Viggo Mortensen is drinking tea from a small gourd and talking about T.J., his co-star in the sweeping adventure "Hidalgo." "He's cool, isn't he?" Mortensen says, grinning.
T.J. is a registered American Paint Horse, one of five chestnut-and-white stallions "cast" as Spanish mustangs for the title role in "Hidalgo."
But it was T.J. who stood out with the makings of a star.
"We didn't fully realize he had so much personality until we were shooting," says Mortensen, 45, who did his own riding in the movie. "He'd have some kind of attitude, cock an ear or look disapproving or jealous or possessive or annoyed."
In "Hidalgo," Mortensen plays a true-life man named Frank T. Hopkins, a half-Lakota cowboy and dispatch rider who, in the latter part of the 19th century, made a name for himself winning long-distance horse races in America. In 1890, Hopkins and his beloved mustang, Hidalgo, competed in the Ocean of Fire, a grueling 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert, against 100 of the world's finest Arabian horses. It would be their greatest race and became a journey of personal redemption for Hopkins.
"Hidalgo," which was filmed in California, Montana, South Dakota and Morocco, also stars Omar Sharif as a wealthy sheik. The screenplay was written by John Fusco, who first met Mortensen during the filming of "Young Guns II" (1990), which he also wrote. Joe Johnston directed.
"Hidalgo" is a wild and wooly adventure with a sense of humor, thanks in part to the relationship between the actor and the horse.
"There were many days I wished this was a comedy, because Viggo was hilarious off-camera," Johnston says.
Mortensen, who plays the stoic, heroic warrior Aragorn in the "Lord of the Rings" films, now owns T.J. and will place him on his land in Idaho, along with two horses he rode in "The Lord of the Rings." He has ridden since he was 9, and there was no question he'd ride as Hopkins in "Hidalgo" instead of using a stunt double.
"There were two reasons I let him do it," Johnston says. "I wanted him to feel he had the freedom to do it. ... Plus, Viggo has a very distinctive posture on a horse and, even from a distance, I could always tell it was a double. "
Still, there is a scene at the start of the Ocean of Fire race when Mortensen is astride the small stallion T.J. alongside dozens of long-legged, high-spirited Arabians. "Joe was a little worried for my safety and his [T.J.'s] when we were at the starting line, which is kind of tricky when you have about 100 horses lined up, bunched together, the riders knee to knee," Mortensen says. "Except I was knee to foot."
"And when you're coming out at the same time, going full blast, the wind is blowing and you can't see, it's kind of scary. But we were OK, me and T.J."
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