Reining in success after the Rings
On crossing cultures, telling stories and being a cowboy

Author: Ally Burguieres
Publication: Diamondback
Date: 26 Feb '04

After completing a stroll around the carpeted corridors of the Ritz-Carlton in his socks, Viggo Mortensen enters the room and blends in effortlessly among the mini Napoleans, gourmet cookies and organic sewn-around-the-edges tea bags.

Class seems to follow Mortensen around. Like a trail of fans, you can imagine him not really noticing it's there. If you're a fan and you ask for an autograph, he won't turn you down. If you're a cream puff and you happen to be in his marble-lined hotel room, he'll eat you. But he won't be searching for you and he won't build his life around you. Instead, he'll build his life around art and fighting for the underdog. And talking.

"I never expected to do as much talking about moviemaking as I've had to do in the past couple of years," Mortensen says, taking in his surroundings. "But events or circumstances have conspired to make it the thing that I do more than making movies lately."

There are certain things that go through your mind as he talks. First, you listen. Then you start to psyche yourself out by thinking, "Wow, I'm talking to Aragorn." When that thrill wears off (or when he catches you staring wide-eyed and you feel horribly exposed because he probably knows exactly what you were thinking), you wonder how he has time to accomplish so much. Besides still riding the wave of The Lord of the Rings fame, the man has poetry CDs, mounds of acclaimed photographs and a painting exhibition in Denmark at this very moment. But it might not be so impossible - if Mortensen paints as fast as he talks, he probably finds himself with a lot of spare time (I clocked him at a steady 100 words per minute for 45 minutes straight).

As he pours himself a drink, Mortensen settles into the large plush chair for a long discussion about Arab culture, American Indians, horses and everything you would ever want to know about the deep meaning behind his new movie, Hidalgo.

"It's a story that to me, without being a 'message movie' or political in any way, does speak to the fact that it makes a lot of sense to try to find common ground with other people," he says, revealing his propensity for philosophizing. "You can ignore that fact your whole life, but as soon as you separate yourself, you're depriving yourself of the experience of getting to know other people."

Hidalgo, named after a Spanish mustang, is based on the true story of Frank Hopkins, a Pony Express distance rider related to the Lakota tribe who was invited to participate in the 3,000-mile "Ocean of Fire" race across the Arabian desert in 1890. The race pits the best purebred Arabian horses and their riders against each other in a high-stakes competition that breeds adventure, suspense and drama. The culture clash and the presence of a western cowboy with his mixed-blood mustang among high-society Arabs and their purebred horses only heightens the tension - on- and off-screen.

"You see that poster, you see the trailer, and you say, 'Oh, God, not another movie like that - cowboy goes over there, he's gonna solve the problems or he's gonna tell 'em what to do,'" Mortensen says, keenly aware of the misconceptions that could arise.

For Mortensen, the point is not the facts of the story but the themes and insights they can offer into the human condition. "Yes, it's an adventure story and it's entertainment," Mortensen concedes. "It's not a documentary; it's a story which shows you how storytelling in many ways connects people."

The devotion to the craft of storytelling resulted in a blatant but good-natured exaggeration of facts on a few occasions.

"There was something that we threw in, we just made up, that's really ridiculous if you know anything about horses," Mortensen says and smiles a little, preparing to share some of the private jokes and liberties taken on-set. "The goat herder says to him, 'I was born to be a goat herder - you were not born to win this race.' And [Frank] turns around and says, 'You know, I once had a three-legged colt - it was born that way, and it turned out to be the best roping horse I ever had,' Mortensen laughs out loud. "Which is absurd. ... That's just a line I made up to say, 'Don't count yourself out, ever.'"

But Mortensen is careful to make sure the film stays true to the "spirit" of Hopkins, and that he does not betray those for whom Hopkins is a legend. "I found that people, older people, still talk about him and about Hidalgo. There was one woman who was 94, 95, and she talked about being a little girl and meeting Frank Hopkins," Mortensen says, obviously harboring a respect for the story and those who keep the tradition alive. "There's a tradition of speaking about him and his experiences with horses and his connection to the people, beyond what you can find written."

As the film follows Hopkins through conflict and adventure, the common thread between Mortensen's role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his current incarnation as a cowboy becomes more apparent. Mortensen attributes the similarities to the fact that both stories are built around "that same classic story that in different guises has been told for thousands of years." He notes "The Lord of the Rings is a retelling of J.R.R. Tolkien's story, which is a retelling of fragments of many different stories that you don't need to know because they are part of our psyche, really, as people." A key element in every story, Mortensen believes, is conflict.

"[Conflict] erases all those boundaries. It could be as simple as a flat tire at 2 in the morning in a certain D.C. neighborhood; it doesn't matter where, and you don't know who to call or what to do. You might be really angry about it or whatever, but the fact is, everything is crystal clear for that moment," Mortensen says with the tone of someone familiar with these moments of conflict. "I think people, to some degree, consciously or otherwise, go to movies like this looking for a taste of that."

Even with the controversy surrounding the film, the man who brought Aragorn to life is clearly excited about his new project. The story of Hopkins, he asserts, is important even for the people who decide to have conflict with it, as out of their conflict may rise something meaningful.

"Maybe if certain people disagree with it," he says with the sly smile of someone who has created a catch-22, "they'll go out and tell their story."







































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