As the heir of Isildur, Aragorn is one of the most important characters in The Lord of the Rings. His return gives the final volume of the fantasy epic its name: The Return of the King. From Ranger to King, J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga is as much about Aragorn’s journey as Frodo Baggins’ incredible journey to destroy the Ring of Power.
Aragorn was a career-changing role for Viggo Mortensen. He brought dark intensity and a believable ruggedness to the role that required as much action as mystery. It was as if he was made for the part of the sword-wielding Strider, but he wasn’t the first choice for it. Mortensen only joined the production as it started filming.
Who was originally cast as Aragorn?
Stuart Townsend was cast as Aragorn before the groundbreaking production started filming. The Irish actor won the pivotal role after several other actors turned down the offers from the film’s mastermind Peter Jackson. Daniel Day-Lewis was Jackson’s first choice but declined the role during pre-production. We’ll have to imagine Nicolas Cage as Strider because he passed on the part as well.
At only 27 years old, Townsend was a youthful choice for the role. Aragorn was nearly 90 years old at the time of The Lord of the Rings – as a noble Númenórean, he enjoyed a longer life than other men. While he shouldn’t look anywhere near that old, mid-to-late 20s was a stretch. Questions over Townsend’s age dogged his casting from the start. It allegedly caused concern at the studio level and doubts for Townsend himself.
Peter Jackson resisted calls to replace the actor in pre-production. However, Townsend traveled to New Zealand ahead of his castmates to screen test, complete with slightly grayed hair. That screentest would be the only time Townsend played Aragorn as he was let go one day before production started.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2002, Townsend stated that he had been having a rough time before he was fired and wasn’t impressed when he found out he wouldn’t be paid for his time due to a breach of his contract. “I have no good feelings for those people in charge, I really don’t,” he said.
It was a risky decision on an already close set. The cast formed a famous bond, and news of Townsend’s recasting shocked those ramping up for production. Some years later, Dominic Monaghan, who played the hobbit Merry, remembered the incident. “We were all stunned,” he said, before explaining that there was little time to reflect on the casting change in the notoriously ambitious production.
“Obviously it was a big blow for him,” Monaghan continued. “But it was ruthless, we were working all the time, we had one day off a week. Our hours were ridiculous. We didn’t have time to mourn anything you were desperately trying to learn lines and stay on top of it all.”
A quick flight to New Zealand
Townsend’s departure didn’t mean Viggo Mortenson landed the role straightaway. His casting was as close to the wire as it could get as other actors were considered first. Russell Crowe was among those who declined setting foot on Middle-earth before executive producer Mark Ordesky suggested Mortensen.
Persuaded to take the role by his son, a huge fan of the book, Mortensen set off for New Zealand with a copy to read on the plane. After a quick course in fencing, he jumped straight into filming the epic fight between the Fellowship of the Ring and the Ringwraiths on Weathertop.
The rest, as they say, is history. It’s hard to imagine Aragorn played by any other actor. As anticipation builds for the new series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Mortenson’s performance remains the bar for actors taking on the roles of Aragorn’s predecessors.
Aragorn II, son of Arathorn II and Gilraen, sometimes known as Strider, Ranger, last Chieftain of the Dúnedain, the 26th King of Arnor, 35th King of Gondor, and first High King of Gondor and Arnor, the wielder of Andúril, the Sword that was Broken, the wearer of the elf stone that led to his coronation name King Elessar, and above all, one of the most famous recasts in movie history.