Burning Questions with Viggo
Author: Miki Turner
Publication: Page 3
Date: 25 Feb '04
Viggo Mortensen came into the room bearing gifts and carrying a terracotta
cup with some sort of strange metal straw sticking out of it. The gifts:
His new self-published photo book on horses and a DVD exploring the relationship
between Native Americans and horses.
for the stuff in the cup, it was some kind of loose-leaf herb tea
concoction. He chatted more than he sipped, but it was immediately
apparent that the 45-year-old star of "Hildago" (opening
nation-wide on March 5) was a thirsty dude.
the many movie credits to his name, Viggo Mortensen may be best known
as Aragorn in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.Mortensen,
who was born in New York but spent much of his childhood in South America
and Scandinavia, thirsts for knowledge. His curiosity about Native American
culture and his affinity for horses are two of the reasons he wanted to
be involved in "Hildago"-- the true story of cowboy Frank Hopkins,
who was part Native American, and his horse Hildago.
man of many trades, Mortensen is an accomplished photographer and musician,
who writes poetry, paints and even admits to being a New
York Mets fan. Mortensen is perhaps best known for his work as Aragorn/Strider
in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The third and final installment, "Lord
of the Rings: The Return of the King" is the front-runner for best
picture in Sunday's Academy Awards.
Mortensen shared his feelings about Oscar and other such awards, horses
and his new film during an interview at the St. Regis Hotel.
1. You're quite a renaissance man. Do you see a little of yourself in
I'm certainly curious about people. As a kid, I moved around a lot.
I was raised in a lot of different places and thanks to working in
the movies, I've gotten to keep traveling. I've always been interested
other cultures and languages. My experience has been like that of this
character in this movie. [It] has taught me that people are people
essentially and that no matter where you go or no matter how much you
people or dislike them at first glance, you generally have much more
in common with them than not. All it takes is spending a little bit of
with them. You might not ever come to terms and agree with anything,
but you can see that some of yourself -- especially when you go through
trying situation like Hopkins' ordeal in the movie which is to finish
this race. You're stuck together; it doesn't matter who they are, you're
going to overlap some way. Your needs, your fears, we're human beings.
It's a simplistic thing to say. That's what I got from this film and
working on "The Lord of the Rings" -- in the end people are
Some are good, some are bad?
Even if they're not people, they're people. Even if they're horses,
they're people (laughs).
2. Are you an experienced horseman?
I can ride, and I like horses.
When did you learn to ride?
I rode a lot when I was a boy, which was helpful for the purpose of
shooting this movie. It helped me get up to speed. It gave me a head
start, and it gave [director] Joe Johnston the unusual opportunity of
shooting the actor doing dangerous things. He didn't have to cut away
or simulate. He could shoot in close-up and stay with me or shoot me
wide and show me doing things and intercut things without trying to
fake things so much.
Is it a little daunting to act opposite a horse or any other animal?
Even if you are an experienced rider, it's not a car. It's an animal,
and you don't know what's going to happen. You're not on a track; you're
on all kinds of terrain and things can, and they sometimes do, go wrong.
3. Did anything go wrong?
I was pretty lucky. I didn't have anything really terrible happen.
A couple of people had some really bad wrecks. The most dangerous thing
we probably did was the start of the race because you had 100 stallions
at the starting line, and that's just dangerous putting them all together.
But being in a situation where the horses are all revved up and they
got to go and there is all this dust flying and, other than the first
couple of guys, you can't see anything. And you're getting pelted with
stuff. There were a couple of bad spills, one in particular when a horse
was somersaulting and a guy was run over by a bunch of the other guys
behind him, and he was sent home on a board.
became of him?
He broke his neck really badly but he recovered and five months later
he rejoined us. He was riding again. So I would say that considering
how dangerous the things we were doing, I'd say we were really lucky.
4. Your co-star Zuleikha Robinson recounted a near accident involving
the two of you on horseback.
That could have really ended badly. We were very lucky. This horse
went over this huge wall. I don't know how the horse did it actually and
just landed like that way. I don't know how we didn't get hurt. All three
of us were lucky.
5. You seemed to have bonded with the horse. What was your secret?
Oh, it's just like with people. You're going to get along better working
with them -- human or equine -- if you ask politely rather than demand
that they do things. If you earn someone's trust rather than insist
on it, then there's some halfway place you meet at and the horse ends
up working more eagerly with you rather than it being a chore. It's
a lot harder and more tiring, and you don't get the same results on
screen if it's otherwise. But it wasn't just working in a good way,
the way Rex Petersen did or my approach. It helps to create some kind
of bond, but you also have to be lucky.
Sounds like you were lucky. You got a good horse to work with.
TJ -- who plays Hidalgo -- this little horse had so much personality,
and he seemed to have opinions in an uncanny way. It seemed at first
to be coincidence and it kept happening. We just keep the camera on
him even if he is absent-minded in rehearsals. When you say action,
he'd act jealous, tired, annoyed, possessive, whatever and it almost
always seemed to be right. I have no explanation for it. We were just
lucky and it happened too much to be chance. It's not Mr. Ed and it's
not animatronics, and we're not forcing human qualities on the animal.
It's a horse being a horse. It's either going to be interesting or so-so
and you're going to have to fake the rest. It added a lot more than
[screenwriter] John Fusco could have written or we could have imagined.
The horse is actually his own character. He has a very strong personality
in the movie and it adds a lot more.
Think your lucky streak will continue at the Academy Awards this weekend?
Will the third time be the charm for "Lord of the Rings: The Return
of the King?"
I've really been racking my brain about it. I've lost sleep over it.
Adding up figures and making out figures. I've got the compass out and
I've got all the tools I could muster to try and come up with the answer
of who's going to win. A crystal ball, everything else. I know this may
be reaching, it may be a crazy thing to say, but whoever gets the most
votes is going to win. I don't know, is that weird to say that? That's
what I think (laughs).
So you're not interested at all?
I'm not into comparing movies or performances. In principle, I think
the idea of rewarding a good effort is interesting, but movies are
generally different from each other as are performances and the conditions
how the performances are given and how they're edited and so forth.
I don't invest a lot of time in even thinking about it. I don't relate
it to what I'm doing for a living. I understand it's a whole satellite
business that's not directly in my opinion connected to movie-making
or art. It's a nice thing I guess and I certainly wish everyone luck
who was nominated on my team. But it certainly doesn't validate or
invalidate the "Lord of the Rings" or Peter Jackson if it wins
or loses any of the 11 nominations it has. It doesn't really matter to
7. What does matter?
The reward was I know a great effort was made by everyone. Peter did
his best with this material and obviously audiences have embraced this
material to the tune of billions of dollars by going and seeing it again
and again and becoming mildly obsessed with it. I don't know how much
more reward or validation you need. It's not going to matter one way
or the other. Obviously, those who are nominated are anxious about it.
I'm not worried about it. You have people voting. It's like the lottery
or something. I mean, there's this arbitrary thing where there's five
nominees, there's hundreds of performances every year. I don't know
who votes for what. Seriously, I was making a long-winded joke, but
all you can say is whoever gets the most vote wins.
Does it bother you that none of the actors from the film got a nomination?
The Academy is a bunch of individuals. It's not like this one brain
making all these decisions. It's just a crap shoot really. I know Peter
has been asked and I heard he expressed dismay that Sean Astin hadn't
been nominated and there were 20 some odd people in principle roles.
Who knows? I'm the worst person you can ask about this because I don't
take it personally. In fact, I don't take it at all unless I'm asked.
I don't think about it much. You can't deny it's a part of the business
and it is big business. If you get nominated and then if you win, it
means millions of dollars for a studio and to actors and directors.
It's a big business deal to be included in that party and obviously
some people do all they can to get there. They'll spend millions to
get millions. It's a business. It's not why I got into it, let's put
it that way.
8. Why did you get into acting?
It was one of those things I was curious about. At a certain point
in my life, I made a transition. I don't know how or when but [it came]
from just looking and being entertained by movies. I still go for those
reasons. I like to be taken on a journey and either you believe it or
not and like it or not. At some point, I started wondering how it was
done. How do you create an illusion that seems so real or the feelings
are so strong and so believable? I was just curious. Like anything,
because I got some encouragement from the beginning, I stuck with it.
Or else I wouldn't have.
9. How did you make Hopkins such a real character?
A lot of it has to do with the way Joe Johnston told the story. It's
not just the way I approached the character, and a lot of it has to
do with the way cowboys seem to be. Joe Johnston's approach, which is
perfect for this story, was a straight ahead, no nonsense approach.
It's more of an old fashioned way of making movies. Old fashioned in
the Hollywood sense. What I like about Joe is that in telling the story,
he got the best cinematographer he could get a hold of, cast it as well
as he could; he had a great design. The effort that he and the studio
made to go to South Dakota and use Lakota people, some of whom were
descendants of people who had survived or been killed at Wounded Knee
in 1890. Those kind of things, layerings and subtext are all great.
But he didn't allow any of the filmmaking process to show off, to stand
out. Even the landscapes, it's all there. That kind of straight-ahead,
no-frills approach to filmmaking is one that's refreshing because you
don't see it a lot of the time. When movies cost so much these days,
they tend to want to make sure you get it.
What about the cowboy factor?
People have commented as I've been answering questions about this movie,
whether it be white Americans, Muslims, Native Americans in cities,
small towns or rural areas. People have been pleasantly surprised
that the Native American culture, Muslim, Arab culture is being treated
a certain amount of dignity for a Hollywood movie. It wasn't what
they expected or were conditioned to see. They see the poster, they see
trailer and they go "OK, I know what I'm going to see now" and
they come out of it going "Well, hey that's actually kind of alright." That
also does it for the cowboy. In a lot of places in the United States
and certainly even more places around the world, the image of the
cowboy has become, for some people, a negative one. The word cowboy
a strong, stubborn individual whose individualism depends on pulling
down other people's individualism. The cowboys I met and liked and
learned from are not that way.
10. How did you perfect the Indian dialect in Hidalgo?
If you have an interest in it, like if you like working with horses
it's easier working with them. I like languages. I'm interested in them
and I got a lot of help. There were two individuals who helped. First,
a medicine man from South Dakota who was the guy in the wagon at the
end. He's the one who helped me with the language. And David Midthunder,
who plays Black Coyote, lives in California and he's Lakota. He not
only helped me with the pronunciation and the singing, but he also told
me a lot of things. I got a lot of help and by visiting there and feeling
welcomed. Also, before starting shooting I went up in the hills. And
if you just pay attention, it makes it easier to learn. The Indian culture
is something I've been interested in a long time before starting this
movie. I certainly worked as hard to seem as fluent in that language
as in English for this character. I worked as hard on it as much as
the horseback riding. When you're a little kid, it's not unusual for
kids to imagine themselves as cowboys or Indians. In this movie I got
to do both, which was fun.