By Bilge Ebiri
After years of speculation, it’s finally here. It’s safe to say that director Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the most anticipated film series this side of that galaxy far, far away. And, as is customary with such pop cultural moments, lots of people–fans, filmmakers, financiers–are nervous and eager. Just take a look at all the Tolkien discussion boards and newsgroups. Heck, take a look at any newsgroup–even soc.culture.cuba appears to be looking forward to this one.
So why is Viggo Mortensen so calm? True, the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is the nominal protagonist of the Ring cycle, but Mortensen’s character, the hero-king Aragorn, is the guy who gets to kick butt and romance Liv Tyler–he’s Han Solo to Frodo’s Luke. His character has been a fan favorite for years — isn’t the actor concerned about whether he did the part justice? “I didn’t have time to get nervous about it,” he says. “The story kind of takes over, and you try to do the best job you can.”
Mortensen wasn’t a particularly big Ring geek when he first got the part (he was a last-minute replacement for Stuart Townsend). But he’s been making up for it ever since, and now says that he’s become keenly interested in the author and his works. Of course, how could he not, having spent a year in New Zealand helping bring Middle-earth to life? His journey of discovery will be echoed by our own, when the curtains rise on December 19 on The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the series.
Y-LIFE: Did you know much about Tolkien before you signed on to do this role?
MORTENSEN: No, I had not read the books. I didn’t have much time to read them before I started, either. I came in at the last minute. But when I did read them, I found a lot of familiar things that Tolkien took from Nordic mythology and sagas.
Y-LIFE: I heard that you showed up on the set with a copy of the 13th-century Icelandic Völsunga Saga.
MORTENSEN: Yeah. I was on the plane to New Zealand, thinking, God, what have I done? Once I got off the plane, I went to the bookstore and got a copy of the Völsunga Saga and a couple other things that I was pretty sure I’d need. And then I had a friend send me whatever I could remember that I had on the bookshelf at home. It wasn’t as if all the elements of the book were unfamiliar to me, given my [Danish] background. Tolkien even took the names of the dwarves right out of Nordic texts.
Y-LIFE: Was it useful to have a handle on some of the mythic and linguistic underpinnings of the books?
MORTENSEN: You could do the part without it. We can’t put every single word and comma in the movie, otherwise each one would be about 6 hours long. So, when you’re trying to read between the lines, reading the books and knowing the underpinnings for the character and the general story helps. It was helpful in particular in dealing with the movie — as opposed to a class where you had to study Tolkien — because [the story] had something to do with my younger years, and my background, culturally. It helped me feel comfortable quicker than I might otherwise have.
In a way we’re doing part 2, 3 and 4 of a 4-part story. The long road to Mordor really begins when Bilbo finds the ring in The Hobbit. This is a continuation of that story. The Hobbit has more of a fairy tale kind of quality. And even though I believe Tolkien thought of Lord of the Rings as being a fairy tale, it’s much darker and more complex. Also, he had improved as a writer and was challenging himself, using everything he’d been as a linguist and lover of history.
Y-LIFE: Had you checked out the fan culture around Tolkien’s books?
MORTENSEN: As the shoot wore on, I learned more about it. Like everybody else, I looked online to see what the fuss was about when they put the first teaser trailer out.
Y-LIFE: Was it difficult playing a character that so many millions of people have envisioned for years?
MORTENSEN: Not really. It would be harder to play Henry Kissinger, ’cause people have a good idea what he looks like and there are a lot of different opinions about him. I think we were pretty true to how the characters are described in the books, just in outward appearance. Also, I didn’t have the weight of that, because [when we started] I didn’t know that people were so into it.
Y-LIFE: It’s almost sacred.
MORTENSEN: It is like a bible to some people. One of the reasons for that is, Tolkien managed to do something that’s not very easy. A lot of people write medieval epics, or borrow from Arthurian legends, or sagas, but those are always a bit shallow because there isn’t any scholarship behind [them]. He breathed new life into old material. I think that Peter Jackson, in turn, is trying to do that with Tolkien. He wants to make it live for other people.
Y-LIFE: So what should we be looking for in these films? The serious geeks will start scrutinizing every line and shot, but where do you think the subtleties are?
MORTENSEN: I think the spirit of the book, and the mystery of it, are there. For my part as Aragorn, he’s sort of a late bloomer. He comes into his own gradually and reveals himself slowly. He probably knows as much about Middle-earth and the ring as anybody, so he has a real fear of the situation. He knows the past. In the book, Gandalf calls Aragorn the greatest traveler and huntsman of his age of the world. At the same time, I think he obviously has doubts about himself. In a sense, the whole story is about these characters overcoming their own fears and doubts.
Aragorn’s forefathers, even the strongest, the most noble of them, were not able to withstand the temptation the Ring brought. And they lost their individuality. I thought it was funny that Gollum always refers to the ring as “my precious”. Because while the ring promises you unlimited power, what it really does is rob you of your individuality, your freedom of choice, and that is really the most precious thing that any intelligent being has as part of his individual self. And that’s another thing I liked also about the fact that it’s a group effort. It’s a volunteer situation, everybody decides to join the fellowship, decides to act in concert with the fellowship out of their own free will. And even evil itself is not as simple as most movies make it. The ring in some way is Sauron, but it’s also what potential we have to be evil. Each of us. It’s a difficult thing that Peter has undertaken but that hopefully he’s managed to do well.
Y-LIFE: Peter’s geek credentials are really excellent. And geeks are known for their obsessive attention to detail. Did that affect your finding your own place in the part at all? Did you get enough room to act?
MORTENSEN: Peter likes the technology of movie making. And he likes certain moments being just the way he sees them. Pleasant and inspiring as it was to be around him and his energy and his intelligence, he wasn’t someone that really gave you much instruction as far as what you were doing. He had certain specific things in the moment, but as far as finding out what you had to do, you were on your own. And I don’t mind that. Would I have liked to have had a lot of rehearsing? Yes, that’s the kind of actor I am. And I think it’s good to do that. But there wasn’t a lot of time for it, and I don’t think that’s Pete’s way of doing things.
Y-LIFE: So 3 movies, 50 million books sold, a fanatic under every rock–how does an actor move on? Can the cast of these movies escape the fan convention subculture?
MORTENSEN: I have no idea. There were a lot of things that I liked about Aragorn as a character, as a type. I tried to bring to it whatever knowledge I had. As far as what’s going to happen, if it’s going to be strange, I don’t really know. I just hope the movie’s good — that’s the first thing I’m thinking.
I didn’t have time to get nervous about it. The story kind of takes over. You could worry as you were going along, worry the details and try to get it right, but each person had to really come up with their own contribution, which was the way it needed to be.
As you probably know, Tolkien was a fairly devout Christian. In Norse mythology there isn’t really a promise of some heavenly reward if you do good. The only reward for good behavior or virtue is just being satisfied that you did the right thing. Which again goes to what I was talking about earlier, about free will. It’s about your individual free choice, your free will. Do I want to do the right thing? And if you’re lying to yourself, only you will know. If you’re not confronting your own demons or your own inadequacies, then you’re only cheating yourself.
And I mean that’s the thing about myth. If you grab onto it, it’s not just like some task at school. You can look at life as a poem, a story, and you can see yourself. That’s what it felt like at times, which is a rare thing in a movie, obviously. In moments like that, you find not only lessons for your own life, but you find something beautiful in ordinary life, something that links you to the past and to the future.
Y-LIFE: Is it ironic then that Peter got rid of the songs and the poems from the books?
MORTENSEN: I think it was a question of time and an audience’s attention. We started going all over the place and it got to be a real jigsaw puzzle, which is difficult, I know, for the writers and for Pete to keep a handle on. Things kept changing as you’re trying to keep as true to the book as you can. There was a fair amount of Elvish spoken and other tongues as well. And there is some singing in there.
I think I mentioned it before but I think that Aragorn obviously has doubts about himself. He doesn’t know if he can measure up to the guys who couldn’t even cut it in the end either.
Y-LIFE: Would you say that that the character’s doubt is the most important thing that you’ve brought to this role, that someone else would not necessarily have brought?
MORTENSEN: I don’t know. I would think that anybody who read the book, thought about the character, would realize that and I think certainly Peter was probably aware of that. You have to find a character’s strengths and weaknesses if you want to make him or her well-rounded. There’s a past and his heritage–all those things are so tied to the fate of the ring from times past. I can’t see how you wouldn’t pay special attention to that.
But when it’s a movie and it’s a modern audience sitting in a theater watching, you have to delineate the different characters to some degree. The responsibility that the different actors seemed to take for their parts was good. The way that they behaved and whatever touches they had of individuality. They felt right to me. Felt special.
Y-LIFE: Now you’re also a visual artist. Is there anything from this project that you find has inserted itself into your own work in the visual arts, or–?
MORTENSEN: I was so busy that I didn’t do as much as I might have, and I actually thought I hadn’t really done much. But by the end, when I sent all the stuff home, it ended up that I had quite a few paintings and a lot of photographs. Enough that some of them will form part of a show I’m going to have, probably in late January, in Los Angeles. It’s a good rest for the mind to go work in a different area in a quiet way. I didn’t have a lot of time. I would do it in the evenings sometimes or more often than not, on Sunday afternoon. I was pretty much on the run all the time. Most of us were. As far as days worked, Aragorn and Frodo worked the most. So much of Aragorn’s stuff is physical. And that’s more time – consuming to shoot. We did one battle for the second movie that we shot over 3 months straight, at night. It was really a long haul and a lot of friendships were formed during that. The stunt team, I look at them all like my brothers and sisters. They were really incredible. Really remarkable what they put themselves through. I couldn’t imagine a European or an American stunt team having the kind of spirit that those guys did. I’ve never seen anything like what they did. And that does form an important part of all 3 movies, especially the second and third one. We had to really be in synch and really trust each other.
Just being thrown into it was really something. The sets were unbelievable and the natural environment–incredible. You’re walking in a beech forest and–I’m not sure these are the beech trees that you would see in northern Europe that you’re most familiar with, but it’s that same feeling — very eerie and peaceful and just beautiful.
Y-LIFE: Are you familiar with the cast lists that have been circulating on the Internet for years, where fans submit their ideal casts for a movie version? I’ll read you some of the ones they’ve thought about for Aragorn. David Hasselhoff.
MORTENSEN: Umm, okay.
Y-LIFE: Elvis, in the all-musical version.
MORTENSEN: Oh, wow!
Y-LIFE: Keanu Reeves.
Y-LIFE: Denzel Washington.
MORTENSEN: I could see Denzel doing that, actually. I worked with him on Crimson Tide. I see him having those heroic qualities.
Y-LIFE: Which character do you think audiences will identify with most in these films?
MORTENSEN: When everything looks worst, the individuals in the fellowship have to find in themselves some sort of hope. They have to meet their individual challenges so that the group challenge can work. In the end, it really isn’t about only Frodo, or only Gandalf, or only Aragorn, or what have you. You can be a fan of any one of the characters, but in the end I think you end up being a fan of all of them.
Y-LIFE: Is it true all the dialogue had to be redone in post?
MORTENSEN: There were a lot of times while shooting when there was just too much wind, or loud wind machines, so we re-recorded a lot of dialogue. Which I didn’t mind really, because when you’re shooting things in bits and pieces all along the way, there’s not always going to be an even quality to it. So I liked revisiting it later on in post. Pete’s that kind of director. He knows what he’s doing, obviously, but he likes this kind of controlled chaos. Then he can gather up all these pieces and make the puzzle.
Y-LIFE: There’s a whole resurgence now in Tolkien scholarship.
MORTENSEN: It’s interesting, even in New Zealand, which feels a bit remote, there are some small out-of-the-way towns where you’ll find really good used book stores. I found old editions, initially, and old copies of sagas, and all kinds of stuff. And a lot of stuff about Tolkien. But then towards the end, because there had been so much word of mouth, it was harder and harder to find anything anymore. And if you did, it was a lot more expensive than it had been.
Y-LIFE: Cate Blanchett said she did the part for the ears. What’s your flippant answer?
MORTENSEN: The honest truth is that I would have regretted not doing it. I had to decide immediately and get on the plane, and I knew that I would regret it if I hadn’t done it. But what I didn’t count on was how strong the bond would be with the cast and crew. Everybody was really wonderful. It’s a lasting thing. That was an unexpected gift.