Viggo Mortensen is one of Hollywood's most intense actors. The New York native also is a painter, published poet and man who would not be king.
After appearing in more than 30 films since his screen debut in "Witness" (1985), Mortensen catapulted to overnight fame as the broody Aragorn, a.k.a. Strider, in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The heir to the throne of Gondor followed up with "Hidalgo" (2004), an East-meets-Wild West epic about Frank Hopkins, a troubled cowboy who battles starvation, sandstorms and his past in a 3,000-mile race through the Arabian desert. The Disney video arrives in stores today.
The father of one -- Henry, 16 -- next stars in "Alatriste," a Spanish epic about a 17th century adventurer. Mortensen, 45, sat down with INK for an exclusive Q&A. Thanks go to the eighth-graders at Union Township Middle School in Porter County for contributing questions.
1. What did teachers write on your report cards?
VIGGO: Anything from "very poor" to "good" or "excellent." One thing a teacher did once -- I still have the drawing -- was sort of disturbing. It was an assignment to make a drawing with pencil and crayon and it was pretty complicated. It's in the woods and Little Red Riding Hood is meeting this wolf and there are flowers and different shades of green. ... And it has written on it in red ink, "Very poor." ... To judge any drawing by a kid and say that is not necessary. There are more constructive ways of making your point. Art is a very subjective thing. To deface the piece of work by writing on it is unforgivable.
VIGGO: It's terrible! I'm not asking for sympathy. Obviously, I kept drawing. It didn't do that much damage.
3. How old were you when you decided to be an actor?
VIGGO: Around the age of 21, 22. I started to wonder how movies were made, not just whether I liked them or not. Especially when it worked well and when it seemed so easy, so simple, when I believed it and I was moved by performances or storytelling on the screen. I just wondered what the trick was, how people were so good at make-believe. So I went to find out. I went to school and started studying a little bit at theater workshops. I got a little encouragement. We all need a little encouragement and a little good luck.
4. Did you really eat dead grasshoppers in the desert in "Hidalgo"?
VIGGO: I would have, but they'd been dead a while. In any case, these Italian guys from Rome made (stand-ins) almost like cookies. They were baked. They were very detailed and they had antennae and legs and everything. They look pretty good. And inside, they had this goop that was just like you'd broken open a locust. So when you bit into it, it crunched and it also oozed stuff.
5. The horse in the film liked them, too. Was he a real mustang?
VIGGO: Yeah, that was T.J. Technically, he's not a mustang. He looks like one. He actually is a paint horse. He was found on a farm in Michigan. He was a very good match for a real mustang, very small and compact and hardy.
6. Did it hurt in scenes where he grabbed you by the shoulder and dragged you?
VIGGO: No, 'cause he always got my shirt. He once just barely nipped me on the neck. Accidentally. It was a little bit scary. But he didn't really cut me.
7. Do you have a girlfriend?
VIGGO: I have lots of friends who are girls and women. Including my mom. (Laughs).
8: What do you do in your spare time?
VIGGO: It's been a while. I don't remember. (Laughs.) No, I do. I like to draw and like to take pictures. I like to paint. I like to go for walks. I like to ride horses. I like to swim. I like to be in natural places, woods and deserts.
9. Why are you wearing a United Nations pin?
VIGGO: I like it. I like the idea of it. It's better than the opposite, divided.
10. How has life changed since your breakthrough role in "The Lord of the Rings?"
VIGGO: I wouldn't be here (otherwise). I wouldn't have gotten the role of Frank Hopkins if it wasn't for the popularity of "The Fellowship of the Ring." ... More people have come to my poetry readings, photo exhibitions. More people have bought books that I've published.
11. You probably get invited everywhere now. How do you handle that?
VIGGO: Mostly, I don't go (laughs).
12. Were you a J.R.R. Tolkien fan before the film "The Fellowship of the Ring?"
VIGGO: No. I'd heard of Tolkien and Hobbits and "Lord of the Rings." But I didn't know much about it. l assumed it was about elves and dwarves, maybe fairy tales. When I got the job, I started reading the book immediately so I knew what we were dealing with on film. ... I recognized themes from lots of other cultures, Samurai, Native American myths, not just European fairy tale -- the idea of a heroic journey, characters being tested.
13. Didn't your son, Henry, talk you into working on the "Lord" trilogy?
VIGGO: A little bit. He definitely thought it was a good idea. In the end, you have to make your own choices.
14. Does your son think you're cool?
VIGGO: I wouldn't say so. I think, being a teenager, he has a healthy amount of -- I don't know if disrespect is the word. But he thinks I"m kind of a goofball a lot of the time. He doesn't buy the Aragorn or Frank Hopkins image. He knows I'm his dad.
15. How did you get into the role of playing the kingly Aragorn?
VIGGO: The way I always do. I try to run as much as I can, think about it as much as I can, practice the skills I'm supposed to have as much as I can, get used to the props -- the sword and the pipe and the clothes. Once work started, I never stopped working on those things. I always paid attention.
16. Would you want to be the real king of Middle-earth?
VIGGO: No. Probably not. I'd probably rather be Strider.
17. What was it like to kiss elfin princess Liv Tyler in "Return of the King"?
VIGGO: (slowly) Lovely.
18. What's the favorite movie you've filmed so far?
VIGGO: It's hard to pick favorites. I've learned something from each job.
19. What do you want to do when you grow up?
VIGGO: I sort of have a long-range goal to not grow up.
20. Any advice for young actors?
VIGGO: There are three essential things. They seem obvious, but people don't always pay attention to this. Be prepared -- which includes learning your lines. Show up on time. And pay attention. There's a famous American director who's made a lot of good movies -- Sidney Lumet -- who said, "The work consists largely in making thorough preparations for accidents to happen." I'm paraphrasing!
AT A GLANCE
Born: Oct. 20, 1958 in Manhattan
Ethnic background: Danish-American
Siblings: Eldest of three sons
Height: 5 feet, 11 inches
Nickname: Vig (rhymes with "league")
Early years: Lived from age 2 to 11 with his family in Venezuela and Argentina
College: Studied at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
A few film credits: "Witness" (1985); "The Indian Runner" (1991); "Carlito's Way" (1993); "Crimson Tide" (1995); "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996); "G.I. Jane" (1997); "A Perfect Murder" (1998); "Walk on the Moon" (1999).
Home life: Divides his time between Los Angeles and Idaho
Marital: Divorced from Exene Cervenka, frontwoman for the punk band X
Children: Henry Mortensen, 16
Fluent in: English, Spanish and Danish, speaks some French.
Published books of poetry: "Ten Last Night: (1993); "Recent Forgeries" (1998); "Coincidence of Memory" (2002); "Nye Falsknerier" (2003).
Published books of photography: "Sign Language" (2002); "A Hole in the Sun" (2002); "Miyelo" (2004); "The Horse is Good" (2004).
Art exhibits: Has exhibited his paintings in New York, Los Angeles and abroad