Viggo Mortensen at the ROTK Premiere in Los Angeles
If there was one interview or person I was looking forward to meet above all others it was this one. In the flesh, Viggo Mortensen is an unassuming, softly spoken and attentive interview subject, looking quite different in the flesh to his rugged Aragorn character; barefoot, seemingly five-foot 10-inches with closely shorn blond hair with grey tinges. Yet his blue eyes glimmer with unflinchingly genuine care and attention for all that surrounds him. Modest and devoid of any negative ego, his quiet presence and considered responses were quite captivating; particularly because you knew he was going out of his way to present a sincere attempt to meet each person on a human level no matter what their question.
Of all the remarkable talent I spoke to that day, I had both the most pleasure after and the greatest anticipation for this one (as a fan for over 10 years – I even sent what I believe was one of the first, if not the first e-mail of support regarding him to the OneRingNet way back when he was first cast and several readers, unfamiliar with Viggo’s best work, showed some concern about his casting. Now his success is seen as academic and I couldn’t be prouder. You think I can find that e-mail now? Dammit!).
He shuffles into the interview room with little fanfare, barefoot, and holding a stainless steel individual tea urn sporting a metal straw not unlike the kind I’ve seen my Middle-Eastern friends using.
Viggo: “Are you all getting along?”
Everyone agrees – it was a surprisingly amicable table where people understood and respected that each different publication had its own requirements and line of questioning.
[Me] Did you enjoy the show the night before?
Viggo: “Which one?”
[Me] The Howard Shore concert (as I’d seen him perform at the show)?
Viggo: “Oh yeah. It was amazing to see them up there and to see Howard Shore, the consummate professional, whose done an amazing job over all these years, to actually see him looking nervous [laughs].
“It was very touching and obviously meant a great deal to him and I think he was very moved by the peoples’ response. Were you there?”
Viggo: “Did you like it?”
[Me] Was the song you did an Elvish version of the Lay Of Luthien (at this point I’d seen it once and was too staggered to gather what it was and had assumed it may have been the entire Lay Of Luthien which we only heard him sing a few words of in The Fellowship Of The Ring)?
Viggo: “No, no it wasn’t that. It was the song that Aragorn sings at the coronation.”
[Me] I was actually wondering if the song you’d done at the coronation might not have been more of the Lay Of Luthien.
Viggo: “From the first movie? No that would’ve been interesting though. What I sang is in the book though. I mean those words and I just made up the melody for that. It’s the words Elendil, his ancestor, first spoke when he came to Middle-Earth from across the sea.
“He says, ‘I come across the sea, to Middle-earth, in this place I will dwell with my heirs until the end of time.’ Or something like that. It’s sort of a ritual performance – I don’t know if Tolkien says it – but I imagined that each king in the past had probably spoken these same words even though they, after Elendil and like Aragorn, were born in Middle-Earth. It’s almost like if it was a Maori thing, it would be a song from Hawaki or something like that. Even though they’re not from there, but there’s this notion out of respect for the past and looking forward to continuing the tradition. It was nice to be able to do that.
“And it was a very last minute thing to do that [laughs]! He [Howard] asked me a few days ago if I wanted to [perform the song with him as part of the symphony]. I said, ‘I’m not sure if that’s going to be a good idea. I’m not going to be able to rehearse I don’t think or anything. And I couldn’t. So I got there whilst they were under way. In the intermission, I met the gentleman who was going to do it and said, ‘it’s not my idea. It was Howard’s suggestion [laughs loudly]!’
“It was fun. I don’t think I’ll be singing with a symphony again [laughs]! It was a once in a lifetime thing. But because Howard wanted that, I certainly wanted to support him and his wishes; so I got up there and did my best,” he giggles coyly. “But it was nice. It was a really good – and deserved – night of recognition for Howard I think. People responded to him very strongly to him. It was great to see that and be part of it.”
[Male NZ reporter] Have you sung in front of large audiences before? I know you’ve done recordings.
Viggo: “Yeah, that’s mostly in the studio. I’ve sometimes done poetry readings where I’ve sung a cappella. It’s harder when you’re singing with someone. There’s like a Twilight Zone sort of moment. I had made up that melody for those words originally when we did it years ago. I got a hold of the CD of the song – that is out now – and I was desperately trying to find it on the walkman before I had to go on. The guy I was with – Roger was his name – said, ‘don’t worry about it, let’s just practise.’ So we practised and I was trying to sing like he was, in tone, but on the other hand he was as unfamiliar with Elvish as I was with professional singing like he does. He was very kind and patient with me [laughs]. But it was interesting because I think I was able to help him a little bit with singing in Elvish or singing it this way or that. So there I was, backstage at the symphony, telling this man how to sing in Elvish! But, uhh, I think it worked okay. I think we more or less got through it. Fortunately it was brief and thank God it was a language that no one understands.
“It was interesting being back there by the way. All the musicians’ cases were open and they had all their family pictures in their instrument cases. That was interesting just to be backstage.”
[Corey, Triple M, Melbourne] Viggo you’re now at the stage where you could get the majority of roles you wanted. You’ve had love scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow and now Liv Tyler. Is there anyone you aspire to have a love scene with, in the world?
Viggo: “Gimli? That was cut from the movie – maybe it’ll be in the Extended Version.”
[Me] I did hear about you and the bearded ladies.
Viggo: “There was a very nice beard tugging moment between me and Sean, if they ever go back and make a more extended version. You can ask Sean about it. He may pretend not to remember. And there were bearded ladies on this production, quite a few.”
[Female NZ reporter] Aragorn will probably be one of the most fondly and strongly remembered romantic heroes of cinema – how are you going to cope with that?
Viggo: “[deep breath] I don’t know. I may have nothing. If the first movie hadn’t done so well, I don’t think we’d all be sitting here or had a week long party. It just had a domino effect, the second one then did very well and the third will probably do better than the first two. Not regardless of content but, in a way, yes. Regardless of how it’s seen historically or if it’s the Extended Version or any of that, I think there’s so much affection and has been such a positive response to the effort Peter made – and that we did our best to help him with – that a lot of other things go with it for the other actors and crew members involved. But whether movie does well or whatever the movie is on the screen, and certainly is in regards to those reactions you’re talking about, to me or anyone else they are not things I can control. I can do the things I can do. I obviously learned as much as I could about the part and the man and [the reaction is] not something I would really know how to I don’t really have any input there. You know what I mean? That’s someone else’s concern.”
[Queensland press?] Have you bought your stretch of land in NZ or are you still looking?
Viggo: “Awww, I think a lot of us have done that. Yes, there are some places I really like but I would hesitate to point you in any direction north or south. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fishing! I dunno. In a way, you certainly don’t need to buy land to love a place or visit a place. I think New Zealand is ahead of most countries in their efforts. And I know there are problems and differences of opinions and lumber companies with the forests, and use of public land. But New Zealand has made a real effort as a society to take care of their environment and preserve what is really a place to treasure.
“I will always come back and travel around. But whether I have a place in the woods I would like that very much but I don’t think one needs to own land to love a place.”
[Sydney Morning Herald?] You obviously have a passion for the arts with painting, photography, poetry and other writing. I was wondering where this passion came from?
Viggo: “Well like most kids I liked to draw and having stories told then making them up and enacting them. Here after all, that’s what we got to do as adults play acting at being in perilous situations and helping our friends; running from disaster over and over again. They were the same sort of games but with better equipment [the room erupts with laughter] and more dangerous.”
[Sydney Morning Herald?] Did you find you have any preference or leaning one way or another?
Viggo: “No, and I would have a hard time in separating them – and I have no inclination to do so. I find them all to be connected. Each activity fuels the other. It all comes down to tuning into where I am, being present as much as possible. When we were shooting at times, we’d get a lunch break and some people would go take a nap. For me it was drawing, photography or just taking a walk. There are so many beautiful places.
“You’re exercising different muscles but it’s the same approach: what’s going on here? I should jot this down; keep looking and I find if I don’t make that effort, then things go by. Especially when I’m stressed or working – or not. Here I am sitting with you, but I’m not just here. I mean I’m now in the habit of doing it anyway [being present] so it’s not like I have to harness anything. I’m better able to somehow deal with this thing and that’s what it’s about for me. Being in the moment.”
[Second NZ female reporter] You have all these talents. Is there anything you’re not good at?
Viggo: “Awww sleeping.”
[Queensland press?] You’ve referred to that a number of times.
Viggo: “I think it’s probably true. Sometimes my brain gets a little scrambled towards the end of the day. I space out like I’m just about to right now.”
[Me] The world knows you now as Aragorn but you’ve done many other roles, including The Indian Runner which was where I was first made aware of you and found you electrifying. Are there any that were specific landmark achievements in your own life?
Viggo: “Well I’ve never played a character I didn’t have affection for. I’ve never worked on a movie when I knew going in that it wasn’t a very good script but that I was just lucky I had a job. Coz for most of us actors, we’re lucky to work at all. Many fine actors, for some reason, don’t make a living from it, in this country or any other. So I think fortunately I’ve always been able to learn something or gotten to know someone or something new about production. I wouldn’t be able to point out any experience in particular. Obviously, for The Indian Runner, it was a very interesting experience. I loved working on with Jane Campion [in Portrait Of A Lady] as well. I didn’t have as big a role as I did in say, The Indian Runner, but it’s not always about that. For me it can be about the connections you make with people and what you can learn. I like the way she works a great deal.
“But there’s so many people I’ve worked with over time. I have been very lucky in a relatively short time, to have worked with such fine actors and technicians. In this movie, especially for the young actors – and I’m thinking of those who had done no movies such as Orlando Bloom [Legolas] in particular and Dominic [Monaghan, Merry Brandybuck] to a degree and some of the others; for them to have this as their first experience is really they were very fortunate I think. We all were but especially for this to be the way you break in – regardless of the end result and popularity – but just the process of it: every way of shooting a movie and every trick in the book, was used by Peter. And many were invented by Peter and his team. In any kind of weather condition, any sort of dialogue scene or action scene, blue screen anything you can imagine, any challenge was like the best possible school for an actor they could have had. Plus being in an ensemble. It was almost like a repertory group in a way. You’re with these people whether you like it or not for a very long time, of all ages, from different countries, different personalities, different approaches to acting. I think that must’ve been I mean any experience those guys have from now on is going to seem relatively easy.”
[Queensland press?] What’s the difference in that collaborative process of acting with your solo projects in the past?
Viggo: “The difference is I don’t control the end result.”
Is that frustrating?
Viggo: “It can be sometimes. There are certainly sequences, not just of mine but of others, I would like to have seen in each of the movies, but then eventually most people are going to get the Extended Versions so there’s a certain satisfaction there. I don’t know about the third one but certainly with the first two movies, in my opinion, those extended versions will be the legitimate ones in time, the ones that people will prefer to rent, buy or watch. I certainly would watch the Extended Versions of the first two, if I had a choice, before the Theatrical Versions because they’re more complete. And liking them both as I do, they’ve just got more material.”
When asked about what souvenirs they were allowed to keep, Mortensen offered this:
“Like everyone I got my sword or whatever prop seemed most particular to their character, but if that sword doesn’t get through customs or gets stolen, lost or damaged, in the end it’s not that a big deal. It’s just an object. The thing that I know I take with me – and everyone else does – is something that’s inside: the friendships and memory of the experience of making these movies and getting through ‘Tolkien school’ for four years. That’s the gift I take away with me.”
The moderator enters the room to call time.
Viggo: “Thank you. Good luck today.”
[Me] Is that a Middle-Eastern drink, Viggo?
Viggo: “No it’s Argentinian a mata. Would you like some?”
Viggo: “I’ve had a few shots so it’s not as strong as it might be. You can put other things in it. It’s not lawn clippings, I promise.”
I pass it back with a thank you.
Viggo: “Keep up the good work everyone.”