King Of The Ring

Source: Sci Fi magazine

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Image Michael Lavine.
© Sci-Fi 2004.

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At first glance, Viggo Mortensen is a symphony of rugged good looks, with a deliciously dimpled chin and captivating eyes - but if you want to know who he really is, you have to know about his fake tooth.

"I just left the dentist actually, earlier this morning," Mortensen says, a bit out of breath. He's just gotten back to his car, and is talking between appointments on a typically busy L.A. day. "They checked my fake tooth and they said it's holding just fine, so it was no big deal."

No big deal? Ask anyone who was on the Lord of the Rings set that day, and they might beg to differ. Mortensen was battling an Uruk-hai when he had a near miss with a blade. The blade didn't mangle his face, but it did cut his tooth in two. Undaunted, Mortensen wanted to continue shooting, even going as far as to ask someone to find his tooth so it could be glued back on and he could finish the scene. But Jackson's wisdom to get his star to a dentist's office posthaste prevailed.

The story may go down in the annals of Rings lore, but the modest Mortensen has already tired of hearing it. By his heavy sigh, one can tell he thinks its old news. To him, that incident, and his broken toe (suffered when kicking a meddlesome orc's helmet) and other assorted injuries incurred over the 16-month shoot were part and parcel of the job. And, to him, he did nothing out of the ordinary, and it "feels a little strange" to keep calling attention to it.

Certainly, he says, "most people that were in fights at all for an extended period, including all the stunt people, got hurt one way or another, some certainly worse than I did. The fact that a stuntman broke his leg really badly or cut his head open is not mentioned, but if I break my toe or I cut my hand open or break a tooth off, then there's where you hear something."

The multilingual. Manhattan-born Mortensen spent his youth growing up in South America and his father's homeland, Denmark. After returning stateside, he studied government and Spanish literature at New York's St Lawrence University, then went back to Denmark after graduation to live the bohemian life of a struggling artist. His salvation: writing and poetry, through which he could express his innermost thoughts. Like Aragorn, he was on a journey to find himself.

"My experience in some ways is similar to Aragorn's," muses Mortensen. "Aragorn's is just one long journey. It's a journey about not so much his origin, but about how worthy he might be, [as] an orphan whose bloodline is probably, in his mind, somewhat watered down. And the journey is not over at the end, either, and neither does it just begin at the beginning [of the first film]. He's been alive already for...87 years or something when the story starts."

Director Peter Jackson is famed for his attention to minutiae. Viggo Mortensen is perhaps equally legendary for the way he fully immersed himself in his character, in a way few actors ever do. He reportedly kept his horse near him on set, even if the scene didn't call for his horse to appear; he wore his armor outside of working hours; at various times he slept in the forest. He regularly faxed Jackson with thoughts on how the shooting was going.

All of this may explain why Mortensen's response to a question about the nature of Aragorn's journey is so confident. For him, Aragorn's origins, not to mention his evolutionary path across the three films, was critical to forming his vision of how to craft the character. "Consciously, with the time going by, you keep adding things until you change," says Mortensen. "From the beginning I wanted to also [grow]. And I wanted to gradually have him come out. For over half a century now, for 70 years, he's been living in hiding, really his whole life, if you include the fact that he was taken as an orphan, sort of like Moses and like other characters in other stories, such that he is found and...raised by non-blood relatives."

Mortensen is not surprised that Aragorn should fulfill his destiny to lead the kingdom of men in Return of the King. Nor is it surprising to him that there should be differences both subtle and overt between the Aragorn of Fellowship and the Aragorn of King. "He should be a leader at the dawn of the age of men," maintains Mortensen. "But when you get used to hiding who you are and speaking like someone else, pretending to be someone else...and so the way that Strider speaks is different than the way Aragorn speaks. It's just a physical [evolution] - there's a growing confidence that he never loses." Mortensen pauses thoughtfully before adding, "It's a good quality for a leader to have, and one that's unfortunately lacking on our real leaders in the world right now, I think."

It wasn't until the early 1980s that Mortensen started down the path that led him to be Peter Jackson's ultimate choice to play the ranger Strider. After his post-college stint in Denmark, he returned to New York with the goal of becoming an actor. Thinking he was going to an audition, he instead ended up in an acting class with thespian Warren Robertson.

Mortensen found himself increasingly intrigued with the craft and went on to a smattering of stage roles before getting the first exposure that made it to film, in a small role as an Amish farmer in 1985's Witness. Another leading man might have gotten the attention then (ever heard of Harrison Ford?), but nowadays it's Mortensen who's getting all the notice.

His career is famously eclectic, and his parts are equally hard to pin down. With each role - be it as a lieutenant in 1995's Crimson Tide or as Nicole Kidman's suitor in 1996's The Portrait of the Lady, or as a forbidden love in 1998's A Perfect Murder, Mortensen has an enviable knack for transforming himself time and again, molding himself to fit each character, and emerging in a makeover so wholesale and complete that he's unrecognizable.

Likewise, between the time we meet Aragorn as the ranger Strider in Fellowship and the time he fulfills his destiny as king in Return of the King, Aragorn's transformation is a complete one, according to Mortensen. "I didn't really look at it as anything other than one story," says Mortensen of his approach to his playing Aragorn at different points in the three films. "I didn't separate them in my mind at all - and we were jumping around in different places. The trick, like in any other movie, was just to remember where I had gotten to by that point, and where I was in regard to this character. What was the state of his self-confidence or lack thereof, and all the things that go with that in terms of where I had his voice pitched at, how confident or sure of himself he felt in taking certain actions or making any statements about his intentions."

The fact that his character would eventually be crowned king was something that he kept in mind in the background. "I was aware of what the trappings of [becoming king] were, and the fact that in the story it was a significant moment for him; it was the culmination of a certain part of his life," said Mortensen of his approach to the character. "But Aragorn goes on to live many more years, and he's not even halfway through his lifespan at that point. He had a long way to go.

"If there's anything that felt like a culmination or something special, it was that it represented a point at which the Fellowship had succeeded with a lot of stuff, bringing some losses, but basically the gambles we had taken and the commitment we'd made to one another and to Middle-earth had paid off."

Mortensen is divorced from Exene Cervenka, formerly the lead singer of the punk band X, and now with Auntie Christ. (If you haven't read the books, skip this, because it's a spoiler: Aragorn, on the other hand, goes on to live a long life with Arwen.)

Mortensen is tight-lipped about his own social life, but he's eager to discuss the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen. "There's an interesting, and unusual, for these days, kind of relationship between a man and woman in the film," observes Mortensen.

Initially, there was much outrage among Tolkien fans when word got out that Arwen's role would be expanded in the films, and that we'd see more of Arwen and Aragorn's relationship. But what's been done thus far, and what is to come, is "really true to the spirit that Tolkien told about them," maintains Mortensen. "I thought it paid off in a way that was really right for the story."

Having read Tolkien's appendices thoroughly, Mortensen agrees with Jackson's choices in depicting that relationship. "I thought Peter did a good job with that relationship and how he concluded what you see onscreen. I also think he balanced the two female characters of Arwen and Eowyn well. Obviously Aragorn's story is intertwined with theirs, and I think he got the most out of both of those female characters in this last part of the story. And I think that those who were waiting to see more of the Eowyn from the book, although you get more of it in the extended version of the second movie, you definitely get everything in the third."

Bob Anderson, the guy who taught Viggo swordplay, also taught Errol Flynn. And a better swordsman Middle-earth has never seen.

Mortensen wasn't even supposed to be a part of Rings. The Irish actor Stuart Townsend, nearly 20 years Mortensen's junior, was originally cast in the role, but a few months into preproduction Townsend was let go, as Jackson realized the role needed an older, yet equally as agile performer to pull off the right look for the man who would be king.

His first scenes on Rings were going to involve a swordfight against the evil Ringwraiths - and unlike the other cast members, Mortensen found himself in New Zealand, on the set with virtually no training. But, by all accounts, Mortensen came up to speed quickly.

But first he had to learn how to wield a sword. Mortensen's castmates have called him a fast learner, but, he demurs, "I had a great teacher. [Anderson] was basically my first director on this movie, because he was the first person I worked with," remembers Mortensen, sounding a bit nostalgic when he speaks of the veteran swordmaster. "He really coached me and got me ready in those first couple of days when I was thrown into it, shortly after arriving there. I had done something with a different kind of - in a play once, a long, long time ago. But, I basically was pretty green; I had to be taught."

If you thought the battle of Helm's Deep was something, just wait for Return of the King. "Although he does fight quite a bit and things are quite desperate, I think it's more of a psychological challenge for Aragorn in the third movie," said Mortensen.

The main question that Aragorn wrestles with is whether he's really any better than those who've come before him. "Why should he fare any better when ultimately faced with the temptation to do the wrong thing, to be selfish?" Mortensen asks. Mortensen knows his source material: He's absorbed Tolkien's work, like a sponge over the past few years, ever since his initial read on his flight to New Zealand. "He has a lot of trepidation when he goes to the Path of the Dead, or when he tries to inspire the full armies of Rohan and of Gondor as well as his companions to draw [their swords] and basically commit suicide at the Black Gate to buy some time [for Frodo]."

The fight sequences seem more desperate in King, says Mortensen, because the tone of this film is more desperate. "The odds against him and the others are greater, so it's a little more desperate, the fighting."

To commemorate filming, each cast member received a farewell trinket from the production. Viggo scored one of Aragorn's swords as a sounvenir.

In Return of the King, the sword Mortensen uses is different from what we've seen before. "It's a different kind of sword, since some of the fighting is different," explains Mortensen of the switch in weapons. "It's heavier. It's bigger, so it's a little harder to handle. It's mostly a two-handed sword, and fighting one-handed is a little different than fighting with the other one, which is lighter, and moves through the air a little bit faster. But the advantage when you're going for broke with that slightly more massive sword is that once you get going with it, it does a lot of damage."

Mortensen loves horses, and was an accomplished horseman long before getting in the saddle as Strider. A good thing, considering how many hours he'd have to spend on a horse throughout the production - an odyssey that culminates in the charge of the Rohirrim.

"Just the cavalry work is going to be impresssive," marvels Mortensen, remembering the sequence. "The odds are against us, not in just sheer numbers, which are much greater, but the quality of the opposition individually is greater. It's just more desperate all the way around. You have to rise to that level or you just get wiped out right away.

"The interesting thing about these fights, especially at the Black Gate, is that it's a fight you go into knowing that you haven't got a chance in hell, and it's just how long can you fight before the inevitable happens, which is the enemy crushes you. It's really a group sacrifice."

At Watertown High School in upstate New York, at the same time that he was captain of both the swim team and the tennis team, Mortensen was also known for prowling the streets with his camera, constantly taking pictures. A renaissance man, Viggo pursues painting and photography, and even writes poetry. He created all 40 of his character's paintings in A Perfect Murder himself.

Mortensen oftens uses a Hasselblad camera to capture his visceral images, images that have shown up in some of the gallery exhibits he's had in Los Angeles, New York and Copenhagen, and in the books he's published. Photography, poetry, experimental music - these disparate aspects of art have captured Mortensen's highly individualized sense of imagination.

"I don't separate painting or photography or writing or anything else from acting; it's all the same thing, so it goes hand in hand," explains the actor. "I don't really see [painting] as something I do that's different. Instead, they're all forms of ways of communicating or of self-expression. What it comes down to is a way of focusing, being observant, asking questions, either consciously or unconsciously, and making something based on those questions, making something that is that question, and then reacting to what comes out yourself - and sometimes other people react to it, too. It's a way of communicating in the end. Making movies is, too, as far as I'm concerned."

Mortensen is seeing Lord of the Rings parallels everywhere. Even in his starring turn in next year's Disney release, Hidalgo, which centers on Frank Hopkins, a half-Lakota Pony Express messenger, who seeks redemption by challenging another in a long-distance race. Needless to say, Mortensen - an accomplished horseman who's shown in the Rings trilogy that he can be more than at ease in the saddle - takes to the saddle again.

"It's also a pretty epic journey, but it's different," promises Mortensen, his voice reflecting his eagerness to talk of the future. "The similarity is that there's a call to adventure like there is for everyone in The Lord of the Rings, and it's up to the individual to answer that, just like it was for each of the nine of us to say 'yes' to the call to the adventure that was presented at the Council of Elrond. Once you say yes, then it's only the beginning. There's one obstacle after another, and the challenges become more and more difficult, and each step of the way you examine your conscience and your own willingness to commit to a group to work together.

"In some sense the character I play, Frank Hopkins, and his horse, Hidalgo, are a partnership. And once they say yes, they have really no idea what they're getting into, just like the Fellowship of the Ring. Once they accept the challenge, it only gets harder. And in both stories, I would say it's more about the journey, it's more about what happens to each of the individuals and to the group. Their character is forged as a result of the journey, and that, in a sense, is more important in the end than the destination."

To hear Mortensen speak of his Rings experience, it's clear that he holds it in high esteem, as something unique in the rubber-stamp machinery of Hollywood filmmaking (he even famously got a tattoo, along with his nine Fellowship castmates, to commemorate the event).

As impassioned as he was for Rings, Mortensen is more cautious about reupping for another four-year long adventure. "If it was a really great story, I might," he says slowly, and you can hear the gears whirring in his mind as he says this. "But if it wasn't, not for any money in the world."
Last edited: 6 May 2005 15:13:51
© SciFi magazine.