November 2003 By Philip Berk
Androgynous Stuart Townsend had the role.
But then two days into filming the director had second thoughts.
Obviously he needed someone more archetypal to play Aragorn.
Why not Viggo Mortensen?
At first the actor was reluctant to spend two years in New Zealand away from his then twelve year old son.
But then when the boy encouraged him with, “Oh my God, dad, you have to,” he was on the next plane.
Archetypal, is that the best word to describe Viggo?
Certainly he is the most inscrutable individual you could ever meet.
What exactly is going on in his head? you wonder, as he watches you with his Mona Lisa smile.
In the many times I’ve interviewed him, he’s always struck me that way.
Our first encounter was for The Indian Runner.
His searing performance in that and his hulking presence on screen augured a promising career for the young man, but when the film went largely unnoticed, he ended up playing hunks in movies like GI Jane, A Perfect Murder, 28 Days, and Walk on the Moon.
Some even predicted that his avocation (as a dedicated painter and photographer) would ultimately satisfy his artistic needs.
But then as fate would have it, Aragorn intervened.
That role changed the course of his life, but it hasn’t changed him at all.
He’s still the same soft spoken, barefooted, bemused non conformist he always was, a characteristic I imagine he inherited from his father.
He too was a free soul.
A Dane, who met Viggo’s American mother in Norway, he followed her to New York, where they married and had three sons. They moved around from New York to Argentina to Venezuela to Denmark, but by the time Viggo was eleven the marriage was over.
For the next decade the family lived in upstate New York where Viggo overcame his sensitivity by developing an interest in photography.
Acting was never an abiding passion, but while attending college he was intrigued by an ad looking for actors to join a New York repertory company. He applied, was accepted, and before he knew what he was doing, he was signed for roles in (Goldie Hawn’s) Swing Shift and (Woody Allen’s) Purple Rose of Texas both of which ended up on the cutting room floor.
One role that made final cut was in a low budget movie called Salvation.
The star of that was the Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the groundbreaking LA punk band X.
The two of them fell in love.
Not only was she a rock star, she was also a poet and painter.
She encouraged him to pursue his undeniable talents as a painter, even as a poet.
They married in an abandoned prison in Nebraska and out of that union they conceived a son Henry Blake Mortensen, who is the light of Viggo’s life.
After a year, the marriage ended but to this day they remain friends sharing custody of the 16 year old.
Viggo has always refused to talk about his personal life; he has never remarried and seems to have chosen a life of celibacy although he is rumored to be in a relationship with the daughter of art promoter and sometime director Julian Schnabel.
In New York to promote The Lords of the Rings: Return of the King, which opens in December, he can’t say enough in praise of Peter Jackson, the director.
“The difficult task that Peter had was to keep all the characters we’d met in the first one interesting in the second, make us care about them while moving the story forward. And now in the third movie he’s taken all this to another level emotionally, which I think he’s managed because now when I see him and talk to him he has a calmness and a confidence I haven’t seen before.”
What would he say was his most singular strength?
“I’d have to say his ability to keep everything running. The thing I most value about him is no matter how difficult things got, he always behaved like a decent man. I can’t imagine another director who would have behaved as decently as he has toward everyone. No matter how tired he was, no matter how difficult and frustrating it must have been for him, the amount of kindness he always showed was palpable. You always felt that sense of community, and that’s why there was always the willingness on the part of everyone to work together and be considerate of each other.”
The last battle is the climax of the film. Can he talk about that?
“My character had to wear chain mail which makes it harder to move around, but it was more about the emotional toll than the physical one. Visually, of course, it’s something else. I mean you have giant elephants and flying creatures, you have super trolls, which are trolls that don’t turn into stone in the daytime, huge amounts of horses and cavalry. You can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scope and size. But as important as Helm’s Deep was for the story and as devastating it would have been if the battle had been lost, the real battle being waged is the emotional one, what people go through to survive, which is bigger and more intense and more draining to witness than anything you could ever imagine.”
Specifically his character, what is his journey?
“I see it all as one long story. From the beginning he has shown a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the group. He has traveled more extensively in Middle Earth than anyone else, so he has an understanding of the cultures and the races and the customs and languages and the differences. Despite all that, he’s underestimated as a leader because of his self doubt, which others see as a weakness. In the third part he’s the one who has to convince them to throw themselves in harm’s way, to willingly join him in marching to their deaths, which is what happens at the Black Gates. To do so, they have to believe in him; unless they respect him, unless they believe his heart is in the right place, they will not follow.”
So more responsibility is placed on his shoulders in this one?
“Which is something he’s not comfortable with because he has so much self doubt. You can’t be a leader and question yourself! But rather than being a weakness I see it as a strength. It’s too bad more of the leaders in the world today don’t have that degree of hesitation before committing themselves and others in difficult situations.”
Does he, Viggo, have leadership potential?
“I don’t know,” he answers thoughtfully. “But I do believe in compassion and mercy and the idea that one person matters. You get that from Lord of the Rings. We can sit around here and talk about freedom and justice and compassion and doing good, but then if somebody comes in and asks if I’d like more coffee and I’d say, ‘Shut up please, get out of here,’ I would have completely shot a hole in any of the good things we talked about. What really matters is how you deal with that person, with your family, with everyone.”
At the moment, however, he’s more interested in his photography than a political career.
When asked about it, he acknowledges, “I’ve done several shows recently. I had one in New York, and earlier in the year I had an exhibition in Havana, Cuba. In July a show of mine closed in Denmark Right now I have a show in Los Angeles at the Stephen Cohen Gallery.”
How important is photography in his life?
“You have to realize I did it long before I began acting. I’ve always enjoyed it, the same with writing, drawing. I don’t look at them as different. I see them as branches of the same tree, a way of asking questions. In terms of communicating I can give you a much more concise answer with a photograph than with anything I say.”
When I interviewed him for GI Jane he used the opportunity to take pictures of me, using a camera he had found in the hotel minibar.
Did he take a lot of candid shots while making Lord of the Rings?
“I don’t take pictures on the set because I think it’s rude. Even if you’re permitted. When I do, it’s usually on the periphery.”
Is he as passionate about acting as when he started?
“I have seen people, who when they get to a certain amount of success or disappointment, they stop making the effort to improve themselves as actors. That’s something I would not do. I’m interested in the process, in figuring out how to play a character. I even enjoy talking about a movie that I’m proud to be a part of.”
Like Lord of the Rings.
Looking back at that experience, what are his thoughts?
“That it was long. You had to be patient. You had to accept that it was a marathon and not a sprint. But at the same time I’ve made some lifelong friends as a result.”
Has it made him a bigger star?
“On a practical level of course. I would never have gotten the role of Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo if it wasn’t for Lord of the Rings. But don’t think we’re millionaires. The fact is we are not. We were paid, and we have been treated well, but like everyone else we need another job to pay the bills.”
So they get no residuals from the marketing (of the dolls)?
“What do you think?”
Any regrets about playing second fiddle to babes like Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, and Sandra Bullock?
“I’ve never played a character, no matter what the movie was, that I didn’t like the character. That’s part of my job; otherwise you’re just collecting a paycheck. It becomes part of me no matter where I go. I enjoy that journey.”
So he’s never done anything just for the money?
“As an actor the only power you have is the ability to say no. You don’t have the power to say yes. Very few do, and certainly there have been roles I would have liked to have played, but it’s not in my power to always get that opportunity.”
How ambitious is he?
“I remain someone who likes acting. I like the process so in that sense I guess you could say I’m ambitious to try new things. But if you’re asking, do I have a five year plan? I don’t. I don’t even have a five minute plan about what I’m going to do two years from now.”
Having an exhibition in Denmark, how gratifying was that?
“It was a good experience because I had never had a show in Denmark, which in some ways I consider home. I have a lot of family there. I also did a lot of poetry readings there which was fun because a lot of people came from England and from Spain. Of course a lot of them came because of the movies, but it was nice to be in Denmark in the summer, especially because my son was with me. He also spent time with me in New Zealand so it was very rewarding.”
During the filming how often did they see each other?
“He came over several times, and I went back whenever I could. The first year we were promised a couple of weeks before the halfway point, seven or eight and then two more short ones later. But then the middle break ended up being only three weeks for me and there were no other breaks after that. And for much of the time it was six day weeks fourteen hour days, which was the only way we could get it done. But he was there for school holidays.”
What can he say about his music career. Is he still pursuing that?
“I’ve done a few things with this guitar player named Buckethead, who has a sort of cult following.”
And Hidalgo. What’s that about?
“It takes place a century ago in what is today Iraq. It’s about an American cowboy going there, and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with what is going in Iraq now. As far as I’m concerned invading that country was a business decision. When I was in the Sahara last autumn, it was interesting to talk to Moroccans. They didn’t think Americans were bad people. They just thought it was a shame that we couldn’t control our government. Especially since they admire our values. I couldn’t disagree, and I found it ironic that I was starring in a studio movie about an American who doesn’t go over there to destroy or change anything. He doesn’t even go there to instruct people on how to do things properly. He goes there as a challenge. In some ways he’s like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings.”
Does his son speak Danish?
“He knows a few words, not enough.”
Then proudly he adds, “But he has learnt to speak Japanese.”
Viggo on the other hand speaks Spanish and Danish.