In a moment Viggo Mortensen will be a worldwide name, because the Danish-American actor has the demanding role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. He says the preliminary work began when he played with wooden swords on Middle-Zealand (Middle-Sjælland). Meet a Hollywood star who in every way is one of a kind.
© New Line Productions Inc.
"Oh," Viggo Mortensen says surprised and looks down while he moves he feet around the thick carpet. As if it's not until now - when he is asked out of curiosity - that he realizes he hasn't got any shoes or socks on for the meeting here in Suite 1803 of the Regency Hotel, New York.
"? I haven't been outside today," he says a little apologetic.
It's OK. Beautiful toes we have to say. Very beautiful. Just like the rest of Viggo Mortensen, both on the outside and on the inside. A bohemian with a strong face, a lonely wolf in the eyes, a serious heart, and an almost romantic knowledge of history.
In a moment the 43-year-old Danish-American will become a worldwide star, but even though he says himself he is more like his American mother than his Danish father, he keeps making light of his success in a way many Americans wouldn't dream about. At least not if they were in his shoes (bare feet) and have got the big and impressive hero-role as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. I cannot remember having met an American star who didn't act like one. With pride, considerable affection and irritability just beneath the surface. I cannot think of a single one who like Viggo Mortensen has quietly stepped into the room, put down his big rucksack next to the armchair and with a low and polite voice has started the interview by asking you who you are and where do you come from. And he also wants to go through the interview in Danish. That is definitely not ordinary in those areas.
"ALT for damerne. My aunts and female cousins home in Denmark read that," he says nodding in recognition, but he is still obviously shy about speaking about himself. Therefore, is he entirely just an ordinary Dane with the law of Jante deeply nailed into his brain? No, it's not that bad. Viggo Mortensen is one of a kind. Up until now he has mostly played criminals or unpleasant types, but face to face with him it's impossible not to see all the time Aragorn's noble and romantic features. Just like him he's also a loner who, undaunted, goes his own way. Acting is far from his entire life. He is also an acknowledged poet and painter, has among other places exhibited in New York and Los Angeles, and he just cannot see himself as an important part of the showy scene called Hollywood. It doesn't matter that he has had more than 30 film roles, and now because of Lord of the Rings he will be in everybody's minds for many years.
Aragorn - Viggo Mortensen. Viggo Mortensen - Aragorn. The hero of all times.
"Let's see," he says. "I have been told that now I'll be famous. And it didn't happen. Whatever happens after Lord of the Rings it won't change me or my way of living. I'm good at feeling home everywhere. Maybe not to quickly be a part of social connections and get into conversations, but I can spend days in my own company anywhere. I've always been able to that, also when I was a boy I liked to be alone. Then I could read. Become absorbed. Now it looks like my son has inherited the same ability. He can lose himself in an interest and not pay attention to anything else."
Isn't Hollywood the worse starting point if you want to keep your privacy?
"No, it depends on how you tackle it. I can drive way up into the mountains and just be by myself. The simple life is not impossible. You can stay away from a lot. I know that many people use their fame to be in many places that are not directly anything to do with their job, and in this way they become more famous. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not my way. Acting is a job for me. Aragorn was a job. I could choose not to be an actor, because there are other creative ways to express yourself - but on the other side: when acting really works, then it works the same way as a good poem or painting. So even if I was able to make enough money as a poet or painter I guess I would still be an actor."
It's not that Viggo Mortensen cannot be happy about his success, but he's just not the kind of man who uses big words. And then he's also, he says, "a little bit done with Aragorn after almost three years in his warrior clothes," of those two years were in a row filming in New Zealand. Apart from that, he's still not done. Some scenes in the second and third movie are missing, so in the new year he has to go there again.
"When I came back in December last year I was just as tired as Aragorn. Tired deep into my bones," he says. "It has been a long and demanding process and I hadn't thought a lot about content and the extent before we started. I was in it because another actor (the Irish Stuart Townsend) backed out and almost the day afterwards I travelled to New Zealand."
But Viggo Mortensen wasn't entirely unprepared. The scriptwriter of the movie, Philippa Boyens, has said that when he left the plane - also in bare feet - he had Vølsunge Sagaen under his arm. That is one of the Icelandic Sagas the English university professor J.R.R. Tolkien had been inspired by when he wrote Lord of the Rings in the 1940's. Moreover, Viggo Mortensen had also read Tolkien's books [sic]. This is the kind of books he read.
"For many people today it's something very special to ride, fight with a sword and all the other old skills we had to learn out there. It can give you a feeling of suddenly you can do something that you're the first one in the world can do? But I experienced it as continuation of a time and an ability that has been described again and again throughout history and has become a part of me. When I was a boy and spent my vacations with my father's family on Middle-Zealand, my cousins and I often pretended we were Vikings and fought with homemade wooden swords we had tied together with straw-thread. It was just a game; I was playing again when I was Aragorn. It was very recognizable from my own childhood and the old fairy tales, the Icelandic sagas, everything I'd heard and read about in my entire life.
"But maybe it is very Nordic to have that consciousness with you. In fact, I'm sure of that because during the filming I met another Dane, Frank, who was a backpacker. He happened to come by and got a role as an extra, as a warrior, and he had exactly the same approach to the fighting as I did. We didn't talk that much about it, but I felt it was inside him as something natural and I didn't feel that with anybody else."
Aragorn is strong, noble and brave. What three words would you use to characterise yourself?
"That is tough? I do what I'm able to in many ways, but I'm not all the time something or something else - whatever that is. Nobody is perfect all the time. Not even Aragorn or his travelling companions and that is what I like about them."
Viggo Mortensen lost a tooth and broke two toes during the great battle against the orcs -the incredibly scary trolls - that contains some of the most dramatic scenes in Lord of the Rings. The tooth especially has got a lot of publicity. The producer of the movie, Barrie Osborne, has among other things said that Viggo Mortensen was "that kind of an actor who one day lost a tooth because of a sword, but immediately asked to get it put back with superglue so he could finish the scene."
When you ask Viggo Mortensen about the episode he becomes quite shy. This is nothing to talk about compared to the many injuries that other members of the film crew got. But is it because of that he has the white scar over his mouth? "No, that is from my youth," he says, and we don't talk anymore about it. Viggo Mortensen's 13-year-old son, Henry, named after a Danish relative also got a part as an extra in the movie. It has become routine that he visits his father wherever he is filming. This time he thinks he was away from his son too long and you can hear that your next question is needless to say.
In Lord of the Rings the ring is the most precious thing for everybody who gets near to it. Do you also have one indispensable favourite thing in your life?
"No, not a thing, but my son. There's nothing else that means anything," Viggo Mortensen says. He has a cabin in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho where he often goes, but ordinarily he lives in Venice, the artist and hippie area of Los Angeles. Close to his ex-wife Exene Cervenka, mother of Henry and lead singer of the punk rock band X. Their marriage was short, but they still see each other a lot. Among other things they have released a CD together where Viggo Mortensen reads his own poems. And they both raise Henry who mostly lives at his father's place.
"My daily life is like anybody else's when I'm home. Shop, take care of my house, and be together with my child. I'm able to pay for a lot of things, but there's still a lot to do when you have a son and have to help him with school and other activities and just to be there for him every day."
Viggo Mortensen is putting the finishing touches to a new exhibition, "Signlanguage" with paintings and photographs at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica. It opens February 2nd 2002 and runs to the end of March. There's no doubt that he is an artist in his own right. He has released the praised art book Recent Forgeries which gets four stars on Amazon.com, and also a couple of poem collections. Then you can also add a double CD where he among other things reads selected lyrics by Jack Kerouac and another CD where he both sings and reads in Spanish - he has university degrees in Spanish and political science.
And there's also still some time for Denmark. At least a little. He was born in the USA and as a child lived in Argentina and Venezuela, together with his businessman father, housewife mother and two brothers. But the holidays were spent with the Danish part of the family in the middle of the Zealand soil, and when he was about 20 years old he went back and worked in both Copenhagen and Esbjerg - as a waiter, carpenter, lorry driver and truck driver.
"I would spend my vacation in Denmark every year. This year I hoped to be there twice, but there has been so much after-work on the Lord of the Rings that I didn't make it. But I always celebrate a Danish Christmas in the USA! That means December 24th in the evening."
Is there anything else you have brought along from Denmark?
"No, I don't think so," Viggo Mortensen says. But then a minute later he disproves that. The interview is over, but on his way out he thinks of something and reaches down in his rucksack after a slender blue book. Karen Blixen and the Birds. Illustrated by Johannes Larsen. He opens the book at page 25 where there's a nice dog-eared bend and points at the bottom of the page. "Wherever you go in the future, then you will remember that we were here the last day in May, and it was beautiful here and you were happy."
Viggo Mortensen lends me the book so I can write the sentence - the words are what Blixen's father said to her mother when they came back from their honeymoon. Then he is gone and I never get a chance to ask him what that quotation means to him and why he shows it to me. But on the other hand I've had time to get his address and I write to him when I get back. One day the phone rings:
"It's Viggo." And he explains that it is always important to enjoy the things you've had.
"Also, in the case of film work, to have to like the process, and to not think too much about the final result, because you don't have any influence on that anyway. You shouldn't expect too much and even though you may be satisfied with it, it doesn't have a lot to do with what you experienced along the way."
Then Viggo Mortensen has to drive his son to school, but tells he'll call back in about 20 minutes so we can talk a little more. He keeps his promise. And I have become totally sure of my opening analysis: Viggo Mortensen is a beautiful man, both on the outside and on the inside.