Viggo Mortensen was being difficult.
He was on the Morocco set of Hidalgo, his western adventure that opens today, and he felt it necessary to remind director Joe Johnston and the rest of the crew who the star of the movie is.
It's the kind of primadonna move you might expect of a guy who has come off The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, one of the most profitable movie franchises in history. And as Hidalgo's slow-talking cowboy Frank T. Hopkins, who takes on top Arabian chargers in a 3,000-mile desert horse race in the year 1890, Mortensen is in nearly every heroic frame. Why shouldn't he have a bit of an ego trip?
Except that the usually self-effacing Mortensen wasn't demanding more attention for himself. He was speaking up for his horse T.J., the cream-and-sorrel nag who plays the title mustang of Hidalgo.
"I was glad to remind people a lot of times about that," said a flannel-shirted Mortensen, 45, recalling memories in a recent Toronto interview.
"People kept saying, 'Frank this and Frank that.' And I'd say, `Well, last time I checked, the movie is not called Frank Hopkins. So let's keep in mind that the horse needs to be (front and centre)."
Mortensen also requested and received permission to change a parting line from "I won't forget you" to "We won't forget you." A rider both by hobby and by profession — he's been riding since childhood, and he had loads of saddle time playing mounted hero Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings — Mortensen wanted to make it clear that both Hopkins and Hidalgo felt the pain of saying goodbye.
There's no danger of anyone overlooking T.J. The horse has so much personality, he makes Seabiscuit seem like a dog biscuit. The same goes for T.J.'s equine stunt doubles.
"I really bonded with T.J.," Mortensen said, sipping on a ceramic mug of maté, a bracing South American tea he favours. (No kidding about the horse love — he purchased T.J. after the movie wrapped.)
"I also bonded with the other ones who helped play Hidalgo. There were four other ones who were available, and who did certain things, and it was hard on all of them. They all came from different parts of the country — Michigan, Texas, northern California — and they were all brought together and trained really hard. We rode a lot of hills and mountains and hard terrain to get them into really great physical shape.
"And then they were flown, which is an ordeal for a horse, from L.A. to Rotterdam and trucked all through Europe, before being flown from Spain to Marrakech. By the time they got there, they were fried, and that was only the beginning. They had a lot of problems with the dryness and the congestion and with their hooves and all that. They weren't used to the desert climate."
A scribe can't help noting that Mortensen wasn't half this emotional about the four Hobbit actors he worked with on The Lord Of The Rings. Sean Astin nearly lost a foot and Elijah Wood had an emergency appendix operation, just to name a couple of the many Rings zings, but you didn't hear Mortensen in interviews praising their stoicism.
But — and here's a crucial difference — the Hobbits can speak for themselves, and horses can't. Mortensen identifies with strong, silent types, which is how he's been described in innumerable scribbles since 1985, when he first gained attention with a role in 1985's Witness.
It should come as no surprise to learn that Mortensen is an admirer of Greta Garbo, the "I vant to be alone" diva, and also John "The Duke" Wayne, star of Howard Hawks' Red River, a classic western and one of Mortensen's favourites.
"I just think John Wayne was wonderful, and I'm not looking at him as just this icon," said the chisel-jawed actor, a study in seriousness behind innocent blue eyes.
"He really had something there, just technique-wise: a real facility for certain roles and stories. I value him.
"It's the same way I think of Greta Garbo. She was certainly no Meryl Streep, but there was something that she had and was able to harness, her presence and her ability to relax in a given situation, where you're really just drawn in.
"That's something I think is also in Hidalgo, in a little way. It's not intentional, but it reminds you of what's good about the cowboy spirit. Cowboys are very much like Grail knights: there's that element of chivalry, of curiosity and that healthy irony or self-deprecating humour. They could see themselves in the bigger world.
A lot of actors would have been happy just to land the part of Hopkins, and to be the main human star of a big adventure movie. The more important issue for Mortensen was that the story would be as historically accurate as possible and that the movie would avoid inflaming already difficult relations between Americans and Arabs.
"I said to Joe Johnston, `Is this going to be just an adventure? What's your point of view?' Obviously, there are some possible pitfalls, especially with the U.S. government being embodied by somebody pretending to be a cowboy. It could be adventure in the wrong sense.
"And it's the journey more than the destination that forges Frank's character, and the horse's. As in any classic hero story, what do you do with what you've learned? Do you just go `whatever,' or do you return and share what you've learned with other people? That interested me. "
Johnston assured Mortensen that efforts would be made not to cause offence. How well the promise was kept will soon be determined by audience reaction, although there have already been comments by both history experts and Arab groups that a large number of liberties were taken.
Johnston held out the greatest carrot of all for Mortensen: The actor and T.J. the horse would be starring opposite Omar Sharif, the returning king of suave leading men. Sharif plays Sheikh Riyadh, the Arab leader who runs the Ocean of Fire desert race that Hopkins and Hidalgo compete in.
"Well, that certainly was a draw," Mortensen said.
"It's just that thing of being a kid, watching Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. That sparkle in his eye isn't some lighting effect; it's the sort of presence, that thing he exudes. You still see it. It's like John Wayne. There's something that he has that unique to him and that he's able to harness and use."
Mortensen gets fidgety when the topic of heroes comes up. After playing morally questionable characters in many of his earlier films — he played seducer to Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder (1998) and to Diane Lane in A Walk On The Moon (1999) — this New Yorker born of Danish blood is not sure if he likes being viewed as the all-American hero.
"I don't know," he said, taking a long pause to consider the hero question.
"I like these kind of stories. I don't need to necessarily play the main character in them. Being a hero can be over-simplified. It doesn't matter what you do, people are always going have an opinion." An opinion like critic Michael Medved's rant in a recent USA Today column, which took Mortensen to task for drawing parallels between The Lord Of The Rings and the Bush administration's foray into Iraq.
Medved accused Mortensen of using his Rings publicity "to trumpet his anti-war and anti-Bush views," a charge that surprisingly irked the actor, who seems almost naïve in his approach to the media.
In his numerous interviews for The Lord Of The Rings, Mortensen didn't attempt to turn away questions comparing Tolkien's embattled fantasy world to the very dangerous real world of today. Many actors would have avoided the comparison but Mortensen replied to the queries with very thoughtful concerns about American imperialism.
He thinks he got under Medved's skin because a lot of people are asking the same questions and making the same connections. But it's clear that Medved also got under his skin.
"Like anybody else, I get annoyed when I see something like that, even if it's absurd. "
But Mortensen is getting used to it. If The Lord Of The Rings didn't fix him in the public mind as a classic hero type, then Hidalgo surely will.
"If you're in a popular movie, that comes with the turf," Mortensen sighs.
"People will decide that they can get some mileage out of you by saying something positive or negative about you, whether it be true or not."
Somewhere up in heaven, The Duke and The Diva are smiling. Viggo's
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