Viggo Mortensen walks into the room at New York's Waldorf-Astoria barefoot, like a hobbit, or like Peter Jackson, the director who cast Mortensen as the mysterious Aragorn, son of Arathorn, also known as Strider, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and its subsequent installments.
"No, I'm not doing a hobbit thing or a Peter Jackson thing," Mortensen says amicably, referring to his unshod extremities. "I'm doing a Viggo Mortensen thing."
Mortensen, who made his film debut as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's 1985 Harrison Ford thriller, Witness, is a serious fellow who didn't win the assignment to play the watchful, weather-beaten Middle-earth Ranger in the LOTR trilogy until the 11th hour. Actually, make that the 13th hour: Shooting had already begun in New Zealand on the $270 million epic, with British actor Stuart Townsend as Aragorn, when helmer Jackson decided things were not working.
"They called me one day and I had to be on the plane the next," says the half-Danish actor, who's blue-eyed, dark-haired and soft-spoken. "I started reading the Tolkien book on the plane the next day, and about an hour into it or so, I started to see the first signs of things that I recognized: archetypes and storylines, particularly from Nordic sagas. . . . That put me somewhat at ease, and realizing that I was going to get to be part of this saga and be some sort of Viking warrior - a heroic character with all the flaws and self-doubt that the best of those saga heroes had."
In LOTR, a little movie that not too many people have bothered to see yet (a joke, a joke!), Mortensen's Aragorn leads Frodo Baggins (that would be Elijah Wood) and his curly-coiffed hobbit companions on their epic quest to destroy the terrible and evil Ring of Doom. Although Mortensen politely laments his character's lack of "back story" (a problem, he concedes, of transposing the giant Tolkien tome to the screen), the actor knows his part inside and out: an orphan raised in the elven burg of Rivendell, in love with the elven queen Arwen (Liv Tyler), comrade of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and sworn ally to the Ringbearer Frodo.
"He was the greatest traveler and huntsman of his age," Mortensen says about his quiet, stoic role. "There is no character in this story, in these books, that has traveled more extensively and had more contact with other cultures, races, languages, and an appreciation and understanding of the differences of all the free peoples of Middle-earth. . . . He has an understanding that the most precious thing that any intelligent being possesses is free choice."
Mortensen, 43, was born in New York to a Danish father and an American mother. The family traveled widely, and he spent his childhood years in Venezuela, Argentina, and Denmark. He got into acting back in New York, and segued from stage to screen with the Witness job. He has played a tough, J.M. Coetzee-reading, D.H. Lawrence-quoting Army drill instructor barking orders at Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. He has played a hunky, sensitive hippie entrepreneur (the Blouse Man) opposite Diane Lane in the Woodstock Generation romance A Walk on the Moon. He has been an artist adulterer, seducing Gwyneth Paltrow and making Michael Douglas hopping mad in A Perfect Murder. And he has appeared in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, and Tony Scott's Crimson Tide.
After working Down Under for close to two years on the Tolkien trilogy ("We saw all the seasons at least twice, and everybody had at least two birthdays"), Mortensen has taken time off to unwind. And to develop his prints: a photographer, Mortensen has a new book, Signlanguage, and a show in a Santa Monica, Calif., gallery in the works.
So how does the actor explain the huge and enduring appeal of the Tolkien books - and now, the movies of those books? Easy.
"You go into a bookstore and there are 50,000 books that wouldn't have been written - including Harry Potter, as good as that is - without Tolkien having done what he did. . . . And as entertaining as Harry Potter is, with his pointed hat and wizards and the whole bit, it's just the surface, it just touches on certain elements and it's not in the end very profound. And Tolkien and his world are extremely profound, and so layered that you can just extensively research and reread if you want to. And the movie, even though it's a distillation and it's not by any stretch of the imagination as multileveled, you still feel . . . those elements, and you know that there's something else going on."