Actor Viggo Mortensen: Warrior-King in Lord of the Rings' Middle Earth is Peace Activist on This One

November 05, 2015


Viggo Mortensen

Academy Award-nominated actor and editor of Perceval Press.

Viggo Mortensen, the actor known by millions for his portrayal of the warrior-king Aragorn in the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, joins us to talk about peace, the ongoing wars in the Middle East, U.S. empire, working with the late historian Howard Zinn, and his response to the growing police boycott of director Quentin Tarantino’s films for speaking out against police brutality. Mortensen is a vocal advocate of progressive causes, using his celebrity to speak out for social justice. On top of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Viggo Mortensen has starred in numerous films including David Cronenberg’s movies "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises," for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and "A Dangerous Method," for which he received a Golden Globe Award. Mortensen is also poet, painter, photographer and book publisher who spotlights alternative voices. He is the editor at his own imprint, Perceval Press, which has just reissued the 2003 book, "Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Our guest is a world-famous actor from one of the most popular movie franchises of all time, yet box office success is not what’s defined his career. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen starred as Aragorn, the warrior-king who leads the fight for Middle Earth.

GANDALF: [played by Ian McKellen] Now come the days of the king. May they be blessed.

ARAGORN: [played by Viggo Mortensen] This day does not belong to one man, but to all. Let us together rebuild this world, that we may share in the days of peace.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: "Let us together rebuild this world, that we may share in the days of peace." Viggo Mortensen might have said that in Middle Earth, but it’s a line that applies to him on this Earth, as well. Mortensen is a vocal advocate of progressive causes, using his celebrity to speak out for social justice. Mortensen has appeared in numerous performances of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States and is a cast member of the television documentary version of The People Speak. He’ll be reading excerpts from Voices of a People’s History of the United States tonight at Lincoln Center.

AMY GOODMAN: On top of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen has starred in numerous films, including David Cronenberg’s movies A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and A Dangerous Method, for which he received a Golden Globe Award. His most recent films include Far from Men and Jauja.

In addition to his acting pursuits, Viggo Mortensen is a poet, a painter and a photographer. And he is also a book publisher, spotlighting alternative voices. He’s the editor at his own imprint, Perceval Press, which has just reissued the 2003 book, Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Viggo Mortensen joins us here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, we’re not going to talk about Lord of the Rings right now—


AMY GOODMAN: —or History of Violence. We’re not going to talk to you even about your latest film. But we do want to talk to you about this latest book, Twilight of Empire. You’re re-releasing it after 12 years. What is relevant about today, 2015, that actually goes back to 2003, when you first released the book?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: Well, this book, Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation, is a book that was published at the moment that we were invading and occupying Iraq under false pretenses, you know, based on a pack of lies. And it’s a collection of essays, reports, even poems, from commentators all over the world—Americans, Iraqis, Canadians, all kinds of people, including yourself. You wrote a really fine foreword for it at the time. And in the second edition, Howard Zinn wrote a very good foreword. And when I reread it recently, and knowing that our stocks were low because, fortunately, the book has sold out a couple times, I thought this book, unfortunately, still holds true. It’s not like you’re looking at like—like many of the things that were said in 2003 do not hold true, have been seen to be inaccurate statements and lies. This book—unfortunately, this story has not changed. It has deepened and has become more complicated.

The consequences of our—of the United States-led unjustified invasion of Iraq are clear for all to see in the region. You know, what is going on now in the Middle East and in West Asia, the problems that we face, have a lot to do with what happened in 2003. And in this new edition, there are two new essays that speak to what has happened since, from Dennis Kucinich, who was a congressman at the time and virtually the only person to stand up in Congress and say, "This is wrong. Anybody can see that the reasons that are being given for this invasion are unfounded," and also Anthony Arnove wrote a fine foreword. And Anthony Arnove is co-author of the book that you mentioned before, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Both of these books, in a sense, are the real history, and in some cases, unfortunately, the hidden history, of the United States—and in the case of Twilight of Empire, the United States abroad, you know, as it behaves overseas.

And, you know, I was walking—I walked here today, this morning. I had lots of time, and I was thinking. And I heard, on my way down, coming out of a—it was like a radio, I guess, coming out of like a deli or, you know, like a grocery store, the national anthem. I don’t know why it was being played. I don’t know why. And it made me think about the first line of our national anthem, you know, "O say can you see." I thought, "That’s a great line. I love that line." Then I thought about the last two lines, "Land of the free and home of the brave." Those last two lines are the ones that get people up on their feet and make them feel good about themselves and their country. And they’re all fine and good. But "O say can you see" is a question, a really important question. Can you see? Can you bear witness to what is happening? Home of the brave—there’s brave people all over the world. Free? Well, freedom is relative. To be free, you have to work at it. It’s a work in progress. In the United States—in no country is everybody free. You know? It’s why I like the name of this show, Democracy Now! What does that mean? That means that democracy is not a static thing any more than a supposedly good marriage is a static thing. It takes work. You know?

There are people who don’t want to see or who would rather not find out too much about what’s going on in the world, in their country, in their community, within their own families. And then there are people who do want to see, who do want to know, who do want to find out. I’m one of those. Although I do understand that—I understand that people don’t want to see too much. You know, people don’t want to have to think that their police department or their president is committing abuses of power. They don’t want to think that their parents are committing abuses of power. You know, it’s relative.

I think that the opinions that one has, that one can give—you know, there are people who might watch this show and just say, "Well, there’s another jerk from the entertainment business shooting his mouth off." I’m a citizen of this country. I’m a citizen of the world. And as I say, I like to see. And I—and when I find out something, facts that I find interesting or disturbing, I like to share them with my friends, with others. I have as much right as anybody else to do that. How does a democracy work? How does freedom work? It works like that. People talking about what’s going on, people saying, "Did you see that?" You mentioned Quentin Tarantino. He saw, like we all could see, certain things. You know, that doesn’t mean that all cops are bad. He didn’t say that. He just said—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, hold that thought—


AMY GOODMAN: —because we’re going to break and then come back to just what Quentin Tarantino said.


AMY GOODMAN: And we want to hear what you say about it. We are talking to Viggo Mortensen for the hour, the Academy Award-nominated actor, editor of Perceval Press, which just reissued its 2003 book, Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Yes, Viggo Mortensen has starred in many films, including the blockbuster The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Viggo in a minute.

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