had. I don’t think he’d admit to it because he’s so humble and shy, but he was Aragorn to us. He was a leader.”

But Mortensen isn’t inclined to be a tall poppy among Hobbits. He brushes off most of the stories as apocryphal, noting the costume seemed to be permanent only because he was shooting so much of the time. “And sometimes I would stay overnight somewhere and fish or hike, because I like that sort of stuff anyway,” he says.

Still, his reputaion for dwelling deep within his characters was established long before Rings. For his role as a mute in 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon, Mortensen remained silent throughout filming. “I only heard him speak after the shoot was over, and then only to say, ‘Thanks everybody, so long.’ He’d make clicking noises in the back of his throat to communicate,” recalls costar Brendan Fraser. Mortensen refused to break character even to settle his hotel bill. “The concierge probably didn’t speak English, and here’s Viggo gesturing with his hands and pointing, scribbling on a pad. And I think Viggo eventually got 50% off the bill. If you know Viggo, it makes perfect sense. In a way, he transcends the acting.”

Despite all the tales of Mortensen’s relentlessly serious approach to his art, it should be noted that he has a real, albeit weird sense of humor. He’s been known to kidnap costars out of their dressing rooms and chase a Rings scale-double around the set (“He had it coming,” he says mysteriously). “He called me on my cell phone once and left a message that was about four or five minutes long, saying bizarre things in this German soldier voice,” says Wood. “ANd he would start laughing at himself, then go back into character and feign laughter, which would make him laugh even more. And that’s Viggo.”

Finishing his beer, Mortensen leans back against the red vinyl booth. He smiles, his teeth looking whiter against his tan. There is no doubt as to why he was named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful, though he isn’t about to cop to it. The subject makes him visibly uncomfortable. “It’s all marketing,” he says firmly. “If it wans’t for The Lord of the Rings, I wouldn’t be in there, and I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t have any bearing on anything.” Further prodding leads nowhere; when it comes to his personal life, he declines to say whether he is single or involved. “If you have to say anything, just say I’m trying to get along with people.” He can shrug off the media buzz, but hundreds of women don’t wait until the wee hours of the morning to shake a writer’s hand for intellectual stimulation. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with that,” he concedes, then changes the subject.

“I think it’s probably something that does embarrass him and freak him out a little bit,” says Wood. “I don’t think he has any time for the kind of things that come with fame, because he’s a natural guy. He goes around barefoot, for fuck’s sake!”

Fans often moan that Mortensen has been denied his due of superstardom. But his résumé of sadistic military men (G.I. Jane), spurned lovers (The Portrait of a Lady), and even Satan (The Prophecy) suggests his path as a character actor has been a chosen one. Stars rarely get to play with weird tics or complex back stories. “I think being a conventional leading man is something that gives him a lot of trouble,” says Goldwyn, recalling Mortensen’s fears that A Walk on the Moon’s Bluse Man might become a one-note sex god. “Of course, the success that implies is very attractive, but the trappings of that for someone like Viggo, who has so much to offer, can be very scary.”

Mortensen is leaving tomorrow for Morocco to begin work on Hidalgo, the true story of a horse of the same name and Frank T. Hopkins, the Pony Express courier who rode him. The Touchstone film about the pair’s attempt to win a race in Saudi Arabia is shaping up to be a big summer mivie, and this time Mortensen will not have his fellowship around him. Most actors would be excited to have a starring vehicle. Mortensen seems ambivalent. He insists on sharing credit with his steed, pointing out that it is Hidalgo, not Hopkins, for whom the movie is named. It’s the unexpected elements of the story, such as his character’s experiences with the Lakota Indian tribe, that interest him, not the more obvious action sequences. “I like that even though this is a big studio movie, it’s not about an American going oversees to tell people how to do things or kick some ass,” he says. “He returns home transformed, not having straightened out other than himself.” And there are practical reasons for taking the role. “I needed to do this movie for, among other reasons, financial ones,” he says. “I hadn’t made any money since December of 2000, except for some paintings here and there.”

Riding horseback through the deserts near Morocco is exciting, but the prospect of leaving Henry, who will stay with Cervenka, dampens his enthusiasm. “I just took him to school, his first day today,” he says. “I’m driving around and I look at the seat next to me. He’d put all this temporary stuff in his hair, this really bright pink colour mixed with these other ones, kind of purpley, and it was all over the headrest. And at first I thought, ah, shit. And then I thought that it looked really nice. It had this glow. And then it made me sad, because I’m going away fro a while. I probably won’t clean it up.”

Mortensen is running late again. He should be packing his bags, but he’d rather finish the stack of paintings sitting around his house (his work will be exhibited in Cuba and Italy next year) and then hang out with Henry. Just as his success is opening doors, it’s pulling him away from what he values. “I;m starting to feel like, Ahhhh, I’m planning my life away too much, and I’m wary of that.” He once said that if his acting career ever became too life-altering, he would leave it behind. “I’m pretty close to that now,” he says. He isn’t joking. “If I never did another movie it wouldn’t really matter to me.”

“If you are both really talented and, deep down, a very core artist like Viggo, in the end you cannot swallow the bile, the bad scripts, the rest of it,” says Rhys-Davies. “Eventually you just have to say, I could make this dross work, but I don’t have enough time left in my life to do it. And Viggo could earn his crust with his art, so he doesn’t have to stay. How long this industry will be able to keep him is up to the quality of the material. We are very lucky to have him now.”

We can only hope that there is room on the A-list for a shoeless poet looking for beauty in Hollywood’s seedy patchwork, who is gamely making it up as he goes along. “There’s a saying in New Zealand, whenever anything goes wrong in your life, that you just need a piece of number 8. It’s a gage of fencing wire. Whether you need to fix your engine or whatever problem you’ve got, you try some number 8. But it also means figure it out. Make do.” He heads for the door and kicks off his shoes. “I think I’ve always done that to some degree.”