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With his ruggedly handsome exterior and coolly courageous performance, actor Viggo Mortensen embodies Aragorn in a way that's wholly true to both J.R.R. Tolkein's literary creation and Peter Jackson's cinematic vision.

Here, Mortensen discusses the appeal of his complex alter-ego, the awesome responsibilities facing the heir to the throne, and the treats that await in the trilogy's final film.

As an actor, what attracted you to Aragorn?
There's an internal struggle, and there are layers to peel off. He has the burden of many secrets, and he knows things that very few others do, outside of maybe Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond. That weighs on him.

Where do those secrets come from?
When his father, heir to the throne of Gondor, was killed by Sauron's Orcs, his mother brought Aragorn as a baby to Rivendell. He was raised there, and he wasn't told until 20 years later that he was actually the prince. He was also told that if Sauron were to learn there was a surviving heir to the throne of Gondor, he would do everything to kill him. So when Aragorn left Rivendell, he operated under physical disguises, assumed names and false dialects. He had to learn to hide, and he learned quite well.

What's Aragorn's biggest challenge?
His greatest struggle is to be himself, unashamed of his fears and his doubts. I can relate to that effort. I'd like to, in some small part, achieve that kind of honesty. I think he is a very honest character in that sense.

Does Aragorn reach a turning point in his relationship with Gandalf during the third film?
Yes. He's had Gandalf as a friend and mentor since way before The Lord of the Rings story started. But in the third movie he takes that step we all have to take--whether it's towards our parents or teachers--of thinking for himself. He goes from being the pupil to being his own man.

How do you see the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen?
The thing that stands out for me is they both feel their union is more profound and long-lasting than their individual existences could ever be. They have each other in mind. They've known for a long time that they're much better together than they are apart.

Spectacular settings are a hallmark of these films. What can fans look forward to in The Return of the King?
Minas Tirith will be a really spectacular set. Every bit as impressive as Rivendell, or Edoras, or Lothlorien. I mean, Helm's Deep was impressive in a very hard way, and Minas Tirith is the flip side of Helm's Deep. It's a place that is rich in tradition and history and that visually it's very beautiful.

One of Aragorn's toughest tasks is to seek help from the legions of the dead. Who are these warriors?
Long ago when Isildur was King of Gondor, these men had sworn allegiance to him. But they were corrupted by Sauron, and they betrayed Isildur and the alliance of men and elves. After that they were condemned to live as ghosts until summoned by an heir to Isildur to fight for the Kingdom of Gondor. Only then could they be allowed to die properly and go away.

What was it like doing scenes for the Paths of the Dead?
We went on location to some very strange place on New Zealand's North Island that reminds me of the Badlands in South Dakota. Very forbidding, with weird rock formations where nothing really grows. It's not like we stood in front of a blue screen and they are going to put things in, we were physically there.

Word is the battle scenes in The Return of the King are extraordinary. What's the secret to making them work?
I think Helm's Deep, which was the centerpiece of the second movie, will be topped--not once but probably twice--in the third movie. Peter Jackson just enjoys battle sequences, the greater the scale and number of combatants, the better. That's the kid in him. He's got collections of thousands of little toy soldiers and things in his house. The big battle sequences work because he leaves emotional threads running through, where you see individual effort and suffering and achievements on a small scale within this giant canvas.

What's the most pleasant surprise for you in the final film?
It has to be Eowyn and Miranda Otto's commitment to her. When I saw that they were paying attention to her warrior side in the third movie I was really pleased. Because the people of Rohan have had to count on women to defend their country for a long time, and I thought it was important to see that. And Miranda has done a great job. She's been amazing, and I think people will be impressed by that.