Singin' in the Reigns

Author: Emily Blunt
Publication: The Blunt Review
Date: Mar '04

Call him a renaissance man please. This multi-facetted manlyberry studmuffin says, "I like life and don't want to miss any of it." How great is that? He's got that delightful "Singin' in the Rain" persona so rare these days! And there's not going to be any of that shoulda woulda coulda for ol' Viggo when he's sixty-four relaxing with a smoke, reclined in his handcarved New Zealand Aotearoa wood rocking chair, no siree Bob.

When my friends heard I was to meet Viggo - The King - Mortensen the fluttering started. I was offered a small (house-broken) youngin' by one of the gals if I'd allow her to play my "photographer "...Others advised - with manical eyebrows perched in a vortex shape of impending doom - Vig is a tad "eccentric," and warned me to be aware of an exit...

Well, if being completely interesting, speaking of animals as equal beings, and having a million diversified interests makes one "eccentric?" I am afraid we are kindred souls.

Viggo, or as I now like to refer to him, "Viggy Von Schnitzelustahla," showed up with a napsack of presents. Purr. He's a phographer among his oodles of talents, and thought I'd enjoy some of his photo books relating to his latest western role in Hidalgo. Could this guy be sweeter? Um, no. He's like a heaping serving of a triple blueberry hazelnut frangipane smørrebrød sweet!

So without further ado, "Let 'er Buck!"

You seem very comfortable around animals. Yet you always hear never work with animals or kids.
I've never agreed with that. In the last 20 years I've worked with babies and infants and adolescents, dogs, cats, horses. I don't think it's true - I mean like human actors, the more interesting they are the more interesting your interaction has a chance to be. If you're open to it. But, if you're resistant or jealous of their abilities, or talent, or their presence, then you're not gonna be comfortable.

You're also looking very confident atop the horse again. Did you ride before Lord of the Rings? - maybe back in Argentina as a kid?
Yeah. When I was a boy I rode a lot until I was about eleven and then I didn't until I was in my twenties, and moved away from there. There were a couple of times where there was a horse somewhere and I might have jumped on a few times, but I didn't ride regularly. In Young Guns II - I had a small stint on that - and got to ride there. Of course then again twelve years later on Lord of the Rings and again here.

But you did train for Hidalgo, right?
Yeah, I had to. The main part of my preparation apart from what I did on my own in terms of the historical period and trying to get the cowboy thing right. I already had an interest in Native American culture and it was important to me to seem as fluent in Lakota as in English and I made that effort but I really spent most of my time on horseback.

You're flying around in this - it was a stunt double right?
Yeah, this guy Mike Watson. He was a pretty good double for me and he always tried the difficult stuff before I would do it but with a few exceptions I pretty much got to do most of it and you can see that on film. Which is nice for the director, it doesn't always happen but because I had a horse background it made it relatively safe to do those scenes. I mean it's always dangerous, even if you're a good rider stuff can always go wrong but to not have to cut away, to be able to be up close on someone doing something that's obviously dangerous is a nice extra thing for the director. Just like having a horse like we had in TJ who played Hidalgo and has so much presence, you get a real personality. You get a performance from this horse. In other movies like Seabiscuit you either don't get to know them in that way or it's animatronics or something. Here it's just a horse being a horse.

So no accidents?
I was lucky. Apart from getting really sore, I didn't have any really bad spills or anything. If you know horses, the most dangerous thing we did apart from the bareback stuff, was the start of the race. When you have a hundred horses and they don't cut their horses over there. In other words, they're not geldings so a 100 odd stallions and the Arabians over there, unlike the way they work with them here or in Spain or England or anywhere else, they just let the stallions fight. They're sort of unruly these horses and they're already a pretty high-strung breed and we're all packed together knee and once the horses realize what we're up to, they're all wanting to go and they're all wanting to kill each other. I'm on this little horse, which is effective visually because he's strong, but even though he's little he's got all this personality. He's a stallion who thinks he's pretty tough so he's wanting to pick fights. It was really the most worrisome moment in a way of the whole movie, was that, not this full-tilt stuff that was kinda scary at times. Some people did get hurt. We only did a few takes in those high winds and stuff and this one horse in particular just went somersaulting and the guy got run over and got hurt really bad but five months later he was back doing more riding. We were lucky considering. That start of the race was something Rex Peterson was having nightmares about. Once it was over, he was greatly relieved.

It's so rare to have a American Indian Reservation open up the way they did . Can you talk about going to the reservation and learning the Lakota language?
Viggo: Sure. I've been up there several times. One of the many things that interested me about this project was Native American tribes particularly Lakotas, I'd read about them and played around with the idea of being a cowboy or an Indian as a kid. Here I got to do both. The first time I went to the Pine Ridge reservation and crossed the border to Fort Robinson, NE where Crazy Horse was killed. I've been to Dakota and Wyoming many times because I have an interest and they have great museums there. I'm related to Bill Cody on my mom's side. I was interested in that part of the country and that period in history, particularly the 19th century and those tribes. I'd been to Pine Ridge for the first time in '85, but as an outsider. They were cool about it.

That's very rare though. To be allowed such access - a studio.
Viggo: Yeah, you're right. They had unprecedented access. I went up to meet Sonny Richards who taught me to speak what I had to speak and to sing. Gradually they let me and , when they saw I they let me in when they saw I was not intending any harm and that I was being respectful. I got to ride with them before the shoot and go into the hills with a horsemen and horsewomen. After the shoot I went back as part of the Big Foot Ride. Now, I have friendships. And I think they were taken with the fact that a big studio made that effort. A sequence they could have shot on in any studio, they could have gone somewhere in CA with whoever. But they went up there and shot up there with not only Lakota people but some of the descendants of people who were killed or survived the massacre at Wounded Knee. Everything was done with care and the book and CD [he gave me this cd with him chatting at a stable on the subject = insta-treasure], and Miyelo speaks to that.

Can you go back a sec? Tell me how your mother is related to Buffalo Bill Cody?
It goes back to her mom and a connection with a family called Chapman and Cody, my mom's family side of the family is really interesting that way, she's related to Bill Cody and John Chapman who's Johnny Appleseed. He's a real mythical character! It would be interesting I'd like to make a good version of Johnny Appleseed. [maybe Viggo could use Joe Strummer's 'Johnny Appleseed' song I thought...]

Did you write the song you sang ? Sorry if I'm naïve...
No. No, That's a song that belonged to - if that's the way to put it - that belonged to a medicine man Fool's Crow. He's very famous. Miyelo means "It is I" and it was perfect for that sequence - it's a moment where you know your DONE and saying, "Here I am. I present myself, tell me what you want. I am listening." The guys did it in their special way too! They asked permission to use that song. Not that they couldn't have done it anyway, you know what I'm saying? It was done in the right way. The scene is real. Just like when those guys [Lakota] would do it, by the end of the day, after they did it all day long their voices would be raspy. What I liked is Joe used that raw footage. He didn't "fix" it later. He was like, "Let it be."

But that was you playing harmonica?
Yeah, I mean, that was me playing, which I don't know if viewing that, you would say I can play the harmonica, [laughter] but good enough to seem like someone who does it for his own enjoyment I suppose.

What things drew you into this character?
Many. The ones I've mentioned in terms of the cultures and all that and the west but North America…Especially as the United States, as a people. The 19th century that's ten years or less before the Spanish Am war. And the U.S. has reached both oceans, taken what they could from Mex. And now they're starting to look outside their borders at the rest of the world to see the rest of the world for what their place is. For better or worse. For the next 100 hundred years, that was the beginning of this super power. It's an interesting period. Especially in a big Hollywood movie. To have an American an architect, a cowboy, go over seas at that time. He goes over seas to a place he doesn't really know about. Fortunately in this story, he doesn't go to spread Americanism, or something, he goes on invitation, not that everyone welcomes him. And he goes with an open mind. I mean, where he's ignorant - and that's a lot - how could he know anything about that. Lady Anne and her husband are as foreign to him asthe Muslim people. It's different worlds. But, whatever he lacks in information he makes up for by being more curios, more interested. It's not a typical exchange. The Arab cultural is treated with respect in this movie. Cowboys are too. The exchange that you see at the starting line when the Arab man comes up and says, "It's sacrilege you're in this race with that imitation of a horse! And Frank says, "Well, Good luck to you too!" you know it's individualism. A lot of places here and over seas think of cowboys in a negative way. They are into individualism is stubborn puts done other's points of view. I haven't seen that in cowboys. That's certainly not the cowboys I thought of when I was a little kid. The might be confused or perplexed- I mean working on this movie [with cowboys] I learned too that they're not going to tell you can't do it that way. That goes a long way about being open minded - I like that about this story.

I hear you and T'J., one of the Hidalgo horses, are now co-habitating. You bought him?
Yeah. Now I have two. I brought home my horse from Lord of the Rings too. T.J. had a strong personality. He was smaller than the other horses and like a dog he thought he was BIG. Like the dachshunds that run around chasing big dogs. He's very smart. He's good at pretending he didn't hear you. He's very lazy. He definately had a personality! I thought, "This is going to be a chore!" But we got to know each other and he's a smart animal. You're not going to be able to lie to that horse. You need to ask nicely. T.J.'s just outside of LA. At a friend's place who has a horse also. The one in New Zealand I haven't brought over yet because they were doing reshoots last fall even and I had to figure it out. I've been on tour for now the second movie in a row without stopping so I need to let the dust settle and go back there.

That is very sweet you know! Some keep props, you keep horses?
[laughter] I just had a good streak of luck I think. I've just worked with very good horses or got to be really good friends with them, I guess. Or maybe it's just because horses are interesting people.

You love art. Is it fair to ask which of all your passions is closest to your heart; the art, photography, music
I like them all equally I think. They're all kind of the same impulse. It's a way to disengage sometimes when I'm on a movie set, I'll go do that or write something. It gets harder to keep track. Art lets my take part in my own life. Which sounds weird - your in your own life - but I mean most of us, certainly myself, if I don't take some effort to be involved my life goes by and I don't remember to hear, or see or be involved.

That's actually very touching and true. Life's short - enjoy! Do you see your career as pre-Lord of the Rings and post-Lord of the Rings? It's your head on the poster.
That's marketing! That poster certainly wasn't in the lunch tent everyday saying, "Don't forget we're making the big fat head poster movie!" No, it was the way movies are sold. I understand. A lot of people know Omar Sharif and me. But myself, I was in a movie that's done so well. I think this was a lot like an ensemble, like Lord of the Rings. And like Lord of the Rings a largely unknown cast was a part of it, very fine actors and actors.

So are you uncomfortable calling yourself a superstar?
Viggo: I don't know if I've ever called myself that. I just don't. I've been around for 20 years and I was in a project that made billions of dollars. So everyone involved in that has more opportunities for work. I mean it makes sense when something makes that much money- you'll get more opportunities but it's up to you what you do with them.

What's this buzz about more Lord of the Rings footage?
There is going to be almost an hour more on the DVD because a lot of those characters had their stories sacrificed for length. It was just a hard thing for Peter to do.

Can you talk about the man behind your character; the real Frank Hopkins?
I had still photos of him. And it was really John Fusco [screenwriter] that did the homework. Whether you talk to white horsemen of Indian decent they all talk about Frank's horsemanship. He was years ahead in his horse training techniques. That's really impressive. They still talk about his ways. The talk through the generations. People who to their history really have no reason to comment on this "white" guy and his abilities with horses. I find very interesting.

You're very international - even a bit of a manly mystery - And your name is a handsome "foreign" name. You speak English, Danish, Spanish and Elf - what, if any of them - do you feel more like?
[laughter] I was raised in different places. I have family in Denmark. I feel like a human being. In the end no matter how different we are, people are people. And that's one of the things you get [in Hidalgo] without it being a message movie.

Bravo. How was the locust lunch?
Fine.You know...[laughter]

So was Lord of the Rings your destiny?
You mean that I was picked last? [laughter] I don't know. You've got to be lucky in this business. I have a lot of friends who are really good, who I've worked with who are really good and they don't make a steady living at it. I don't know why that is and I can't really explain it. So you can work real hard and still not have a career. You've got to be lucky. I got Lord of the Rings and as a consequence got this.

What's next? [now thoroughly smitten with this charmer, I think but don't speak, "Perhaps a long vacation, just you, me, T.J and a tent? Where, through the stillness of the morning breeze you hear..."Hey, leggo my eggo Viggo!"]
Well, I'm doing this for the next few months so I don't know. And I didn't plan to do Hidalgo. I don't plan very much. It was one of those things that came my way by luck, and work and so forth. People are going to say stuff but I'm not signed up to do anything at this point. I'm interested in stories where I can learn something. If I'm a little bit wary or nervous about it? That's a good sign.

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