TOKYO - Wherever actor Viggo Mortensen goes, people ask him about the analogy between the U.S. fight against terrorism and the epic battle between good and evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The comparison has received a lot of press particularly in the U.S. where some have even gone so far as to suggest Christopher Lee's character - the evil Lord Saruman - looks like Osama bin Laden (does that mean George W Bush is Gandalf?).
During a recent visit to Japan to promote Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the second in the series, the 44-year-old Mortensen was ready for the question, sporting a T-shirt in Japanese that read "No more blood for oil." His co-star, New Zealand actor Karl Urban, who showed up with him, had peace symbols stitched all over his jacket.
"I have not done this sort of thing in connection with one of my movies before, but I don't like my work being misinterpreted," Mortensen said, speaking slowly, sometimes almost inaudibly. "Tolkien wrote the stories during World War II and he himself said then that it shouldn't be seen as a comparison to the war. It is no more allegorical now. It bothered me, so I wanted to say something.
"Since 9-11, more people have died in Afghanistan and Iraq than in New York that day - and for not a very good reason. Yet, you are looked down upon in the U.S. if you recommend dialogue before military action. Our country was founded on the principle of free speech and I say to go ahead with war without openly discussing it is morally wrong and dangerous."
Born in New York City, Mortensen spent much of his youth in Argentina, Venezuela and Denmark. He made his film debut in Witness in 1985. Since then, he has alternated his time between the theatre and films, often cast as a sleazy or morally ambiguous character in such films as The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito's Way (1993), The Prophecy (1995), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), G.I. Jane (1997) and A Perfect Murder (1998).
His recurring role, as the human warrior Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings films, is his biggest break yet. All three films were shot back to back in New Zealand, and the third will be released in Japan early next year.
It was an awesome task at first, Mortensen recalled. "I feel like I had two directors - Tolkien and Peter Jackson," he said. "The book was my guide and it was a long and difficult shoot. But at least I got favourable reviews at home. My son said I didn't embarrass the family in any way."
For Urban, 30, who is unknown to movie audience outside of New Zealand, the whole experience was like being in a fantasy world. "I got this phone call out of the blue one day from Peter Jackson asking me if I'd like to be in Lord of the Rings. I have never worked on a film before where the entire crew were walking around with a copy of the book. Everyone, from the lighting and catering staff to the cast, had a copy of Tolkien's book. That's the passion and dedication we had on the set."
Sometimes that passion got the better of them, especially in the big battle scenes. With everyone swinging swords and axes, things got pretty rough. "I broke a tooth and a few other limbs," said Mortensen. "The shoot took several months and the more tired we got, the more risks we took. You slip, you fall, you get cuts and bruises. That's the price you pay when you want it to look real."
To hone their sword-fighting skills, the cast got some tips from a real movie pro - Bob Anderson, whose students go all the way back to Errol Flynn, a name Urban admitted with some embarrassment was unfamiliar to him. "Then Bob's assistant said to me, 'Well you might know him as Darth Vader in the fight scenes in the Star Wars movies," said Urban.