Viggo Mortensen quickly rose to fame and sex appeal status playing Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though he's been acting for around 20 years, it was that visible role that put him on the map for women's fantasies and leading man status.
His first official leading role is in Hidalgo, the story of Frank T. Hopkins' adventure as the first Caucasian to participate in a 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert. It suits Mortensen fine as a horse lover.
He seems more loose and comfortable around horses anyway. Mortsensen speaks very softly with the press, as opposed to the sort of bravado his recent characters have presented. Maybe he's a Press Whisperer.
Do you play harmonica? Yeah, I mean, that was me playing, which I don't know if viewing that, you would say I can play the harmonica, but good enough to seem like someone who does it for his own enjoyment I suppose.
Are you a physical guy, for all the action hero roles you play? I've done lots of different kinds of movies. I mean, I've been around a long time compared to a lot of other actors. I mean, I've been working on and off for 20 odd years. It is true that as different as it is, and as different as [director] Joe Johnston's straight ahead old fashioned approach is from Peter Jackson's approach, there are elements of the stories that are somewhat similar. They are ordeals in which a person's character is tested and which a person learns about himself things that they otherwise wouldn't. Those are the kind of movies I sometimes go to see, but they can also be small movies. One of the best movies I saw last year was Whale Rider and that's a heroic journey as well. And it's much more intimate and it's a smaller story in some sense but it's as much an epic journey with mythological underpinnings and it's moving and takes you on a journey as an audience member just as much as Hidalgo.
As a horse enthusiast, could you do most of the riding? I pretty much got to do it. That's because I worked hard with the trainer, with Rex Peterson and with the stunt guy Mike Watson and with all the horses and because I rode as a kid so I was comfortable so they felt it was a worthwhile risk. I'm sure the producers sometimes were sweating it but sometimes you do take some chances in order to get something that you can't really buy otherwise, digitally or otherwise, especially with a movie like this which isn't a special-effects driven movie, you can follow me in one shot without cutting. You can be close on me and see what I'm doing.
Did you have any 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 100 horses and they don't cut their horses over there, in other words, they're not geldings so 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. These horses are sort of unruly and they're already a pretty high-strung breed and we're all packed together 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. 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.
How did you bond with the horse? Whether I bonded or not, he was just involved. In rehearsals he'd be like, I just want to eat. Then they drove camera and do something and we'd say, "Well, God, that was amazing. Was that on film? Was that in focus? Yeah. Lucky. That wasn't in the script but why not?" Then he just kept doing it. We realized that, in a way, it couldn't be total coincidence. He was somehow engaged and relaxed. For a stallion to be that calm.he'd never been on a movie set either. To be that calm and patient and receptive and interested, we were lucky.
Hidalgo vs. Lord of the Rings. What was it like to go from a heavy special effects movie to a mostly real, old-fashioned one? The strength of this movie for me was that like the script, like the blueprint, the end result, because of Joe Johnston's old fashioned approach to telling the story, in terms of moviemaking, he's more like sort of a Howard Hawkes approach. This movie has many virtues, but I think the fact that it respects the audience's intelligence [is its greatest]. You go see this movie and there's a lot you can take from it beyond the pure adventure side of it, you know. He just did what the best directors used to do which is get the best cinematographer you can get, get the best cast you can, shoot in great locations and go the effort to go to South Dakota and use Lakota people and do that stuff right. Make a really good thing out of the Buffalo Bill and the Wild West show even though you're not there that long. The details, the look, the design, he did everything right. But don't let any one aspect jump out or call attention. Don't show off. Tell the story in a straight ahead away, and then there's a lot better chance that the audience can find things in their for themselves. There are a lot of layers under it. I mean, it's both an adventure and at the same time a though provoking movie that leaves you, among many things for me anyway, thinking that people are people. [Some movies] think okay, it's now, you gotta do something new. You gotta go special effects crazy or in the violence or it's gotta be showier kind of acting or even actors. I don't know if they feel the pressure or it's more to get attention. It's almost like the difference between tabloid movie coverage and serious criticism is now more and more blurred. So you find performances, actors and actresses going way over the top just to get attention for themselves. It may not be appropriate for the movie. It may not help the story but it gets them some work and some money and some magazine coverage. Fine, it can be interesting sometimes and funny. But is it something that I'm interested in going and seeing more than once? Probably not.
How selective are you getting about roles? I don't really have a plan. I don't have much time to think about it right now. Honestly, I'm doing this [press] every day. Doesn't leave much time and at the end of the day I'm pretty tired. I don't have time to even think about it. I'm talking to you, how can I read a script even? I don't really plan it. I didn't plan to do this after Lord of the Rings. I certainly didn't plan to do a big epic story. I'm just looking as always for something that's stimulating and I hope to find a good story that's a challenge, whether it's big or small. Or that it finds me. I don't have like a career plan. Maybe I should, but I don't.
How do you look back on Lord of the Rings? You look back at it now,
it's like oh, of course. But it was a gamble to have a largely totally
unknown cast. Most moviegoers didn't know most of the people in that
movie. Same as with this one. I mean, it's being sold with the big head
poster because of the Lord of the Rings thing no doubt. But you've seen
the movie and you can see that it's an ensemble and there are really
good performances and really interesting actors and actresses in it,
most of whom - apart from Omar Sharif and Malcolm McDowell who was in
it for a bit - you don't know these people. And it's going to be similar
I think because of the strong reaction I think that those people, Zuleikha
[Robinson], Louise [Lombard] were great. And Silas [Carson] who plays
Katib and Harsh [Nayyar] who plays Yusef. All of these characters, Adam
[Alexi-Malle], Peter [Mensah], Adoni [Maropis], who plays the guy with
the falcon, did a great job I think. I mean, all those people are going
to get work out of this I think, in the same way. And that's a gamble
for a studio to do that. They're just pinning it on this one guy that
happened to be in the one popular movie. And you've got Omar Sharif
in there which is great, but I guess it's a gamble and it was nice that
they trusted Joe Johnston to cast the rest of the movie in the way that
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