Poet, photographer, painter and actor, Viggo Mortensen has always had a keen sense of his own worth. Now his role as Aragorn in the Lord Of The Rings movies has given him the global recognition he craves. Gunnar Rehlin crosses swords with an uncompromising, and in some ways eccentric, actor.
Cannes, France, May 2001, six months before the Lord of the Rings world premiere and the international film festival surpassed itself. The extravagant party in an old castle up in the mountains was bursting at the seams with actors, actresses and journalists. Film properties had been flown in from New Zealand and festival management had recreated a part of the Shire, the land inhabited by the hobbits. Elves paddled gently back and forth on a pond and the Black Riders thundered their way up to the castle.
In the midst of all this, among stars, bars and tables groaning with food and beverages, Viggo Mortensen stood out, beaming that well-known immediate charisma. That was the first time I met him, and I probably wasn't the only person who sensed a man set to become a world movie star within the next year - a man predestined to be one of the great classic action heroes.
Considering his family name, my first question was: "Do you speak a Scandinavian language?" Mortensen, born in Manhattan, looked at me as though I were insane. He speaks fluent Danish.
Since his debut in 1985 as a young Amish farmer in Peter Weir's Witness, Mortensen's silver-screen career has been a steady string of well-rounded performances in more than 30 movies. Mortensen has worked with some great directors, including Brian de Palma, Sean Penn, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott.
Rumor has it that Mortensen is a crackpot, a fuzzy dreamer who never takes a bath. He struck me as kind and obliging. But the next time we meet, at the Regency Hotel on a late-fall New York day a few months before the opening of the final Lord of the Rings film - The Return of the King - he arrives in black jeans, black sweater and...bare feet, carrying what looks like a hash pipe, but what turns out to be an oddly shaped teacup.
I guess you could say Mortensen is kind of an oddball, someone who doesn't give a damn about stardom. He is certainly a man with many talents: he is a jazz musician, with three CD releases so far; he is a poet - his book Ten Last Night was published before he became known - a photographer and a painter. He was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People by People Magazine in 2002. He broke a tooth while filming a fight sequence for The Two Towers - the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - and a toe in the scene where he kicks an orc helmet. He is also the ex-husband of Exene Cervenka, former lead singer of the punk band X. And he worked as a truck driver while living in Denmark.
Born in 1958 to a Danish father and an American mother - they met in Oslo - Mortensen spent his early childhood in New York. His parents traveled a lot and lived in Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark for several years. After they got back to New York his parents divorced. Mortensen began acting in the Big Apple, and appeared in plays and movies. He soon moved to L.A. and earned a Dramalogue Critic's Award for his performance in Bent at the Coast Playhouse.
Being a Hollywood celebrity and filming all over the globe, it is surprising to hear Mortensen say (in easy-to-understand Danish) that he is always happy to go home, meaning Denmark, not the U.S. "I have always heard my father speak Danish and I had a Danish nursemaid, so it was natural for me to learn the language. Since it's a part of my past, I've always been interested in visiting Denmark. I even lived there for a few years." Last summer Mortensen was invited to the Museum of Photographic Art in Odense, west of Copenhagen, to exhibit his stills. "It was a great honor to be there. A lot of people came to see it and I read aloud from my poems."
His 15-year-old son Henry has not yet adopted his interest in languages, but Mortensen has read to him in Danish and they have visited Denmark together. "We traveled by car and I told him about what we had seen and the places we had been to." They have also been to Iceland, and share a fascination for Nordic mythology and old Viking tales. "It has been real fun to visit those places mentioned in the books," Mortensen says.
I wonder if father and son also have Scandinavian eating habits. Mortensen laughs and says: "I love pickled herring and Henry used to eat it, even for breakfast. Nowadays, he is a vegetarian."
The role of Aragorn was Mortensen's definitive breakthrough, but originally the part was someone else's. Director Peter Jackson first cast Stuart Townsend in the role, but shortly after shooting started he realized that Townsend - born in 1972 - was simply too young and released him from his contract. Someone came up with Mortensen's name and Jackson made the call. A short hesitation and his son's "For God's sake, dad!" later (Henry devoured Tolkien's books as soon as he could read and is a huge fan), Mortensen accepted the offer. Being a serious (very serious) actor, he studied maniacally everything to do with fantasy and Tolkien and, after two weeks, arrived in New Zealand enthusiastic and fully up on the project. He got so into his character that when Jackson addressed him once as Aragorn for more than half an hour Mortensen didn't even realize it.
Not only did he bring with him passion and devotion. Mortensen often takes his son with him to productions around the world, and Henry was offered a role as an extra in The Return of the King. He played one of the horrible orcs. "We fight against each other in the film," Mortensen says proudly. They also appeared together in Tony Scott's Crimson Tide in 1995 when Henry was only seven.
Mortensen's drive is a blessing and gives his performances that extra dimension, but it can sometimes be, say, overwhelming. Sean Astin, who plays the hobbit Sam, says: "Viggo is one of the most seriously committed actors I have ever met. He's got so much passion that it is almost extreme. It can be a little daunting at times." Miranda Otto who portrays Eowyn, the Rohan princess deeply, albeit unhappily, in love with Aragorn, was impressed by Mortensen's preparation despite the short notice. "He had read, and brought with him, books on sword fighting and horses, and other things. He seems to be able to pick up a lot very quickly. He is a creative force, an engine constantly involved in acting, reading, music. But he needs time to get in touch with himself. He is a very chilled-out person." Elijah Wood, who plays the part of Frodo, says: "He is so brilliant he makes me sick."
Mortensen is touched, not by his fellow actors' judgments - he doesn't even blush - but by their companionship. "Those bonds of friendship will last forever," he says. "We spent a lot of time in New Zealand. It was tough. We got sick, we were tired. But we had each other to lean on. That's what it's all about. Tolkien realized that, and so did Peter Jackson. It's universal. That's why people all over the world love the Lord of the Rings films."
To many of his fellow actors, the New Zealand experience was an opportunity to be part of a great adventure movie. To Mortensen it was something bigger, more profound. He reflects on the world at large. "Many times you get the feeling that those in charge shouldn't be, and those not in charge should be. Aragorn realizes this. He is a man of learning, he has traveled extensively and met more people than anyone else. He doesn't aim for power but realizes it's his destiny. Even if he says, 'I don't want it,' he knows that he's the true inheritor, the king, and if he doesn't take the throne the whole world will change. It will be doomed. There's a conflict inside Aragorn that I sympathize with."
In The Return of the King, Aragorn has to make for the Kingdom of the Dead in order to convince its shadowy figures to join in battle. If he is not true and pure, he will not get out alive. Mortensen loved creating that predicament on screen. "There is no such thing as absolute good or absolute evil. People have to look deep into themselves, everything starts there, and take responsibility for what they do. That's what the characters do in this tale. There are a lot of things that you can find in the old Nordic myths."
Mortensen says he is strongly influenced by his Scandinavian heritage, both as an actor and in his private life, and that it also partly explains his interest in Tolkien. "Karen Blixen once said something like, 'Life is basically boring, the trick is to find a way to fight it.' Another saying goes, 'Life's sorrows can be borne if one puts them in a story or makes a story about them.' That's exactly what Tolkien did, like many of the Scandinavian authors and the tales from Iceland. And they contain a resolute humor." He leans forward in his chair and adds: "Everything I've read in these old tales has been a great help to me. Violent stuff, like the one about Beowulf, which makes me think of Samurai movies and Westerns."
Accordingly, his new film Hidalgo is an epic western. Set in 1890, it is the story of a Pony Express courier (Mortensen) who travels to Saudi Arabia to compete with his horse, Hidalgo, in a dangerous race for a massive prize. The adventure sends the pair around the world. "The main character is actually the horse," says Mortensen, who is an accomplished rider in his own right. His talent helped him do scenes in both Hidalgo and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When filming in New Zealand, he requested more saddle time than originally scripted for Aragorn. He also kept his on-screen horse nearby during the entire principal photography schedule so that he could ride in his free time and strengthen his relationship with the horse.
A couple of months later, we meet again in Berlin when The Return of the King has its European opening. He has cut his blond hair, but he is still barefoot and carrying that funny teacup. And he looks tired. Very tired. "We've been traveling to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and now we're doing Europe. It's exhausting."
As we talk about his feelings after completing the final Lord of the Rings movie, Mortensen says that it can't get any bigger than this. "It's been a long journey, and nobody could have imagined its magnitude. And it will continue to be the greatest ever. As for myself, I look forward to totally ruling the world."