On a damp, dreary February day in Dallas, Viggo Mortensen, the star of "Hidalgo," Disney's galloping new adventure flick, was doing something he hadn't done before: a solo press junket for a major motion picture.
As his long day's journey through junketville was nearing its end, the handsome, sandy-haired, strong-boned actor with the dimpled chin seemed, well, weary - but nevertheless dedicated to honoring this chore of the leading-guy gig.
"You wanna poster?" Mortensen asked in a mellow voice. Uh, sure?
It was a sweetly perfunctory moment, tinged with a hint of embarrassment. As if to say, the company invested a lot in these boxes of posters with my big ol' mug on them, so please take one.
Don't get him wrong. "It's a very nice poster," he said. "But it's a movie poster with a big head. That's not the way the movie was made. I'm here by myself. But in L.A., I'll be joined by others. It's still just as much an ensemble."
This is a modest claim. But it's not quite true. Unlike the bonded ensemble of the "Ring" cycle, "Hidalgo" is very much Mortensen's flick. And it wasn't very movie star of him to suggest otherwise.
But then Mortensen is a bit like Aragorn, the "Lord of the Rings" character he imbued with warrior grace and more than a bit of ambivalence. He seems primed for a kingdom. Yet Mortensen doesn't appear to need the glory. He's happy forming alliances. He's comfortable doing the work. He's not quite as at ease promoting the work, or rather himself.
"I always felt like I ran the risk of insulting him if I called him a movie star," says "Hidalgo" director Joe Johnston. "He's an artist first of all, and actor and a writer and probably a poet and a musician. I just don't think he cares much about movie stardom and probably has made choices in his career that was more about the roles and interesting characters than about being a star."
Movie stars. They want us to want them. We need them to need us. And neither of us mind the cheap tricks that make that happen: the cozy interview, the nugget of real-life confession, the interview performance that makes it clear how much they want our adoration in turn. (Last year's Bennifer debacle was a frenzied, tango of need and greed - theirs, ours, both.)
It's a minuet of co-dependency, one Mortensen seems beautifully uninterested in dancing. He is intriguing because he seems celebrity-resistant, even tamper-proof. He maintains this attitude even after being catapulted out of the most successful movie trilogy in history into his first big-budget leading role.
This past Friday, Disney opened its $90 million, galloping adventure flick about a man and steed. Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins, a legendary horseman. Hidalgo is the feisty Spanish mustang he rides in long-distance endurance races.
Based on a true story (just how true has become its own Hollywood subplot), "Hidalgo" follows Hopkins from Wounded Knee to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to the sandblasted Arabian desert. There, pony and partner are the only Americans going up against the best Arabian horses and horsemen in a 3,000-mile race called the Ocean of Fire. The movie opened on more than 2,000 screens.
Yet a month earlier, one got the feeling Mortensen was less concerned with future box office than the pleasure of the moviegoer.
Almost as soon as he sat down, he began firing a string of questions about a preview screening in Denver. "Did you like it?" "What did the audience do?" "Were there kids there?" "Were they into it?" After the barrage, he adds, "I was just curious."
He's right. He is curious.
The son of a Danish father and an American mom, Mortensen was born in Manhattan. But he and his two younger brothers lived in Denmark, Argentina and Venezuela. When Viggo was 11, his parents divorced and he, his brothers and mom relocated to upstate New York.
Mortensen, an accomplished photographer, has a son with former wife Exene Cervenka, lead singer for the famed L.A. punk band X. It was teenage son Henry who told his dad that J.R.R. Tolkien was way cool.
Shares the spotlight
Mortensen's performances have been eye-commanding even as they've been subtle, the work of a craftsman plying his gift. He yields when he needs to. Indeed, he seems quite willing to give his juice over to the story, or to another's performance.
This "works well with others" quality has served his female co-stars well: Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder," Diane Lane in "A Walk on the Moon."
But one of his most indelible performances came as Navy SEAL Master Chief Jack Urgayle in the underappreciated Ridley Scott film "G.I. Jane." When Urgayle heads way beyond breaking the resolve of Demi Moore's character to something darker, his cruelty still maintains a richer texture than a by-the-book villain.
Peter Jackson brought Mortensen into Middle-earth at the 11th hour to replace Stuart Townsend, a young actor the director felt didn't bring the necessary weight to the Aragorn character.
Middle-earth and the late-19th century Middle East - maybe it's a stretch to compare. Yet there's an echo in "Hidalgo" and "The Lord of the Rings" that appeals to the actor.
"What I get from 'Hidalgo,"' Mortensen says, "is that it is worthwhile to make an effort to find out what you might have in common with other people - especially people who seem a lot different. Any movie that does that in some way - which "Lord of the Rings" also does - is worthwhile and it doesn't have to be a message movie or a documentary about compassion and community or fellowship. It's just a good story."
Mortensen shot "Hidalgo" between "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers."
It was kind of frenetic," he says. "When we were in the Sahara, there would be days at the end of the day when I'd have to call Los Angeles or New York or Europe and do interviews for 'The Two Towers.' And when we were out West, there were a couple of times when I'd have to drive a few hours to the airport, take a red-eye to New York and do press all day and take a plane back."
He pauses. "It was a little schizophrenic."
Not that he's complaining.
"It was worth the effort to do 'Hidalgo,"' he says. "It was a good opportunity that I wouldn't have gotten if not for the success of 'The Fellowship of the Ring."'
More than a few times, Mortensen colleagues have described him in profiles as "egoless."
"That was embarrassing," Mortensen admits. "I'm flattered by it. But I don't think it needs remarking on. I think there are a lot of people who work that way. That's the way it ought to be. It's the old-fashioned idea of being prepared, showing up on time and paying attention. That's pretty straightforward. "
Can't handle praise
A few weeks later, I tell Johnston that while in Dallas, Mortensen seemed eager to end his part of the full-court press and rejoin the rest of the "Hidalgo" cast in Los Angeles.
Johnston is not surprised.
"Not only does he not want to toot his own horn, he doesn't want anybody else to toot it," the director says. "We were doing a book of his photographs that he'd taken on the set.
"I wrote some things about him, honest opinion about the way I felt and he said I can't let you say things like that about me," Johnson says. "And they were all good things. He just couldn't deal with it."
During the interview, Mortensen sipped tea from an unusual mug - a gourd that was a gift.
Mortensen mentions that even innocuous things like his gourd mug or his choice of tea get treated as evidence, insights.
"It's funny," Mortensen said, "I've come in and tried to put my best foot forward. To listen to the questions and try to give the best answer at the time. Sometimes I regret it later. And I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't be so straightforward. "
Mortensen gently mimics the thought process of an interviewer. "He's obsessed with trying to get me to believe he's just like me," he says. "I don't want people to think that I got hoodwinked."
Mortensen smiles in a way that can only be described with a word he uses often: compassion.
"Like anyone," he says, "if it's deserved, I'd rather hear that people liked the movie, or liked my work. I'd rather get along with people than not.
"But beyond that I'm not going to try to make you think I'm someone I'm not." Mortensen pauses. "Other than when it's my job in a movie."
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