Viggo Mortensen is a picture of serenity: Seated cross-legged, shoeless. Snorkeling South American green tea from a terra-cotta water pipe. The tea is called "mate," and it contains caffeine. But the bed-headed Mr. Mortensen had yet to feel its jolt on this morning last month.
In the lounge of a suite at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, we're discussing — he rambling, me nodding — "Hidalgo," a panoramic Disney adventure in which Mr. Mortensen plays the endurance horse rider Frank T. Hopkins, who legend says competed in a long-distance race across the Arabian Desert in 1890.
Mr. Hopkins, who died in 1951, also was said to have had Sioux blood.
Triangulating between three cultures — cowboys and Indians and Arabs — "Hidalgo" gives Mr. Mortensen ample reason to share discursive nostrums that read like run-on fortune cookies.
To reclaim the cowboy ideal as embodied in the legend of Frank T. Hopkins from a certain part-time resident of Crawford, Texas, he says: "When your individualism has to do with finding yourself and behaving with dignity in the world, then you are finding a place in the world and you are respecting the individualism of others.
"But when individualism such as we see sometimes by personalities in our country and people that govern ... "
The hint is dropped subtly. What he really wants to say is: Bush. Iraq. War. Unilateralism.
Mr. Mortensen continues: "When your individualism necessarily involves crushing or preventing others from having their own individual experience — whether they be individuals or nations — then you're doing something quite different."
This kind of thing — muddled generalities, name-calling minus the names, eggshell-walking, conflating of individuals and nations — continues for a good 15 minutes.
Mr. Mortensen is behaving well, but clearly itching to talk politics. Then the subject of Michael Medved comes up. At that, the legs come uncrossed. The soft voice perks up a few decibels. The mate tea sits untouched.
He leans in. "Michael Medved dredged this up to essentially get himself a little attention in his right-wing circles," he says. "I think it was pretty pathetic."
For about a month, Viggo Mortensen became a bogeyman for rightward-leaning culture watchers who hold J.R.R. Tolkien and the "Rings" series near and dear to their hearts. As Mr. Mortensen puts it, Mr. Medved, a film critic and syndicated radio talk show host, accused him of "ruining 'Lord of the Rings.' " Of course, no mortal could "ruin" the juggernaut that is the "Lord of the Rings" franchise — witness last Sunday's Oscar sweep — but Mr. Medved, in a column for USA Today and JewishWorldReview.com, did say Mr. Mortensen polluted the movie with politics.
"Viggo Mortensen ... has used the publicity platform provided by his role to trumpet his anti-war and anti-Bush views," Mr. Medved wrote.
The scuffle started when Mr. Mortensen appeared, elegantly disheveled, on the January cover of Vanity Fair magazine. In the article, Mr. Mortensen said America's efforts in Iraq represented "the bottom of humanity," that the Bush administration had been deliberately cruel and dishonest. The cover spread set Mr. Medved off on an angry recollection of over a year's worth of Mortensen mau-mauing. There was the "No More Blood for Oil" T-shirt, worn at various promotional appearances, including on "The Charlie Rose Show" in December 2002. There was the poetry reading at an antiwar rally in Washington sponsored by the left-wing group International ANSWER.
Mr. Mortensen's original poem, titled "Back to Babylon," was "interminable"; the performance was "embarrassing" and "befuddled" in Mr. Medved's view.
Worse was his decidedly odd interpretation of Mr. Tolkien's masterpiece: He saw it not as an epic story of good confronting evil, but instead as an allegory for United Nation-style multilateralism. As the pundit Andrew Sullivan put it recently: "I caught Mortensen on TV the other night saying that the 'Lord of the Rings' was all about bringing people together, eschewing violence, promoting peace ..."
His sum opinion of Mr. Mortensen: "Poor guy. Cute, but dumb as a post."
Meanwhile, "Rings" co-star John Rhys-Davies was taking a different line, unintentionally creating a Mortensen versus Rhys-Davies media duel.
"I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged, and if they do not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization," he said at a press junket late last year for "The Return of the King."
By this point, Mr. Mortensen is in full exasperation.
"Civilization necessarily is the West and the East is uncivilized: It's incredible that people even talk that way," he says.
He sets the record straight on his opposition to the war on Iraq: "It doesn't matter what your persuasion is; the facts are the facts. What I said — 'Can we even talk about this, [instead of] this headlong rush when there's no proof of anything?' — has certainly been borne out. There wasn't anything I said that was treasonous or anything wrong with saying that people should have the right to have discourse. That's all I said."
One more thing, he says: "I think — I know — I didn't miss the point about Tolkien."
Our time is up.
Frank T. Hopkins and his trusty mustang will have to wait for the next reporter. Thankfully, he says, "Hidalgo" "is not about politics at all."
Come to think, he's sorry our conversation "devolved" in that direction. He returns to his green tea, but wants to make sure of one thing before we part.
"That stuff about what conservatives said, is that something you agree with? I'm just curious. "
Actually, there are two things: "Just so you know, John Rhys-Davies and I are the best of friends."
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