THE LORD OF THE RHYMES
Why reluctant Rings star Viggo would rather be a poet

Author: Tanith Carey
Publication: The Daily Mirror
Date: 26 Dec '03

Sword in one hand and reins of his horse in the other, Viggo Mortensen's role as brooding warrior Aragorn has made him one of the most lusted-after men on the planet.

To the delight of his female fans, the final film in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy - which has just recorded the biggest opening in British box-office history - features even more of the dashing actor. But despite all this attention, Viggo is the man who would rather not be King - of Middle Earth, Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, the 45-year-old is reluctant to embrace any part of the fame that has come with his success.

Rather than attend premieres and parties, Viggo's free time is spent composing brooding poetry in three languages - and editing such tomes as Theology And The Religions: A Dialogue. The unconventional star also walks around barefoot most of the time, won't buy a mobile phone and urges his female admirers not to write him fan mail.

Viggo's life is cloaked in secrecy. The details he provides are, at best, sketchy and he routinely dismisses questions about his love life as irrelevant. So who is this private man who has become the star of what many believe are the best movies ever made? Even his Rings co-star Liv Tyler admits: "He's a mystery."

Certainly when it comes to romance, there appears to be hope for mere mortals. Not a man to be seen with a glamorous starlet on his arm, Viggo seems to go for women with artistic integrity rather than mere good looks. His greatest love - and biggest influence - has been ex-wife Exene Cervenka, a feminist punk singer, known for her idiosyncratic style and disdain for all things Hollywood. At 47, she is a buxom Siouxsie Sioux lookalike with a penchant for Cleopatra-style black eye-liner, thrift-store polka dot dresses and armfuls of bracelets. The couple met on the set of an underground film called Salvation. He was 26 and a struggling actor. She was best known as the front woman of US punk group X. Viggo was in awe of the singer, who had also made a name for herself as a performance poet.

Exene - whose real name is Christine - in turn fell in love with the earnest American-born Dane... because he kept his poetry in the refrigerator. It was a whirlwind romance and within a year the couple were married.

"Exene was the star - a big name on the punk scene - and Viggo was just a struggling actor from nowhere," according to a long-time friend of the couple. "He was already this deep, intense guy, writing poetry but pretty quiet with it. She got him to come out of his shell a bit more and gave him the confidence he needed to perform his writing. Over the years - and despite their divorce - he has stayed very loyal to her."

A year after the wedding, their son Henry was born. It prompted the couple to get away from it all, by moving to a mountain cottage set in a 304-acre forest in Northern Idaho. But the isolation took its toll. Viggo found it hard to get to auditions. To support his wife and young son, he also started to forsake his artistic principles, by accepting more commercial roles in films such as GI Jane and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. But by the time Henry was three, the marriage was already on the rocks and the couple had separated. They remained close - and Viggo didn't get around to divorcing Exene for another seven years. The couple even wrote into their divorce settlement, obtained by the Mirror, that all three spend Halloween together.

Viggo's most recent love is Lola Schnabel. Once again she is no Hollywood eye candy but the New York-based eldest daughter of Julian Schnabel, probably America's most respected living artist. Although half Viggo's age, the pair connected, once again, on "an artistic level". But after two years together, the reasons for their split were said to be more down-to-earth. Lola reportedly blamed it on Viggo's love of the great outdoors and his tendency to disappear for days on end without telling anyone - and his aversion to soap and water.

So far, Viggo's only movie star involvement is said to be with Gwyneth Paltrow, his co-star in A Perfect Murder and well-known for preferring a man with an artistic temperament. In a rare uncontained moment, Viggo reportedly described the actress as "great to kiss". She returned the compliment by praising him as a man of few words. Viggo denied the relationship when their closeness was blamed for contributing to Gwyneth's break-up with Ben Affleck.

Viggo's enigmatic nature and wander lust can perhaps be traced back to his childhood. He was born in New York in October 1958 - his American mother Grace had met his Danish father Viggo Peter Mortensen on a visit to Oslo, Norway. When Viggo was two, the family moved to South America. There they shifted between Buenos Aires in Argentina and Venezuela. Each summer, Viggo and his two younger brothers spent holidays in Denmark, where they learned to speak the language fluently. The actor still visits at least twice a year and describes the country as the only place he really calls home.

By the time Viggo was 11, the Mortensens had returned to Grace's home - Watertown, a small industrial city in upstate New York. Despite his burgeoning good looks, at Watertown High School Viggo is remembered not as the class lothario but as its quietest boy. English teacher Judith Morley recalls: "Viggo was angelic-looking, with white blond hair. He clearly came from a very international background. He was a straight-A student and, although he had an artistic bent, there was no sign at all that he was interested in acting."

His mesmerising effect on women was also yet to be seen. Pal Jeff Hinckley says: "I can't even remember him having a high school girlfriend. He was just very laid-back, low-key and mellow. Nothing much bothered him."

Schoolmate Barbara Withington recalls: "He hung out with the artsy, ski crowd - the rich kids. He was very cute even then but he was pretty short and used to wear turtlenecks. He filled out later on but at that point he was very slight, so I never looked at him twice. You would have never predicted he would have been a star. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. He was just the quiet guy in class. It's not that he was boring or uninteresting or shy. He just didn't choose to say an awful lot."

Mike Tufo, who went on camping trips with Viggo, says he wasn't particularly popular. "He wasn't close to anyone at school." Viggo spent his early 20s back in Denmark, living a bohemian lifestyle and picking up odd-jobs as a flower-seller, forklift truck driver and a waiter. He might have stayed but for the fact that the girl he was dating wanted to try life in New York.

Enrolling in an acting workshop there, Viggo discovered his thoughtful intensity gave him a look and style which worked well on screen. Within months of leaving the Warren Robertson theatre workshop, his sculptured cheekbones and dimpled chin were landing him auditions. Although some of his earliest film roles were left on the cutting room floor, his brooding presence was perfect for the role of the young Amish man Moses in 1985's Witness with Harrison Ford.

Over the next 15 years, Viggo appeared in more than 30 films - from Carlito's Way to The Prophecy - and was tipped for stardom so often, he remarked: "I've arrived so many times, I don't know where I went."

When he was offered the role as Aragorn, he was a recognisable and respected actor but hardly a big name. Yet suddenly, up on horseback and with a sword at his side, all the pieces seemed to fit. Rings co-star Miranda Otto says: "From the moment I saw him on-screen, I thought: 'He looks incredible. Here is a character I don't have to pretend to be in love with.' He has great physical ability coupled with a real sensitivity."

Viggo's new profile means that he could well take his place among the industry's A-list stars - if he wanted to. But instead of buying mansions and swanning about Rodeo Drive, he spent much of his multi-million dollar Rings cheque buying a forest in Montana, where he can commune with nature. And however much success he is having in his movie career, Viggo still turns up without fail every Christmas at the hometown restaurant run by his old school friend Michael Tufo. He arrives without fanfare, to have a beer and talk about old times.

"He is pretty much true to himself," says Michael. He comes in alone. We talk about golf, his kid but never Hollywood. I often get the feeling that Viggo would rather be an artist than an actor. You could never tell he was a movie star. If that subject arises, all I get are one-word answers. So I don't ask... and he never brings it up. "

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
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