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It's hard to imagine any other actor than Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn in Peter Jackson's beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, in fact, another actor was cast in the crucial role of Middle Earth's returning king when production started on the first Rings installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, which premiered in theaters twenty years ago on Dec. 19, 2001. Not long after shooting began, Jackson made the difficult call to replace his original Aragorn with Mortensen — an awkward situation for everyone involved.
"I felt unprepared," Mortensen tells Yahoo Entertainment now about stepping into the role. "The other actors had been there for weeks and months in some cases preparing for the arduous task of shooting the whole trilogy. I also felt awkward, because I'd never been in a position of replacing another actor." (Watch our video interview above.)
Jackson's first choice for the part was Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who was 27 years old when he arrived in New Zealand to shoot Lord of the Rings in 1999. And, according to Mortensen, his age was the reason why Jackson realized he'd made in error in judgement. "I understood from the filmmakers that Stuart Townsend — who is a great actor, and was really perfect for the part — was too young, because he was the same age as the actors playing the Hobbits," Mortensen explains. "They just needed someone who was a little bit older. It was just a bad luck situation."
Interestingly, Mortensen — who was 41 at the time of his casting — wasn't the first older actor that Jackson considered. The filmmaker also reportedly approached Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis, both of whom turned the opportunity down. When the offer came Mortensen's way, he went back and forth over whether to accept it, but eventually was persuaded into saying yes by his Middle Earth-loving son. The rest is movie history as Fellowship of the Ring lit up the box office and turned The Lord of the Rings into the defining fantasy trilogy for an entire generation of moviegoers. And Mortensen's intensely grounded and appropriately weathered presence as Aragorn is one of the keys to the success of all three films.
While Mortensen might have felt unprepared when he first touched down in New Zealand, the actor made sure to quickly catch up. The first sequence he shot was the Battle of Weathertop, and that required a crash course in swordplay. "The first thing I did when I landed was learn how to do the sword fighting required," he remembers. "It was nice to do something physical first. And then the second thing I did was sitting in the corner of the pub in Bree smoking the pipe in the shadows. So those were both physical things that established the way the character moves and [his] physical presence. I was grateful that I wasn't thrown right into a dialogue scene!"
Reflecting on the release of Fellowship two decades later, Mortensen says that his entire Lord of the Rings experience helped prepare him to eventually direct his own feature film, Falling, which opened in theaters earlier this year. "Watching Peter Jackson and his team ... solve problems everyday and inventing new ways to shoot things was like a big, wide-open, crazy film school," he says. It was like being paid to go to school and learn how to solve filmmaking problems. It was wonderful."
Funnily enough, Mortensen had a random, and very cordial, face-to-face meeting with Townsend years after the Rings trilogy was in the rearview. "I did run into Stuart briefly on the street and said hello. He seemed like a very nice guy, and he's obviously a very fine actor. It's just one of those things that happens in our business, you know?"
Mortensen's Rings co-star, Elijah Wood, had his own long, strange casting journey. During his 2020 Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the actor revealed how he actively pursued the role of Frodo Baggins, the unlucky Hobbit tasked with bearing the all-powerful One Ring to Mount Doom. "I knew who Peter Jackson was because I'd seen Heavenly Creatures, Brain Dead and The Frighteners and I loved them," Wood recalls. "I thought, 'Oh man, that's perfect. What an incredible choice to direct those films.'"
Wood's excitement only grew after he was able to get an advanced look at the script. "It was kept under lock and key," he says. "You sat in a room, read the thing and that was it. The script blew my mind: I remember driving home still feeling like I was in Middle Earth. It had such power over my imagination that I remember driving and imagining like orcs running alongside my car!"
With Jackson on an international scouting trip to assemble the super-sized Rings cast, Wood wasn't able to meet with him solo. And he didn't want to audition in a casting session alongside other actors equally eager to nab the part. So he decided to take make his own audition tape, even assembling his own Hobbit costume out of materials he rented from a Los Angeles costume store.
"My friends helped me out, and we shot some of it at my house and then went to the nearby forest, which I think must have been in Griffith Park or something to shoot two additional scenes from various angles. Then we went to the Miramax offices that night and cut it together. I got out the tape the next day and I took it to the casting office. That tape ended up getting FedExed to Pete."
While Wood's video may have been a total DIY project, Jackson liked what he saw. The next time he came through L.A., the director met with the eager young actor one-on-one. "A couple of months later, my agent called and said, 'Stay by the phone — you're gonna get a call. I picked up the phone ... and Peter was like 'Hi Elijah: do you want to come to New Zealand and be Frodo?' It was life changing."
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is currently streaming on HBO Max.