Buried below Bag End, far deeper than the caverns of Moria, and further beyond the reach of Ent roots, J.R.R. Tolkien sowed the story of human nature in The Lord of the Rings. Centered on a ring that can rule humanity, Tolkien questioned what it means to be human, an examination only answerable through the grit and contemplation inherent in a journey.
While a superlatively versatile actor, Viggo Mortensen is best known as for his portrayal in The Lord of the Rings films as Aragorn, the rugged wilderness ranger who realizes his birthright to become King. Despite the acclaim Mortensen received for his portrait of Aragorn, further examination reveals that Mortensen is, in fact, a 21st century reincarnation of Tolkien himself.
On Monday, Viggo Mortensen stood, somewhat nervously, in Brookline to collect the ninth annual Coolidge Award, an honor that has in previous years gone to Meryl Streep and Thelma Schoonmaker for contributions to film. At the Coolidge press conference, Mortensen appeared charismatic but enigmatic, a clear reflection of the stern commitment to authenticity and humility that garnered him the award. At the same time, however, Mortensen’s high cheekbones shadowed twenty years off of his age and gleamed with Tolkien’s same childish voracity to absorb and preserve the richness of humanity.
With a childhood of residences in Argentina, New York and Denmark, Mortensen cultured an early optimism for global solidarity, a virtue evident in his ability to converse in seven languages. Mortensen’s tactile tongue has proved useful in multilingual roles and added extra dexterity to enunciate the unique syllables of Middle Earth. Tolkien created numerous languages for Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, richness that Mortensen swallowed with skill. Even with this obvious parallel of etymological prowess with Tolkien, also evident in Mortensen’s poetry pursuits is, in fact, imagination that unites the author and student.
Undiminished by the magnified glow of his projected name on the Coolidge stage on Monday, Mortensen compared his imaginative approach to acting to sandbox ingenuity of children. Legendary in Hollywood for his meticulous role preparation, Mortensen explained that his research always encompasses “from birth to page one,” the history of the character that precludes the script.
“You’ve got to make it up,” he said. “And I like to. It’s a very childish activity. For me to feel comfortable, I really have to believe it as much as I did when I was a little kid, pretending to be a Viking or an athlete.”
Mortensen’s humble admissions that he “prepares thoroughly” understate his devotion to culturing his imagination. To best mirror Sigmund Freud in his most recent film, A Dangerous Method, Mortensen read rare editions of books that had once adorned Freud’s own library. To understand the intrepidity of Russian mobsters for Eastern Promises, Mortensen spent weeks with Slavic gang members. To best capture the complexity of Tolkien’s ranger and king, Aragorn, Mortensen hiked solo through the wilderness of New Zealand.
“It’s my way of paying attention and communicating with the world I’m in,” said Mortensen.
Tolkien would be just as humble; the author spent decades coloring Middle Earth with volumes of history to preclude the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a feat Mortensen has always admired.
Above all, however, Mortensen echoes Tolkien loudest in their shared dedication to stories about human nature. Declaring his own love for fantasy, Mortensen explained that the enduring popularity of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and films comes in its profundity.
“There was compassion . . . there was something profound in all of these different races coming together, working together.” he said. “The stories are something that’s going to last.”
Mortensen too strives to make stories that will last.
“I never really had a career plan,” he said. “I just like stories and I think the stories that we tell about ourselves are who we are. It’s how we deal with the puzzling fact that we’re here. We’ll never know really why we’re here no matter what’s written down or what one wise person tells or some holy person tells you. You’re never going to know why we are but it’s worth [it] . . . it’s interesting . . . it’s fun . . . trying to find out.”