Perhaps because he was cast as The Lord Of The Rings enigmatic Aragorn so late in the day (he replaced British actor Stuart Townsend after ground had already been struck), Viggo Mortensen threw himself into the role with unprecedented gusto.
"He took his outfit home with him because he wanted to literally grow into it," says costume designer Ngila Dickson. "He sweated in it, lived in it, even repaired it himself, as Aragorn would have." There were also reports of him wearing his broadsword off duty and of virtually living in the woods, communing with nature to really get under the characters skin.
Most of which, according to the Danish-American actor, were exaggerated. "I went fishing a few times." he says, "but I didn't live in the woods. I couldn't have done that, I would've missed my call to the set in the morning."
Even so, his level of dedication became the stuff of legend. While filming a battle scene one day, he caught a stray elbow in the face, which knocked one of his front teeth out. So caught up in the moment was he that he called for a tube of Superglue so he could stick it back in and fight on, becoming quite irate when director Peter Jackson insisted on calling a halt to the action and sending his star to a dentist. Mortensen's gung-ho attitude would certainly have pleased his son, Henry, who persuaded his old man to take the role in the first place.
When they first asked me," says Mortensen, "the question was," Do you want to leave for New Zealand tomorrow?" I knew they had already been there for some months, which wasn't good. I knew I wouldn't have time to prepare and I hadn't read the book. There were plenty of reasons not to go. I didn't feel I could do a good job and I didn't want to be away from my son for that length of time. But my son was familiar with the books, he talked about them with his school friends and he knew about the character of Aragorn. He said, "Oh, that's pretty cool. You should do that."
He did, and promptly found himself embroiled in the toughest shoot of his career. "Straight away I worked with Bob Anderson on the swordplay," he says. "He's an incredibly talented man; he taught Errol Flynn. He cracked the whip for a couple of days, which really got me into the physical stuff. I did pretty much all my own stunts in the battle scenes, and the amazing stunt team played the enemy at all times. The battle scenes are very elaborate, people going berserk night and day. Even in the background, thousands of people going completely nuts. But even if I had 20 people coming at me, I could recognize them through their masks and armour; I got to know their body language so well. It was gruelling. There was a period when we worked all night for three months straight. You never do that many nights in one go. Every night charging up rocky hillsides, just smashing at people coming at you wearing Orc or Urak-Hai masks."
The stunning battle sequences, filmed with the assistance of the New Zealand army and hordes of local extras, are a standout feature of Lord Of The Rings. And it wasn't just Mortensen who got a little carried away with them. "The stunt team trained thousands of people to use weapons," he says. "So even extras way in the background weren't just standing there. And everyone was so passionate about it. There were copies of the book lying everywhere. The drivers, the caterers all had copies of the book. The extras would come in early to learn extra stuff, and they'd just go at it. They were so proud; they had T-shirts made up. You'd see hundreds of people walking round Wellington on Saturday night with T-shirts saying Uruk-Hai Battalion or Elf Brigade. And they would taunt each other before scenes.
They'd do the Maori hakka, the war chant they do before rugby games. One night the stunt team didn't think the extras were doing it right, so they did this really in-your-face hakka thing and scared the shit out of them. Just to make them... I don't know, it was a Kiwi thing. It was the best team I've ever been on, the stunt team and everyone else."
However, there is something to The Lord Of The Rings that speaks to the poet in Mortensen's soul louder than the grand spectacle and the almighty punch-ups. It has, he feels, a powerful lesson to teach us, and one that is particularly prescient at this time.
"There is a tendency in America," he says," to say, "This is good and this is evil and I shall do something about it." It isn't that simple .Tolkien has Gandalf say, I think in the first book, something to the effect that nothing was evil in the beginning; Sauron was not always so. Aragorn says to Legolas at one point, "Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, and nor are they one thing among dwarves and elves." Something I found interesting is that even though Tolkien was a devout Christian, the books don't assert that there is a heavenly reward for doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is it's own reward."