Viggo Mortensen had less than a day to decide whether he wanted to spend 18 months in New Zealand battling orcs and protecting hobbits as part of the unprecedented adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Viggo Mortensen's participation in The Lord of the Rings - author J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary fantasy trilogy about hobbits and elves, Ringwraiths and Uruk-hai, and the assembled fellowship who must journey deep into the heart of evil to cast a perilously powerful ring into Mt. Doom, the only place it can be destroyed - took roughly the same sort of courage and blind faith leap that his character must display on screen.
First published in the 1950s, the project had bounced around from filmmakers as diverse as John Boorman to Oliver Stone before Miramax acquired the rights for a song as part of their financing agreement with producer Saul Zaentz on The English Patient. They developed the project as two films with director Peter Jackson (Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures) before becoming squeamish about an $80 million budget. Enter franchise-friendly New Line - home of Freddy Krueger and Ice Cube, Austin Powers and Rush Hour - who decided to do the unthinkable and help bankroll an entire trilogy, with principal photography in New Zealand lasting just under a year and the total production tab coming to roughly $270 million.
Mortensen's role was that of mysterious human warrior Aragorn, probably the most baldly heroic figure in the series.
"Aragorn is a composite of several of those archetypal Nordic heroes," says Mortensen, himself of Celtic descent, "although a little more of a modern type character in that unlike those characters he doesn't do all those things and then talk about it, he doesn't sing or make up big poems. His actions speak more for him than do his words, a lot of which has to do with the fact that he has secret fears about his ability to fulfill what others might see as his destiny."
Mortensen could certainly identify with the nervousness. You see, he replaced Stuart Townsend (Shooting Fish, About Adam) after Jackson and the rest of his Ring mates were already a week into production. Mortensen got a phone call, and had an afternoon to decide if he wanted to spend the next 18 months of his life, counting pick-up shots and voice work, battling nasty orcs in a distant land.
"I guess my doubts were mostly about being away from home and family and how I would juggle that situation," he says. "[But] on a professional level I was offered the part so late [that] I was going to have to hit the ground running without having read the book, much less the script. And my concern was [whether I could] be at by best. I didn't want to let anyone down," says Mortensen.
"I asked for a couple hours to think about it - I think that was all the time I could get - and I decided to do it. I did get the blessing of my (11-year-old) son, which was also important to me. I got on the plane the next day with a pile of scripts and a book that as you know is like that," says Mortensen, indicating a hefty thickness with his fingers. "And I didn't sleep a wink; I was just reading and reading and reading."
If Mortensen - a strong, quiet character actor best known for his work in The Indian Runner, G.I. Jane, A Perfect Murder and A Walk on the Moon - wasn't quite sure what he was getting in to (he knew none of his collaborators, save an old chance meeting with Ian McKellan, who Mortensen says once came to a play he was in), he sure didn't act tentative or uncertain once he touched down down under.
"Viggo totally embraced the role [from] the moment he arrived," says producer Barrie Osborne. "He had very little time to prepare, it was touch-and-go. And yet he became an impassioned player who became the leading proponent of getting into character, putting up with excruciating schedule and indeed championing the process."
Osborne goes on to relate a story of how, in order to get a crucial sunrise shot for The Two Towers, the second instalment of the series, that the filmmakers had given up hope on after a long day of shooting that had stretched far into the night, Mortensen single-handedly convinced the entire cast and crew to camp out overnight on the New Zealand mountainside so they would be in a position to capture the first sliver of dawn.
"We flew in steaks from catering and made a night of it," says Osborne. "It was that kind of dedication and leadership that I think really inspired our younger actors."
Osborne seems right. Upsetting the delicate balance of chemistry could have been tough, but Mortensen's co-stars all seemed in awe of his quick step-in.
"Viggo came with a level of intensity and commitment," says Sean Astin, who portrays hobbit Samwise Gamgee. "He got this reputation as an eccentric because he would carry his sword around, but I found it quite inspiring. There was a glimmer in his eye - he was aware of how other people were perceiving him - but he really reawakened in me a sense of the possibilities of what it can be as an actor enjoying a role."
Sean Bean, who plays gung-ho human warrior Boromir, agrees.
"We got on very well together, and spent a lot of time together as friends. But as an actor you can't wish to work with anyone more truthful and more honest than him. He brings an incredible pathos to the role, and I was so pleased to be doing scenes with him."
And what about Elijah Wood, who stars as reluctant hobbit hero Frodo?
"I bow down to Viggo. He came in and saved the day," says Wood simply. "A lot of things would happen on this film where a certain amount of trouble would arise, and then something would come along where it would not only solve it, but would seem like fate, like it was meant to be. And Viggo was one of those cases. Someone just mentioned his name, they called him, he came and it was perfect. He was meant to play Aragorn, he is Aragorn."
By the end of filming, the fraternal bonds were such that the men of The Lord of the Rings even marked the occasion by all getting tattoos (something Astin jokes he "previously associated with prison furloughs").
After a morning round of interviews spent talking about all the specifics of his amazing journey and all the ins and outs of Tolkien's amazingly detailed world, Mortensen, barefoot and relaxing with a healthy array of chocolate and sipping on matte herbal tea, seems ready to take a more esoteric approach.
"I think the geographical distance away from the rest of the civilized world, very far from the normal moviemaking terrains, was helpful in just submerging ourselves and getting on with it, creating [Tolkien's world of] Middle Earth," says Mortensen. "We had some times. You're going to have some bad times because it's a long, exhausting experience and you're in a difficult landscape. But like anything, it's not where you are, it's how you are. And we were good together. We were a good team, had a good time together, supported each other and grew very fond, I think, of each other. I will always have a special place in my heart for anyone in this large crew and cast, it will always be this unspoken [bond]."
He's also amused by the notion that The Lord of the Rings could somehow catapult him to megastardom.
Mortensen says he was drawn to a story he feels is about the "evil that resides in all of us," and wouldn't have done the movie if its story, character and message hadn't appealed to him. "Some people I think definitely choose certain roles because they feel there's a potential for some later reward, like an award or more money or something," he says. "But I like the process, and I think that what Tolkien wrote about, even though he was a devoutly Christian person, [is that] there is no heavenly reward in this, in the story for these characters, for doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is its own reward, which has a lot in common with the Nordic myth and literature which I knew before reading this book, in that people are flawed, gods and heroes are flawed, very human. And doing the right thing - even if only that person knows - has its own reward and own consequence always. It's not like you can say a few "Hail Marys' and the slate is wiped clean. And in The Lord of the Rings, for every member of the fellowship, they join of their own free choice."
A few pick-up shots and some voice work remain for Mortensen, not to mention the daunting task of more press for the other films, scheduled for Christmas release in 2002 and 2003. But another thing that is for sure is an exhibition of his photographs and paintings, titled "signlanguage," that will exhibit at Track 16 in Santa Monica Feb. 2 through March 30, as well as companion book.
Mortensen has always had a creative life outside of acting - he's drawn and taken photographs - but says that 1997's A Perfect Murder, in which he created his own paintings for his role as a hippie artist carrying on an affair with Gwyneth Paltrow, "reawakened [his artistic urges] on a much bigger scale." While a relatively new medium, the paintings are "in line with other stuff I was doing as a teenager - writing stories and poems and taking photographs," he says.
As far as other acting roles go, Mortensen isn't sure what awaits. We talk a good deal about the nuance and collaboration of acting for film, and it's clear that while some people are drawn to acting strictly for the performance, Mortensen is one of those artists who simply values creative work, whatever the avenue. "I don't have a plan, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next, he says. "As always, I try to find something that's a good piece of writing, an interesting character, [and see] if there's a good director attached. If the other elements are good that's always extra, but it starts with the story being interesting and the character. Sometimes it's interesting but I'm not sure about it, and then you ask yourself why am I not sure about this? Is it because I'm afraid, because it's different, it's unknown? And then in which case maybe you should do it just for that reason."
He pauses a moment.
"I try an instinctive search for something, but often in waiting and looking I run out of money and then I have to do the best of whatever I'm lucky enough to have available. And I realize that I'm fortunate compared to most actors in that I am making and have been for years making a steady living at it, not a huge one always but definitely doing much better than most people. I count myself fortunate, and it's my own choice to run it to the point where I almost go into debt again or something, but I don't know how else to do it. I don't have a five year plan or a five minute plan. For some people that does work. That's a safer way to do it, it's maybe more remunerative. You can make a fortune and be on the cover of every magazine or whatever, but that's probably a type of prison."
The conversation bends back toward art, and Mortensen, a true creative soul, makes it sound quite lyrical.
"I suppose just talking with you forces me to think about some of this stuff that I wouldn't usually think about. Things are provoked and that's kind of fun sometimes. In lieu of religion for most people these days, making a movie or going to the theater, that's a form of a church in a way. A movie set is like a ritual, with all the trappings and preparation. I feel like when we go to a set and we rehearse - or not - and we're wearing these costumes and saying these words, it's like an invocation, an invitation to magic, to the unexplained, to let the unexpected to enter into our lives."
Millions of Lord of the Rings fans are ready to answer that call.