At the press rounds for The Return of the King, Serena French finds it's reigning men.
There's something about actors who play heroes. They are kind of hard to resist, even if they don pointy ears or oversized feet for the role. The Return of the King, the climactic last chapter in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, is about heroes, a group of Everymen who are each up against the wall, but who step up to the mat for each other and for their world, in the final showdown against world-ending evil. It is about individual sacrifice, wisdom, compassion and hope. But on an early fall morning at The Regency in midtown Manhattan, the necessary evil that must be endured is the promotional press junket. So when the heroes enter the conference suite set up for the occasion, although it feels a bit antithetical to the films, at least there is plenty to talk about.
Viggo Mortensen pads in wearing a navy sweatshirt, black jeans and...bare feet. He's carrying some sort of cup with silver scrollwork that looks like a Moroccan chalice, and a lit cigarette in one hand. He's clean shaven with straight dirty blond hair and is utterly disarming. His blue-eyed gaze is intense, unwavering. "Where are you guys from?" he asks as he helps himself to something to drink. Everyone introduces his or her country. I answer last with Canada. "Where?" he asks. I feel special all of a sudden. "Toronto. Have you spent any time there?" He says he went to high school in upstate New York so he spent time near Kingston Ont., mostly in Cananoque. Then, by way of explaining the appeal, he mutters something about fireworks, "and then later strong beer," he says smiling. I repeat "strong beer" and giggle unnecessarily. Crap, he'll never marry me now. Mortensen says his drink is from Finland and Sweden, like one of the journalists in the group. "It's maté; it's a tea," he explains. The Scandinavian journalist says something in one of those languages, and Mortensen corrects her pronunciation. He laughs. We laugh.
Citizen of the world. Mortensen, who was born in New York and lived a nomadic life with his parents - Argentina, Venezuela and Denmark were all home before his teen years - is in his mid-40s. Before becoming a heartthrob, he was a poet (he's working on his third book), a photographer and a painter. He had shows in L.A., Athens and New York in 2002, where legions of women showed up. (His works were also exhibited at New Zealand's Massey University to coincide with The Return of the King world premiere this past December 1st in Wellington.) He was known as No-ego Viggo on set for his extreme dedication to the role and for performing his own stunts, and for writing page-after-page of faxes to Jackson, suggesting passages from the book, while the director worked on the script during shooting.
Another journalist asks what part of the journey as the character of Aragorn he enjoyed the most. "I like that you talk about it as a journey, not 'how did you like this movie more than others', because I do look at it as one long story - and the only way to have approached it, the way Tokien wrote it," he says. He speaks very low, in long abstract paragraphs. We hang on every word. You could hear a pin drop. "I just liked the evolution in general, and the challenges that came with that. I was looking at snapshots I have of the crew, Peter, the cast, and obviously people change, but there was more. There's something also in people's eyes, even in Peter's, who knew what he was getting into more than any of us. The way his eyes look, it's the eyes of a person before a major test." Mortensen visited Iceland twice in 2003 - where most of the LOTR story was written. He goes into a long explanation about the influence of medieval Icelandic poets on Tolkien, their impact on the novel form, and Jackson's interpretations. "What I admire most about him," says Mortensen, "beyond his focus, his technical ability and his vision, is his decency - the way he treated the actors and the crew and the way he handled himself as a person." Mortensen is passionate about the story's relevance to today's world. "There is a respect shown for the efforts made by people in the past, who honestly sought wisdom for its own sake and not to control people, who made a real effort to understand their fellow man and the environment. I think that's why the book continues to be interesting and these movies help to make the book as relevant as it is."
Besides taking on The Lord of the Rings for the pure challenge of it, Mortensen says the biggest thing that ever changed his life was having a son, now-teenaged Henry, with ex-wife L.A.punk singer Exene Cervenka. "That's a change that lasts forever." And that's the extent of it. Mortensen, who'll be seen this spring as a 19th century dispatch rider for the U.S. cavalry in the big-budget Disney flick Hidalgo, who would rather talk about ideas than himself. While he waits for a one-on-one interview, Mortensen talks with a French journalist, asking whether or not he has ever heard of the Quebec accent, of which Mortensen is rather fond. Mortensen rhymes off lots of Quebecois swear words. Then he offers us pieces of gum, taking the pack out of his front pocket. It's Trident bubble gum of all things. I take a piece. No, I didn't keep the wrapper.