Surprise No 1: For someone who is a superstar and part of a film awarded 11 Oscars he appears shy. Surpise No 2: Viggo Mortensen is much more beautiful and younger looking than Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Clean shaven with short hair and a rebel spike wearing an extremely chic green suit. Surprise No 3: he clings onto an old gym bag. But......
Hidalgo is an interesting story set in an interesting period: at the end of the 19th century, a time of transition for America with the disappearance of the "Wild West". Viggo starts relating while he pulls stuff out of his mysterious bag: a cup carved from a squash, some dried leaves, hot water: his maté is ready: the invigorating Argentinian tea that reminds him of his childhood in Buenos Aires where his father (Danish) and his mother (American) had moved because of work shortly after Viggo was born in New York.
He must have noticed my questioning expression because he hurries to explain "I try to live every moment fully. Now I’m here, I want to take take my time and give carefully weighed answers to questions I don’t know."
Wise Viggo, he doesn’t fall into the trap that John Lennon talked about (Life is something that happens when you’re busy doing something else)
"It’s also in a way the philosophy of the character Frank T. Hopkins in Hidalgo (a real person, a cowboy who won long-distance endurance races on horseback) The Indians called him "The man who runs away" because he couldn’t find peace, he tried to run away from the reality which he didn’t feel comfortable with: the soldiers who massacred defenceless Indians like at Wounded Knee. Until one day he decides to say "stop", tries to find a meaning to his life and accepts the invitation from a sheikh (Omar Sharif) to participate in a race across the Arabian desert on his Mustang (a horse of mixed breed) against the unbeatable pure-blooded Arab horses. He doesn’t go over there with the American conquering attitude, on the contrary he is curious to learn about the different cultures (thus getting to know himself better)."
This explanation is not in vain, as someone claimed the film supports Bush (of course the cowboy wins against the Arab princes). If this was the case Viggo Mortensen wouldn’t have been asked to play the lead role - Viggo takes every opportunity to show his disapproval of the current American administration and of the war against Iraq.
"Hidalgo was already written before September 11th 2001 and was filmed before the invasion of our troops," he continues whilst rummaging through his bag taking out a strange metal straw (bombilla – another part of his maté kit). "Like Hopkins I too am curious about people: my life is a continual attempt at learning more. Having this mantra together with an actor’s job is a huge privilege: I can travel to remote countries, learn new languages. Yes I know Italian."
As well as Spanish (in which he has a degree), French and three or four other languages. The amazing thing is that Viggo is not just multi-lingual (polyglot) but also multi-talented: he is a photographer, a painter (the paintings in A Perfect Murder where Viggo played Gwyneth Paltrow’s lover were Viggo’s) a poet, a publisher, and a jazz musician (having made at least 4 cds). He tones it all down.
"They are all art forms that have the same roots in the desire of self-expression and living life. One thing doesn’t exclude the other: when I’m on a film set I can take photographs and when I play music I can paint."
In life it’s more important to participate than to win.....
"If you don’t take part you can’t win: therefore it’s more important to participate." And finally he laughs, Viggo who rarely sheds his deeply melancholic look. Now, at least at the cinema, he always wins: after 20 years of "low ranking" and bad-guy roles thanks to The Lord of the Rings he is only shown as a hero. But who are the real heroes of today?
"I believe they are the same as they always have been: persons who get to know something, and although difficult they admit it, even if it is to the government. They still have the courage of being sincere even though it might mean they become unpopular or lose out." (all references to real facts are not purely coincidental)
Oh well lack of popularity is not really your problem! How did the success of The Lord of the Rings change your life?
"Obviously in several ways. If I hadn’t been in The Lord of the Rings I wouldn’t have got the part of Hopkins. There is much more interest in my painting and photo exhibitions, the books I publish and my poetry readings than before. However I haven’t changed my life philosophy: I don’t make plans and I let the right things happen of their own accord."
To keep your feet on the ground - has it been an advantage being successful when you ’re ..
"OLD?!" the magnificent 45 year old interrupts.
Not old but neither very young...
"Yes for me it’s been better getting this public attention after having already learnt a lot and made a lot of mistakes. Today I’m more comfortable with the cast and the press. But that’s not the same for everyone: Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom are boys, but already very good at this."
Weren’t you comfortable with the press?
"I didn’t like the interviews: I think it was due to the fact that I had to present films which ultimately I didn’t believe in. Talking about Hidalgo isn’t hard, just as talking about The Lord of the Rings wasn’t because I love these films very much."
Yes it’s true that all actors say this when they’re on promotion tours, but Viggo really is sincere. The proof? At the end of filming Hidalgo he bought the horse-actor TJ. "as a keepsake"; he had previously bought Aragorn’s 2 steeds. Riding is a passion he has had since childhood, and the fact that Viggo is a skilled rider adds more than a little to his charm.
While we’re on the subject, is it fun or annoying being considered a sex-symbol?
"It doesn’t interfere with my life, but it’s satisfying: I guess it’s better to be considered a sex-symbol than an incredibly ugly man!" he laughs heartily.
What really is important to him is being a good father. In his contracts he always asks for Halloween off, so he can spend the day with his son Henry (aged 16, his mother is Exene Cervenka singer in the punk band X). And Henry returns a lot of attention: if it weren’t for him Viggo would probably never have been in The Lord of the Rings. When director Peter Jackson called Viggo from New Zealand, after regretting his choice of "the too young" Stuart Townsend as Aragorn, and asked him to get on the next plane, Viggo had never heard of Tolkien or his saga. It was Henry who told Viggo that it was a fantastic story and he had to do it. Finally a stroke of luck for the actor who has experienced being cut out in the editing phase. (The most significant in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo)
One last question: your fans ask whether you’re available or in a relationship?
"Well I’m not exactly available, but I’m not in a relationship." he sniggers...an international star... and gives a good lesson to those who after five minutes of stardom would hide behind the answer "I don’t talk about my private life."
And the interview isn’t over here: Viggo opens his bag again and gets out his book The Horse is Good with photographs of horses shot on the set of Hidalgo. He writes a dedication "Thank you Laura, Viggo Mortensen"
Thank you Laura? Thank YOU Viggo!
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