© New Line Productions Inc.
For years, Viggo Mortensen worked steadily in Hollywood as a critically respected actor. He had acted in popular movies like Carlito's Way and Witness, yet his face was largely unknown outside of film critics' circles. His face was one that blended in, which was also a nod to his acting ability, blending into his various roles. One fell swoop of a gigantic trilogy later, Viggo Mortensen is on the verge of superstardom.
Mortensen himself has admitted that, at first, his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a bit of a gamble. While he was honored to be chosen by director Peter Jackson for the part of Aragorn, no one really knew at first how the trilogy would be received. They were shooting the three films at once. The future of the trilogy banked largely on the success of the first film.
As we all now know, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is well on the way to becoming the most successful trilogy of all, both critically and commercially. As Aragorn, Mortensen has turned in a string of performances that will live in pop culture infamy forever. Like Mortensen's acting, the character of Aragorn has grown exponentially in these stories. In the final chapter, The Return of the King, Aragorn is crowned as the new king.
Mortensen walks into the room looking quite different from the way he looks in The Return of the King. His hair is cut very short in a sort of military flattop. He smiles widely at the room full of press awaiting him. "There's a lot of people in here," Mortensen laughs. "It's like making the movie."
Elijah Wood says that you were constantly inspiring throughout the movie to him. Were you aware that you were being that "inspiring"?
I think that what everyone did on this job, starting with Peter (Jackson), but also the people that he selected, was that it was such a long run, that even if you started out just out of nerves or just because that was the tendency, to just look after yourself, you ended up taking care of others around you... You could never really see the light at the end of the tunnel until the very end... And even when we were finishing the principal shoot, we knew we'd be back and Pete said way back then in 2000, 'Look, if the movie does well, then I'll have the opportunity to come back and do more.' We didn't know how well it would do and we didn't know exactly what he meant... So it's been all consuming. ... Like I was joking when I came in, we got along and made the best of it and everybody sort of did it in that way, where if someone was sick or tired or just at a loss, you know, here's these rewrites this morning at 5am. 'I had something in mind.' 'I thought I knew where we were in the story, now I have no idea. What does this mean? I mean, whose lines are these, what is Pete trying to do?' You know, sometimes Pete would be 50 miles away on another unit. ... It was very much a team effort, and I think Pete counted on people taking care of themselves and taking care of each other when he was there and when he wasn't there, because it was too big a job for one person. You know, when Aragorn says at the coronation, he says 'This day is not for one man but for all,' the experience was that way, it was the only way it could be done and if it was gonna work in the way that it has, people were going to have to have that attitude.
If they didn't, what do you think would have happened?
We would have hated each other. It would have been horrible. And I don't think the movies would have been very good and we wouldn't be here now because the first movie would have bombed and then the other two would have come out on video.
But in this particular case do you think because of the unique circumstances, of shooting all three at once, it was absolutely crucial that there was a true fellowship behind the cameras as well as in front of it?
Yeah, I think so, definitely. And a lot of it had to do with the book; it had to be with the ideas in Tolkien's story. ... It wasn't by accident that you had crew members sort of leafing through the book absentmindedly, or actors pulling out a well-worn copy of Lord of the Rings and saying 'Oh, that's right, and this has to do with that.' It's because you're interested in it, it's because the story has affected you, just like for audiences, whether they be Japanese or Argentine or American audiences. They're watching the story and relating it to their own lives. In other words it doesn't matter how many flying creatures or pointed ears or wizards or really unbelievable scenery you get. There is something very human at the heart of the story. It's fallible, fragile... And you can relate to that, you can relate to the effort made to work together. The idea in the story of compassion, of looking for what we have in common rather than dwelling on what seems to be different about us is something that I saw reflected in those of us who were working on this thing. It was interesting. It was almost like this course in Tolkien and in life where you could read any books that you wanted. You could study as much or as little as you wanted, relate to samurai movies or to your aunt Martha. You could connect any kind of situation in life or in history to this story.
How do you decompress after doing a movie like this that you've worked on for 16 months?
Ask me next June, because that's when that will probably happen.
Do you still feel like you're on the ride?
Oh yeah, and we will be for quite a while. We'll all be going together to Japan in January, and beyond that we'll be doing interviews and promotion, and helping with what will be, I'm sure another really good movie, the extended version of this movie. So it's not really over yet, and I'm not in a hurry for it to be.
Did the experience inspire you to write a poem about it?
Not specifically, although I did write poems while I was there and during the experience and took photographs and so forth, many of which I was able to share last week in New Zealand... Because one of the things I felt, that week-long party which was the world premiere and all the events that led up to it, was like returning a favor. It was, yes, a party for Peter Jackson, really, in his hometown, but it was a party for New Zealanders and for Wellingtonians who, after all, not only morally supported us from the beginning, before anybody in the world knew we were even shooting the movie or much less that it would be popular. They believed more than I think Peter or we did that we could pull it off. ... They financially supported us. I can't imagine European or American taxpayers saying 'Yeah, we'll pay x amount of dollars.' Each citizen of New Zealand paid a tax, without which the movies would not have been made. And people don't talk about that very much, but the New Zealand taxpayer paid for some of these films.
In what way?
Money! Their taxes were used.
The Lord of the Rings tax? [Laughter.] Were they actually financing the shooting of the movie? Are we talking about tax credits?
Yeah, tax credits, but also literally for the week-long party and the refurbishing of the major theatre in Wellington, that was paid for by Wellingtonians and New Zealanders as a whole. Directly.
Do they get points for that?
I don't think so, and there's the real nobility of it.
Do they get a return on that?
I think the return, I suppose, is tourism and is the respect. So that is the return. I suppose if you're an avid fly fisherman from New Zealand, you're probably a little bit worried about that, because it used to be you could be on three miles of river and not see anybody for three days and now...
Can you talk about the very last scene you shot and what you remember?
The very last thing where I wore my costume was, as with many scenes, I was running. It was a scene that will probably be in the extended version, it was an extension of the Paths of the Dead where I'm speaking to the ghosts and then all hell breaks loose. In the movie, as you see it, there's a cut and then you don't know what happens. And then you see that we succeeded in getting the army to come with us. But there's a bunch of other things that happen. In one of these sequences, I don't want to give it away for when you see it, but there's a big commotion and Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are running for their lives basically. In reality, we were on this raised platform that was about this wide [indicates only a few feet] and we were sprinting and pretending to jump over all these obstacles and then there was just the green screen everywhere. And when you see that scene there will be all these hordes of armies of the dead and other things that I'm not gonna tell you about that we're evading and dealing with. So it was just simply us running along a bar-top or something.
And what did you get? I know they did a big ceremony every time somebody finished.
I was given the ranger sword, not the re-forged sword, but the one that I used on my first day of shooting in October of '99 that was really well worn and that I kind of took care of and used throughout. But the best thing I got was what we were talking about before, is this friendship with these people... The memory of being in New Zealand and retelling the story with Peter. That's the thing I have that I'll remember most...
What's the definitive version for you of each of these films? Will it become the extended version?
I haven't seen the third, but it probably will be. And it definitely was for the first two.
Do you see any difference these days between the world of DVD and theatrical, because this film has established a kind of synergy between the two that is unique?
What I think is one of the smartest things that they've done... is that they've taken the trouble [of] using the same crew and using the same composer to score the extra material and to cut it in. It's not just adding scenes. For example, there are scenes in The Return of the King where you have part of the scene. Typically what Pete's done is put the rest of the scene in. So within the scenes he's put material back in and made it seamless. So they are really new movies, new and improved or extended versions, and they're not just a bunch of 'Push this button, see that scene,' or outtakes or something. That was smart because they can stand on their own and people can judge for themselves. I think so far, I don't know if it will be the case for the third, but for the first two, if I had my choice I would watch the extended every time. And I think and hope that five years from now, just like fifty years from now, that the extended of the first two will be what people will watch.
The bigger characters in particular for The Two Towers are given a real depth in some of the extra scenes.
In the first movie you get to know who he is and who others are much more. I think that there's twice as much of my character on the first extended. ... When you see the extra material, you understand more of who the Elves are, you understand Galadriel better in the second one, you understand in the extended version a lot more about Faramir, you set up Denethor really well, because you see Denethor before he's lost his mind. He's a bastard, but he's not insane. You see that family dynamic, you get to see Boromir again [and] it's always great to see Sean Bean. Have you seen that? The dynamic of that family, I mean that's my favorite scene in The Two Towers. Period. For me it's the most interesting in terms of writing, performance, and what it means to Faramir, Denethor, to Miranda's character Eowyn, and how it sets up what's coming, which is the age of men. It's inaugurating Aragorn's coronation, all those things make more sense.
How did it affect you that Peter Jackson worked outside the Hollywood system so to speak, and shot everything in New Zealand? How did that contribute to the film's artistic integrity?
It wasn't just that we shot it outside of Hollywood, It was that we shot it particularly in New Zealand. ... Here you're seeing new things, visually it was important to shoot it there, but in terms of the spirit of the story of Tolkien and what we were trying to do, the New Zealand crew and being in that country made a huge difference because I feel that those people in general, I mean, there's good and bad people there like everywhere, but they're accustomed to working together and valueing the group... It's just the way they do their business over there, it's the way people go to work. That's the way they interact as families and as communities. And that gave, no matter how great the special effects are, and how weird and fantastic all the wizards and hobbits and elves and pointed ears and flying creatures and castles and whatever you've got, without that element, which is behind and beyond the spoken parts of the story, that feeling of group effort and sacrifice to the good of the group that you feel from these movies...