With Return Of The King, Viggo Mortensen's noble Aragorn becomes Middle-earth's most powerful human, uniting the forces of good in their battle against evil. An outspoken political activist himself, Mortensen doesn't back down from real-life fights either.
He may be a king of Middle-earth and acting's coolest cat, but Viggo Mortensen is walking around with a really bad haircut. It's a cross between a page-boy and a bowl cut, and only a man completely unaffected by other people's opinions would sport such a goofy look.
That's the key to Mortensen's seemingly universal appeal: He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him and is, instead, driven completely by his own artistic desires, of which there are many.
He's an accomplished painter who works in various mediums, a noted photographer who has been taking snaps since high school, and a published poet who doesn't just write verse, but records it, complete with jazzy, beatnik-style background music Ã la Jack Kerouac.
It's no wonder this Renaissance man was chosen (albeit as a last-minute replacement for the fired Stuart Townsend) to play Aragorn in the mammoth Lord of the Rings trilogy, which caps off with this month's highly anticipated finale, The Return of the King.
Anticipation isn't a strong enough word for what LotR fans are feeling, they are craving the last instalment, as demonstrated by the thousands who will line up for LotR marathons in theatres across North America this month. So, what can fans expect from the mother of all finishes?
"Joy and sorrow, and hopefully inspiration," says Mortensen. "I certainly have gotten all of that from this whole process. You also get from this story a very simple thing and that's taking the idea of mercy seriously. Mercy like that which Frodo shows for Gollum. All different kinds of mercy. Those are qualities that not only make for a good leader but for a good individual and, in a sense, each of us needs to find a way to become the best leader we can of our own self in life."
Mortensen is holding court (you'd expect nothing less) during the press junket for The Return of the King. Seated at a table surrounded by journalists, the actor is clad in a groovy forest green shirt and sipping loose leaf tea from a wood and pewter cup, using a silver straw. Add in the hacked Prince Valiant do, and Mortensen looks like he stepped out of a Renaissance fair.
Yet, despite his serene composure, you sense an invisible thread of unrest hanging off him, just waiting to be pulled. That unrest may be why he paints, writes and takes pictures, and a similar unrest drives his movie counterpart, Aragorn.
"What people like Boromir and others initially saw as defects and weakness in Aragorn," says Mortensen, "prove to be his greatest strength. In other words his hesitation, his self-doubt, those really are his strengths because they have to do with compassion, they have to do with him considering whether he has a right to act. I wish the leaders of the most powerful countries these days would have a little bit of that. Unfortunately, they seem to have none of that."
Mortensen, as you can tell, likes to talk politics. He's an outspoken critic of President Bush and American foreign policies, and it takes mere moments for him to weave his views of real-world issues with those of LotR's fictional world.
"The thing to remember about Sauron, or the U.S. government or the British government, it doesn't matter, whoever, is that they want you to feel that you are not in control and never will be," says Mortensen. "You should just obey, do your thing and it will be easier for everyone if you just be quiet. It's easy to feel hopeless against that. We have grand-sounding, and for some people, intimidating names for things: Homeland Security, The Patriot Act. Those things are essentially like the ring for Sauron, tools with which to control people's thinking and behaviour from a distance.
"If America has any respect left in the world," he continues, "it's for the principles of the nation, which are based in the notion of government by the people for the people. In the constitution it says you have the right to overthrow the government if it prohibits that, so I would then say you have the right to say something. In fact it's a duty to speak up."
Mortensen's liberal political views would seem to stem from the fact that he's lived an unorthodox life. This 45-year-old son of a Danish father and American mother was born in New York City, but moved to South America with his family when he was a toddler. His father's business failed, his parents divorced, and when he was 11 he headed to upstate New York with his mother and two brothers. After university, Mortensen moved to Denmark, where he waited on tables, sold flowers and led a laidback existence. But by 1982 he decided to return to New York and become an actor.
He studied, got a few small roles, and in 1987 married punk rock diva Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the band X. They had a son, Henry, and moved to the wilds of Idaho. Getting acting jobs based out of Idaho proved difficult, but Mortensen found work in films such as The Indian Runner, Boiling Point and Crimson Tide. However, when his marriage ended, Mortensen relented and moved to L.A. to jumpstart his career. It worked, and one fateful day he got a call out of the blue asking him to decide, within 48 hours, whether or not to spend a year (it turned out to be more like two) in New Zealand to make LotR. His son Henry helped convince him to go.
Mortensen will forever be linked with Aragorn, and you wonder if he's had difficulty shaking the role, considering he completely immersed himself in the part. "Yeah, I had a chance to work on him longer than any other, but I've never, with any part, wanted to shake anything," says Mortensen. "I hear other people say, 'Oh geez, it was hard to shake the skin of that character. I was playing a psycho killer, or a milkmaid, and man it took me the longest time to stop drinking milk.'
"Look, it's my point of view that life is short and we are either going to die or be senile and not remember anything soon enough. Why would I want to forget something that was a significant part of my life?"
However, he'll now have to deal with the fact that he's an international star and desired acting commodity. How will a man so private and consumed by his various artistic pursuits manage the demands of success? "Each of the film's actors have to face how they deal with it. Do they remain group-oriented or do they start to care about their own interests? Some have done better than others dealing with it. You can't ever be sure you've got it all figured out and it might take a friend saying, 'Hey, you've gotten pretty big-headed there'."