Viggo Mortensen rolls his own cigarettes, totes his own teapot, does his own driving, opts for his own bedroll over hotels when traveling in New Zealand, performs his own stunts and cultivates his own casual take on fashion that precludes the wearing of shoes and socks.
But one thing the soft-spoken "Lord of the Rings" star won't do is beat his own drum. Even though he enjoys the title role in "The Return of the King, " Mortensen would rather deflect attention from his performance as Aragorn, the brave warrior who finally claims his crown. The barefoot actor, dressed in a denim suit, lopes into a tent pitched in a Los Angeles park where the "Lord of the Rings" traveling PR circus has set up camp, and admits, "I'm a little fried." Refreshed by a sip of his herbal tea, the crew-cut, clean- shaven Mortensen shrugs off the imperious bearing of his onscreen counterpart, fires up his homemade cigarette and explains his take on the otherworldly success of "Lord of the Rings." "In Tolkien's book, there isn't just one hero, " he says. "It isn't just the Ring Bearer, it isn't just the warrior Aragorn, or the Wizard Gandalf or Cate Blanchett, the Queen of the Elves. There are many heroes, and all of them are flawed. No matter how fantastical they might be with pointed ears and flying creatures and elves and dwarves and so forth, they're all very easy to relate to because of their predicaments and, most importantly, the doubts that they express."
The movie's battle scenes will probably generate the most buzz, but Tolkien's message about the importance of community is what Mortensen finds most compelling. "The message I got from working with these people and telling the story is the idea that any person, nation, cult or race that separates themselves and considers themselves better than others is building the walls of their own jail cell. I think that's one of the main reasons that people, whether they're Japanese, Icelandic, Argentinean or Californian, have embraced these characters. In the end, when you isolate yourself, you're the one that loses out the most." Mortensen has obviously become a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's mythic universe. But four years ago, when he got the last-minute call to replace Irish actor Stewart Townsend, Mortensen's son Henry, now 15, had to persuade him to take the part.
He's too modest to say it himself, but Mortensen, along with Ian McKellen, set the tone for the cast during the project's grueling 18-month shoot. According to trilogy producer Barrie Osborne, Mortensen contributed mightily to the set's hype-free atmosphere. "We had some very young and impressionable actors. Viggo set this example of: 'You know what's important? The art, the craft, that's important. Not how big your trailer is, and not how many assistants you have.' "
Mortensen, 45, brought a hard-earned perspective to "Lord of the Rings." Before LOTR, he'd made 30 movies, highlighted by an auspicious breakthrough as a Quaker farmer in "Witness" in 1985 and his 1999 role as Diane Lane's mysterious hippie lover in "A Walk on the Moon." In between, there were plenty of turkeys.
"Many of my films were completely under the radar and probably deservedly so," Mortensen says. "If I had known how frustrating it would be to make a living at acting, and how many frustrating experiences and relations there would be along the way, I don't know if I would have stuck with it. Who knows? Probably I would have."
If Mortensen seems something less than gung-ho about show business, it might be because he never had his heart set on a career in the limelight. He grew up in Argentina, where his Danish father and American mother traveled from job to job, then spent his teens in New York before studying political science and Spanish literature in college. "Acting was just one of several things I did when I was younger," he says. "A guy named Warren Robertson said I should try acting, so I studied with him. For whatever reason, he encouraged me with the idea that I had some ability. If he hadn't done that, maybe I would have done something else. I don't know."
Mortensen moved to Los Angeles and married Exene Cervenka, of the punk rock band X. They divorced after a 10-year relationship. In between lackluster film projects like "Albino Alligator," "Chainsaw Massacre 3: Leatherface" and "G.I. Jane," Mortensen pursued painting, photography and poetry. Last year he co-founded Perceval Press, which publishes fine-art books. The company also produces CDs, including "Pandemoniumfromamerica," featuring spoken-word performances by Mortensen, Elijah Woods and others set against music by guitarist Buckethead. Mortensen hasn't had time to do much painting the past couple of years. "In a way, I'm painting with the camera now, using more movement, getting less tidy and more aggressive," he says, pointing to an image from the Perceval Press catalog. "I'm experimenting with more abstract images, longer exposures."
The actor says his creative endeavors are all of a piece. "Whether you're playing music or writing or painting or drawing or acting, they all have to do with being in the moment. If you're acting and you're relaxed and you're aware of your surroundings and you catch a misstep or a new intonation in the other actor's voice, if someone coughs or somebody accidentally hits a cymbal, you want to get the most out of that accident. Each medium, whether it's a piece of dialogue or that piece of music, is about the same thing. It's about paying attention and being there."
While making "Lord of the Rings," Mortensen made a point of paying attention to the New Zealand wilderness, forgoing plane flights and driving himself from location to location. "Even if it meant pulling all-nighters, I drove myself because I wanted to see the landscape," Mortensen says. "Also, it gave me a chance to listen to music on the way, think about things, have a little time to myself. None of us got much time to ourselves during the shoot. You're always around people, interacting with, being observed -- which I like, but I need to catch a break and get a little time to myself each day."
Since his "Lord of the Rings" success, Mortensen has found it harder to snag those solitary moments, since second-generation Tolkien fans are likely to approach him to show off birth certificates bearing the names Aragorn and Frodo. On the plus side, "Lord of the Rings" opened doors professionally. Mortensen stars in an epic period piece called "Hidalgo" set for release in March. "I certainly wouldn't have even gotten in the room for 'Hidalgo,' much less an offer, were it not for the success of 'The Fellowship of the Ring,' " he says.
In "Hidalgo," Mortensen plays a courier for the American cavalry who accepts a challenge to take part in a long-distance race across the Arabian Desert. "I think that's kind of healthy, for people to see an American heroic character in a big-budget studio movie who goes to the Middle East not to blow up a bunch of stuff or instruct people in the American way," he says. "He learns along the way, not only about himself and what he and his horse are capable of but also about those he's competing against. And then he goes home. It's another story, like 'Lord of the Rings,' where the lessons learned on the journey are more important than the destination."