Farewell To The King

Source: Starburst #306

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As we take in the climactic part of the Rings trilogy at the cinema, in the second part of our interview with Isildur's heir himself, Viggo Mortensen takes one last look back on the role that's made him a star...

Let's discuss how you went about preparing a specific scene that was obviously going to be of great importance for you, such as Boromir's climactic death scene at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

We had prepared that scene, but they really didn't discuss specifically what they wanted. It was rare that we had time to discuss or prepare scenes at all. We'd often get rewritten scenes on the morning we had to shoot them. In this case, it was early in the shoot, the first month, and Sean Bean and I were able to sit down with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh and work on the scene the night before we shot it. I'm sure Peter had input into what they were talking to us about as well. We stayed up late working on it, trying to figure out what the best way would be, to get the points they wanted accomplished. Working with Sean on that scene was one of the more satisfying exchanges for me, and you get a better feeling for the whole trajectory of the scene in the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Sean and I were able to work on it in a good way. We were able to think about it and talk about it in certain general terms, where we hoped we would go with it. Then, the playing of it, and how it went emotionally, grew organically out of the day's work. We did half of it in the morning and half of it in the afternoon. We took a whole day to do that scene, which seemed like an unusual amount of time to me. Later on, towards the end of the schedule, we would have probably done it in only half a day. It was an important scene for Peter, and obviously very important for Boromir. It vindicated him, and made up for his lapse of weakness. Now, Boromir has more than redeemed himself by giving his life. It was a turning point for Aragorn, as well. It's the beginning of him being given more responsibility as a leader. I liked the way that scene came out; it felt like it could have come out of the book.

It's certainly a very moving and emotional scene.

That's something you can't plan on. You hope it's going to be that way, but basically it's really how it grows in the moment. From moment to moment, it was quite interesting how it went. I tried to be there as much for Sean, who had his side of it shot in the morning, as he certainly was for me, in the afternoon, when we shot my side of the scene.

What must be nice for you, as an actor, is that Peter Jackson seems to be a director who will let a lot of the key scenes play out in a long shot, as opposed to cutting it up, which is what a music video director would tend to do.

Yes, he does. I think you'll see a lot of beautiful shots in The Return of the King, and he lets the relationships have as much strength as the battles and all the great special effects shots. In Return of the King you'll get a lot of character details and relationships that will hearken back to some of the best aspects of the first movie.

I noticed in your book Coincidence of Memory, you included some photographs that you took in New Zealand.

Yes, although the photo of the tree on the cover was taken in Spain.

What scenes did you work on when you went back to shoot the pick-ups for Return of the King?

We worked on the Paths of the Dead and Pelennor Fields. I worked with Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Eomer and Eowyn. Those were for some group scenes early on, that took place in Edoras. I didn't have anything much to do with the Hobbits in the pick-ups, because we had already done all of those scenes.

Before shooting scenes that have a lot of effects shots, would you prepare by looking at the concept art for the creatures you'd be reacting to on the set, like the Fell-beasts and the Oliphaunts?

Yes, I was always curious and there was an open door policy in visiting Weta. You could walk into the office, visit Alan Lee and look at the sketches and production paintings any day of the week. When I think of it now, it seems amazing that we had access to all that, but at the time it seemed quite normal. It was fascinating to see everything, and how it was all coming together. It was the same in every department: they were all open, whether it was wardrobe or the weapons, and sometimes they would even incorporate thoughts we had into designs for particular things that our character might need, so it was great.

Aragorn is really a mediator. He's not like Gimli and Legolas who act impetuously. In fact, Eomer and his soldiers would probably have killed all three of you, when you first meet Eomer in Rohan, if Aragorn didn't intervene as a mediator.

I think that's something that's true to the books. Legolas and Gimli don't consider things before they take action, while Aragorn, because of his previous experience, makes an effort to understand other peoples, and other races. He uses his knowledge about the history and culture of Middle-earth to understand people better, and he doesn't act without thinking. Although, when the tale begins, Aragorn has not been known as a public leader. In fact, nobody even knows what his real name is, outside of Rivendell. For the most part, he's been anonymous. Strider is just one of many disguises, assumed names and languages he has made use of over the years, in order to be of service to people. Whatever good he's done, whether for the Hobbits in the Shire, in protecting borders, or in anything else, it's all been done under assumed names and disguises and that's something he's been comfortable with. Then, as we go into the third film, more responsibility is placed on his shoulders, and more is expected of him. So it's something he has to get used to. I don't know if that ever totally suits him, but it's something that he understands it's important for him to do.

Actually, in terms of the story, it's quite vital, since Aragorn is destined to be King of Gondor.

Yes, and that's another reason why he has consistently remained anonymous - to keep Sauron ignorant of the fact that there is an heir to the throne of Gondor out there. Sauron has much to fear from the line of Kings of the Numenorean race. They have long been his nemesis and Sauron has tried to eradicate that line. Sauron first becomes aware of Aragorn through Saruman and Wormtongue, and we filmed the scene where I finally reveal myself to Sauron - through the Palantir - which is a crucial point in the story, so I hope it will be in the final film.

When Aragorn is finally crowned, he's a totally just and compassionate King. It's too bad somebody like Aragorn couldn't be President of America...

Yeah, that would be cool, wouldn't it? I don't think Aragorn is going to allow any companies to drill for oil in Fangorn forest. One of the problems with our present government is everything is either black or white. There seems to be no place for discussing or thinking about the best way to solve situations like Iraq.

Did you have any favourite scenes in Return of the King?

It's hard to pick anything, because I don't know what's going to be in it. I know it will be interesting and I think Peter will round out all the different characters that we've followed for the last two years. But I hesitate to talk about it too much, because I've done that in the past and then those scenes weren't in the movie! I know the book, obviously, and I know what I was a party to in making it, and watching other people when I could, but I don't make any assumptions about what Peter will or won't put into the film. I wouldn't even venture to guess. I know the Paths of the Dead will have to be in there, where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have to confront a particularly daunting challenge. The battle of Pelennor Fields, and the ride of the Rohirrim will both be quite spectacular. Saruman's death, which comes early in the movie, should be interesting [Except it's now been cut from the film! - Ed] and the new monsters, like Shelob the giant spider will be exciting. Beyond that, I'm not sure what will make it into the final movie. Gollum will play an important part this time, just as he did last time. As with any good story, in Return of the King Tolkien and Peter Jackson have upped the stakes. The odds of us getting through and succeeding and surviving are greater than ever. It should be a very satisfying story, because at the end we will pull all the story threads together. But I don't know what exact route Peter's going to take to get there.

You seemed to get very deeply into playing the part of Aragorn. Did you ever find you had to fake a scene?

I'm not sure what you mean...Depending on your point of view, the whole thing can be seen as fake.

I mean how an actor - especially a method actor - may not be able to find the true emotions or the spine of a scene. There's a famous story of how Ingrid Bergman told Alfred Hitchcock she couldn't play a scene in Notorious because she wasn't feeling it. Hitchcock looked at her and said, "just fake it".

Well, you're being paid to do the scene, so you have to do it, one way or another. You can do it better on some days than on others, I grant you that, but it's up to the individual actor, if you want to fake it or not. But it's not just about you. There's other people in the scene, there's the director, and a lot of elements that go into making the scene work. If you just remember that you have help there at all times, if you want to be open to it, then you won't be preoccupied by whether it seems like you're faking the scene or not. If you're involved with the other people there, and you're honest with yourself, you'll be comfortable with the scene. The biggest enemy for an actor is not feeling comfortable with the scene. So the degree to which he or she can relax is important. If a scene isn't working, there's a good chance that you're tense.

It sounds like Peter Jackson is a helpful director for an actor.

Yes and, as much as anything, Peter leads by example. He was very well informed and enthusiastic about every aspect of the film. In his way, he put his mind into the shoes of each of the characters and tried in whatever way he could, to be helpful to the actors who were playing the characters.

TOOLS OF KINGSHIP

I understand you never went anywhere without your sword.

Yeah, it was a pretty important tool to Aragorn, and it felt to me like something that anchored the character. It had to be like second nature for him. To walk with it and handle it. If necessary to sharpen it and clean it. All of those things, because that was Aragorn's most important tool - well, his second most important tool. I'd say his most important tool was his compassion, born from the experiences he has gleaned from travelling across Middle-earth. He also has a strong connection with nature. He is a man that has lived in the wild, so he understands not only the language of the different peoples of Middle-earth, but also the language of the animals, the birds and the trees.

VIGGO ON VAMBRACES

After Boromir dies, you take his leather vambraces and put them on. But conceptual artist John Howe, who is an expert on armour, was telling me how leather vambraces are in no way an authentic piece of armour.

Well, I do wear metal plated vambraces later in the story, but I think the leather vambraces are not necessarily wrong. It's better to have leather than having nothing on at all. I would say, like in most wars, people use what they have at hand. If you don't have metal, you put leather on. If you don't have leather, you run like a bastard! But I love the fact that John Howe, like everybody else in the art department, took things personally. I think it's great, and it helps give the movie that authentic feeling, because people cared about those details. When it came down to quibbling about the details, it was about getting it as right as it could be. I know I found myself wanting to be as authentic and as true to Tolkien as I could possibly be, and I think most people felt that way.

It probably helped that it was shot in New Zealand, with a New Zealand crew, because sometimes Hollywood crews can get a very blase attitude.

That's a generalization, but I think it did make a difference. It's true that for most New Zealanders - especially when you get a group of them working together - it seems to come quite natually for them to put the group before the individual. It certainly mirrors what the story is about. The group effort, or the group sacrifice, for the good of Humanity and the survival of Middle-earth.
Last edited: 26 March 2005 15:00:58
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