Author: Jeffrey Overstreet, Steven D Greydanus, Bob Smithouser & Jeremy Landes
Publication: Looking Closer
Date: 05 Dec '03
Jeffrey: You’ve worked with so many of the great contemporary directors, playing smaller roles. And now you’ve had this enormous responsibility, this great opportunity, working with Peter Jackson. What have you learned as an actor from working with him?
Viggo: Even more patience. It was a long haul for all of us. It wasn’t like a movie that lasts a month or three months even, where you could look ahead [and say] “Well, in another few weeks I’ll be doing this or that.” There was no end to it. The weeks just ran into each other and the days got longer and longer. By the end it was 16 and 17 hours, six days a week, collapse on Sunday and do your laundry, and all of a sudden you’re on the set again!
Jeffrey: How did that affect your family life?
Viggo: What family life? [laughs] My son did come and visit quite a bit and stayed for some lengthy periods. But yeah, it made it difficult. For me, the hardest thing was not three-and-a-half months of night shoots at Helm’s Deep––it was those absences from my son, and finding a way to stay in touch consistently.But I knew going in that it would be kind of like the Fellowship, when they say, “Yeah, we’ll go in and join this club and do this thing.” They have no idea—even Aragorn and Gandalf who know Middle-Earth and know what they’re up against…Aragorn above all. As Gandalf says in the book, [Aragorn is] “the greatest traveler and huntsman of this age of the world”… meaning all the places we see in these movies he’s been to many times. All of the languages, all of the cultures, as aware as he is of the obstacles he’s going to be up against… he still has no idea how bad it’s going to be. Each step of the way gets harder. It was the same. Setting out, I knew the absences were going to be lengthy. And they got a lot longer, and the breaks disappeared completely.
Steven: Your character goes through a tremendous story arc, growing in his ability to accept this role of the king. And yet in the first film, he’s already so masterful that not only can he take on five Nazgul single-handedly, and not only can he take on an entire army of orcs, but he is the one character in the film who calmly and easily puts aside the temptation of the Ring … without freaking out and without a momentary hint of succumbing. After doing that, how do you develop and ennoble and grow the character [of Aragorn] to the point where he becomes so much more than that that he’s finally able to take the crown?
Viggo: You make it sound easier than it was. I think when he sees the Ring and the Ring calls out to him in the first part of the trilogy, and it’s in Frodo’s hand. There is a moment where he thinks about it. But he overcomes that, you’re right. There is something in him that is able to do that. With the Nazgul on Weathertop, he knows that fire is not their friend, so that’s something he uses to his advantage. But yeah, he is psychologically strong, although he does struggle at times, and he sometimes shows a hesitation and doubt, which I think are good qualities for a leader. I wish more leaders in our world had those qualities… because that implies a lack of arrogance. It implies a concern with, among other things, the effects of your words and actions on others. A lot of our leaders, including, unfortunately, the one who leads our country, the United States, doesn’t show much compassion, in my opinion. He uses those kind of words, but his actions give a lie to that. I wish there was more of that.
And by the end—to answer your question—he has to confront those doubts. As big a battle as the Black Gate is, or coming in with those reinforcements at the Pelennor Fields, is the conclusion of his psychological battle, when he confronts the dead. That is, in a way, his biggest struggle. There is that, in the third movie, that he has to face up to. But also, when he goes to the Black Gate, it’s not just throwing yourself out there the way Gandalf does in Moria… that individual sacrifice… which all of the Fellowship members at some times make … [like] Sam literally carrying Frodo … but he has to not just do the Lone Ranger thing and go on his merry way. He has to, by the example that he sets and his conviction, persuade the whole army of Rohan and Gondor who have survived the Pelennor Fields, and Gandalf, against Gandalf’s initial better judgment… and Merry, and Pippin, and Legolas, and Gimli… and not only commit suicide himself, but convince all of the others to do the same thing … to do what looks like sure death, and would have been if Frodo hadn’t gotten there. The lesson is the union with others is more significant than your individual existence. It doesn’t deny the importance of your individual existence; it just means that you are a better person the more you connect with others. You’re going to know more, you’re going to be stronger, and you’re going to have a better life if you get over yourself.
Bob:Over the course of making the trilogy, did you have any kind of a life lesson come home to you that you think would be particularly valuable to pass on to teenagers today.
Viggo:I don’t know how to put it in one quick sentence, but… “Get over yourself,” I guess. [laughter] I mean … it’s part of growing up. My son is 15 and he … [smiles] … he has a healthy lack of respect for me … in a way. Just as Aragorn has had as his friend and mentor Gandalf for decades … just as with any father and a teacher … there comes a point where to become mature as a person, whether the decision in itself is good or bad, a moment at some point you have to say, “Okay, now I have to think for myself.” To judge when that is, it’s hard to say. But at some point you have to make that break to be an individual. In the story, at least in the movie—well, not in this one, anyway, but in the Extended Edition—there’s a point where there is a hint of that when Aragorn says, “I think we should do this thing. We should go to the Black Gate and draw them.” When Eomer says, “We cannot win with strength of arms,” he’s saying, “That’s suicide.” And Aragorn says, “Yeah. But that’s the best thing we can do.” That’s him thinking for himself and making his own decision. It’s good you when you have to do that. I’m not saying tell your parents to f*** off … immediately. [laughter] Maybe it has more to do with your peers. There’s the one side which is “Get over yourself and don’t be selfish and listen to others. “ But you have to balance that with “Don’t believe everything you hear.” There comes a point where you have to say, “Hmm, the newspaper says this or that. The President said this or that.” You’re not forced to, but you can try to inform yourself further and make up your own mind.
Press: You’ve passed over a Rubicon from being an actor to being a celebrity. Do you feel a responsibility to use that platform that you have to share your political beliefs, or do you just do that out of who you are?
Viggo: No. I’ve never really done that before. It is really just a reaction that comes out of being told over and over—not asked—but told, as if it is an accepted fact, that in the case of this story there is a direct parallel. In other words, we, “the Fellowship” are the United States, and the bad guys are the faceless or brown-faced nameless Islamic terrorists. It’s a dangerous comparison to make. It’s just as faulty as what Tolkien objected so strongly to, which was to knowingly misapply Nordic cosmology, literature, mythology, to justify the military actions or the racist policies of the Third Reich. It bothered me, so I reacted. I thought, at a certain point I’m seeming to agree with what they’re saying, and I can’t do that morally. Do you know what I mean? And I don’t think that it’s my job—or any celebrity’s job—to speak out. But on the other hand, I disagree with people who say, “You’re a celebrity, so just shut your mouth and do your thing.”
You saw that in the Vietnam war, where the government would say things or the media would reinforce that, [saying]: “Let the congressmen, let the people in government judge the moral course of the country. There were placed there to judge these things. Let them do it” That’s not what this country is about. This government is a government by the people, for the people. It’s wrong to say, “Because you’re a plumber, a taxi driver, a journalist, an actor, unemployed, a single mother… you don’t have a right to say anything.” The history of the United States and other nations [shows that the practice of] leaving to those who govern the moral decision-making and the course of the country has not been a very successful one.
Press: Given that, what is your worldview, your platform for making these moral judgments?
Viggo:I believe we have more in common with other people than not. And for the United States, in regards to Afghanistan—which is treated already as “the distant past” almost like Vietnam, and the government likes it that way—the consequences of what we did there are still being felt and will be for a long time… generations. Forget about the effect on our infrastructure and our standing in the world. [pauses, searching for the best words] My point of view is that we have more in common with others than not. If you look at yourself as this country’s government has tried to—“We’re Americans. We’re different. If we can use the U.N. as we did in Korea or in the first invasion of Iraq, and they’re going to go along with us, then great. If not, then screw ‘em. We’re Americans, we have a right to do things that other countries don’t.” By separating yourselves as Americans, as Frenchmen, as Iraqis, to separate yourselves from others and consider yourselves as special or different, that’s to construct the walls of your own prison. That’s a one-way road going the wrong way.
Jeremy:Aragorn’s of noble birth, but he doesn’t seem to want to accept his kingship. Do you think that individuals have been given special talents or tremendous resources have a responsibility to intervene where we see injustice?
Viggo:Aragorn … accepts it to do well by his fellow men, and realizes that if he doesn’t do something it won’t get done. [But] those words can be easily twisted and abused. Those kinds of words can be used to justify actions that those who undertake them and have the information available know is misleading … that they are misapplying those words and those ideas. That is reprehensible. It’s as reprehensible as what the Germans did, in terms of the “high ideals” of Nordic literature and Nordic mythology. I see what your point is, but I don’t think the United States has any more of a right to police the world than any other country. Where we go wrong is in saying that we do not have to adhere to the principles or the ideals of the community of nations … we just spat on that, and did what we wanted, and walked right over that, and did what we wanted out of self-interest. That is really what we did. That cannot be questioned. We denied what the U.N. was saying. We said, “No… what’s good for us might not be good for you, but we don’t care.” That’s what we did.