Oh, Viggo. Truly, you are the only Aragorn for us. Er, the only Strider. Only Elessar. Whatever.
Viggo Mortensen did a few things with his character that transcended typical actorly dedication; he only used his heavy steel sword on set, rather than the lighter aluminum ones built for stunts (and the stunt guys had the bruises to prove it). He was prone to dragging the sword around everywhere, and got stopped by the cops when he was spotted carrying it in public. He asked for more of his lines to be written in elvish. He once kicked a helmet so hard that he broke his toes, but still stayed in character for the take.
It’s pretty well-known that his casting in Lord of the Rings occurred late in the game (they had already started shooting), but do you know the other names that were considered? Because they’re mostly big-deal picks, and imagining any one of them in the role leads to a strange alternate reality.
Let’s imagine them.
DDL was one of Jackson’s first picks for the part (he was offered the role several times but kept turning it down), and while we can see general appeal, the idea of casting someone who’s even more method than Mortensen was bound to be a misfire. Daniel Day-Lewis refused to wear a warmer coat and got dangerously ill during filming for Gangs of New York… because warmer coats would not have existed for a man of his position in that time period. Daniel Day-Lewis would only speak to the crew on Nine in Italian, because his character was Italian. Daniel Day-Lewis learned how to expertly fire a heavy flintlock gun for The Last of Mohicans, and brought the thing to a Christmas dinner. Daniel Day-Lewis was once playing Hamlet at the National Theatre in London and felt like he was talking to the ghost of his actual dead father, so he walked off the stage and never played the part again.
You see how this could have been a problem, right? During filming, they lose track of Lewis because he’s too busy trudging through the wilderness being a ranger for real. He only speaks to the crew in elvish. He won’t rehearse fight choreography because he wants the sequences to “feel authentic.” It’s a disaster in the making. Sure, the performance would have been great, but would it have really been worth the suffering? Even just Daniel Day-Lewis’ personal suffering?
Townsend was the one who was actually cast in the part before Viggo came on board. He did two months of training and got to film all of one or two days before Jackson realized he’d made a mistake in casting such a young actor—Townsend was only in his late twenties. So he was sent home, and Mortensen was abruptly drafted.
While you gotta feel for the kid (his film career hasn’t been all that exciting, and he was similarly shuffled off of Thor’s cast roster when he got traded out for Josh Dallas in the part of Fandral), it’s easy to see what Jackson was worried about. Baby-faced 87-year-old Aragorn, flirting with elves and getting all kingly and expecting people to follow him into battle. Teeny-bopper Aragorn raging about the fear that would take the heart of him! Isildur’s Heir and His Mighty Pout—perfect emo band name.
Hate to say it, but age does lend you gravitas. It’s probably best that Aragorn didn’t end up looking like someone who just finished his grad school program and decided to hike the Appalachian Trial before getting a real job.
Crowe was another top pick on Jackson’s list, and he was keen on the role, but had to turn it down due to prior commitments. Coming off of the incredibly popular Gladiator back then, this idea kind of makes sense.
It does mean that most of Aragorn’s lines would be delivered in soft, pained murmurs, punctured by smatterings of full-throated roars: “Are you not entertained, Sauron?” We’ve seen him be Robin Hood, and that performance was sort of grouchy and meh. It’s arguably the closest to Aragorn the guy has ever come. So… perhaps not. Then again, if he played the role like Javert and sang some elvish poetry in a furious tenor, that would have been a hilarious way to get butts in seats.
Diesel auditioned for the role, though he was never offered the part. He would have had the bushiest beard of all. And he probably would have scared the orcs away by smiling at them.
Let’s face it, Vin Diesel is a very different kind of hero. He’s got that cuddly aspect that we know from Groot and the Iron Giant, but action roles are where he gets lean, mean, and growly. Which would have been a really interesting take on Aragorn’s character, though pretty far from his characterization in the books. An Aragorn who was all swagger and biceps. An Aragorn who could kill you with a teacup.
It wouldn’t have seemed much like Lord of the Rings, but it would have been a sight to behold.
This was very real. Jackson offered the role to Cage early in the game. Cage wanted to take the role, but was concerned about having to spend so much time away from his kid. But if he had decided it was worth it, or packed the family up and moved them with him…
Nicolas Cage is never anyone but Nicolas Cage. We all know this. He has an irrefutable Cage-ness. He’s great at extremes because that is clearly where he lives. His vocal delivery does not conform to other languages or accents—they must bend around him. He would have never blended in with the ensemble cast that Jackson ended up assembling. Suddenly, the king’s return would seem like the entire point of the LOTR trilogy. Frodo? Who’s that? What’s this Ring thing about?
All I can see is Cage.
It would have been the most distracting casting choice of the 21st century, and the 21st century had only just begun.
Bonus: Other Characters Who Were Nearly Cast Differently
Liam Neeson was offered the role of Boromir. It’s probably best that he turned it down because it would have been hard for anyone to dispute his right to a throne. (And he would have been playing a role in a trilogy where he died in the first film. Again.) Sylvester McCoy was considered for Bilbo, but Radagast was a better choice in the long run. Lucy Lawless and Uma Thurman were wanted for Galadriel and Arwen respectively, but they both had ill-timed pregnancies. It would have been a pretty different film series once you replace Blanchett and Tyler with Xena and The Bride, that’s for sure. David Bowie wanted to play Elrond, though he was never approached, and that’s probably for the best because he would have been insanely difficult to see as anyone other than Bowie-in-an-elf-costume.
But perhaps the best possibility of all: though many were considered, one of the first actors offered the role of Gandalf was Sean Connery… who turned it down because he just “didn’t get” the script. After all, who was he going to sleep with? Where were all the guns for him to fire? How many puns would he be allowed to drop? None? Well, that’s a bust. Connery says no.
Emmet Asher-Perrin wants a peek in at alternate universes for the express purpose of seeing movies with different casts. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.