LOS ANGELES -- Viggo Mortensen was never supposed to be the man who would be king.
When director Peter Jackson started filming "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in October 1999, he had another actor cast as the warrior Aragorn, a reluctant hero whose courage and royal bloodline help defeat the ancient evil of Sauron.
That was Stuart Townsend, a then 26-year-old Irish actor who later appeared in "The Queen of the Damned" and last summer's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
But once work began on "The Lord of the Rings," Jackson said it became clear that Townsend was too youthful to convey the sense of wisdom and world-weariness needed for Aragorn.
So he dropped him - with a cast and crew of thousands assembled in New Zealand and a budget of $270 million on the line.
"We had to make a very hard decision very quickly, without having anyone else cast," Jackson said.
Days passed with tensions rising as Jackson and crew busied themselves filming Hobbit sequences that didn't require Aragorn. But the three films - "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," were being shot simultaneously - and they needed a king to return, fast.
The rugged, soft-spoken Mortensen, then 41, agreed to take the role.
"The best thing I can say about it is I didn't have any time to get nervous. I just had to do it," he says more than four years later, sipping tea beside a massive, shady tree in Los Angeles.
"In retrospect, that was probably a good thing. The downside is I was worried for quite a while about letting others down. I didn't want to be the guy who, when you saw the movie, you said: 'Good movie ... but THAT guy ..." He rolled his eyes.
Jackson said Mortensen's involvement was "fate dealing us a very good card." "He's an actor with huge integrity and professional responsibility, and once he's committed to a movie he's there for you morning, noon and night," the director said. "It doesn't matter what time of the day it is. It doesn't matter how long you've been working."
That work ethic helped the newcomer quickly earn the respect of his fellow castmates.
In the public mind, however, he was still somewhat obscure.
Mortensen's first role was as an Amish farmer in the 1985 Harrison Ford thriller "Witness," and he had notable roles as hunks opposite Demi Moore in 1997's "G.I. Jane" and with Julianne Moore in the 1998 "Psycho" remake.
He also earned a living with roles in B-movies such as "Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III" and "The Prophecy," in which he played a handsome, moody Devil.
After the success of the first two installments of "The Lord of the Rings," he's ambivalent about his newfound fame. He credits it with helping him land another lead role, as a horseman in the upcoming Disney adventure "Hidalgo," but his heartthrob status seems like a distraction to him.
"It doesn't help me do a better job and doesn't have much to do with my personal life or work life, so I'm a little bit removed," he said. "Sometimes it seems a bit strange, but all in all it's flattering and certainly nicer than hearing that everybody hates you."
And it's certanly nice that his star status has attracted attention to his other endeavors as a poet, photographer, painter and publisher.
It has even carried over to other artists at his publishing company, Perceval Press. "I'm using that strange phenomenon of public attention to accomplish good things," he said.
A frequent critic of the Bush administration, Mortensen said part of what appealed to him about "The Lord of the Rings" was its positive message about integrity in leadership.
"Everyone thinks (Aragorn) is the man for the job, because he has humility, a concern with the consequences of his actions and words on others and an interest in finding common ground with other people. All are qualities which I wish there were more of in real life in our modern-day leaders. There's an unfortunate lack of humility and overabundance of arrogance."
He's not sure whether that message is apparent to most audiences. "I think you get what you want out of the story."
As he speaks, Mortensen's expression can best be described as fierce mellowness, as if he is focusing very hard to stay relaxed.
His "Rings" colleagues say below that restrained exterior is a surprising amount of confidence, energy and intensity. While others slacked, he remained aggressive.
"I'd say he was very much a leader," said Liv Tyler, who plays Elf Princess Arwen.
He was so dedicated to getting into character that he went everywhere with his character's sword, she said, adding: "He kept his sword in his car and drove around with the sword all the time."
Arwen shares a war-torn romance with the human Aragorn, and since they had few scenes together she said he was always trying to add extra depth to their exchanges.
"For our love scenes, he would come to me the night before and say he wanted to change all the lines to the Elvish language. He was trying to make that connection stronger, and I thought it was beautiful that they'd speak Elvish to each other because it adds a layer to their history that you wouldn't otherwise see."
In Mortensen's real-life love life, he once was married to Exene Cervenka, a singer with the rockabilly-punk band X; they divorced in 1997.
Their son, Henry, now 15, was the one who urged Mortensen to take the role of Aragorn.
Part of Henry's reward was joining the cast. He has played a villainous orc, a heroic Gondorian and a young soldier of Rohan in some of the battle sequences.
Asked if his teenage son is impressed to have Aragorn for a dad, the actor wrinkles his face.
"Ehhh ... he has a healthy amount of disrespect for me and every other adult," he said. "That comes with being that age. If it was otherwise I would think there is something wrong with him."
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