The Man Who Would Just As Soon Not Be King
Author: Sarah Lyall
Publication: New York Times
Date: Sep '03
In a profession of $20 million paychecks and $20 million egos, there is something sweetly refreshing about a movie star who appears to believe that he is only one step away from the Hollywood bread line.
"I'm well aware of the fact that I'm one of the very few actors in the union who has made a steady living in the past several years," declared Viggo Mortensen. "Many times — and this is probably true of most actors — I've just sat and thought, `I've tried it for a while, and that's enough; I've given it a shot and I should move on and try something else a bit more realistic.' "
Realistically, Mr. Mortensen, 44, is doing very well, thank you, and will probably be doing even better on Dec. 17, when his latest film, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," opens. The final installment in the sprawling trilogy based on the books of J. R. R. Tolkien, it is an ensemble film, a fact the strenuously modest Mr. Mortensen hastens to emphasize. But there is no disguising that, in the role of Aragorn, he plays a particularly juicy part, the returning king himself.
Interviewed at the unkingly hour of 7 a.m. on a Sunday in August, in the deserted lobby of his hotel, Mr. Mortensen was operating at one of the lower speeds on the dial. "I'm sounding like a drugged person," he said, barefoot and freshly showered, as he tried to turn his stray thoughts into sentences over an ascetic breakfast of tea and a fruit plate.
But even his fatigue did not disguise his almost unfair handsomeness, which manifested itself in extremely chiseled cheekbones and jaw, in silky hair that fell over his forehead, and in eyes of ice-blue. Sadly, the fetching stubble and flowing hairstyle that he wears as Aragorn were absent, along with the swashbuckling cloak, but you can't have everything.
Mr. Mortensen, whose first name is pronounced VEE-goh, had barely a moment to breathe between professional commitments. Having just spent several days in post-production work on "The Return of the King," he had an hour before leaving for Edinburgh. There, he and other loyal "Lord of the Rings" alumni were gathering to watch Billy Boyd, who plays Pippin in the film, perform in a play at the Edinburgh Festival.
The conversation, and a subsequent one by telephone from Iceland, Mr. Mortensen's next stop, meandered into philosophical discourses on the humiliations of Hollywood auditions, the delights of Norse mythology, the difficulties of trying to do too many things at once, and the possible parallels between selling a film and selling the Iraqi war to the American public. In turning the talk from the specific to the general, the actor repeatedly demonstrated the self-effacement that, according to an article in Premiere, had his "Lord of the Rings" colleagues calling him "no-ego Viggo" on set.
Indeed, the affable Mr. Mortensen seems almost pathologically unable to talk about himself for more than a few minutes at a time, a quality that Peter Jackson, the director of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, said was a key to understanding him. "People are motivated by different things," Mr. Jackson said in a telephone interview. "But Viggo literally seems motivated by personal interest in what he's doing, the character that he's playing and the integrity of the finished result."
"One of the things that appeals to Viggo about Aragorn is that he's not just an action hero," Mr. Jackson continued. "In his own way, Aragorn is just as thoughtful as Viggo. There's a reluctance on his part to become the king he was meant to be. In a sense, that mirrors Viggo's reluctance to become a movie star."
In the random way these things go, Mr. Mortensen had been verging on movie stardom for quite some time. After a run of unmemorable roles in a run of unmemorable movies, he began attracting notice with a series of stirring performances.
In "G.I. Jane," he played a sadistic officer whose function was to make Demi Moore's life miserable and thus provide her with further opportunities to show off her extraordinary arm and stomach muscles; in "A Perfect Murder" he was Gwyneth Paltrow's snaky lover; and, perhaps best of all, in "A Walk on the Moon" he portrayed a smoldering 1960's hippie who introduced Diane Lane's vacationing housewife to the joys of drugs, extramarital sex and dancing topless at rock festivals.
Still, Mr. Mortensen's ambivalence about being a big-time star means that his career has not followed the usual trajectory. In fact, he says, he might well have decided to put all his efforts into painting, poetry or photography, all avocations he now pursues in what spare time he can eke out. Between scenes on the "Lord of the Rings" set in New Zealand, while his coworkers disappeared into their trailers to read or to sleep, Mr. Mortensen stayed outside, taking pictures.
Last year he started a small company, Perceval Press, which publishes books of photography, poetry and art by him and others. An exhibition of his photographs recently opened in Havana; another, he said, is to open in Los Angeles this fall.
"It's just something I tried at a certain point because I was curious," he said, explaining how he ended up an actor. "I suppose if I'd known how long it would take to be able to earn a more-or-less steady living, I would not have done it."
But Mr. Mortensen believes his acting work has been worthwhile, even in the films "that are not as good and never were going to be as good as others." And although he doesn't like to pick favorites, he admits to having a particular fondness for Aragorn.
"Here was a person who was not lacking in courage or compassion for others," he said. "He had a willingness to serve a greater common good, and he was not without fear, either."
He continued: "What I like about the story is that it's not the story of one hero. It's the story of collective heroism, in which each character goes through their own personal challenges to find their own way."
The role came to Mr. Mortensen fortuitously. Filming was already under way when Mr. Jackson concluded that Stuart Townsend, the actor he had hired to play Aragorn, was too young. The situation was desperate: he needed a new Aragorn, in New Zealand, in less than a week. He decided to try Mr. Mortensen.
Mr. Mortensen was duly told by his agent to expect the offer; his teenage son, Henry (whose mother is Mr. Mortensen's ex-wife, the singer Exene Cervenka of the punk band X), urged him to take the part, arguing that Aragorn was too cool to pass up.
But when Mr. Jackson telephoned Mr. Mortensen, whose work he admired, the conversation did not seem to go well.
"Knowing Viggo now, his conversation was incredibly Viggo-like, but at the time it was incredibly off-putting," Mr. Jackson said. "He was asking about the character: how long has he lived with the elves? Where are his parents? If I didn't know the answer, I'd make it up. There would be this terrible long silence, and I didn't know if the phone had disconnected or not, and then he'd ask another question and there would be 30 more seconds of silence."
"At the very end of the call, I thought it had gone very badly, that he wasn't going to do the role," Mr. Jackson continued. "I was thinking, `What are we going to do now?' as I was waiting for the call to end, and then there was another long silence and Viggo said, `I guess I'll see you on Tuesday.' "
Mr. Mortensen was a Tolkien neophyte, but he read about Aragorn on the flight to New Zealand and found he liked the character, particularly his restlessness of spirit. His own childhood was similarly peripatetic. Born in Manhattan to a Danish father and an American mother, Mr. Mortensen moved with his family as a boy to South America, but also frequently visited his father's homeland. Aragorn, he explained, "has connections with a lot of characters from Nordic myths, some of which are specifically told about Denmark."
Mr. Mortensen's long connection with the character is coming to an end. His next film, "Hidalgo," based on the exploits of the legendary Western horseman Frank T. Hopkins — Hidalgo was the name of his horse — is scheduled to open next year, and he confessed to feeling overextended and burned out, in the sort of situation where, as he said, "you get the day wrong and things slip through the cracks."
He's looking forward to a quieter time of fewer obligations, when, he said, he can return to "the illusion of having a feeling of things being open-ended, where if I want to, I can just stare at a painting or watch my son do things or listen to people without any other thoughts being in my head."
If that means eventually leaving acting, then so be it. "Life is sort of short, and I don't feel like I'm going to be really happy or useful to people if I'm burning the candle at both ends," Mr. Mortensen said. "I'd like to get back to a more balanced way of functioning."