Interview with Viggo Mortensen
Author: Jeff Otto
Publication: Film Force magazine
Date: 15 Dec '03
For years, Viggo Mortensen worked steadily in Hollywood as a critically
respected actor. He had acted in popular movies like Carlito's Way and
Witness, yet his face was largely unknown outside of film critics' circles.
His face was one that blended in, which was also a nod to his acting
ability, blending into his various roles. One fell swoop of a gigantic
trilogy later, Viggo Mortensen is on the verge of superstardom.
Mortensen himself has admitted that, at first, his role in The Lord
of the Rings trilogy was a bit of a gamble. While he was honored to
be chosen by director Peter Jackson for the part of Aragorn, no one
really knew at first how the trilogy would be received. They were shooting
the three films at once. The future of the trilogy banked largely on
the success of the first film.
As we all now know, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is well on the way
to becoming the most successful trilogy of all, both critically and
commercially. As Aragorn, Mortensen has turned in a string of performances
that will live in pop culture infamy forever. Like Mortensen's acting,
the character of Aragorn has grown exponentially in these stories. In
the final chapter, The Return of the King, Aragorn is crowned as the
walks into the room looking quite different from the way he looks
in The Return of the King. His hair is cut very short in a
sort of military flattop. He smiles widely at the room full of press
awaiting him. "There's a lot of people in here," Mortensen
laughs. "It's like making the movie."
Wood says that you were constantly inspiring throughout the movie
to him. Were you aware that you were being that "inspiring"?
I think that what everyone did on this job, starting with Peter (Jackson),
but also the people that he selected, was that it was such a long run,
that even if you started out just out of nerves or just because that
was the tendency, to just look after yourself, you ended up taking care
of others around you... You could never really see the light at the
end of the tunnel until the very end... And even when we were finishing
the principal shoot, we knew we'd be back and Pete said way back then
in 2000, 'Look, if the movie does well, then I'll have the opportunity
to come back and do more.' We didn't know how well it would do and we
didn't know exactly what he meant... So it's been all consuming. ...
Like I was joking when I came in, we got along and made the best of
it and everybody sort of did it in that way, where if someone was sick
or tired or just at a loss, you know, here's these rewrites this morning
at 5am. 'I had something in mind.' 'I thought I knew where we were in
the story, now I have no idea. What does this mean? I mean, whose lines
are these, what is Pete trying to do?' You know, sometimes Pete would
be 50 miles away on another unit. ... It was very much a team effort,
and I think Pete counted on people taking care of themselves and taking
care of each other when he was there and when he wasn't there, because
it was too big a job for one person. You know, when Aragorn says at
the coronation, he says 'This day is not for one man but for all,' the
experience was that way, it was the only way it could be done and if
it was gonna work in the way that it has, people were going to have
to have that attitude.
If they didn't, what do you think would have happened?
We would have hated each other. It would have been horrible. And
I don't think the movies would have been very good and we wouldn't
be here now because the first movie would have bombed and then the
other two would have come out on video.
But in this particular case do you think because of the unique circumstances,
of shooting all three at once, it was absolutely crucial that there
was a true fellowship behind the cameras as well as in front of it?
Yeah, I think so, definitely. And a lot of it had to do with the
book; it had to be with the ideas in Tolkien's story. ... It wasn't
by accident that you had crewmembers sort of leafing through the book
absentmindedly, or actors pulling out a well-worn copy of Lord of the
Rings and saying 'Oh, that's right, and this has to do with that.' It's
because you're interested in it, it's because the story has affected
you, just like for audiences, whether they be Japanese or Argentine
or American audiences. They're watching the story and relating it to
their own lives. In other words it doesn't matter how many flying creatures
or pointed ears or wizards or really unbelievable scenery you get. There
is something very human at the heart of the story. It's fallible, fragile...
And you can relate to that, you can relate to the effort made to work
together. The idea in the story of compassion, of looking for what we
have in common rather than dwelling on what seems to be different about
us is something that I saw reflected in those of us who were working
on this thing. It was interesting. It was almost like this course in
Tolkien and in life where you could read any books that you wanted.
You could study as much or as little as you wanted, relate to samurai
movies or to your aunt Martha. You could connect any kind of situation
in life or in history to this story.
How do you decompress after doing a movie like this that you've worked
on for 16 months?
Ask me next June, because that's when that will probably happen.
Do you still feel like you're on the ride?
Oh yeah, and we will be for quite a while. We'll all be going together
to Japan in January, and beyond that we'll be doing interviews and
promotion, and helping with what will be, I'm sure another really
good movie, the extended version of this movie. So it's not really
over yet, and I'm not in a hurry for it to be.
Did the experience inspire you to write a poem about it?
Not specifically, although I did write poems while I was there and
during the experience and took photographs and so forth, many of which
I was able to share last week in New Zealand... Because one of the
things I felt, that week-long party which was the world premiere and
all the events that led up to it, was like a returning a favor. It
was, yes, a party for Peter Jackson, really, in his hometown, but
it was a party for New Zealanders and for Wellingtonians who, after
all, not only morally supported us from the beginning, before anybody
in the world knew we were even shooting the movie or much less that
it would be popular. They believed more than I think Peter or we did
that we could pull it off. ... They financially supported us. I can't
imagine European or American taxpayers saying 'Yeah, we'll pay x amount
of dollars.' Each citizen of New Zealand paid a tax, without which
the movies would not have been made. And people don't talk about that
very much, but the New Zealand taxpayer paid for some of these films.
In what way?
Money! Their taxes were used.
Lord of the Rings tax? [Laughter.] Were they actually financing
the shooting of the movie? Are we talking about tax credits?
Yeah, tax credits, but also literally for the week-long party and
the refurbishing of the major theatre in Wellington, that was paid for
by Wellingtonians and New Zealanders as a whole. Directly.
Do they get points for that?
I don't think so, and there's the real nobility of it.
Do they get a return on that?
I think the return, I suppose, is tourism and is the respect. So
that is the return. I suppose if you're an avid fly fisherman from
New Zealand, you're probably a little bit worried about that, because
it used to be you could be on three miles of river and not see anybody
for three days and now...
Can you talk about the very last scene you shot and what you remember?
The very last thing where I wore my costume was, as with many scenes,
I was running. It was a scene that will probably be in the extended
version, it was an extension of the Paths of the Dead where I'm speaking
to the ghosts and then all hell breaks loose. In the movie, as you
see it, there's a cut and then you don't know what happens. And then
you see that we succeeded in getting the army to come with us. But
there's a bunch of other things that happen. In one of these sequences,
I don't want to give it away for when you see it, but there's a big
commotion and Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are running for their lives
basically. In reality, we were on this raised platform that was about
this wide [indicates only a few feet] and we were sprinting and pretending
to jump over all these obstacles and then there was just the green
screen everywhere. And when you see that scene there will be all these
hordes of armies of the dead and other things that I'm not gonna tell
you about that we're evading and dealing with. So it was just simply
us running along a bar-top or something.
And what did you get? I know they did a big ceremony every time somebody
I was given the ranger sword, not the re-forged sword, but the one
that I used on my first day of shooting in October of '99 that was really
well worn and that I kind of took care of and used throughout. But the
best thing I got was what we were talking about before, is this friendship
with these people... The memory of being in New Zealand and retelling
the story with Peter. That's the thing I have that I'll remember most...
What's the definitive version for you of each of these films? Will
it become the extended version?
I haven't seen the third, but it probably will be. And it definitely
was for the first two.
Do you see any difference these days between the world of DVD and theatrical,
because this film has established a kind of synergy between the two
that is unique?
What I think is one of the smartest things that they've done... is
that they've taken the trouble [of] using the same crew and using the
same composer to score the extra material and to cut it in. It's not
just adding scenes. For example, there are scenes in The Return of the
King where you have part of the scene. Typically what Pete's done is
put the rest of the scene in. So within the scenes he's put material
back in and made it seamless. So they are really new movies, new and
improved or extended versions, and they're not just a bunch of 'Push
this button, see that scene,' or outtakes or something. That was smart
because they can stand on their own and people can judge for themselves.
I think so far, I don't know if it will be the case for the third, but
for the first two, if I had my choice I would watch the extended every
time. And I think and hope that five years from now, just like fifty
years from now, that the extended of the first two will be what people
bigger character in particular for the Two Towers is given a real
depth in some of the extra scenes.
In the first movie you get to know who he is and who others are much
more. I think that there's twice as much of my character on the first
extended. ... When you see the extra material, you understand more of
who the Elves are, you understand Galadriel better in the second one,
you understand in the extended version a lot more about Faramir, you
set up Denethor really well, because you see Denethor before he's lost
his mind. He's a bastard, but he's not insane. You see that family dynamic,
you get to see Boromir again [and] it's always great to see Sean Bean.
Have you seen that? The dynamic of that family, I mean that's my favorite
scene in the Two Towers. Period. For me it's the most interesting in
terms of writing, performance, and what it means to Faramir, Denethor,
to Miranda's character Eowyn, and how it sets up what's coming, which
is the age of men. It's inaugurating Aragorn's coronation, all those
things make more sense.
How did it affect you that Peter Jackson worked outside the Hollywood
system so to speak, and shot everything in New Zealand? How did that
contribute to the film's artistic integrity?
It wasn't just that we shot it outside of Hollywood, It was that
we shot it particularly in New Zealand. ... Here you're seeing new things,
visually it was important to shoot it there, but in terms of the spirit
of the story of Tolkien and what we were trying to do, the New Zealand
crew and being in that country made a huge difference because I feel
that those people in general, I mean, there's good and bad people there
like everywhere, but they're accustomed to working together and valuing
the group... It's just the way they do their business over there, it's
the way people go to work. That's the way they interact as families
and as communities. And that gave, no matter how great the special effects
are, and how weird and fantastic all the wizards and hobbits and elves
and pointed ears and flying creatures and castles and whatever you've
got, without that element, which is behind and beyond the spoken parts
of the story, that feeling of group effort and sacrifice to the good
of the group that you feel from these movies...