The first thing you need to know about Viggo Mortensen is that he doesn't like talking about himself. The second thing you need to know about Viggo Mortensen is that he hasn't stopped talking about himself for the past six months.
The shy, soft-spoken actor with the chiselled cheekbones and deep-blue eyes has been part of a non-stop marketing campaign since September, initially to promote the Oscar-winning fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in which he plays the heroic Aragorn, and later to publicize his role as a real-life Western hero in Hidalgo, a 19th-century adventure film that opened Friday.
'To give you an idea of how crazy it got at times, I had to leave my tent in the middle of the night once while filming Hidalgo in the desert, crawl to the top of a sand dune and do an interview on my cell phone to plug The Lord of the Rings.'
Trying to catch his breath in a luxury suite in a Century City hotel, Mortensen swivels slowly in his chair, stopping short when he is confronted by a large poster for his new movie. The poster, in which his face is prominent, was mounted on an easel by someone at the studio, and the actor is taken aback by the star treatment he is suddenly being accorded on movie posters.
'Big fat-head poster notwithstanding, this is a pretty good movie,' he says with a sheepish grin of embarrassment, turning back around quickly so that he doesn't have to look at the poster for one more agonizing second.
Clearly, Mortensen is not your typical ego-driven Hollywood actor.
'Feeding the ego is not why I got into this line of work,' the 45-year-old actor said. 'But I understand from being around the business for a couple of decades that when a movie like The Lord of the Rings is so popular, a studio is counting on that as a marketing tool for the next movie.
'Personally, I have no heavy investment in it, pro or con. I don't care about being famous. I don't care about having my face on posters. It doesn't massage my ego. It's nice to have a poster, but in the end it's about the movie. Nobody walks around saying "The movie stunk, but the poster was awesome'.'
As reluctant a star as Mortensen is, he is savvy enough to know that being big enough to have posters with your face on them (his face also adorned The Lord of the Rings poster) does have its privileges.
Mortensen acknowledges that he would never have gotten the role of Frank T. Hopkins in Hidalgo if it were not for the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
He accepts that the recent recognition has helped to sell his three books of poetry and assorted collections of photographs, not to mention other books published by his company, Perceval Press. And he is quick to agree that as many as 90 percent of the hundreds of people who regularly turn out for his poetry readings probably are drawn by his movie stardom.
'Yes, movie stardom does bring people's attention to things,' he said with a shrug. 'But I'll bet a lot of those people at the poetry readings have never been to a poetry reading before, and now they've been exposed to a new art form. That's a really good thing to come out of this.'
There has been increased fan recognition on the street, he said, and he occasionally is not averse to using his name for a good table at a Los Angeles restaurant.
All those benefits pale in comparison to what happened to him in South America.
'I grew up in Argentina, and I loved soccer. My favorite team was San Lorenzo, and when the cast of Lord of the Rings went to Argentina to promote the movie, they heard about it and invited me to a game. I met the players and they gave me an autographed team jersey.
'It was a real thrill for me, and for once, I understood the benefits of being famous.'
Born in New York City, Mortensen was the oldest son of a Danish farmer who met his American wife in Norway, where she worked at the American consulate. They divorced when Viggo was 11.
He was living in Argentina at the time, but he moved with his mother and two brothers to upstate New York, where he later attended St. Lawrence University. After graduation, he moved to Denmark but later returned to New York City, where he started acting classes. In 1982, he made his film debut as an Amish farmer in the Harrison Ford film Witness.
He married Exene Cervenka, lead singer of the punk band X, but they divorced after 10 years. They have a 16-year-old son, Henry.
Mortensen has appeared in nearly 40 films - he was Demi Moore's tough drill instructor in G.I. Jane and the murderous painter in A Perfect Murder - but his star did not really ascend in Hollywood until he was cast in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
He was cast four days after filming started in New Zealand after the original Aragorn (Stuart Townsend) was fired. Mortensen hadn't read the J.R.R. Tolkien books and was hesitant to accept the role, but his son talked him into it.
He said he is indebted to his son.
'Being an actor is a tough and frustrating life,' he said. 'I have been frustrated almost my entire career. Either you can't get work, or you get work and your best scenes get edited out. Or your scenes don't get edited out, but your work doesn't get recognized. It's always something.
'But I like to think that had I gotten the lead in some of those early movies that I auditioned for, I wouldn't be the same person I am today. I would have been so busy being a star that I wouldn't have learned about anything else in life. I probably wouldn't have devoted so much time to writing, painting or music.
'Without the spotlight on me, I was able to live a life and learn a lot.'
In his new film, which takes place in 1890, Mortensen plays the real-life Hopkins, a legendary horseman in the Old West who was the first American invited to compete in the gruelling and dangerous 3,000-mile race known as the Ocean of Fire. Hopkins and his sturdy mustang, Hidalgo, raced against some of the world's finest Arabian stallions, many of which were bred specifically for the race.
'This is a movie that is about something, just like The Lord of the Rings was about something,' the actor said. 'They're popular movies that tell a story. An actor is lucky to get one of those in a career. But to get two in a row is a gift.'
Of course, the box-office receipts have not been tallied yet for Hidalgo, but Mortensen said he believes it will strike a chord in audiences that love a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn.
'I honestly believe that this is the type of film that Howard Hawkes would have made,' he said, referring to the director of Rio Bravo and many other classics.
'This is a movie that respects the intelligence of the audience, and how many films can you say that about these days?'
Bet you didn't know...
That actor Viggo Mortensen was at the 'Miracle on Ice' hockey game at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 when the upstart Americans beat the mighty Russian Red Army team.
'I was on winter break from college, and I volunteered to be a translator for the Scandinavian teams,' he explained. 'I only did it to get free hockey tickets.'
Mortensen said he saw the gold-medal game between the Americans and the team from Finland, but it was the previous game that is burned into his memory.
'I am not a nationalistic person by nature, but you had to get caught up in what was going on in that arena,' he said. 'The excitement was amazing. You couldn't believe it was happening, but it was happening, and I feel so honoured to have been there.'