Interviews 2003

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The King Is Mortensen, Long Live The King!

By Marc Toullec

September 2003

Source: Cine Live #71

Friday, August 8, 16:15 pm, Paris. The austere Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings soon proves to be an extremely cordial guy, much more loquacious in person than he sounds in most of his interviews. Without doubt this is due to his shyness. We talk in English, although the man speaks French quite correctly, with hardly an accent, and with humour even. After an hour of conversation, which he closes with a 'see you later', he returns bringing a bottle of good wine which he wants to share because Viggo Mortensen may be a true loner but he also appreciates conviviality.

Do you remember when and why you decided to become an actor?

I was a bit older than most when I started acting. I was around 27, while many start as teenagers, even earlier. I came to acting because of simple curiosity: I wanted to know how movies were made. Between the ages of 18 and 20, I started to watch works which I had ignored until then, essentially European and Japanese movies directed by Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman... I started to ask myself questions about their contents and direction. Anyway, as an actor I had two very bad years with hardly any work, it was impossible to live. Then, gradually, things began to improve. I got work, although I still had to do other kinds of work to make ends meet at the end of the month. I endured.

Dreyer, Ozu, Bergman...not all American actors, in fact to the contrary, give your references!

You know, I'm not the only American actor interested in foreign productions. There are a lot of us that keep track of what is happening in the independent circuits, even if it is a bit difficult, since the major studios monopolize the best theatres. But isn't it the same everywhere? In Japan it is difficult to find theatres showing other kinds of movies, even though the demand for them is increasing. People should go more often to these theatres, especially those who want to work in the movies. In the United States, there are a lot of film schools. Their students leave with degrees but, paradoxically, they know nothing about the history of the cinema, including the American cinema. Recently, a friend of mine who's a teacher told me that most of his students have never watched The Godfather. Some hadn't even heard of it! It seems to me that to know something of the past is essential, so that you don't repeat the same mistakes. In the movie industry and elsewhere...

For example?

In politics! Our rulers have embroiled us in Iraq without even studying the history of that country, with no knowledge of what the British did there in the past. It's the way they have to deceive themselves, even in the other Iraq war in 1991. At the White House, above all else, they want people to be productive but they don't want them to have a long-term memory. If we had one then things would have gone differently in Iraq... The studio system works in a similar way; allowing them to serve up the same formula again and again, to produce remakes, to always use the same stories. It happens that sometimes good movies come out of the big studios; The Lord Of The Rings is a notable example. But in truth the movie was produced out of Hollywood in New Zealand. To my mind it is a gigantic independent film that was produced with help from the studio system.

The first years of your career were particularly stamped by a demanding type of cinema. Nothing to do with G.I. Jane and Daylight which you worked in afterwards...

I've worked in some art movies which didn't have much of a public in the United States, notably in Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin and Darkly Noon. A talented and underestimated artist, his movies haven't even been released in the United States. The Indian Runner wasn't very popular either, but at least it turned Sean Penn into a respected film-maker. If it was produced and distributed today The Indian Runner might have been more successful, but I believe it was ahead of its time, before the birth of the American public's admiration for independent cinema. I owe it my career, which up until then was having difficulty taking off. After it, directors and producers started taking me seriously.

In the beginning of the "90s, you even worked in the B action movie American Yakuza and the horror film Prison...

I was not alone in this; a lot of people have done it. It's only that the public doesn't know all their movies! At certain times in their careers actors have different needs. Sometimes these necessities happen at the same time. It's a bit like reading many different books at the same time. Although working under a director I don't know always makes me nervous, I'll do it out of curiosity and a wish to improve. I don't regret having worked in certain movies that fed me. A career is made up of ups and downs, and you have to earn your bread. Not long ago, when I had a small amount of money in the bank, I would systematically wait for a new proposal to spend it! The budget, the location...they weren't important to me if I was interested in the role or the story. When I was broke, I took the first role offered to me that seemed right. This was not something that led to very convincing results but I didn't have a plan for my career. To be honest, today, I wouldn't have accepted some of those roles if I'd had a little more money put aside.

Did your financial needs lead you closer to the big budget productions than the less well financed ones?

I worked indifferently in small and big budget films. It doesn't matter as I've always approached my roles in the same way; with curiosity, finding out who the film-maker really was, what were his motivations. I always arrived at the shoot as prepared as I could possibly be, available to my fellow actors and the director. I learned to be an actor by being an actor and then multiplying the experiences. At times I had no choice. In truth few actors get the chance to play the roles they really want to. There are no rules in our profession; it's by and large unjust. I know excellent actors who have never managed to make ends meet, and I also know a lot of others that don't invest anything in their work, they are complete fakes, but they have a solid career. It's a crazy occupation.

In 1995, you played a very unique part. That of Lucifer in The Prophecy...

I landed in The Prophecy the same way I did in The Lord Of The Rings, that is, at the last minute. I read the script on the plane taking me to the location. I accepted the part because I wanted to work with Christopher Walken, whom I knew personally. Even though I didn't have much time to prepare for the role, the character interested me and I explored his story. I see him as the prodigal son, very gifted but such a rebel that his father throws him out of paradise. I asked myself how he would have reacted. He certainly would have felt misunderstood, because he was the most intelligent and brightest of all the angels. Inevitably he would ask himself, 'Why has he rejected me?' So he would have had ego problems. Ultimately he's very human, in a certain way very close to Aragorn because he also possesses powers of a certain magnitude.

But we can't say that Lucifer and Aragorn are alike...

They outgrew the human norms. I learned, thanks to Tolkien's books, that Aragorn has very keen senses; his sight and hearing are extremely developed. He understands the language of animals and he has a very close relationship with nature. Aragorn's potential is greater than that of other mortals and that makes him more interesting to portray. It's the same thing with an Elf, or a character like Gandalf. An actor has to use his imagination to get under their skin; you have to open yourself up completely to the character, and maybe take the risk of ridiculing yourself. Because, even though these characters are very seductive, they can destroy an actor. But one should take up the challenge and this is something that is not always evident, because as an actor gets older he sticks more to his old habits and is less prone to accept the possibility of being ridiculed.

Did you take long to decide to accept the challenge that the marathon shooting of The Lord Of The Rings would be?

As I told you, almost the same time it took me to accept The Prophecy! Nevertheless, the stakes were very different; the first one meant three or four days of shooting in Arizona, while the second meant I would be living in New Zealand for over a year and have to be available for even longer. In the beginning, even after accepting Peter Jackson's proposal, I thought they weren't being very clever when they chose me. I arrived at the location when filming was already under way and I had little knowledge of Tolkien's work. It was during the trip to New Zealand that I started to change my mind. In a few hours I found out that the books contained familiar elements, mostly related to mythology. At the location the size of the production and the amount of work that had already been done impressed me. Everything was ready: the weapons, the costumes, the miniatures, the sets... It was a real shock! But instead of feeling estranged, all this reassured me. I found that I had a lot in common with those people and that feeling just grew each day. I felt I would become one of them and, sure enough, that's what happened.

With your Scandinavian background you should feel at home in a story that has such solid links to the Nordic myths and legends...

I did feel the connection when reading Tolkien. That being said, Tolkien doesn't solely connect to the Nordic mythology, but also to romantic French and Italian poetry, and the medieval epics. As far as possible I read them a lot. I plunged into it. I also called to mind, you were right about this, the Nordic tales of my childhood, the ones that placed at the same level gods and mortals. In The Lord Of The Rings, I also found traces of westerns, samurai movies, fairy tales and, generally speaking, all initiation and quest tales, fantastic odysseys have at the same time a universal meaning and very close links to The Lord Of The Rings.

You are the kind of actor who searches for an intimate connection with your character. What resemblances did you find with Aragorn?

Aragorn and I shared the same paradox: we are solitary beings, even though we love company. He enjoys being together with his companions during all the various adventures in the story, and I enjoy belonging to a troupe of actors. Aragorn, like me, has travelled long and far and knows many diverse cultures. He also feels at home in nature and I have never hidden my happiness when working in isolated and wild locations. Perhaps there are other similarities that I can't analyse. The best things don't open themselves up to explanation!

What memory do you keep from the very first day when you started shooting the trilogy?

I quickly dived into this crazy project! I was standing between Bob Anderson, the sword master, and Peter Jackson. It was a very physical scene. I had to run and hold a sword, or at least I had to learn how to do it. It was something essential for the character because he speaks little. He must exist because of his own presence, charisma and power.

People say that you became Aragorn so much that you never left your sword between shoots...

It's true, but there's nothing exceptional in that. Peter Jackson encouraged all the actors to merge totally with their characters in order to achieve the most authentic portrayal possible. So, sometimes I wore Aragorn's costume and carried his sword, rode his horse...but I always work like that. Lately, in Hidalgo I always wore my character's cowboy boots.

For four years you have immersed yourself in The Lord Of The Rings. Are you starting to feel as if you have been imprisoned by Aragorn?

No, not any more than I feel that I'm a captive of Tolkien and Peter Jackson. Quite the contrary, I'm passionate about the story because it has resonated deeply inside me. It's always like this. Every time I return to New Zealand I feel honoured meeting all those people again, rediscovering such an extraordinary country. Obviously I suffered a bit, especially during the three months of night shoots at Helm's Deep, when I almost drowned. I also lost a tooth during one of the skirmishes...but everything was part of a unique experience, greater than anything I had ever experienced up until then. Of course once the promotion of The Return Of The King is over I will be able to turn the page and do something different. I have no intention of being Aragorn for the rest of my life but that doesn't mean that I'll disown him. I've never disowned any of the characters I've portrayed, they all reflect a facet of my personality.

How do you imagine The Return Of The King? What are you expecting to see?

As with The Two Towers, there will be wonderful war sequences, maybe even more impressive ones. But I can't be sure about anything because I haven't seen the movie yet. Peter Jackson is still cutting it. I am convinced that once again he will surprise us all. Rediscovering The Fellowship Of The Ring in its extended version, I was really impressed. It is a hundred times better than the theatrical cut; which will also be the case with The Two Towers extended edition. Because it is a conclusion The Return Of The King should resemble The Fellowship Of The Ring. Peter Jackson and the scriptwriters have placed a lot of emphasis on the links which connect the protagonists. I don't know if this will find its way on to the screen but we had the impression during the shooting that the human side counted. If Peter Jackson is successful in uniting the intimate and the epic aspects of Tolkien's story then this will probably be the best episode of the trilogy.
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Last edited: 11 May 2005 02:59:15