"Lord of the Rings," Singing, and Philosophy
Heartthrob Status and the End of the Trilogy
Date: Dec '03
Actor/singer/photographer/poet Viggo Mortensen has seen his career take off after being cast as the heroic Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Mortensen joined the cast late but never once regretted his decision to take on this complicated character.
While discussing the third and final film of the trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” Viggo Mortensen reflected on his newfound heartthrob status and how Tolkien’s world parallels our own.
What does your son think of all this, especially now that you’ve become a huge heartthrob and a hero/mythic character?
My son has a healthy disrespect for me, which is as it should be. You know he’s 15, and if you don’t have a healthy disrespect for your dad, then there’s something wrong with you. No, we have a good friendship, and he’s actually been helpful. He’s got lots of good ideas, and you know, this has been a 4-year on and off process, so I’ve returned again and again. He’s seen the first two. He’s seen the extended versions of the first two, and he made some interesting comments. He was there a lot as well, and it was fun to watch him get into it. He really likes martial arts, and when he gets into something, he just really digs in and studies. He knows more about elves and dwarves then I probably ever will - and their fighting styles. Because he’s so big now and so adept, the last two years there, he was used by the stunt team several times in battles. I mean, the two battles that you see in the first one, he fought. I fought him, and he was one of the orcs, one of the big, bad orcs. The last battle, he played a Gondorian, the guys with the metal, pointy helmets. So he was kind of a double agent in the third movie. He really liked it.
That’s the way Peter [Jackson] made these movies. He made it like a family experience for everyone. Every crew member felt like it was, and anyone who was available at any time played an extra in this movie, so it’s like a big photo album for us. When you watch the movie, “Oh there’s Zooey. There’s Bob. There’s Jimmy.” Obviously Pete’s kids were in the movies a few times. Sean Astin’s daughter, my son several times, and crew members’ kids and parents. I mean, there’s not that many people who live in New Zealand, so we had to make use of everyone.
Can you give me an update on your singing career, especially the new album?
I’ve recorded other things with Buckethead, and my son’s been along and played a lot of things over the years. But that the hobbits, the 3 of the hobbits, were involved was just unexpected. I may have told you, we were almost done with the record and they asked me what I was doing the next day on a Sunday. I said, “Well, I have to go finish mixing this record.” And they said, “Oh what are you making? Who are you making [it with]?” I said, “Buckethead,” and they went, “Buckethead! We have to go. We have to go.” I said okay and then I called Buckethead and I said, “I don’t think we’re going to finish mixing the record today, but we might have some fun.” Then when I told him who was coming, he was even more excited than they were. He’s completely into these movies. He showed up on time, actually early, and was waiting. We had a really good time. We spent a few hours jamming, 3 or 4 hours I don’t know, which made our job mixing harder. We had to take all that and try to find some gems, but one of them was "Halfling." That was pretty fun.
Women just love you in these movies. Are you aware of that and that sort of hunk status?
I’ve been made aware of that.
What does it mean to you?
It’s not unflattering but it’s not something I can... What do I do in response to that? I don’t know. I guess give it ten years and then they’ll, in a few years they’ll move on to someone else. I mean, it’s not something that enters into my regular daily life. You know what I mean? It’s an unexpected, flattering result of being in these popular movies, I guess, is what I would say to that.
You don’t get hounded by women like The Beatles?
Sometimes. It depends where we’re at. I mean, airports and premiere kinds of things, but as long as I have a couple hobbits or Orlando [Bloom] around, I can sort of sneak away. They’ll go for them every time.
How did this movie change you personally, especially with all the virtues preached in these films?
I guess it just reinforced the things that I believe in, or in my good moments, I adhere to, which is what you’re talking about, you know the idea of compassion, the idea of looking out for other people, especially people that can’t maybe look out for themselves at times. But beyond that, just being open to the points of view or the personal difficulties of people that you furiously might disagree with, or that you might feel that you’re quite different from. I think that for anybody or any nation, that’s a good thing, to at least be open to that. It starts with thinking about the affects of what you say and what you do on other people. And before you start to think you should go solve the contradictions and the behavior of others, or other countries or whatever, you should solve the contradictions in yourself.
I think that one of the lessons from the story is that we always have to be somewhat vigilant. Even as it ends, it has sort of a bittersweet ending like the book. It’s obvious that there have been scars, not just physical, but emotional scars, that some have been lost along the way, beginning with Boramir and Gandalf the Grey, and elves, and many people have suffered or lost their lives for this. But even those who have survived are all maybe a little wiser for it, but they’re definitely a little bit damaged, you know? There’s a peaceful feeling at the end, but there’s a price. You know what I mean? And I think that if there’s one thing that everyone’s realized, whether it be Sam back at the Shire, or Aragorn now inaugurating the Age of Men - the 4th Age, Middle Earth and all that - is that there’s always going to be work to do. You can have fun and celebrate the victories and all that, but what the Ring represents, the Ring in itself was not an evil, it’s not an evil object in and of itself, it just represents the possibility that you can take the wrong path at any given time.
It starts at home. It starts with your friends. You saw in the relationship with Sam and Frodo, or Merry and Pippin, or Aragorn or Arwen, the union of the characters. I think the lesson is is it’s more important than their individual existences. How you connect with others and how you relate to the world around you is what really is the hope of people and mankind. It’s the same thing in our world. And when you ignore that fact and you think, “Well, what can I get out of this for myself?” That’s when you’re starting to go down the wrong trail. I don’t know where the question was in there, but I hope you got something you can use (laughing).
You seem to be very introspective and philosophical. We know about your music, but you also paint and take photos and have showings, right?
I did it even in New Zealand just now, probably to return the favor of what I got out of being there as a photographer and a writer and so forth, and to share it with them, but also because it’s something I continue to do anyway, wherever I am. I had two exhibitions that opened a week ago in Wellington of photography, and I did a poetry reading. The reading was a benefit for a university, a writing program there, and I read with a bunch of other New Zealand poets. It was great because we were going to read in a small space like you would normally in a poetry reading, and we had to change to a huge theater to accommodate everyone. A lot of the people, if not most of them, were movie fans, and came for that reason. But in the end what was great about it was that they came and they heard a poetry reading and they got to know four other poets as well, New Zealand poets. And to think about that just for an hour, an hour and a half, before going out into the pre-world premiere frenzy and all that. Same with the photography.
A lot of people came to these places, these spaces that haven’t been used for awhile and which now will be I think. We had another benefit for a university there, and again, a lot of the “Lord of the Rings” fans came. Then all of a sudden instead of talking about, you know Saruman and Sauron and what not, they were talking about photography and how is this done, or this reminds me of such and such, and, “I’ve never been to a photo exhibit, and I think I’ll start going now.” Or, “I’m going to get my little camera out of the drawer, and I’m gonna start doing it, or maybe I’ll buy a camera.” I like that, that there’s that possibility, and I know that some of the other actors have other interests in that way, too. I think it’s all part of the same thing.
I feel as an actor, or a photographer, or a writer, or painter, or whatever, or even making those records, it’s about interacting with people, about in the end being where you are, being present. It’s a habit I have of having a camera, or thinking in terms of how I can tell a story about something that happened. It could be us sitting here and I’m thinking of something. It just means that I’m paying a little more attention. I’ll remember that you had four tapes and you had the magazine and all those things. If I was just in here and not thinking in those ways, I wouldn’t remember how many windows. Those things are just part of, it’s a way of grounding yourself where you’re at. As an actor it helps you relax, so that if you’re in a scene with somebody, and they say or do something, you actually see what they do on that take. You’re looking at someone and you’re not seeing them, if you only, in your own tunnel vision you’re thinking, “I’m going to do this performance to suit myself.” Something happens unusual and you go with it. The director tells you something between takes and you actually hear him and try to help. You don’t just go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” because you’ve got your own [agenda]. It’s just a way of being presenting, of communicating, asking questions.
Do you think that the fans of the book and fans of the films blend well?
I can’t speak for them, I can speak for myself. I’m a fan of the book and I’m a fan of the movie. I see the differences and there’s times, to be honest with you, where I - as good as the movies are - I’ve been glad to do the extended versions of the first two because I think that they do more for the fans of the books. They explain things in a way that makes them more fluid as an audience experience. You don’t have questions. You follow. You’re like, “That’s right. Rivendall...” You go along with the film. I think that Peter and all of us made as many efforts as we could to capture the spirit of what Tolkien wrote about. I think all and all, Peter did a great job with that. I can’t imagine another director having pulled off what he did. I certainly can’t imagine another director not having been hospitalized or at the very least having gone through this without becoming a screaming maniac – even a few weeks into it.
No matter how well prepared Peter was – and the design was great - there just seemed to be this very precise schedule that just went out the window because more shots were added. It would snow when it was supposed to be summer. Whatever could go wrong, it did. But it’s how you deal with the obstacles, how you deal with difficulty, that defines your character. And the way that this team, I mean the crew and the cast, dealt with adversity is what made these stories work so well, I think. There’s a saying that all of life is sorrowful. You can’t change that, but you can change your attitude toward it. In some ways, that’s the way this story goes. Everybody volunteers to become part of this fellowship, but even those like Gandalf and Aragorn who have the most knowledge about the history of Middle Earth and what they’re up against, have no idea how tough it’s going to get. They have no idea that they’re going to lose Gandalf in the first part of the story. It’s one thing after another, and that’s where character is forged. That’s where you find out who you really are when it gets really tough. That’s the way it was for our shooting. In the end, no matter how much research I did, the most accurate reflection of what the characters were going through in the story was ourselves. Just looking around in the trailer, getting ready at 5 in the morning, or pouring rain or so forth. It was how people got through that.