Brooding cinematic presence Viggo Mortensen has skirted the fringes of stardom for over a decade. But as Aragorn, the sensitive action hero of The Lord of the Rings, this actor/artist is set to inherit his rightful crown.
Meet Strider. He's a rugged, shady man of Middle-Earth, prowling the land, sleeping rough and menacing naive young hobbits in Bree-land taverns. But underneath the muddy hood and travel-stained cloak hides the noble Aragorn son of Arathorn, elf-friend, chieftain of the Dunedain of Arnor, wielder of the sword that was broken, and long-lost heir to the throne of Gondor. Now meet Viggo Mortensen. He's spent a decade playing shifty characters - alcoholics, stool pigeons, egomaniacs, drill sergeants, seducers, even the odd Antichrist. But under the roguish Hollywood persona there's an estimable creative spirit: a compelling, questioning actor who is also a painter, photographer and poet.
All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost. Since his 1985 debut as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's Witness. Mortensen has been in 37 movies. Despite playing opposite such grande dames as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman, he's not a recognised leading man, even though his Nordic looks put him well inside the Brad Pitt ballpark. If fame came with a report card, Viggo's would say can do better.
"I can't remember who said this - I think maybe it was Robert Louis Stevenson," he says, "but I can sort of relate to it, meandering through a film career or the arts in general without seeming to have a really deliberate plan: 'To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive and the true success is to labour.' I like that. 'To travel hopefully.'"
Mortensen garnered raves as the bad-ass brother who just can't turn over a new leaf in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner. His single, desperate scene in Carlito's Way, as a paraplegic ex-con who fails miserably to double-cross Al Pacino, left an indelible impression. But for every Portrait of a Lady (he shone as Kidman's long-suffering suitor) there's been a Psycho (he went through the motions in Gus Van Sant's remake). For every A Walk on the Moon (sweeping Diane Lane off her feet), a Prophecy (ripping out Christopher Walken's heart and munching on it like an orange). And through it all anonymity has trailed him like a mangy dog: the 43 year old has been hailed as a newcomer so many times, it's getting ridiculous.
Those days are likely to be over now that the long-awaited Lord of the Rings movies are here. Sure, his character in the trilogy, Strider/Aragorn, is only one of the Fellowship of the Ring, the motley band of nine appointed to accompany Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on his mission to destroy the One Ring of Power before the Dark Lord Sauron can use it to take over Middle-Earth. But Aragorn is the one with maximum appeal to both teenage boys (he's a laconic, sword-fighting, ranger dude) and teenage girls (he's a sensitive Numenorian hottie). Aragorn is Han Solo to Frodo's Luke Skywalker - and like Han he gets the girl too. Still, Mortensen is not about to let the stardom thing go to his head.
"You can shut yourself in your caravan and be on a cellphone and be very involved in the business of being a movie actor or a personality and miss out on getting to know different kinds of people or places in a full way," he notes. "Or, if you're curious, which I am, you can learn a lot from every [movie]. In the end, it's the journey."
On October 11, 1999, after four years of planning, director Peter Jackson's wildly ambitious project to film one of the best-loved novels in the world went before the cameras in New Zealand. Bankrolled by New Line Cinema to the tune of US$180 million, all three Lord of the Rings films would be shot in one go for planned release on three successive Decembers.
A few days after shooting had begun, Viggo Mortensen took a call from his agent at his modest suburban house in Venice, Los Angeles. The actor cast as Aragorn, 27 year old Irishman Stuart Townsend (Shooting Fish, Queen of the Damned), had been fired by Jackson due to "creative differences" and the role was being offered to Mortensen.
"I don't know [Townsend] personally but what I gather indirectly is that he was probably relieved, because I think he may have had doubts about his rightness in terms of age anyway," Mortensen explains. "This part requires sort of an older dog."
Mortensen had not read the books and despite the entreaties of his Tolkien-savvy, 11 year old son Henry, was unsure about plunging unprepared into a protracted shoot in a foreign country.
"I guess in the end I did it because I would feel that I had been chicken shit really. I had to leave the next day, so I'm on the plane reading, looking at this gigantic book and thinking, 'What the hell have I done?"
As he turned the pages the actor, whose father is Danish, realised Tolkien's debt to the Scandinavian sagas he grew up on. Aragorn was, so to speak, in his blood. He also decided to turn his lack of preparation time into a strength. "I realised that that's what this character is dealing with too, his own private fear. He doesn't lack courage or intelligence but he's not sure why he should succeed when the greatest of his ancestors succumbed and were not strong enough to resist the temptation of the Ring."
Three days and a crash course in sword fighting later, he was on a grassy set in a Wellington studio, defending the four hobbits played by Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan from an attack by the Black Riders. It was the first scene in a schedule whose staggering complexity would keep the actors on call six days a week for the next 15 months. "We'd have Sunday afternoon to do laundry and have a beer," Mortensen recalls, "and then before you knew it you were back on the battlefield."
Still, the working environment offered many consolations. "The South Island in particular is extraordinary. It was a pleasure to be in the places we filmed in, I love fishing and it's probably the best place in the world for that.
"He rates the army-size cast and crew as "the best team I've worked with, easily. Basically everybody involved had read the book or was reading it and was into the story they were telling. I think it's unlikely that I'll ever get to work again on something with that same team feeling."
He praises 20 year old Wood for his "self-control. His ability to be still and receptive in even the most pressure situation is remarkable in someone his age." Ian McKellen, who plays the sorcerer Gandalf, had "more tricks than a bag of merlins and he really used them all". Cate Blanchett (the elf queen Galadriel): "I can't imagine anyone else playing that part, period". And as for Jackson: "He was able to keep so many plates spinning, constantly, it was just amazing."
Mortensen himself comes in for some strong kudos from Rings producer Barrie M Osborne on the films' official website. "He's incredibly dedicated. He's the kind of actor who one day had his tooth knocked out by a sword and actually asked if they could superglue it back on so he could finish the scene. He became Aragorn."
Reports even had Mortensen bedding down under the stars in an attempt to capture the mindset of the ranger - which he denies.
"On the weekends sometimes I'd go camping and it was probably helpful to remind me of what Aragorn was familiar with, [but] I've always been like that, since I was a boy. If I'm by myself in some natural setting I never feel that there's a second wasted."
Another rumour involved Liv Tyler's character, the elf princess Arwen. In the novel Aragorn and Arwen's affair remains firmly in the background and word that the romance would be expanded in the films resulted in a minor fan outcry. So, are we in for some elf-nookie?
"We pretty much followed the book, but we took elements from the appendix. Tolkien himself admitted that he hadn't explored the relationship fully and said that that was one of the most important appendices."
While he has not yet seen The Fellowship of the Ring and has to return to New Zealand next year to complete pick-up shots on The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Mortensen is fiercely proud of the trilogy.
"I think that people will see The Lord of the Rings and sit and talk about it afterwards and maybe even argue. And the special effects are great, though they're not the sole reason for telling the story."
Mortensen has absorbed the deeper moral implications of the epic tale - so much so that, when we start talking about recent, catastrophic events, he draws an instant connection.
"Aragorn is aware that a long time ago humans and elves worked together, when the different peoples hadn't become isolationist and therefore racist and intolerant of each other. The whole Fellowship of the Ring symbolises races working things out together. Not making an effort to understand those who are different is playing into Sauron's hands... The reason there's so many problems with religion in the world is because people take literally what were symbolic elements. They all believe the same thing essentially and yet they're willing to die about the details. But religion, myth and fairytales need to be reinvented and those who manage to do that cleverly are the ones who are saving us from ourselves. I think that Peter Jackson has done that with this story. It's a reinventing of old myths in the best possible way."
Viggo Mortensen, son of Viggo Mortensen, was born in Manhattan on October 20, 1958, the first of three brothers. His father, "sort of a restless person", changed employment frequently and took the family to live in Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt and Denmark before Viggo Junior had reached his teens. As a consequence, the actor speaks fluent Spanish as well as Danish and has made two films in Spain.
Having studied government at St Lawrence University and acting in New York City with Warren Robertson, he was cast in three movies - including Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo - only to end up on the cutting-room floors of all three. After finally making it to the screen in Witness he moved to LA. Bartending and truck driving jobs kept him flush in the late 80s, in between movies such as Fresh Horses, Young Guns II and the bizarre low-budget gem The Reflecting Skin. In 1987 he met Henry's mother Exene Cervenka of punk band X; now divorced, the two remain "good friends".
In the mid-90s Mortensen scored high-powered parts in two military movies, Crimson Tide and GI Jane, the latter memorably requiring him to beat the living shit out of Demi Moore's Navy SEAL recruit.
"She actually got me in the balls a couple of times," he recalls with a laugh, "but it was unintentional, I'm sure." The actor expresses regret that GI Jane's sexual politics sailed over the heads of the cineplex crowd. "A lot of people thought [my] character was just a sadist," he laments, pointing out that the master chief is arguably doing the honourable thing in treating Moore as harshly as he would one of the male candidates.
Indeed, Mortensen seems happiest inhabiting roles tinted with shades of grey. Softly spoken, contemplative, uneasy, he's never quite knowable on screen. On the one hand this makes him problematic star material. On the other, it can drive certain audience members wild with desire (perfectly sensible female acquaintances of mine get starry-eyed at the mention of the name of Viggo). It isn't just the blond hair and the dimpled chin: This action man has the soul of a poet.
Like the 1000 page Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen's story comes with appendices that are vital to an understanding of the whole. Painting, photography and poetry are a way of life for him. When he is not acting, he is constantly creating in other media.
"My mother says I'd always go around with a pencil and make drawings. I think everybody naturally makes things, unless they have it beaten out of them by the school system... I just feel worse at the end of a day if I haven't done a lot of things."
The author of two published books of poetry, Mortensen crafts spare, fine-tuned verses that end with the sharp report of a metaphor hitting its target. Most paint a languid picture of West Coast suburban life a milieu of cars, swimming pools and lovers' conversations; some ruminate on the life of the movie actor with surprising acuity.
The photographs are also drawn directly from life. While in high school a slightly obsessed Mortensen would prowl the streets of Watertown, camera in hand, like an aspiring William Klein. These days he trains his intuitive camera on suburbia and the antics of his son ("my favourite subject"), friends, neighbours and passers-by.
"I went to [Mortensen's] house and saw a few hundred images and saw right away that he had an eye for the street and the quirky nature of the everyday," recalls Pilar Perez, director of exhibitions at Santa Monica's Track 16 Gallery. Perez was acting on a tip-off from another actor-photographer, Dennis Hopper; in 1999 the gallery presented Mortensen's first major solo show Recent Forgeries.
"Around here he's considered number one as an artist, not a Hollywood figure by any means," continues Perez. "He visits the gallery a lot. He's always pitching in and he's been known to sit on the front desk and answer the phones on occasion." Mortensen's next show will feature work from the Rings set: eerie images possessed of a Tolkienesque magic all their own.
The paintings are another story. Restless, layered abstractions, they incorporate photos, found objects, poetry fragments and violent scratch marks. The style will be familiar to anyone who saw A Perfect Murder, where Mortensen played an artist with a criminal streak and got into character by knocking up the film's canvases himself. "I thought, this guy's masquerading as a painter but his work must be somewhat interesting or original to fool someone like the character Gwyneth Paltrow was playing. So I showed them some samples and they said, 'Make them a lot bigger and make a lot of them in the next couple of weeks."
"I set deadlines for myself in so many areas," he sighs, "that I have to go without sleep and leave the dishes and the clothes and everything else and then pass out at the end."
Does he have an artistic credo - besides 'more of everything'?
"There are a lot of moments that I treasure, whether they happened in rehearsals or on film, magical moments between people. It's the same thing if I walked down the street with my camera. That's 'travelling hopefully' to me. I think I'm essentially hopeful and the reason that I paint or photograph or listen to someone who is speaking to me is that I hope something might happen."
One important question remains to be asked. Does Viggo Mortensen, Hollywood sex symbol slash dedicated artist, have a significant other? Someone who shares his compulsive, creative lifestyle?
"It's a tough one to put someone through all of that," he laughs. "Isn't it?"