The Rings King
Publication: TV & Satellite Weekly magazine
Date: Aug '03
After years as a supporting actor, Viggo Mortensen is calling the shots thanks to his role in the Tolkien trilogy.
It's hard to believe, but Viggo Mortensen wasn't first choice to play the princely Aragorn in Peter Jackson's trilogy of films based on JRR Tolkien's fantasy epic Lord of the Rings. Production had already started in New Zealand, where the three movies were shot, when Jackson decided to replace the original actor, Stuart Townsend.
For Mortensen, it was the chance to be a leading man after more than 15 years in supporting roles. The half American, half Danish actor, who was brought up in New York, made his film debut in 1985 as an Amish farmer in Witness. He was one of Nicole Kidman's suitors in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Demi Moore's instructor in GI Jane (1997) and Gwyneth Paltrow's murderous artist lover in A Perfect Murder (1998).
Mortensen has a 15-year-old son, Henry, by his ex-wife, punk singer Exene Cervenka, and leaving his son behind for a lengthy period was one reason why the LA-based actor initially hesitated over saying yes to the role of a lifetime.
When they called you, did you have to think about it because it was a commitment of almost three years?
Oh yeah. I was at home in LA and I said, 'I know that it's a great opportunity, but I haven't read the book and some of the players have been there for months, rehearsing, horseback riding and swordfighting'. I felt I was at a disadvantage and I didn't want to let the side down. And there was my son, who was 11. It meant I was going to be away from him more than I'd ever been.
What did he think?
He said, 'Well, that's a great book, you should do that'. It was nice to have his blessing, but I had to make the decision for myself. I eventually decided that if I didn't do it, it would always be in the back of my mind that I'd looked away from a challenge. I left for New Zealand the next day.
Why did it happen so quickly?
They had an actor, Stuart Townsend, but he was much younger than me. He was like the guys playing the hobbits. My understanding is that it was a mutual decision on their part. It was like, 'It's going to be like trying to make you look older all the time, trying to make you look as if you've had all this experience'.
How did you prepare?
I started reading the book on the plane, trying to get through as much as I could before I had to go in front of the cameras. I was like, 'What the hell is this?' But then I started to see that it wasn't totally unfamiliar. Aragorn is a composite of Nordic heroes, but a modern type of character at the same time. He fears that he will not be up for the task when the day comes for him to fulfil his destiny. I was relieved to see that he was afraid because it's like 'OK, we do have something in common'.
What was the swordplay like?
I got there and spent a couple of days doing what I could have spent weeks doing with Bob Anderson, the sword instructor. He was strict, but a very good teacher. He must have been 70-something. He was an Olympic fencer some 40 or 50 years ago.
Did you get hurt?
Yeah, but it's amazing that a whole bunch of people didn't get killed given the pace that we were going and the amount of battle scenes in the rain at night.
What do you think is the best part of your job, and what's the worst?
For me, the process is the best thing. I get to go to these countries, I get to meet people, I get to know the character I'm playing thoroughly. The worst thing is that the result is in someone else's hands - no matter how well they handle it, it's not my work fully. But that's the nature of it.