interview with Viggo
Author: Lise Balk King & Frank J King
Publication: Native Voice
Date: Mar '04
takes a lot of work to prepare a major motion picture for its premiere
on thousands of screens across the country and the world. The ticket
sales on opening weekend are a make-or-break proposition, sending
films into more theaters if they do well or into DVD and VHS boxes
don’t. And, with the studios putting millions on the line, not
much is left to chance; there are trailers and TV commercials, print
ads and press junkets, star appearances and select screenings. These
movie marketing machines are designed to saturate the media and stir
public interest by hitting the big media and culture centers. It’s
a trickle-down system. Those of us in the rest of America, including
Native America, are expected to get the message through the network
of advertising and technology that now infiltrates every corner of the “civilized” world.
February, a rare event happened: Disney Touchstone Picture's new film “Hidalgo,” had a press stop in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Every so often a movie will have a premiere for the public in a smaller
market where it was filmed, but this was a private press screening with
all of maybe a dozen invited guests in the theater, and interviews were
scheduled with the film’s mega-star, Viggo Mortensen.
brought “Hidalgo” to Rapid City so that both
the Native and non-Indian audiences in the area could claim their personal
connection to the film. The story is partially set in South Dakota,
and scenes were filmed here in 2003. But South Dakota’s connection
to the film involves not only the physical geography of over 100 years
ago, but also the social and emotional geography of the people who lived
through those turbulent “Indian War” times, and for their
descendants who still populate the landscape here today.
is based on the true life story of renowned Dakota Territory horseman
and racer Frank T. Hopkins, who often worked for the US Cavalry
in the late 1800’s as a dispatch rider. Hopkins was, according
to the story, born of a Lakota mother and a European father. He lived
mostly a drifting life with his beloved mustang paint stallion, Hidalgo,
unsure of his place in the world, until he unwittingly delivered
the US Cavalry orders that lead to the Massacre at Wounded Knee. This
turned his life, abruptly waking him to the realities of the world
around him and the responsibility of choice.
realizing the impact his actions (and lack thereof) had on the fate
of his people, Hopkins joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and
watches his life fall apart into drinking and despair. Through the
notoriety he gains in Buffalo Bill's show, Hopkins is offered the
racing in a 3000-mile desert endurance race in Arabia known as the "Ocean
of Fire." This race tests Hopkins to stand up to the challenges
of life, to learn about himself and his culture through his exposure
to the culture of Arabia, and subsequently to the responsibilities
of his own free will.
Mortensen has recently rocketed to international super-stardom for
playing Aragorn Strider, the King of men in The Lord of the Rings
Trilogy. Although other people consider him a “movie star,” Mortensen
considers himself to be “lucky.” Very approachable and sincere,
Mortensen is a working actor, appearing in a wide variety of roles in
over 30 films over a stretch of 20 years, including Jane Campion’s “Portrait
of a Lady,” Sean Penn’s “Indian Runner,” Brian
DePalma’s”Carlito’s Way,” Ridley Scott’s “G.
I. Jane,” and Tony Goldwyn’s “A Walk on the Moon.”
we inquired how Touchstone Pictures ended up bringing Hidalgo to Rapid
City, we were told by Disney publicist Chad Olson that it was “Because
Viggo Mortensen wanted to bring it here,” adding that it was a
very unusual occurance, as “Rapid City isn’t normally on
our press tour schedule…”
Mortensen felt it was his responsibility to bring the film back to
the people who shared both themselves and their history to make the
story real for the rest of the world. Not only does Mortensen bring
the story back to the people here, but he brings himself, which means
even more to those who allowed their personal family history - which
includes the Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee - to be told
to an international audience.
me what you like about your new film, “Hidalgo”?
It’s a big studio movie and in a lot of ways really a mainstream
kind of movie, but in an old fashioned way. No frills, it’s just
straight ahead. Everything’s done carefully but it’s not
showing off any aspect of movie making, it’s just an old-fashioned
kind of movie as it tell things in a simple way, and lets the audience
makes their own conclusions. It’s more effective storytelling
and it’s something that Hollywood doesn’t do much any more.
So much money is at stake that (the movie studios) feel they have to
make sure they hammer home messages: “This is what the movie is
really about,” or, “Make sure you understand this.”
Can you give us an example? Why do you think this is important?
Hidalgo is a big budget movie where one of the principal characters
travels through different cultures and does not making a big deal
of it, but treats those cultures, whether it be the Lakota culture
or the Arab/Muslim culture with respect. It shouldn’t be remarkable
to just show people a story and let them think for themselves.If you’re
making an entertainment picture, a large story like this, you can
also get people thinking about a lot of issues. You can get people
thinking about history, multiculturalism, tolerance and the fact that
people are people. Simple ideas can come across really well when you
don’t force it.
How did you connect with the film, the character of Frank T. Hopkins?
There’s an aspect which is something that’s just a coincidence,
and an interesting one that I have mixed feelings about: through my
mom, my brothers and I are related to William F. Cody - to Buffalo Bill.
And so as a kid I’d hear stories about it and as I grew up I’d
watch the portrayals in different movies and read all the books I could
and the more I learned the more mixed feelings I had about it but it’s
What does the presence of Buffalo Bill play in the movie?
He was a part of the mythologizing of the West and that sort of perverting
of the image of not just Indians but Cowboys, too. It was at an
important time, a transition point in history, for the United States. It
the end of the 19th Century, when the United States for better
and for worse starts looking outside of it’s borders because it’s
kind of “run the table” here and the country is trying
to find its place in the world and how it’s going to participate
in world affairs. There’s been good and bad in The United States
becoming part of an international community, obviously. Committing
some of the same sins overseas as they committed at home, but also
at times they’ve been a force of good. Buffalo Bill also did
preserve some image if the Old West for us now, and partly made
it possible for a film like Hidalgo to exist.
It was a romanticized imagery.
Yeah. But you get the feeling that Buffalo Bill probably was a really
good shot and a good horseman, but he was perverting certain aspects
of history of the West.
It’s the creation of an icon. What we’re witnessing in “Hidalgo” is
the creation of the future icon. This film will help shape what people
will think about the Old West, the Ghost Dance and Massacre at Wounded
Knee, etc., into the future.
You’ve got to be careful. Ten years from now this movie will say
more about how we looked at things than it will about the historical
things that are touched on in the story of Frank T. Hopkins and Hidalgo.
I’d be curious to hear what you guys thought about it. The Buffalo
Bill aspect was interesting to me and to my character, Hopkins. It was
interesting to me to see that he – as portrayed by this actor – he
had a certain awareness of what he was doing.
an “image maker.”
Yeah. The movie doesn’t hammer on it, but it does show it – even
in a sort of nightmare that Frank had where it directly ties Buffalo
Bill to participating in the Massacre, which you can do in a dream.
What about the character, Frank T. Hopkins?
Frank is not some kind of “holy” person. He’s a flawed
person sort of stumbling around. He does have good attributes as much
as he gets lost in drinking and running from what he is. At heart, in
his foundation – the way he was obviously had to have been raised
by his mother and whatever he got from his grandparents – he treats
people with a certain amount of respect no matter who they are. He makes
up for his ignorance, his lack of knowledge about the world and other
cultures by being at least a little curious about it. That was just
the first step toward being open-minded and making connections and realizing
that you’re not so different after all.
This is one of the ways that the film has a universal human message,
how it connects with people today as much as telling a good and important
story from a hundred years ago.
The story does show in a lot of subtle ways, in the framework of
an old-fashioned drama, different relationships. The cowboy “ethic” has
as much in common ideally with the Medieval Knight or Lakota warrior
or Samurai warrior in that you can be an individual, be independent
minded and allow other people to have their individual experience
too! It can be that way.
Hopkins is both Cowboy and Indian at the same time! It’s very
interesting...I can tell you really like this movie!
I do! I do like it. I like what it does in a subtle way without telling
you. I like it when this guy says to him: “You don’t belong
in this race” and he says something that a Lakota warrior could
have said or a Samurai person. He says, ”Well, good luck to you
kind of choices were made about how much screen time the Indian scenes
got? Because I was left hungering for more. I wanted to see more
Ghost Dance and when those figures appeared in the desert to Hopkins
in a vision – why didn’t we get to see more?
I think it was not so much that they didn’t want to show more,
it’s Joe Johnston’s aesthetic. He wants it to be something
where he’s letting the audience read more into it. What Frank
is seeing (in the dream/vision sequence) is more than enough. It’s
like if you were doing a story which involved Deer Woman or something
and you have as guy go hunting and he sees this incredible looking woman
who’s tempting him, right? If Joe Johnston’s shooting that,
you’d see only a glimpse of buckskin robe or you’d see a
blanket or you’d see some eyes in the bushes probably. For the
most part I appreciated that he was subtle but I would have liked
to see a little more dancing.
How was it to shoot those parts, the Ghost Dance and the Massacre at
The people involved, a lot of the people that were extras, were descendants
of people that had survived that incident. And likewise, which is
interesting, some of the guys playing the cavalry said that they had
with soldiers from that time. There were two groups and some of them
were very kind of standoffish toward each other..and there was a
blending later. There was a real seriousness about it, tension and nervousness
and then once it started it was great. It was done respectfully and
carefully and it wasn’t necessarily something a studio would normally
do but the care was taken with it. A lot of that was the writer John
Fusco, but it was also Joe Johnston and Sonny Richards (the Lakota
advisor). The whole way of preparing the singing, the dancing and who
as the extras was done in a good way.
Wounded Knee scenes were shot on Cheyenne River, not Wounded Knee
Creek. But we shot in a place, a bend in the river that people felt
was a good match for the way that part of Wounded Knee Creek would
looked at the time. Obviously we couldn’t shoot in Wounded Knee
because of the buildings and the grave site. The site at Cheyenne River
looked like the knoll at Wounded and the bend in the river. It was a
good match. There was one thing we did which was good. We were coming
from shooting in Morocco and working L.A. and then we came up to South
Dakota. It was night and I drove to Wounded Knee and I went and I got
a big bag of dirt from the real place and then we went and tied it in
little bundles and the guy was singing and then Sonny Richards gave
him some of the dirt and he did a ceremony before they started filming.
Then they put that dirt around on the site where we filmed…which
added something I think. It was nice. From my point of view it seemed
that people were doing things in a good way. You could feel it in
the crew, which is made up of lots of different individuals, and the
playing the cavalry. By the end of those few days of shooting those
scenes they were really paying attention in a way that they might
not in a regular scene. There was something going on, the air was charged
and guys were dancing and singing in between scenes so that by the
of the day they were really hoarse.
did you feel about those scenes with Indian people, when they were
shot? That’s such an important part of our history. I think an
important point that was made in the movie was that there were Congressional
Medals of Honor given to all of those cavalry soldiers for that participating
in that massacre.
That was a joke really, a tragic joke. One of the things I like about
this story is that this information is in there. Thanks for that goes
to John Fools Crow for making that be a catalyst in the story and for
Was it hard to pick up the Lakota language?
Not too bad. I speak Spanish and Danish in addition to English so
it was a little easier than if you only speak one language. But
I also believe, as with the horses, that if you like something and you’re
interested in it - it’s a lot easier to learn it. For me it
was just as important to learn what Lakota I got to speak. It was
important to me that it would be believable. Not to audiences in
general but specifically to Lakota people who are speakers. At least
make my best effort to sound like it was natural and because of
the story not ruin it for anyone. It had to be believable that Frank
was raised speaking Lakota just as much as he was speaking English.
So I worked as hard on that and took it as seriously as any of
the horse riding or anyone else.
Who was your language coach just to give them credit because you did
a really good job.
Absolutely. Sonny Richards was my first teacher and sort of my overall
teacher and David Mid Thunder who plays Black Coyote, he’s Lakota
and he speaks really well. He’s a good teacher, really patient
and has a good sense of humor. He’s a pipe carrier from up there
and Sonny, he’s a medicine man. Those guys took it very seriously.
They were really particular and David was really helpful and then I
made tapes of how they said things. And also tapes of myself speaking
Lakota when they said, “That’s right, that’s correct.” I
had those tapes to take with me to Morocco when were filming in the
Sahara Desert and Sonny and David weren’t there. All that time
I was in Morocco it was neat. We’d be out there in the desert.
Everyone else would drive the hour, hour and a half back to town where
the hotel wa, and I’d stay out in the trailer on the set, alone.
The dust would settle and it was quiet. It would get dark and I would
wash up, make myself some food or whatever and put on these tapes and
a bunch CDs that I got from people and different places like Prairie
Edge. I’d play these tapes and songs, ceremonial songs, and I’d
have the door open in the trailer and I’d be out in the desert,
in the middle of the Sahara. I’d be like singing Lakota songs
out there – it was cool! I knew I had to come back here.
So how was the experience for you, after everything was said and done?
I think that the story handles the Lakota culture especially well
for a Hollywood movie, pretty respectfully. For me, I was relieved
and satisfied that the intent was made to do things correctly.
It was very moving to me and I know, to the crew member, to participate
in the re-enactment of this history. Most of those people didn’t
know much about it, didn’t know anything about the Ghost Dance
and it’s amazing to me how many people didn’t realize
that Wounded Knee was a massacre. A lot of people still don’t
know anything! So it was really eye-opening for a lot of people and
you found even the most hardened sort of – just punching-the-clock
folks – start listening and watching and saying, “Man
these guys take this stuff pretty seriously.” This is a very,
very important thing that they’re doing re-enacting this, re-living
up these people and these memories and sharing it, is a big deal.
It’s not just, “Hey I got to be in a movie.” I
didn’t meet anyone that was an extra at The Wounded Knee set that
seemed to be “Hey, I’m just in a movie.” They were
all on some level into the experience in a good way. When you approach
it in that way, prepare it in that way, even if it’s not spoken
- that comes across, you can feel it. Even if it’s just in passing
it shows and I think you feel that. And the answer is, yes, I would
have liked to have seen more of those faces in the film in every scene
we shot. But,I guess they felt they had to keep the story moving, just
like there were a lot of Arab details in that world that we filmed in
Morocco that we didn’t see in the film. There was a lot in the
Wild West that wasn’t used, too.
it was an epic story. You want to see more of everything, but it’s
an epic story and there is so much to get into this short amount of
time that makes a motion picture.
And as I was saying, sometimes if you’re left wanting more, that’s
not such a bad thing. Same thing as in a friendship or especially in
an intimate relationship. To be in too much of a hurry sometimes, sometimes
maybe it’s better not to be, to get to know somebody a little
bit without thinking about it. That sort of “instant gratification” approach
to movie making, to a movie audience…sometimes it’s better
for you not to get everything, or get everything so clearly, handed
to you right away. it’s better to think for yourself.