The cutest guy in Middle-earth has an urge to smoke. Mumbling something about going to his car, Viggo Mortensen, the dashing human hero of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, heads out of Chez Jay, Hollywood's favorite dive in spitting distance of the ocean. The Santa Monica place is pretty skeevy as Sunday brunch spots go, which is of course part of its charm. That may be especially true for Mortensen, who finds the industry's sleeker trappings as skeevy as some Bel-Air-ians would find Chez Jay.
On his return, Mortensen, who's been drinking virginal grapefruit juice, notices the eggs of his brunch partner, which are beginning to resemble the plastic food in Japanese restaurant windows. "Sorry about your food," he says sheepishly. "Would you like them to heat that up?"
Smoking may be Mortensen's only antisocial activity, because the guy is well known for his thoughtfulness. During the 18-month-long "Rings" shoot in New Zealand, Mortensen, an experienced horseman, spent hours helping novice equestrienne and co-star Liv Tyler learn how to take the reins. And when it came his turn to enjoy an executive producer's morale-buffing dinner invitation for cast members, the producer, Mark Ordesky, never got a chance to reach for his wallet.
"When I called Viggo, he said, 'Pick me up at 8,' " New Line Cinema's Ordesky recalls. "I get there and he cooks. He's a Renaissance man. He paints, he acts, he writes poetry, you could bounce a quarter off of him and he cooks the way our mothers cook -- from scratch."
Mortensen's natural capacity for noblesse oblige is clearly an asset for his transformation into the dashing Aragorn. In "The Two Towers," the second installment of the trilogy, which opened Wednesday, the exiled heir to the throne of Gondor valiantly leads humans and elves in the battle against the forces of the evil Sauron, who lusts after the One Ring that could empower him to destroy all that is good in Middle-earth. The movie opened to generally glowing reviews and huge box office.
"The Two Towers" showcases Mortensen far more than the ensemble-driven first installment, and if the trilogy can propel Mortensen into the ranks of household hunks, "The Two Towers" would be the vehicle to do it in. The new film spends more screen time than the first episode did in showing off Aragorn's talents for slaying evil Uruk-hai and making virtuous beauties swoon, the basic prerequisites for action herohood.
When director Peter Jackson cast Mortensen as the sensitive, romantic warrior-king, critics predicted that the role would turn the 44-year-old actor into an action superstar in the same way that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Gladiator" made A-list hotties out of Harrison Ford and Russell Crowe, respectively.
Mortensen's previous turns before the camera, as a soulful lover who entices women into extramarital affairs in "A Walk on the Moon" (1999) and "A Perfect Murder" (1998), won plaudits from critics, but "A Walk" was a small film, and Mortensen's heat in "Murder" had to compete with the star wattage generated by Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Certainly "The Fellowship of the Ring," based on the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien's cult-friendly epic about hobbits, humans and orcs duking it out in a primeval fantasy world, expanded Mortensen's audience a zillion-fold. The movie was last year's second-highest-grossing film, generating $860 million worldwide and 13 Oscar nominations including best picture. But so far, Mortensen's place in the matinee idol universe remains as fuzzy as hobbit feet.
Mortensen's innate valor could turn out to be a double-edged sword: The quality that helps make him perfect for the role of Aragorn may have its downside, according to at least one critic. "He's deadly earnest, and that can be a problem," says New York magazine critic Peter Rainer. "He's always been very effective, but there's a sort of one-note earnestness that you get.... What people seem to want now from these action heroes is a little more variation, a little more spoofy element, wit and fun."
Back at Chez Jay, Mortensen is asked what he thinks of the predictions that "Rings" would make him a big movie star, nearly two decades after his 1985 film debut as an Amish farmer in "Witness."
"First of all, I don't think it has, but I don't think about it much," he says slowly. "It's not connected to what I do in collaboration with others in trying to help the director tell a story. As far as arriving, I've been told I had arrived many times in the past 20 years. And presumably departed as well," he adds with a wry laugh. "I think that in my case they've exhausted the idea of the new face."
Middle-earth to Old West
At the moment, he certainly doesn't look like a standard-issue movie star. His Scandinavian cheekbones and cleft chin are covered in 5 o'clock fuzz, even though it's a good 17 hours since that hirsute hour. His crystal-blue eyes are shaded by a squooshy felt hat that he's breaking in so it will be ratty enough for his next film, "Hidalgo," named after the horse of Pony Express rider Frank T. Hopkins.
The New York-born, L.A.-based actor isn't entirely unmindful of the perks of success, and he recognizes that "Rings" helped him snare the role of Hopkins, a well-known long-distance racer of the 1890s who competed in Saudi Arabia. The Disney film, directed by Joe Johnston and co-starring Omar Sharif, has been shooting in South Dakota and the Arabian desert, where Mortensen discussed post-Sept. 11 events with local Muslims.
The experience fueled his misgivings about U.S. foreign policy, and when he went on "The Charlie Rose Show" last month with Jackson and Elijah Wood (Frodo in the trilogy), he sported a self-made T-shirt that said "No More Blood for Oil." Mortensen says he was tired of hearing the post-9/11 spin on the trilogy, comparing "the plight of the fellowship and the plight of the United States, simplifying what is not simple in Tolkien's world -- good versus evil."
"For a year we've been wiping out all these people, and we don't have a sense of them in this country," Mortensen says. "If we saw their faces on a regular basis like we did the World Trade Center victims -- not to take anything away from that, but there were many more people than were killed at the World Trade Center."
Not surprisingly, Mortensen has a reputation for intensity on the set. His fellow cast members talked about how he carried his sword everywhere, even to an antiseptic studio facility for dialogue looping, and how he sometimes camped out with his weapons when the rest of the cast and crew bunked down in cozy hotels. But Mortensen downplays the media image of him as wild-man artiste. He says he camped out to experience New Zealand's natural beauty, and he lived with his sword because he had to play catch-up after being cast at the 11th hour to replace Stuart Townsend in the role of Aragorn.
Mortensen didn't crack open the trilogy until he was on a plane to New Zealand. He took the role partly on career advice from someone who had: Henry Mortensen, his 14-year-old son with his ex-wife, punk-rock singer Exene Cervenka.
Acting is only part of Mortensen's artistic repertoire. He's a published poet, and his paintings and photography have been exhibited at the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica and the Robert Mann Gallery in New York. Next year, his work will travel to galleries in Milan, Madrid and Havana. Earlier this year he launched Perceval Press, which publishes poetry and art, including his own collections, "Coincidence of Memory" and "Signguage."
Perceval's only other published artist so far is Lola Schnabel, Julian Schnabel's 22-year-old daughter, who has been linked romantically with Mortensen. The actor, who has been voluble on the subjects of Tolkien, U.S. foreign policy and the sometimes grueling shoot, is suddenly tight-lipped. "She's a friend of mine," he says simply.
Later, the reason for his reticence becomes clear: The New York Post's Page Six reported this week that Schnabel had dumped Mortensen after two years. His publicist didn't return a call for comment.
Mortensen is so private and shy that it took years of practice to brave auditions and interviews comfortably. So when a reporter asks to see the tattoo he and the other "Fellowship" actors got to immortalize their camaraderie, he declines. Politely, of course. "No, thank you," he says. "But thanks for asking."