Viggo Mortensen is only now starting to wind down from the nearly four-year marathon that was The Lord of the Rings.
"I haven't had a chance to decompress yet," he says with a laugh from Los Angeles. "Give me another couple of months."
No more swordfighting or J.R.R. Tolkien dialogue to wrap his mouth around. No more pursuing of a fairy princess, and avoiding the pursuit of a shield maiden.
No more galloping to the rescue.
Whoa, big fella. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Mortensen may have relished finishing the Rings cycle. But he wasn't that anxious to hop out of the saddle. His first post-Rings film, Hidalgo, has Aragorn on horseback once again. A lot.
A natural loner, Mortensen developed a reputation for keeping to himself on The Lord of the Rings. "He has a certain sort of stillness or mystery" built on his reticence to let anybody else in, co-star Miranda Otto told The Toronto Sun.
But the "loner" bit doesn't extend to four-footed friends.
"I got along really well with the horses in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, the chestnut and the bay," he says. If you like horses, you probably want to make a Western, saddle sore or not. Mortensen figured if he was going to ever do another one (he had a small role in Young Guns II in 1990), "I'd better do it while I still had my 'seat.' "
Hidalgo, which opened Friday, is an old-fashioned Western with a modern sensibility. It's about a half-Indian express rider and long-distance horse racer who takes his mustang to 1890 Arabia to match himself and his horse, Hidalgo, against the best purebreds -- Arabians -- in the world.
Mortensen, newly crowned superstar, could have chosen any number of subjects for his next film. Famous for his chiseled features, he has played soft and sensitive (The Portrait of a Lady, 1996) and hard-bitten (G.I. Jane 1997).
His Rings colleagues have run out and grabbed the most anti-Tolkien roles they could find. Sean Astin is a lisping body-builder in Adam Sandler's 50 First Dates. Elijah Wood plays a lovesick memory eraser in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new film from the writer of Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman. And Liv Tyler co-stars in Kevin Smith's fatherhood romance, Jersey Girl.
But Mortensen wanted "an old-fashioned adventure story that happens to be thought provoking," he says. And if the filming, -- in the deserts of America and Morocco -- promised to be grueling, so much the better. Mortensen likes grueling.
"After all that time in New Zealand shooting the trilogy, you weren't going to hear me complain about the amount of time it took to make Hidalgo," he says, laughing. "Physical hardships are all relative after you've made The Lord of the Rings. But that kind of test suits me. And I'm someone who likes those kinds of stories, outdoor adventures. If you're telling the story of an ordeal and in telling that story you don't go through a little of an ordeal yourself, you're probably cheating. You're not doing it justice."
Remember those rumors about the loner Mortensen trekking off into the New Zealand wilderness to camp and rough it in order to get into character? True. For Hidalgo, he criss-crossed the country, visiting ranches and Indian reservations, collecting oral histories of his character, Frank Hopkins. And he spent a lot of time in the saddle. "Because any time you're playing a guy on horseback and they don't have to cut away when you're racing, it helps the movie."
Mortensen, 45, doesn't appear to have let the whole matinee idol thing get to him. He seems just as soft-spoken and modest as he did when all he had to talk about was a supporting part in Crimson Tide (1995) or the third-billed lead in A Perfect Murder (1998). There's a touch of the Byronic in him -- dark and enigmatic, he's a published poet and an accomplished jazz musician, painter and photographer. And none of those traits was out of place in playing real-life cowboy and mustang enthusiast Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo.
" I love cowboys, especially a cowboy story that does well by them," he says. "Some people have the mistaken impression that portraying a cowboy means being an individual at the expense of other individuals. I never found that to be true
As on The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen spent most of his time on Hidalgo hanging with the horse people, the wranglers and stuntmen who reminded him of the real cowboys he'd met when researching his role.
Real cowboys "make allowances for other people to have their own point of view. Just like Frank Hopkins says at the starting line, when one of the other riders says 'You don't belong here,' all Frank can say back is, 'Well, good luck to you too.'"
Set as it is in the Middle East, Mortensen realizes his film will take on meanings that might not have been intended when the project was started years ago.
"It's just a coincidence," he says. "But since people are going to think that, I am happy that the movie presents Americans in a good light. Like the young men and women serving in that part of the world, I think it's important that we represent the country in a good way, try to be respectful when we come into contact with these different cultures.
"A lot of times, studio movies about the Third World or the Arab world have an American trying to show foreign people how to do things 'the American way.' That's not what this story is about. I think it's a little more open-minded, more interesting and more realistic in some way."
Though the film is earning mixed reviews for its "corny" plot and cardboard villains, Mortensen has won praise for his sensitive take on Hopkins. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, critic Kirk Honeycutt said that "Mortensen gives Frank. . . a quiet reserve and dignity that works well in playing the reluctant hero."
And Mortensen has to be happy that he looks so at home in the saddle.
"I don't think you are ever, unless you're drunk, as fearless in the saddle as you are when you're a kid," he says with a chuckle. "When you're a boy or a girl, you don't worry about death or getting maimed. When you're older, it takes a while to get comfortable enough to let 'er rip.
"You're tearing along, bareback, for a shot, and you have a thought. 'At this speed, on rocky ground, I'd be really sorry if I fell off. What was I thinking when I said I'd do this?' It was exhilarating."
He laughs, and not just because he'd passed this latest test. He chuckles because he remembers that maybe it wouldn't have been the end of the world if had fallen. He knows who the star of the movie is.
I'm not the title character. I'm riding him."
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