As he leans back in the straight-back chair at the dining room table of his downtown Seattle hotel suite, Viggo Mortensen could not possibly look less like Aragorn, the most charismatic character of the absurdly successful "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy.
He is unshaven, and his reddish-brown hair is cut short and spiky. He wears a plaid woolen shirt and thin-worn pants that might have been picked up at Value Village for $1.98. His build is slight and his manner soft, introspective and careful.
When he accepted the role of Aragorn in the "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Viggo Mortensen says, "I had no idea what I was getting into."
He arrived in Seattle without a movie-star entourage, and the word from the local publicists handling his visit is that he's an extremely "nice guy." He's friendly, respectful and polite to everyone, happy to talk to any journalist they sit in front of him.
He's here to promote "Hidalgo," an outdoor adventure about a real-life American cowboy in a fictional Arabian long-distance race of the 1890s that's his first film since wrapping the "LOTR" trilogy, and the first of his 20-year career in which he's the solo star.
As such, is there a lot at stake here for him? "I suppose," he answers in a laconic voice that has none of Aragorn's steely resolution, "but I don't think of it like that. I'm here 'cause what the movie says is important to me, and I want to do what I can to help it."
"Hidalgo" is not the movie's half-Native American hero but the name of his pinto horse, and the film is largely about their relationship. He explains: "I grew up loving horses and riding -- it's very spiritual for me -- and this movie, I think, communicates some of that feeling."
In its opening sequences, it also re-creates the Wounded Knee Massacre, and filming that scene in South Dakota with Lakota Sioux advisers was a profound experience for him. "Their acceptance of us -- their total trust -- really made us want to get that piece of history right."
As he talks, it also becomes clear that the movie's story -- the parable of a man "between two cultures, cowboy and Native American, who finds himself in the alien environment of the Middle East" -- speaks to his own international, cross-cultural upbringing.
His mother is American and he was born in New York City in 1958, but his father is Danish ("My parents actually met in Norway") and he grew up mostly in Argentina, where his father managed a large farm in the Pampas. "Which is where I learned to ride -- gaucho style."
He's fluent in Spanish, he's amazingly knowledgeable about the nuances of South American culture and politics, and he's addicted to maté, a tealike beverage -- and the national drink of Argentina -- which he periodically sips through a straw as we speak.
But he's also lived in Denmark, he goes there several times a year and he's fluent in Danish. So he can fit in equally well in America, Scandinavian and Latin American cultures, "and at the same time," he says, "I don't really fit in at all."
He graduated from St. Lawrence University in 1980 with a degree in government, but was more interested in art -- poetry, painting, photography, music and theater. He studied acting in Manhattan, and his brooding presence and classic good looks quickly won him roles off-Broadway.
Mortensen is at ease in interviews after spending much of the past three years promoting the movies all over the globe. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984, where he married Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the L.A. punk band X; won a Dramalogue Critics' award for his performance in a Coast Playhouse production of "Bent"; and began getting small parts in Hollywood movies.
His scenes in "Swing Shift" and "Purple Rose of Cairo" stayed on the cutting-room floor," but he "got lucky" and made a strong debut in 1985 playing an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's Oscar-nominated thriller, "Witness." He hasn't stopped working in movies since.
He's appeared in more than 30 films in two decades, with steadily rising visibility through the later '90s as a second lead in major Hollywood films such as "Crimson Tide," "Portrait of a Lady," "Daylight," "G.I. Jane," "28 Days" and "A Perfect Murder."
At the same time, he has continued to write and publish poetry, exhibited his work as a painter and photographer in major galleries and released three jazz CDs -- a renaissance artist. He and Cervenka divorced in 1987 and share custody of their son, Henry.
In those years, Mortensen seemed constantly on the verge of movie stardom, but he tended to avoid roles that might give him a single, strong image. In 1999, Tony Goldwyn, who directed him in "A Walk on the Moon," said, "I really don't think Viggo wants to be a star."
But lightning struck when Peter Jackson hired him, well after filming was in progress, to replace actor Stuart Townsend as Aragorn in the "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he shakes his head, and smiles.
"It seemed, for a lot of reasons, a big gamble -- a very risky project. And nobody -- except maybe Peter -- had an idea how successful it would become. It was sure a big surprise to me. But, in retrospect, it shouldn't have been."
"Because the saga is filled with elements of myth and fable that have universal appeal -- even to Asian cultures which you might think wouldn't respond so well because their literary and dramatic traditions are so far removed from Tolkien's (Old English) roots."
Mortensen says this with the practiced ease that comes from spending much of the past three years promoting the three "LOTR" movies in untold hundreds of interviews all over the globe. He may hold, he admits, "the Guinness record for number of interviews for a single movie project."
But, surprisingly, he's only seen each of the movies on the big screen once, at each of their respective theatrical premieres, and the first two one more time in their extended-version DVDs, which he thinks are "actually a lot better than the theatrical versions."
"I find the DVD versions richer, more complete and satisfying in just about every way. I haven't seen it yet, but I suspect the longer-version DVD of 'The Return of the King' will be the best of the three, and something really special. "
In the meantime, he has devoted his life to "Hidalgo" and will be traveling the world promoting it "probably through April." After that he has no plans, and has shown no interest in any of the hundreds of movie projects that are constantly being offered him.
I speculate with him that he's in more or less the same position that Harrison Ford was in after the original "Star Wars" trilogy: He's the actor who's most visibly jumped out of the ensemble cast of the most hugely popular set of movies of his time.
Doesn't he feel some pressure to make the most of it? To grab some of those plum roles that could elevate him to the top of the A-list of movie stars while he's white hot? Wouldn't he like to become the Harrison Ford of his generation of actors?
And he thinks about this for an awkwardly long time before he says, "I know I'm in the spotlight right now, and that it will soon pass, but that doesn't fill me with any anxiety. I got lucky with 'Lord of the Rings' -- and I'm grateful -- but it hasn't changed the way I live my life."
"And while there's some appealing aspects about having real power as a star, there's a big downside as well. If it happens, I can live with it. But I'm not going to chase it. If you try to control those kind of things, you'll only be frustrated. I truly believe that. "
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