The man who would be king

In an exclusive interview, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings," talks about his photography, his indie publishing house, and why Bush will go down in history as the Sauron of American presidents.

Published October 24, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

If you're a hardened J.R.R. Tolkien fan feasting on the "Lord of the Rings" largesse that's possessed popular cinema over the last few years, then you don't need an introduction to Viggo Mortensen. But for those who haven't followed Mortensen too closely before he landed the meaty role of Aragorn -- the king-in-exile whose ascension to a scrupulously avoided Middle Earth throne is one of many subplots embedded in "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," the vastly popular trilogy's final installment, opening Dec. 17 in theaters around the world -- then now's the time to, as they say in hip-hop, recognize.

Mortensen has been a busy man since his debut in Peter Weir's 1985 thriller, "Witness." The New York native, who just celebrated his 45th birthday, has put together a series of compelling roles in films by auteur types like Gus Van Sant ("Psycho"), Sean Penn ("The Indian Runner") and Jane Campion ("Portrait of a Lady"), as well as a couple of blockbusters ("Crimson Tide" and "G.I. Jane") from the Bruckheimer and Birnbaum wing of Hollywood. He's spent years in Southern California's arts scene, whether participating in poetry readings at Venice's Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, jamming with Buckethead and other fixtures in L.A.'s sonic landscapes, or exhibiting paintings and photographs in well-established galleries.

Along the way, he teamed up with Pilar Perez, a curator and former editor at Smart Art Press, and formed the independent Perceval Press. Perceval's first few books were an assortment of books by Mortensen and various young, lesser-known artists, and their popularity allowed the start-up to stash money away for further offerings featuring figures as diverse as L.A. artist and poet Georganne Deen (with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore), "City of Quartz" author Mike Davis, Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara and more.

"There was no particular goal in mind, no ideology other than the desire to put information and images out there that might otherwise not be available," Mortensen explains; his latest book, "Miyelo," follows that free-flowing train of thought perfectly. Filled with one-take panoramas of Lakota tribesmen re-creating the controversial Ghost Dance -- a practice that brought the full force of the United States Army down on South Dakota's Native Americans, and led to the massacre at Wounded Knee -- "Miyelo" is also a current installment at L.A.'s Stephen Cohen Gallery, through Nov. 8. It offers a significant amount of commentary and context on what remains a relatively obscure and tragic chapter in American history.

But exploring the dark chapters of history and experience is something in which Mortensen seems to take pride. An upcoming Perceval book on the Iraq nightmare -- "Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation," featuring contributions from Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Mark Levine, Mike Davis, Kristina Borjesson, the embattled Joseph Wilson and more -- lays bare the unbridled corporate arrogance at the heart of the Bush empire.

Then, of course, there is Peter Jackson's amazing vision of Tolkien's "Return of the King." Ever since its publication half a century ago, Tolkien's masterpiece has had nothing but sad tales to tell about those who use and abuse power for its own sake. By the end of his "Lord of the Rings" run, Viggo Mortensen will have graduated from mercurial Renaissance man to full-fledged star.

How did you approach the photography for "Miyelo"?

Well, the idea came from a scene in the movie called "Hidalgo" [about long-distance horse rider Frank T. Hopkins, forthcoming in 2004] where the character I play, who's at the end of his energies and in the middle of nowhere without any water or hope left, begins to hallucinate. In a delirious state, he starts to hear these voices and see these fragments of people. I wondered how one would use a still camera to represent images of the ephemeral dancers in wide-open, empty landscape -- how the ghosts of Ghost Dancers might look. So I really approached it as an exercise. In the end, I didn't actually use my own camera. I wanted to include more of the landscape, and Richard Cartwright, a very fine photographer who was shooting the official stills for the movie, was kind enough to lend me his panoramic Hasselblad camera.

I shot the one roll of film at different settings, with increasingly longer exposures. The sun was very bright, so I was hoping to get one interesting image from the roll. Luckily, this was one of those rare situations where intentionally doing "the wrong thing" with the camera worked in an interesting way. As conscious an exercise as making these particular pictures was, there are accidents in the images -- weird spots, unexpected areas of saturation and contrast variations -- strange things that I couldn't see when shooting and still cannot really explain. The longer the exposure, the more room for surprises. I like the fact that even with a medium as supposedly controlled and predictable as photography is meant to be, there still is mystery in the results. You won't necessarily be sure what you will get, where you are going.

Which is cool, because it bleeds thematically into the idea of the Ghost Dance.

Yeah, it felt right. I was initially inspired to do it partly from what I heard about the Ghost Dance, but more by the serious way that the dancers and singers had prepared for the scene. The dance had been performed once before in South Dakota, and now we were in the middle of the California desert trying it again, as a sort of mirage, a distorted memory. Just as they had done for the Wounded Knee reenactment, the dancers took their responsibilities in the ritual very seriously; there was an atmosphere that was created through the sheer earnestness of their effort. It transcended anything else that was going on with regard to the filming of the scene. When the dancers had finished and it became my turn to be filmed observing the dance, a pair of dust devils and weird crosswinds suddenly blew in on what had been a completely still day. As soon as the last take of the scene had been shot, the winds instantly and completely ceased, leaving everyone and everything calm and silent for several moments.

Sounds haunting.

Yeah, it was. I wanted to remember it. In taking the pictures, I wanted to join it rather than observe from a distance. Or at least to take pictures in the spirit of the event itself.

Talk a bit about Perceval Press. What led you to start it?

I don't remember exactly how the conversation went, but Pilar [Perez] and I talked about how it would be interesting to start a press. We had no idea how it would go -- most small presses have a hard time of it, really. For books to pay for themselves is a huge accomplishment, and most small, independent presses don't seem to last long. It's a hard thing to pull off, because you're not counting on big distribution and the chain bookstores. The idea was to try to publish books that had to do with art, writing, ideas. There was no particular goal in mind, no ideology other than the desire to put information and images out there that might otherwise not be available, in terms of artists or poets or photographers. Books that might not get published in the form that the writer or the artist would like to see it published. That goes for the look of the book, the contents, the subject matter. The idea was to allow the material and presentation of each book to take shape as organically as possible, independent of any other publication and true to itself.

Where did you come up with the name?

Well, the legend of Perceval involves, in part -- I'm sure you know about this -- the notion of choosing and making your own way. A group of knights comes to the edge of a forest and each one makes his individual path. They consciously choose not to take a path that's already there, but instead create their own. Symbolically, that was the idea behind the press, and that is what we have tried to do with each book.

How has it been collaborating with Pilar on this venture?

She's pretty extraordinary. It's been really good working with her. A very satisfying adventure in teamwork. We seem to have the same goals in mind. It would be impossible to do this without her. She keeps everything running smoothly and has so many good ideas, such a good eye. Gives complete attention to every detail.

How are you doing so far?

It's a lot of work for us, especially in this second year in which we have made so many books. But the system of preparing them -- with the invaluable assistance of our designer, Michele Perez -- has become pretty efficient. We have stayed small, in contrast to some publishers who've come out of the gate doing well and then have either added too many books or felt a need to bring in partners to expand. Our goal is to stay relatively small so that we can guarantee quality books that are made well and have something to say. If you expand too much or leave the job in other people's hands, then you're not taking the book from concept to finished product, including supervising the printing and everything else. So even though you could make more money as a company and therefore have the resources to publish a greater range of books, I think the price that you pay in terms of losing creative and quality control is not worth it.

What about the upcoming book on Iraq, "In the Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation"? You're moving away from art books to more openly political books. Are you worried about that?

Not at all. It is simply one more book from Perceval Press. There is no plan on our part to begin making any one kind of book as a general rule, whether it be about current events, painting, chess, blow guns or animal hospitals. We would certainly find it dull to limit ourselves to making sociopolitical commentary or history books. I think the majority of Perceval's books will continue to be art-related, but we have nothing against publishing -- if it seems interesting -- a textbook on 19th century Russian astronomy, for example. It's OK not to have a master plan. We like not having to justify the books we publish on any but their own terms. First of all, we're pleasing ourselves, and then, hopefully, we'll be able to please others. I think there's a certain integrity in that approach.

We're under no illusion that everyone will like what we do. If we've served the artist or the writer well, and they're happy with the finished work, we simply hope that people will gravitate toward it. That has proven to be the case so far. In the end, you're not going to please everyone, and I would defend Perceval on the grounds that we definitely don't have an agenda or, as I've pointed out, even a specific artistic course that we're on. Now, it's very possible that someone might pick up the book of essays on the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq by the predominantly Anglo-American ...


Yeah, consortium. That's a good word for it. If someone picks that up and it's the only thing they've read from Perceval, they might say, "Oh, I see, it's that kind of place." But hopefully they'll look at the Web site and see that we've got a whole range of books. I think the information contained in this book will be the kind that many people will, unfortunately, not have had the chance to read. But I don't see us being crusaders, other than in the role of defending the right of people to express themselves.

What do you think about the fact that many in the U.S. want part of the money we give Iraq to be considered a "loan" to be repaid with oil revenues?

[Vice President Dick] Cheney was speaking to a bunch of Republicans the other day, and he said that the U.S. taxpayer would not pay a single cent for the Iraq reconstruction. He said Iraqis would have to do that themselves. I think this is not only a lie -- one that he is quite conscious of telling -- but the statement itself, true or not, displays the horribly arrogant attitude of the current administration. We went into Iraq and made a friggin' mess for no reason at all -- well, for economic reasons that will benefit a lucky few -- and we've seriously undermined any kind of global community.

As many problems as the U.N. has had and as much hypocrisy as it has displayed, I would rather have them taking care of business over there as opposed to our government's piecemeal, self-serving efforts. To see the president of the United States and his administration admonish the U.N. and individual wealthy nations to pitch in with reconstruction now that such a mess has been made by the U.S. government -- which, as everyone knows, chose to deride and completely ignore the grave concerns expressed by the community of nations when invading Iraq in the first place -- displays a degree of arrogance that's as frightening as it is ridiculous. For the American citizen, real dialogue and balanced information about these matters has been largely choked off. In some way, I think that small companies or individuals that are willing to help draw a broader picture, offer more information and contrasting views, are especially valuable at this time. They're worth their weight in oil! [Laughs.]

You have to speak in terms the administration will understand!

Yeah. If I said, "They're worth their weight in gold," one might think it sounded a little corny.

That's so 19th century.

Worth their weight in uranium?

Has the political volatility of our time hindered your ability to travel significantly? You've been to Cuba, and I know that you were thinking of going to Iraq before the war started.

Last year, I had made plans to visit Iraq and Israel. I was interested in seeing those places a little for myself, to take pictures, get to know people. Unfortunately, due to professional and personal obligations, I was unable to go. Later I read that Sean Penn and others were going. The mainstream media in the United States were highly critical of Sean for having gone to Iraq, calling him "Baghdad Sean" and the like. Those who run this country and hand-feed carefully crafted propaganda to the media will immediately and automatically label a show of genuine curiosity about the world and the role of the U.S. government in it -- which is how I view Sean's trip -- as unpatriotic.

How is it unpatriotic for him or anyone else to want to go to Iraq or any other place to educate themselves? How is it unpatriotic to want to go visit other people, other human beings, on this planet? By all means, go find out the truth for yourself, if you are fortunate enough to be able to! Bring back your observations and share them. Just having got back from Morocco where I was working on the movie "Hidalgo" in the Sahara desert, it seemed obvious by the end of September to anyone with eyes and ears that the invasion of Iraq was on a fast track. The business decision and arrangements had been made. The show had already been budgeted and planned, just like a movie.

The money had already been allocated and it was run -- to the detriment of the soldiers and Marines -- like a movie schedule. Generals and commanders were being dictated to by people like [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, who don't seem to know their ass from a hole in the ground with regard to military tactics and the requirements of leadership in the field. They were telling soldiers to advance a certain amount of kilometers a day, that it didn't matter if they outstripped their protection or supply lines. Which is idiotic, and had tragic consequences for the military personnel trying their best to do their duty in the desert.

It's about as stupid as sending English soldiers out to march around in the American woods in bright red uniforms during the Revolutionary War, only to be picked off by sharp-shooting colonials. We certainly shouldn't have gone there in the first place; there was no real reason to go, other than for the sake of the ego and greed of the Bush family and its friends. Of course, when a person points that out they are accused of defending Saddam Hussein and terrorism, of being a vile traitor.

They'll yell at you and tell you you're unpatriotic.

There's a well-promoted notion: "Why are you speaking about things you don't know anything about? You're not in politics, you're not a senator or a congressman. You have no right to speak about these things. You are an actor, or a teacher, a cab driver, a nurse, and therefore you have no right to worry about or express concern over the moral decision-making of the government you have elected to represent you." Which is absurd, of course.

Who do they think pays their salaries?

Exactly. People clearly have a right to express their opinion. Everyone has to work at staying open-minded no matter where they're coming from, and it's not easy when you're bombarded with calculated messages all the time. The current administration is, in many ways, perhaps the most powerful and effective public relations firm in the world. When I hear "Homeland Security," I immediately think of Vaterland. Red lights start flashing -- "Vaterland, Vaterland, Vaterland! Deutschland über Alles!" (Laughs.) You know what I mean?

Just the names, the words for some of these things, can be intimidating and distracting. The PATRIOT Act -- when you find out what that actually means, when you do a minimum of reading and research, you find you have not misjudged the intent behind such legislation when you instinctively felt alarm, were worried that the government was amplifying its control over our individual rights, our free will. The PATRIOT Act sounded scary, but turned out to be even scarier than its name. You can read about it, inform yourself. Most people don't. Most people don't even know what the Bill of Rights is, but they throw that phrase around. A lot of politicians and government officials don't even know what the Bill of Rights is about.

Well, I'm pretty sure they don't right now.

The way things are going, there won't be much more than a lot of asterisks, anecdotal information, historical footnotes left of what was the Bill of Rights. Much of it is in grave danger of being invalidated or erased completely. The language and tactics used -- like enacting Homeland Security, the PATRIOT Act, co-opting the flag and other national symbols -- are all techniques of the Big Lie. The way this administration, without justification, neatly linked Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaida, for example, is a bold lie.

It's a huge lie, but if it's repeated often enough, it doesn't matter if long-overdue, halfhearted disclaimers are proffered later on, or even if the media itself make retractions. People are going to remember and believe the initial lie. If they say an individual has three heads and has sex with rabbits, people will say, "It does sound ridiculous, but there's gotta be some truth to it." Even if they say the next day, "Look, here's a photograph of this person and there are no visible scars from the other heads having been surgically removed. He clearly only has one head and there are no rabbits in sight." [Laughs.]

You read about Bush saying just the other day that he knows Hussein is not connected to 9/11? Well, it's nice that you say that now, so long after the fact, after all the needless suffering, destruction and ill will generated toward the United States. I mean, I can't count how many times he has consciously linked Hussein and al-Qaida in his speeches before, during and after the war. He kept doing it and didn't retract any of it until after we'd already done incredible damage, to not only Iraq but also America's credibility, image and standing in the world. To say nothing of the ordinary American and Iraqi lives lost or irrevocably harmed. It's a little too late to say that. It's like that retraction on Page 14 about the story of the guy with three heads who fucks rabbits -- a little too late now! That guy's gonna be denying that story for the rest of his life, pulling down his shirt collar to show there are no scars.

That's hilarious. But it just goes to show you how powerful language can be, right?

With regard to history, Bush's record with regard to foreign relations, the environment, the economy, concern for the average citizen ... I can't think of any accomplishment that will put him anywhere else than in last place historically as a president. Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, it's hard to think that there's anything other than public relations -- getting people to swallow huge lies so you can get your dirty work done -- that this president will be considered remarkable for.

Switching topics just a little, are you ready to do the press junkets for "Return of the King"?

No! All of that's going to be long as hell. We're going around the world repeatedly starting now and up until Christmas. It is, of course, much easier to motivate yourself when you have a fondness for the movie you are promoting, and for the team you've worked on it with. Just looking at the schedule, it's going to be pretty extensive.

I can't help thinking that Peter Jackson has been underappreciated for what he's managed to do with this enterprise. If Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg were making this thing, there'd be an uproar of appreciation and publicity. I mean, he literally made three epics in almost one sitting, put together incredible extended DVDs and somehow managed to stay faithful to the spirit of Tolkien and his massive following.

Yeah, as well as you possibly could. You know, he's not someone who goes out there, like some people, and very obviously chases awards. He does what we all are not only contractually obligated to do but, most importantly, are happy to do -- promote these movies. He's not an artist who goes around relentlessly chasing Oscars. Some people will take or pursue a particular job so they can put themselves in a position to win an Oscar. I think that can be kind of sad. It doesn't mean that they're in any way deficient as artists or they're not going to do a good job, but I think someone who has that as their main goal risks missing out on the true satisfaction of teamwork, of being in the moment and enjoying the moviemaking process. You're not really giving your full attention to the work.

I don't think Peter has anything against being rewarded with trophies, but I don't think he really cares about it as much as he does about making good movies, about telling good stories. Maybe he hasn't gotten an Oscar because he doesn't seem to be kissing enough ass, or the appropriate asses. I don't know.

What are your thoughts on Aragorn? He's always been one of the most compelling characters in Tolkien; at first he's this wild mountain man defending the weak and then he's revealed, like Shakespeare's Henry V, to be a king in hiding, ready to put the world back together.

He's well suited to be a leader, in part because of his interest in different cultures, his extensive travels throughout Middle Earth. He's always looking for what he has in common with other people. He is inclined to be compassionate, show mercy; that's the way he was raised, what he's been taught. And he's conscious of these having been the most positive qualities of the greatest of his ancestors. At the same time, he also knows that even they eventually showed weakness and were distracted by their own concerns or greed.

They succumbed to the temptations of the One Ring, ended up being destroyed or otherwise consumed by a desire to control the wills of others, and never followed through, never rose to their true potential as leaders. I think Aragorn has consistently had to work on the fact that he has so many doubts about himself: Why should he fare any better than these noble ancestors? Why should he be more exemplary in the most difficult moments? When you spend most of your life -- or in his case, since he has a long lifespan, around eight decades -- hiding and operating under assumed names, identities and dialects, it becomes a habit.

Except as a child, he's never really ever been truly able to be himself publicly, or even privately -- how would he even get used to that? When you get into that or any other habit, there's a resistance to or fear of changing; it's not a comfortable notion. To suddenly come out of the closet and say, "This is who I am" -- to no longer operate in hiding and keep leaving the scene like the Lone Ranger, to stand in one place undisguised and let others have access to you -- is in some ways more frightening than fighting any army. That inner conflict is an interesting thing to portray. It's not always something that's written, or can be fully written.

In the first two parts of the story, it's hopefully something the moviegoer learns or feels about Aragorn, without much explanation needed. For me as an actor, it was a privilege to play a character struggling with that kind of doubt. We probably all have similar problems and responsibilities, whether we're ready for them or not. The interesting question, in real life and in make-believe, is how you deal with the challenge, how you react to it.

And also how to be part of a global culture, in a way. One reason that Tolkien still seems relevant is that he's trying more than anything to communicate how dangerous and difficult it is to get completely different cultures to come together for the common good.

Oh, yeah. I think the movie's success highlights those complications. We've talked about how some people don't feel the films have gotten their due; to me, that's something to be vigilant about, because it's a trap. I mean, how much credit do you need? You find people getting greedy, even over that. It's one thing to expect to be paid the money or respect you're owed and have earned. But ideally that is not really why you're doing the job in the first place; you're expecting to be treated fairly, yes, but that is not guaranteed. That is something that either comes to you or it doesn't, that you will sometimes need to fight for.

If you're going to get pissed off about not getting your due in terms of special individual attention in popularity contests such as award shows, that's akin to not being satisfied with working within a group for the common good. What you can control is your attitude and the integrity of your own effort. There's an interesting parallel in that, with the characters' individual journeys in this story.

They're all tempted to put on the Ring and forget everyone else.

In the movie business, you unfortunately see that kind of thing a lot. Some people, no matter how much credit they receive or how much money they make, instead of sharing it with the group, or accepting it as a special and unexpected result, always crave more for themselves and themselves alone. Getting success makes them want to have even more; they get hungry for it, rather than saying, "Wow, that was amazing. I got really lucky. I'm not going to count on that happening next time." I think most people fortunately don't tend to go that route, at least not permanently. They realize, with the passage of time, how unique their experiences were, and that the reward wasn't as good as anything else that they got from the experience of taking part in the storytelling.

By Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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