We devoted geeks, Tolkien fans and fantasy nuts helped make Viggo Mortensen a star. We championed his Strider/Aragorn role in Lord of the Rings. Had we all dismissed his performance, had we not fully believed that this scraggly, gravelly voiced American was Aragorn, then perhaps Peter Jackson’s trilogy might not have won over the doubters. And the films might not have clobbered the box office.
What many don’t realize is that Mortensen, 53, has been acting in films since the 1985. His debut was as a young Amish farmer in the Peter Weir drama Witness. He’s starred or had supporting roles in films ranging from A Walk on the Moon to Carlito’s Way, G.I Jane to The Indian Runner. And, in the decade-plus since starring in the insanely-popular Middle-earth epic, Viggo’s been up to plenty. And — thankfully — he didn’t pigeonhole himself by taking on only fantasy flicks. His roles have included a handful of action-hero movies like Hidalgo and Appaloosa, but more so, several braver, quirkier, indie dramas like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and most recently, last year’s A Dangerous Method. He also runs his own small publisher, a company called Perceval Press, that puts out books and CDs.
Mortensen’s career, his choices and his life since LOTR were all topics of conversation when I recently had the chance to speak with him. We talked about how he balances his post-LOTR super-stardom with artistic integrity. And the nature of art and creativity. And other esoteric topics. The man is nothing if not sincere, principled and passionate.
Viggo was in my hometown of Boston earlier this week to accept the Coolidge Award from the Coolidge Corner Theater, which annually honors a film artist who “advances the spirit of original and challenging cinema.” Over nearly an hour, I asked him some questions, first, via telephone from Madrid, where he was starring in a Spanish-language play called Purgatorio; later, via email. We then met in person in Boston. What follows is Part 1 of the transcript of our interview. (Part 2 and 3 to follow.)
Gilsdorf: I suspect that you’re tired of talking about The Lord of the Rings, but if you don’t mind, let’s begin there. How did appearing in that movie change your life? Have the changes been positive or negative?
Mortensen: Mostly I think it’s very positive. It’s given me a chance to work with Cronenberg and other good directors and to be in really good projects. It helped me sell more books. I have a publishing company of books by me and books of others. It drew people to poetry readings and photo exhibitions and painting exhibitions that I’ve been doing for years before that. And suddenly more are interested. I see that as positive. In terms of the movie business, being in a Lord of the Rings has given me more interesting options as work.
Gilsdorf: Obviously, there’s also the change in your day-to-day life from the stardom, and people associating you with the character of Aragorn. Is there any downside to that?
Mortensen: On the sort of strange side … I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily negative, except when you feel maybe like you lose your privacy a bit. But in the years immediately following the release of the trilogy, the three years, it became more so with each passing release. It just takes a little getting used to. Walking down the street in any town or city in the world and having people look at you and start talking to you, convinced that they know you as well or better than they do members of their own family, that’s just an odd phenomenon. But I mean I wouldn’t say it was a bad thing. It’s an interesting thing. It told me that people were interested in my work. And what I do for a living. How could I help but think it was positive?
Gilsdorf: Any weird, uncomfortable, or crazed fandom stories you’d care to share?
Mortensen: Yes, once in a while, I might say, “Hey I’m having a private conversation with someone here, I’m having dinner here. Can you wait until we’re finished talking and then I’ll be glad to sign whatever.” It’s a little bit odd. But I’ve never had anyone be unpleasant or anything. I’ve never had a problem with people paying attention to what you’re doing and say they find that they liked it. What the hell, I can’t blame them.
Gilsdorf: One bit of information that the fanboys and girls would like to know, me included: You are known for “going deep” to prepare for your roles. There were reports that during shooting of all three Rings movies, you wore your Strider/Aragorn costume and armor practically 24/7. I even read somewhere that you slept with your sword. Can you confirm this?
Mortensen: It is not true that I slept in costume during whole shoot. I was permitted by costume designer Ngila Dickson to keep the costume during the start of filming just to break it in, and later helped break in bits of subsequent costumes. Not that unusual a thing, really, providing the actor is responsible and the designer feels comfortable with that. The costume department also allowed me to do some mending of the costume from time to time, as Strider himself would have done. The property department and Weta team [Ed. Note: Weta Workshop is the New Zealand company that made the costumes, armor and props] also allowed me to participate with regard to weapons, particularly modifications like the hunting bow, quiver, arrows, eating knife, sharpening stone and its case, etc. It was very enjoyable to be able to work so closely with costumes and property departments.
Gilsdorf: And the rumor about the sword? Or stories that you lived in the woods for a time, dressed as Strider?
Mortensen: I was allowed to keep my alloy practice sword as well as the heavier steel sword early on so as to get used to carrying them, walking with them on. I did not sleep with the sword (well, maybe once), but it was always close-at-hand. I did go fishing in costume during lunch breaks when we were in more remote areas during the shoot, and did tramp around in the forest a little, but I did not live in the woods in costume as some have reported. I went camping in my own civilian clothes. Neither did I sleep with the horses as has erroneously been reported, although I was quite fond of them and spent a good deal of my spare time around them.