Unlike some classmates at Watertown High School in the mid-1970s, Viggo Mortensen wasn't convinced that the meaning of life might be found somewhere in the pages of J R R Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings. "I didn't read it until I got the job," said the star who plays the nobleman Aragorn in New Line Cinema's nine-hour trilogy of films based on the tales. "And, in fact, what I'd heard about it and The Hobbit and all that sounded sort of interesting. But I figured it was just a bunch of gnomes and fairies and that kind of story."
On top of all that, "It looked like a pretty thick book."
The second instalment, The Two Towers, opens locally and nationally Wednesday with nearly the same anticipation and publicity that greeted the visually stunning The Fellowship of the Ring last year. Given that it earned $860 million worldwide and garnered 13 Academy Award nominations including best picture, producers needn't worry about recouping a record $310 million already invested.
"When I did read it, I read it as fast as I could to try and figure out what I had gotten myself into in a hurry," Mr Mortensen said from somewhere in South Dakota during a break from a night shoot for his next film. Details on that will be covered in a future article.
"I got the job, and the next day I was on a plane [for New Zealand]. And a couple of days later, I was basically being filmed as this character.
"So not only was there the question of figuring out the swordplay and stuff and dialect and different things as quickly as I could and getting used to the place and the clothes and all you usually have to do as an actor, there was, 'What is this well-loved classic story about exactly?'
"And it wasn't that foreign to me once I got into it, because it reminded me of any number of stories - fairy tales that were read to me as a kid, and some of the literature that I got into as a teenager and still keep reading." That includes Nordic, Scandinavian and Celtic mythology, sagas and much more.
"And a lot of that is what Tolkien borrowed from. He even took a lot of the names from those sources. So once I started reading The Lord of the Rings, I recognised a lot of archetypes and story lines and characters that were familiar to me from previous reading.
"I reread some of that because it was helpful to me - particularly with Aragorn. There are elements of that character that reminded me of some of the heroic characters in those stories."
Viggo Mortensen graduated from Watertown High in 1976 and cum laude from St Lawrence Unversity in 1980 with studies in government and language. The former Cyclones swim team captain is the son of Viggo Peter Mortensen of Cape Vincent and Grace A "Gay" Wright of Clayton, and would no doubt be the most famous film actor ever to attend St Lawrence if it weren't for 1939 graduate Kirk Douglas.
Nevertheless, Mr Mortensen is likely the only WHS alumnus ever seen on the cover of Time magazine. The December 2 edition pictures him along with fellow stars of The Two Towers, and the article inside notes that as Aragorn, he "transforms himself before your eyes from brooding beefcake to full-blown movie star." Despite the wording, that amounts to a rave review.
Of the road that led to the role of a lifetime so far, he said, "They hadn't found the actor to play that part, and had already been shooting for a couple of weeks and been there for months rehearsing and all that. And that character hadn't worked yet because they were still trying to find the person they thought would be right for it.
"I'm not sure exactly how it came about that I was asked to do it, and I hesitated a little because I wasn't sure I'd be able to prepare it in time. But obviously, I went in the end and did it, and I'm glad I did. It was a unique experience. I really liked working in New Zealand and I liked the New Zealanders.
"It became a great extended family pretty quickly. We were a pretty tight unit - the crew and the cast. It felt like a giant independent movie."
All three films were shot down under with a production team reportedly totaling more than 2,400, and the financial success of the first has allowed director Peter Jackson and members of the cast and crew to return for further polishing. Said Mr Mortensen, "The first period was about a year and a half, and we've been back since for little stints of a few weeks or a month at a time to clean up or do pickup shots and extra bits and pieces as we went along.
"We were there this summer doing that, and we'll go back next spring or summer to put the finishing touches on part three, The Return of the King."
In what became the longest shoot of his career, "My son, Henry, was able to come over frequently and for a couple of extended periods, and that helped. But that was the most difficult thing for me - being away from him for longer than I've ever been. In certain periods, that was the most trying aspect of it."
On the sets, "It was nonstop. The last six months, it was pretty much six days a week, no breaks, and never less than 16 hours a day." During the filming of the pivotal Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, he said, "We shot for three and half months straight of night shoots in the cold, wet weather. And that was pretty tough for everybody concerned.
"But it kind of drew everyone together at the same time. It created kind of a special bond with people who went through that together."
Asked what he did in his spare time other than sleep, he said, "I didn't really have any spare time. But typically on a Sunday, I'd sleep in a little, get up, do my laundry, and get some groceries for the coming week.
"And then I'd drive to wherever the horses were and work with the horses a little, and work with the sword a little bit. And then it was time for bed, and the beginning of another six days of that - another 96 hours."
Nearly as grueling has been a publicity campaign that befits a $310 million project. "But it's easier when it's something you believe in, and you believe in those that you worked with as far as the process and experience. This time, I've had to do it on my Sundays during the shooting [of his new film], because I haven't been available.
"For example, all of December last year and this year, the cast has been doing press all over the world, and probably have been doing it all fall. And I've been doing it in my spare time and at night - like talking to you right now."
Along with millions of Lord of the Rings fans worldwide, plenty of former Watertown High and St Lawrence U niversity students recognised Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn on this month's Time magazine cover. "It's pretty weird, isn't it? Of course, the other actors are there, too.
"But anyway, it's interesting. It's kind of unreal in a way."
Last year, the star was part of the first round of inductees into the Watertown City School District Distinguished Alumni Hall of Achievement. Although unable to attend the ceremony due to prior commitments, he said, "That was a big honor. I would never have expected that, either. In a way, that might be even weirder.
"I mean, Time magazine is so out there as an idea that it doesn't even seem real. But Watertown High School is obviously closer to home, and that's a place I'm familiar with.
"I don't know anybody at Time magazine, you know? It's not exactly home turf to me. But Watertown is."
Four years ago, some fans hoped that A Perfect Murder with Gwyneth Paltrow and Kirk Douglas' son Michael might be the film to propel Mr Mortensen to comparable fame. Others have included G.I. Jane opposite Demi Moore as well as Witness, A Walk on the Moon and Portrait of a Lady, but none compare to what The Lord of the Rings has wrought.
"I've never been in a movie that did so well, and that so many people saw in theaters," he said. "It's by far the most popular thing I've been in, and probably ever will be, I guess."
Also for a change, "Like the other actors in Lord of the Rings, I've been getting a lot of fan mail - just piles of it. I haven't gotten that kind of response before to anything I've done, obviously. So that's different.
"That's something new - to be part of a movie that's not only hugely popular, but strikes some kind of cultural chord across the board in people in different countries and ages. It seems it has an overall appeal to different kinds of moviegoers all over the place.
"But other than that, in my daily life, I'm not someone who gets out that much so to speak in Los Angeles or anywhere else. I like to be with people I know - family and friends. So it doesn't feel that different to me."