None of the actors in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy stands a better chance to be vaulted into real Hollywood stardom than Viggo Mortensen, who plays the ruggedly handsome, ultra-masculine, human hero Aragorn. Yet none of them cares less about it.
"I'm much more interested in the process of what we are doing than what's going to happen," says Mortensen of his opportunity to become an action star, "because the process is what's real to me and where I'm going to learn something. It's the only thing that really matters to me."
The process, as he calls it, was spending 15 months in New Zealand in 1999-2000 with Kiwi writer-director Peter Jackson shooting three Lord Of The Rings films simultaneously in arduous conditions for long hours, sometimes up to 17 hours a day, often for six days a week. The first fruits of that labour, The Fellowship Of The Ring, opens Wednesday.
Mortensen's character, also known as Strider, is a ragged renegade hero who joins the Fellowship of nine heroes who drive the first instalment in the trilogy, which is based on the epic fantasy novel by English author J.R.R. Tolkien.
Like Aragorn, Mortensen is unusual, a quiet rebel and reluctant hero with multiple talents. This 43-year-old, Manhattan-born actor of Danish heritage is also a published poet (a book called Ten Last Night), a recorded jazz musician (three CDs and he was once married to punk singer Exene Cervenka of X) and multi-lingual (English, Spanish and Danish). He also paints (his murals were shown in his 1998 movie A Perfect Murder) and is a respected photographer (he made his Manhattan gallery debut in 2000).
As an actor, he first appeared in film as Amish farmer Moses Hochleitner in Peter Weir's stylish thriller Witness starring Harrison Ford. Now insiders feel that if The Fellowship Of The Ring scores big at the box office, as expected, Mortensen could take the roles that Ford once owned.
Yet Mortensen shrugs it off.
"I've had my fun. I was there. I was part of that process and, if people like the movie, fine. It's not as directly connected to what I really did, or what anybody did, as a book I might write or a painting I might make. I don't know what I'm going to do next, much less how people might perceive what I do. I generally try to find something that instinctively feels right. Other than that, I don't really have a plan or an expectation of things. I'm not result-oriented in that way. I usually wait for something that feels right to do -- or I run out of money. It's usually the latter because it's not a very clever gamble."
The process, however, thrills him and he brings to it intensity, dedication and even obsession. On the trilogy, although Mortensen had not read Tolkien before being cast, he became the actor most dedicated to ensuring as much of Tolkien was in the movies as possible. The epic three-part book became his Bible as much as the script.
It is the only style of working he knows, says Mortensen. "I don't really know how to do it a different way. I just had longer to do it this time. I didn't try any harder on this than I do on other movies. I just had longer to investigate."
He means that literally. More than anyone except perhaps Jackson and his co-writers, Mortensen delved into Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic mythologies that Tolkien drew upon in his writing.
While Mortensen feels the pain of seeing many things eliminated or simplified -- "Everything is a compromise!" - he has immense respect for Jackson and what he accomplished in filming the trilogy.
"You don't have to dwell on all the themes but I think people coming out of this movie, even if they don't know the book or don't have an interest in mythology or old literature and languages, will walk away having felt things that they will try to put words to. I think they'll sit around having pizza later and they will talk about the movie. Most movies, big or small, there's not much to talk about afterwards. Either it was entertaining or it wasn't, or so and so was good in the movie or not. I think there is more to this, even though a lot of the poetry isn't there. It's a start and hopefully a certain proportion of them will go and read the book, if they haven't already."