WELLINGTON, New Zealand - In a land far away, filmmaker Peter Jackson and his crack crew were shooting extra scenes for The Return of the King, the thunderous finale of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that stormed into theaters Tuesday night.
But while cameras rolled in a make-believe Middle-earth, I was about to have my own fairy-tale dream come true: a midday date with Isildur's heir, lord of the Dunedain, son of Arathorn, the last of the Numenoreans, also known simply as Strider.
In other words, Aragorn, paragon of all that is good-hearted, brave and sweaty. You can have your wee hobbits and wizened wizards. Give me the man who would be king. Rough-hewn Aragorn is as manly as they come as he slays loathsome orcs and woos elf princess Arwen, whispering sweet nothings into her pointy ears.
The fiery passion that blazes in his eyes can do what no extra-large popcorn can: sustain a grown woman through six-plus hours of viewing pleasure for the past two years. It has been a torrid, if one-sided, affair, though I suspect many others have fallen for his unwashed charms.
As Miranda Otto, whose Eowyn worships Aragorn from afar, has noted, "From the moment I saw him onscreen, I thought, 'He looks incredible. Here is a character I don't have to pretend to be in love with.'"
Liv Tyler, who lends her ethereal beauty to Arwen, seconds that emotion. "We all like a bit of rough now and then," she says with a saucy smile.
Film No. 3 should attract even more admirers, not the least because it's 20 minutes longer - time enough for Aragorn to finally change out of his grimy garb. Plus, he's about to claim his rightful spot as title ruler in Return of the King, leading the charge to possible best-picture Oscar glory.
Of course, it is Viggo Mortensen's virile intensity that brings this skilled fighter to such vivid life beyond the page. Without the 45-year-old actor to make him flesh, Aragorn would be just another romantic myth conjured a half-century ago by author J.R.R. Tolkien.
After toiling steadily if mostly uncelebrated since his debut as an Amish farmer in 1985's Witness, Mortensen is about to fulfill his destiny - as a full-fledged movie star. Not that it matters much to this late bloomer. "Any movie having done so well is going to bring you a certain amount of all kinds of attention, I guess," he understates.
Says Bernard Hill, better known as King Theoden, "I read an article that said, 'Finally, someone's found the niche for Viggo Mortensen: the rugged hero who has a deep intellect and a great humanity. That's what Aragorn is, because Viggo has brought that to it. He's very like that as a human being."
During a break on the set, actress Otto tries to pinpoint the connection between character and actor. "He has a great physical ability coupled with a real sensitivity. It's sort of a contradiction between the two, that he can kill so many orcs and ride a horse like he can. But he's taken an anti-hero approach to playing Aragorn. He's so much an artist that he takes everything very seriously."
Perhaps too seriously. Some critics foolishly mistake his sexy smolder for one-note earnestness. They, of course, are male. Otto assures, "He has a good sense of humor, a sideways sense of humor. He can kid."
Still, there is a reason why Mortensen is known for his integrity rather than his practical jokes. Stories of his dedication during the making of Rings are legendary. Getting his tooth broken during a swordfight and offering to Super-Glue it back on (he ended up in a dentist's chair - still in his armor). Sleeping outside under the stars. Toting his sword at all times as if it were merely an umbrella. "He's a mystery," Tyler says.
Says Jackson, who dubbed him "No-Ego Viggo" for his dedication and selflessness: "When you get him on the set, you have someone who is totally prepared. He's just put so much thought and consideration into it that he and the character sort of melt into just being the reality of it. It's quite frightening, really."
It happened again during this round of pickup shots. While professionals such as Tyler and Hugo Weaving, who plays Arwen's father, Elrond, flub lines as they struggle to regain their elvish personas after months away from Middle-earth, Mortensen is near-perfect, take after take.
So, are Aragorn and Viggo one and the same?
I interviewed Mortensen once before, in a New York hotel suite. I was successful in not being reduced to jellied awe before his sculpted visage. Imagine if Norse gods (his father is Danish) had spawned a surfer dude. He was thoughtful, kind and barefoot, and sipped from an ornate teacup. A neo-hippie incarnate who also is a poet, photographer, painter, musician, anti-war activist and way-deep thinker who runs his own publishing house, Perceval Press.
Alas, he was not Aragorn then. The hair was too silky clean, the voice too soft-spoken, his manner more scholarly than commanding.
Now, however, it was the appointed hour for our second rendezvous, and Aragorn was sure to show. I opened the door to his trailer, and there he was, in his full unkempt glory. Stringy locks, dirty boots and all. A scented yellow candle flickered. Two Styrofoam cups of hot coffee had been thoughtfully poured. He beckoned me to be seated, and his crystal-gray orbs gazed into my jetlag-red eyes. It was too good to be true.
It wasn't true. The facade rapidly faded once Mortensen began to cautiously confront my questions, and I remembered I was happily married.
Would the reticent Aragorn ever utter this roundabout observation about his place in the grand scheme of Middle-earth: "The Fellowship is sort of a microcosm of what the world ought to be or could be. You know, all these different ways of looking at things, different races, cultures, coming together. And Aragorn represents the unifying aspect in a big way."
He grabs one of the crammed journals he kept during filming and reads aloud about the nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings: "Robert Louis Stevenson said, 'To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. And true success is the labor.' The ring comes from each of us, resides in each of us as potential for making selfish choices, as potential for attempting to control the wills of others. To do that is to separate oneself, to invalidate the right of others to choose their own way." This is really NOT Aragorn.
Mortensen downplays the Method-acting mind-meld rumors. "The truth is that we worked six days a week and 17 hours a day, and then rehearsals on Sunday. Basically, I was kind of in costume most of the time. It's not that I had nothing else to do and was running around as Aragorn in town."
He hadn't read the trilogy until a last-minute summons from Jackson, requesting that he hop on the next plane to New Zealand. After several days of filming, Irish actor Stuart Townsend (then just 26) proved too unseasoned for the world-weary Aragorn. It was Henry, Mortensen's now-15-year-old son with ex-wife and punk priestess Exene Cervenka, who convinced his dad that the character was too "cool" to pass up. He has no regrets over taking the part: "I can't imagine it otherwise. I've learned a lot along the way."
Turns out beneath Aragorn's renaissance faire wear is the same thoughtful soul who donned a T-shirt that proclaimed "No More Blood for Oil" while doing press for The Two Towers last year as a war against Iraq loomed. The guy seems congenitally unable to give a frivolous reply. No sound bites. Heaping mouthfuls:
•Why he stopped answering his fan mail: "I always, until just the last year, opened, read and then answered each one. And if I'm going to do it, that's the way it should be done. But I realized I was spending two and three hours every night. One night, I just thought, this is ridiculous." However, he will sign autographs in person, even if it means scribbling for nine hours straight at a bookstore.
•Why he took an anti-war stance while promoting Rings: "It is not something I would normally go out of my way to do at all. But it was in response to what I'd been hearing in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and what happened the year following when The Two Towers came out. A lot of people misrepresented what we had done in the films and Tolkien's work, saying they justified the actions of the U.S. government and war in general. I didn't think that was the case."
The New York-born, Los Angeles-based iconoclast mostly has shunned the fame game, save for when it aids a good cause or a fellow artist. You're more apt to find him at a poetry reading than at a Beverly Hills hot spot with a model on his arm. No surprise that he considers any discussion of his own romantic affairs as "not pertinent."
As for the future, Mortensen is the lone star of another big-budget adventure, Hidalgo, about real-life Wild West rider Frank T. Hopkins and his race across 3,000 miles of the Arabian desert atop his trusty mustang. Disney wisely moved the $90 million period piece from this year to March 5, taking advantage of any post-Oscar glow for Rings.
Not much else is on the horizon. During a final talk after King's premiere in Los Angeles, he says, "I've barely had time to read anything." True to his contrary ways, he mentions the possibility of doing a small film in Spain. In Spanish, no less, which he speaks fluently after living in South America as a child.
His hair neatly shorn (done "on a whim," he says) and his demeanor less courtly than before, Mortensen appears eager to move on from his studly swordsman. He's upset that certain scenes were excised from the final film, ones that would lend depth to Aragorn. Still, he grows wistful as he recalls the jubilant throngs at the parade held earlier this month in honor of The Return of the King's unveiling in Wellington.
"We walked on a red carpet about four football fields long. All of a sudden, the sound of the crowd all blurred together. It was a perfect sunny day. It wasn't windy in a town that usually is windy. I looked up and saw people in every window in every house. Just the faces, how happy they were. I heard in my head a voice, my voice, saying, 'Remember this.' "
He may buy a hideaway in New Zealand, and there's a sense that pieces of Aragorn always will cling to the actor. As he says, "Aragorn is a work in progress, as we all are in an endless tale." The same could be said of Mortensen. And his story is destined to continue.