The King returns
Author: Tom Roston
Publication: The Mail on Sunday
Date: Dec '03
His fans swooned during his love scenes in A Walk on the Moon and clung to his every word in films such as A Perfect Murder and 28 Days, but it's been Viggo Mortensen's role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that's made the actor a star.
Today, however, Mortensen isn't concerned about conquering Hollywood, he just wants to find his wallet. Grumbling expletives as he empties his bags for the third time, he thrusts his arms into the side pockets of his jacket, hoping the missing item will mercifully appear. He is clearly exhausted. 'Man, I'm fried. Refried. And fried again,' he says, with a tired smile.
Mortensen's sudden Hollywood heat is one of the Rings' many success stories. His dedication to embodying Aragorn is legendary among the film's cast and crew. He would camp in the forest while his co-stars slept in more refined quarters. He carried his sword everywhere - even into restaurants. 'He was the most committed and the most devoted on the set,' says Sean Astin, who plays hobbit Sam Gamgee. 'He transferred his entire life into the character.'
Mortensen's commitment to his role extended beyond matters of the flesh. 'He brought to Aragorn this huge internal life that you don't see as much in the book,' says Miranda Otto (Eowyn). 'As filming progressed he became more and more Aragorn, and less and less Viggo.'
Mortensen's dedication also found its way regularly to director Peter Jackson's fax machine. 'After a long day's shooting, when all the other cast would be either in bed or in the bar, a nine-page handwritten memo would come rattling through the fax from Viggo, outlining his thoughts about that day's work and the next few days to come,' says Jackson. 'This wasn't an exception - over 15 months, it became the rule. In the small hours, it was actually comforting to know that there was somebody else out there grappling with the same nightmare that we were.'
Acting was never about fame or awards for Mortensen, 'They've got nothing to do with the job, and that is not why I do it,' he says. 'And as far as I know, that's not why these films were made.'
Mortensen's Danish-born father, Viggo Sr, and his American mother were living in New York when Viggo was born in 1958. The Mortensens moved often, living in Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark when Mortensen was young.
His parents divorced when he was 11, and Mortensen and his two younger brothers moved with their mother to upstate New York, where he went to high school. Mortensen studied government and languages at St Lawrence University before moving to Denmark, where he sold flowers while focusing on writing poetry and short stories.
In the early Eighties, Mortensen followed a girlfriend to New York and became increasingly interested in films and theatre. He went for what he thought was an audition for a play at the Warren Robertson repertory theatre, and found himself signed up for an acting class. Soon after, he was auditioning for roles in films.
In the ensuing years, as Mortensen took parts in box-office duds such as Boiling Point and American Yakuza, and in more successful films such as GI Jane and A Perfect Murder, he maintained an ambivalence towards the industry, especially the compromising nature of being a small cog in the film-making machine.
'It comes down to the fact that you supply the blue, and they supply the other colours, and maybe there's some blue left in the painting, and maybe there isn't,' he says. 'So just have some fun, make a good blue and walk away.'
The metaphor is more than a little apt. Throughout his career, Mortensen has expressed himself through other mediums. He has published five books of his paintings, photography, and poetry, and has had five gallery exhibits in Los Angeles and New York. He's also released several CDs of experimental music.
Last year, Mortensen was voted one of People magazine's most beautiful people. With his soulful eyes, high cheekbones, cleft chin, and general ruggedness, it's easy to see why. He also looks a lot younger than his 45 years. How does he manage to remain looking so youthful? 'I sold my soul to the devil,' he laughs.
However, Mortensen's appeal taps into something beyond the physical. His co-star Otto says, 'From the moment I saw him on-screen, I thought, "He looks incredible. Here's a character I don't have to pretend to be in love with."'
Is he in a relationship at the moment? 'I don't think that's pertinent,' he says. Of his ex-wife, singer Exene Cervenka, all he'll say is that their relationship is 'pretty good'. 'She knows that I love Henry [their 13-year-old son], as I know that she loves him,' he says. 'Beyond that, I respect her as an artist, and she respects me as one.
While he won't discuss women in his life any further than that, it's obvious there is one special person in his life - his son. 'Henry is smart, considerate and compassionate,' he says. And is the feeling mutual? 'I embarrass Henry all the time. He thinks I'm silly!' he laughs.
Mortensen's humility and generosity turned his Rings co-stars into some of his biggest fans. 'He was just so giving and gracious,' says Orlando Bloom (Legolas). 'For a young actor starting out in the film industry, he was the most fantastic teacher I could have had.'
Mortensen has a strong belief that there is order in the chaos of life. 'We all experience many freakish and unexpected events - you have to be open to suffering a little,' he says. 'The philosopher Schopenhauer talked about how out of the randomness, there is an apparent intention in the fate of an individual that can be glimpsed later on. When you are an old guy, you can look back, and maybe this rambling life has some through-line. Others can see it better sometimes. But when you glimpse it yourself, you see it more clearly than anyone.'
The glimpse is essential. It is why he photographs, paints and runs himself ragged - and why he is an actor. 'You try to communicate to others and to yourself, whether it be through a photograph, an email, or an idea. I remember specific moments like that from when I was young - walking out of the cinema and feeling connected to the people who I had just watched on the screen.
MMortensen hopes that audiences will connect with the new film. 'Whether the Ring and Sauron are evil is incidental to me. It's the fact that everybody got together and decided to go on this trip - that's the thing. That's the miracle.' Then, with a touch of sadness he adds, 'I still don't feel like it's finished. I really don't.'