Having proven that he's more than just a hunk in such movies as A Perfect Murder and A Walk On The Moon, Viggo Mortensen looks set to become a star as The Lord of the Rings' leading warrior.
Take a look at Viggo Mortensen.
Would you say he looks pale? Sensitive? The kind of guy who got bullied at school, and never, ever gets the girl? The kind of guy who writes poetry? Or plays jazz?
Well, he may not look the part, but the Manhattan-born Mortensen is a published poet (two books, so far), a respected photographer and painter (his upcoming exhibition will be at LA's Track 16 in February), and a jazz musician (three CDs, so far). Talk about a sheep in wolves clothing. Then again, Viggo Mortensen didn't exactly have an all-American quarterback kind of upbringing. At the age of two, he and his family moved to South America, and at age 11, to Denmark, and beyond. Along the way, the young Viggo picked up Spanish and Danish, but few friends. Which may explain the poetry. And the painting. And all that jazz.
"I've always been curious about people, and places, and things," offers the 43-year old actor/writer/painter/whatever. "And that definitely comes from the childhood I had. My dad was a pretty restless kind of guy, and that meant I never really took root in any country. It has its downsides - I want my son Henry to feel connected, to have a circle of friends he grows up with - but there's a lot to be said for travelling like that too. It gives you a love of the outdoors too, which may explain my not being pale. I know a lot of well-rounded poets and photographers actually - and jazz musicians and painters - but I guess you do find some freaks in there too."
There are plenty of freaks on display in Mortensen's latest artistic endeavor, playing the role of muscleman Strider/Aragorn in Peter Jackson's highly anticipated Â£200m adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. It was actually Mortensen's 13-year old son Henry who convinced him to take the part, after Jackson rang him two weeks into the shoot to say that Irish actor Stuart Townsend had departed (due to "artistic differences") and the role was his if he wanted it.
"I was very reluctant to take on such a role under such circumstances," muses the quietly spoken actor. "Not so much taking over from Stuart - whatever happened between him and Peter is their business - but more that I didn't have any time to prepare. I hadn't read the book, and I literally had only one day to read through the script and give them an answer. It was then that my son said it would be a cool thing for me to do, and then...well, how could I say no?"
Shot in the wilds of director Jackson's native New Zealand, Mortensen also had to contend with the fact that The Lord of the Rings was going to take 15 months to shoot. Each of the three chapters - The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King - was being shot back-to-back, with the resulting three films being released one-by-one over the next three Decembers.
"There were many, many reasons to say no to a project like this," smiles Mortensen. "I was going to be away from my son for a long, long time, and it was going to be physically very demanding. And then there was the psychological part too, of course. But it was the story itself which really sold me. I read the book as quickly as I could, and I began to recognize pretty much straight away elements of Irish stories and Celtic mythology. But, above all, I recognized a lot of elements from Nordic sagas, right down to the names. I could relate to a lot of the writing in that way, and it made it accessible and interesting to me. And once you walked onto that set, and became part of this family, well, it was an incredible experience.
"Right to the end, people were buried in this story, and you felt that you were with them and that you were a team, which isn't the case with most movies. You rarely get this kind of passion."
Having made his acting debut playing an Amish farmer in 1985's Witness, Mortensen has built up an impressive CV over the years (other outings include Carlito's Way, Psycho and A Walk On The Moon), but The Lord of the Rings is his first true starring role. He may have been hired by Michael Douglas to knock off his wife Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder, but as Strider/Aragorn, Mortensen finally gets to play the hero his matinee idol looks have always been crying out for.
"I've always avoided playing the hunk in the movies that I make," says Mortensen, "because that can limit your career so much. It's very rare too that the dashing leading man is a very interesting one, so that was another reason to avoid that route. But Strider is different, because there's a complexity to him, and to the story he's involved in, that goes beyond mere pin-up nonsense."
Nonetheless, given that Mortensen is the leading pin-up for what looks set to be the biggest movie of the year (being Potter for potheads), the reluctant star may just find himself the centre of many a female's attention around the world. Maybe he should call on Leonardo DiCaprio, and find out how he survived after Titanic hit...
"I know there's going to be a huge wave of interest, but I don't plan on playing into that side of the film's release. I think it's a wonderful piece of work, and I'm very proud of the work we've done, but that's it. I'm keen to move on to the next project. The Fellowship of the Ring is being released on 10,000 screens worldwide, so it is going to be pretty damn crazy for a while, but I've dealt with many types of crazy in my life, so this doesn't scare me."
Mortensen is reluctant to reveal exactly what types of crazy he's dealt with in his life, but the fact that he's divorced from the mother of his son - X lead singer Exene Cervenka - may be behind at least one crazy moment in his life. Instead, Mortensen is keen to talk about the importance of a story like The Lord of the Rings, in light of the September 11th tragedy, and the subsequent US-led war on Afghanistan.
"When you look at The Lord of the Rings, there are all these different types of beings, all different statures and life spans and origin, with their own points of view. And it's a time when races worked together and spoke each other's languages, and appreciated each other's cultures, and that's kind of lost in Middle-earth at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. People like Gandalf have an appreciation of what's lost, of the value of the cultures, and co-operation, as opposed to isolationism and intolerance and suspicion. That paranoid worldview. And throughout the trilogy, you see people of different backgrounds coming together to work together, recognizing that it's the only way forward.
"There are certain populations who have defended themselves and crushed their enemies whenever they can, but there isn't really a future in that in the long run, and I think that applies directly to our world now. And people are asking those kinds of questions about the movie, beyond the usual Hollywood queries. This is not just an escapist fantasy. During the Depression, when people went to see musicals and what not, or during World War 2, people wanted to escape. But I think The Lord of the Rings deals with what we're going through now, and I hope people get that connection."