Date: Dec '01
Net's abuzz, Hollywood's breathless, and everybody's in line. But
Viggo Mortensen—Aragorn—isn't ready to lose
his cool over The Lord of the Rings
years of speculation, it's finally here. It's safe to say that director
Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The
Lord of the Rings is the most anticipated film series this side of
that galaxy far, far away. And, as is customary with such pop cultural
lots of people—fans, filmmakers, financiers—are nervous
and eager. Just take a look at all the Tolkien discussion boards and
newsgroups. Heck, take a look at any newsgroup—even soc.culture.cuba
appears to be looking forward to this one.
why is Viggo Mortensen so calm? True, the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah
Wood) is the nominal protagonist of the Ring cycle, but Mortensen's
character, the hero-king Aragorn, is the guy who gets to kick butt
and romance Liv Tyler—he's Han Solo to Frodo's Luke. His character
has been a fan favorite for years—isn't the actor concerned about
whether he did the part justice? "I didn't have time to get nervous
about it. "The story kind of takes over, and you try to do the
best job you can."
Mortensen wasn't a particularly big Ring geek when he first got the
part (he was a last-minute replacement for Stuart Townsend). But he's
been making up for it ever since, and now says that he's become keenly
interested in the author and his works. Of course, how could he not,
having spent a year in New Zealand helping bring Middle-earth to life?
His journey of discovery will be echoed by our own, when the curtains
rise on December 19 on The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in
Did you know much about Tolkien before you signed on to do this role?
No, I had not read the books. I didn't have much time to read them
before I started, either. I came in at the last minute. But when
I did read them, I found a lot of familiar things that Tolkien took
from Nordic mythology and sagas. "
heard that you showed up on the set with a copy of the 13th-century
Icelandic Völsunga Saga.
Yeah. I was on the plane to New Zealand, thinking, God, what have
I done? Once I got off the plane, I went to the bookstore and got
a copy of the Völsunga Saga and a couple other things that I was
pretty sure I'd need. And then I had a friend send me whatever I
could remember that I had on the bookshelf at home. It wasn't as if
elements of the book were unfamiliar to me, given my [Danish] background.
Tolkien even took the names of the dwarves right out of Nordic texts. "
Was it useful to have a handle on some of the mythic and linguistic
underpinnings of the books?
You could do the part without it. We can't put every single word
and comma in the movie, otherwise each one would be about 6 hours
long. So, when you're trying to read between the lines, reading the
and knowing the underpinnings for the character and the general story
helps. It was helpful in particular in dealing with the movie—as
opposed to a class where you had to study Tolkien—because [the
story] had something to do with my younger years, and my background,
culturally. It helped me feel comfortable quicker than I might otherwise
have. In a way we're doing part 2, 3 and 4 of a 4-part story. The
long road to Mordor really begins when Bilbo finds the ring in The Hobbit.
This is a continuation of that story. The Hobbit has more of a fairy
tale kind of quality. And even though I believe Tolkien thought of
of the Rings as being a fairy tale, it's much darker and more complex.
Also, he had improved as a writer and was challenging himself, using
everything he'd been as a linguist and lover of history. "
Had you checked out the fan culture around Tolkien's books? As the
shoot wore on, I learned more about it. Like everybody else, I looked
online to see what the fuss was about when they put the first teaser
Was it difficult playing a character that so many millions of people
have envisioned for years?
Not really. It would be harder to play Henry Kissinger, 'cause people
have a good idea what he looks like and there are a lot of different
opinions about him. I think we were pretty true to how the characters
are described in the books, just in outward appearance. Also, I didn't
have the weight of that, because [when we started] I didn't know that
people were so into it.
It's almost sacred.
It is like a bible to some people. One of the reasons for that is,
Tolkien managed to do something that's not very easy. A lot of people
write medieval epics, or borrow from Arthurian legends, or sagas,
but those are always a bit shallow because there isn't any scholarship
behind [them]. He breathed new life into old material. I think that
Peter Jackson, in turn, is trying to do that with Tolkien. He wants
to make it live for other people.
So what should we be looking for in these films? The serious geeks
will start scrutinizing every line and shot, but where do you think
the subtleties are?
I think the spirit of the book, and the mystery of it, are there.
For my part as Aragorn, he's sort of a late bloomer. He comes into
his own gradually and reveals himself slowly. He probably knows as much
about Middle-earth and the ring as anybody, so he has a real fear
the situation. He knows the past. In the book, Gandalf calls Aragorn
the greatest traveler and huntsman of his age of the world. At the
same time, I think he obviously has doubts about himself. In a sense,
whole story is about these characters overcoming their own fears
and doubts. Aragorn's forefathers, even the strongest, the most noble
them, were not able to withstand the temptation the Ring brought.
And they lost their individuality. I thought it was funny that Gollum
refers to the ring as "my precious". Because while the ring
promises you unlimited power, what it really does is rob you of your
individuality, your freedom of choice, and that is really the most
precious thing that any intelligent being has as part of his individual
And that's another thing I liked also about the fact that it's a
group effort. It's a volunteer situation, everybody decides to join
decides to act in concert with the fellowship out of their own free
will. And even evil itself is not as simple as most movies make it.
The ring in some way is Sauron, but it's also what potential we have
to be evil. Each of us. It's a difficult thing that Peter has undertaken
but that hopefully he's managed to do well.
Peter's geek credentials are really excellent. And geeks are known
for their obsessive attention to detail. Did that affect your finding
your own place in the part at all? Did you get enough room to act?
Peter likes the technology of movie making. And he likes certain
moments being just the way he sees them. Pleasant and inspiring as it
was to be around him and his energy and his intelligence, he wasn't
someone that really gave you much instruction as far as what you were
doing. He had certain specific things in the moment, but as far as finding
out what you had to do, you were on your own. And I don't mind that.
Would I have liked to have had a lot of rehearsing? Yes, that's the
kind of actor I am. And I think it's good to do that. But there wasn't
a lot of time for it, and I don't think that's Pete's way of doing things.
3 movies, 50 million books sold, a fanatic under every rock—how
does an actor move on? Can the cast of these movies escape the fan
I have no idea. There were a lot of things that I liked about Aragorn
as a character, as a type. I tried to bring to it whatever knowledge
I had. As far as what's going to happen, if it's going to be strange,
I don't really know. I just hope the movie's good—that's the first
thing I'm thinking. I didn't have time to get nervous about it. The
story kind of takes over. You could worry as you were going along,
worry the details and try to get it right, but each person had to really
up with their own contribution, which was the way it needed to be.
As you probably know, Tolkien was a fairly devout Christian. In Norse
there isn't really a promise of some heavenly reward if you do good.
The only reward for good behavior or virtue is just being satisfied
that you did the right thing. Which again goes to what I was talking
about earlier, about free will. It's about your individual free choice,
your free will. Do I want to do the right thing? And if you're lying
to yourself, only you will know. If you're not confronting your own
demons or your own inadequacies, then you're only cheating yourself.
And I mean that's the thing about myth. If you grab onto it, it's
not just like some task at school. You can look at life as a poem, a
and you can see yourself. That's what it felt like at times, which
is a rare thing in a movie, obviously. In moments like that, you find
only lessons for your own life, but you find something beautiful
in ordinary life, something that links you to the past and to the future.
Is it ironic then that Peter got rid of the songs and the poems from
I think it was a question of time and an audience's attention. We
started going all over the place and it got to be a real jigsaw puzzle,
which is difficult, I know, for the writers and for Pete to keep a handle
on. Things kept changing as you're trying to keep as true to the book
as you can. There was a fair amount of Elvish spoken and other tongues
as well. And there is some singing in there. I think I mentioned it
before but I think that Aragorn obviously has doubts about himself.
He doesn't know if he can measure up to the guys who couldn't even cut
it in the end either.
Would you say that that the character's doubt is the most important
thing that you've brought to this role, that someone else would not
necessarily have brought?
I don't know. I would think that anybody who read the book, thought
about the character, would realize that and I think certainly Peter
was probably aware of that. You have to find a character's strengths
and weaknesses if you want to make him or her well-rounded. There's
a past and his heritage—all those things are so tied to the fate
of the ring from times past. I can't see how you wouldn't pay special
attention to that. But when it's a movie and it's a modern audience
sitting in a theater watching, you have to delineate the different
characters to some degree. The responsibility that the different actors
to take for their parts was good. The way that they behaved and whatever
touches they had of individuality. They felt right to me. Felt special.
you're also a visual artist. Is there anything from this project that
you find has inserted itself into your own work in the visual arts,
I was so busy that I didn't do as much as I might have, and I actually
thought I hadn't really done much. But by the end, when I sent all
the stuff home, it ended up that I had quite a few paintings and a lot
photographs. Enough that some of them will form part of a show I'm
going to have, probably in late January, in Los Angeles. It's a good
for the mind to go work in a different area in a quiet way. I didn't
have a lot of time. I would do it in the evenings sometimes or more
often than not, on Sunday afternoon. I was pretty much on the run
all the time. Most of us were. As far as days worked, Aragorn and Frodo
worked the most. So much of Aragorn's stuff is physical. And that's
more time-consuming to shoot. We did one battle for the second movie
that we shot over 3 months straight, at night. It was really a long
haul and a lot of friendships were formed during that. The stunt
I look at them all like my brothers and sisters. They were really
incredible. Really remarkable what they put themselves through. I couldn't
a European or an American stunt team having the kind of spirit that
those guys did. I've never seen anything like what they did. And
that does form an important part of all 3 movies, especially the second
third one. We had to really be in synch and really trust each other.
Just being thrown into it was really something. The sets were unbelievable
and the natural environment—incredible. You're walking in a beech
forest and—I'm not sure these are the beech trees that you would
see in northern Europe that you're most familiar with, but it's that
same feeling—very eerie and peaceful and just beautiful.
Are you familiar with the cast lists that have been circulating on
the Internet for years, where fans submit their ideal casts for a movie
version? I'll read you some of the ones they've thought about for Aragorn.
Elvis, in the all-musical version.
I could see Denzel doing that, actually. I worked with him on Crimson
Tide. I see him having those heroic qualities.
Which character do you think audiences will identify with most in these
When everything looks worst, the individuals in the fellowship have
to find in themselves some sort of hope. They have to meet their individual
challenges so that the group challenge can work. In the end, it really
isn't about only Frodo, or only Gandalf, or only Aragorn, or what have
you. You can be a fan of any one of the characters, but in the end I
think you end up being a fan of all of them.
Is it true all the dialogue had to be redone in post?
There were a lot of times while shooting when there was just too
much wind, or loud wind machines, so we re-recorded a lot of dialogue.
Which I didn't mind really, because when you're shooting things in
bits and pieces all along the way, there's not always going to be
an even quality to it. So I liked revisiting it later on in post.
Pete's that kind of director. He knows what he's doing, obviously,
but he likes this kind of controlled chaos. Then he can gather up
all these pieces and make the puzzle.
There's a whole resurgence now in Tolkien scholarship.
It's interesting, even in New Zealand, which feels a bit remote,
there are some small out-of-the-way towns where you'll find really
good used book stores. I found old editions, initially, and old copies
of sagas, and all kinds of stuff. And a lot of stuff about Tolkien.
But then towards the end, because there had been so much word of mouth,
it was harder and harder to find anything anymore. And if you did,
it was a lot more expensive than it had been.
Cate Blanchett said she did the part for the ears. What's your flippant
The honest truth is that I would have regretted not doing it. I had
to decide immediately and get on the plane, and I knew that I would
regret it if I hadn't done it. But what I didn't count on was how strong
the bond would be with the cast and crew. Everybody was really wonderful.
It's a lasting thing. That was an unexpected gift.
Publication: Yahoo Internet Life magazine