Mortensen on cowboys
Author: Gabriela Herpell
Publication: Sueddeutsche Zeitung
Date: 03 Apr '04
There it is: the legendary mate.
Then it's true that you always carry your own cup around?
Why this tea, exactly?
It's very invigorating, but it doesn't have the disadvantages of coffee
or black tea. Mate's effects were discovered by South American Indians.
They also think it has healing qualities.
It doesn't look very tasty.
It's not. You have to drink it very strong for it to have an effect
and then it's terribly bitter.
One would think you spend a lot of time reflecting about teas. But the
truth is that you take photographs, write and paint, even
May I give you a book? It's pictures of horses that I took during the
Thank you. It's too bad you're not in them.
No, there is one of myself in there. It's an older one that I added.
I'm ten years old and I'm sitting on a pony, to my left you see my two
little brothers. And that one, on the goat, that's my father.
So that you get the right idea.
You're driving cattle on the photograph. That's good, because we want
to talk about the myth of the cowboy. You come from a horse family.
Yes, and from a goat family.
In Germany we link mate tea, nature and loving gestures with hippies.
Are you a hippy?
Hm. Where are you going with this?
The way you present yourself and the way you play your roles, Aragorn
in Lord of the Rings and now the horse-friend Frank Hopkins: All that
gives the impression of a bit of a hippy.
If you equate closeness to nature and a certain openness with being
a hippy, then I was a hippy and I still am.
The question was not meant to be contemptuous at all, on the contrary.
Hippies did the world a lot of good in many aspects.
But not every hippy enjoys nature and has a certain horizon and not
every person that likes nature and is not totally timid is a hippy.
That's true. And not every guy who has played a cowboy could ride, like
I learned to ride as a kid and I was really good, but I stopped when
I was eleven because we went back to the city. I only jumped on a horse
again for my last movies.
And proceeded to fall off the other side?
Riding is like bike riding: you never forget it. I hadn't expected
At the end of the movie, during the showdown, when you really put on
the speed, you even ride without a saddle. Aren't you afraid of going
at such speeds, riding bareback?
Oh, yes, and how! As a boy I was never afraid even though I fell off
all the time. I would just catch up with the horse and get on it again.
Or I couldn't catch up with the horse and then I would walk home. Now,
when it gets really fast, I often just look at the ground and think: if
something goes wrong right now, it will be terribly painful.
And I always thought it wasn't like that for men.
Men also feel they aren't immortal, at some point. Sure, it's awful
to be afraid. On the other hand, I think it's also healthy - like a
form of self-preservation.
Why can't we see your fear?
When you're riding in a movie, you don't think about the horse between
your legs, you think of acting. That distracts you. During this movie,
I would always hear myself say, sure, I can do that. And then I did
things that I would never do on horseback under normal circumstances.
And which I'll never do again.
bought T.J., the Mustang that you rode for "Hidalgo".
We got along great. I also bought the big dark brown horse that I rode
in Lord of the Rings. A mixed blood.
Do they neigh into your bedroom window in the morning, home at the ranch?
No, unfortunately, they don't. T.J. is staying with a friend of mine
who lives in the country because I have no space for a horse. The other
one is still in New Zealand. I had to ride him for the pick-up shots
and since then, I haven't had time to bring him to California.
So you don't live in the country? To think you're famous for not being
able to stand it in closed spaces for long.
I love nature. But my son Henry was born in Los Angeles, his friends
are there, his school, and he still lives at home. That's why I live in
You've been separated from your wife for a long time. Does your son live
We share it, fifty-fifty.
And that works? Yes, it works great.
Unless you spend a couple of years in New Zealand. Luckily, it was your
son who convinced you to take the role of Aragorn, right?
He knew the story and thought it would be a good idea. I still said
no at first. I'd never read the books and I thought that a fan of the
story would be better for the role. But now I'm glad that I did it.
The shoot went on for several years in which your hair was long and you
had a beard. Your hair is blond again and the beard is gone. How is it,
not looking like Aragorn anymore, after so many years?
It's really, really nice.
actually realize that many women went to see the "Rings" trilogy
with their husbands and children just to look at you in a tight riding
How flattering! I kept an Aragorn costume and a sword as souvenirs.
You don't miss him at all?
There are a couple of things that I miss about playing Aragorn. Like
when we would get ready to shoot every morning, always in the same costumes
and we would joke, that was already a different kind of mutual communication
than what is usual at most shoots. We really spent a lot of time together.
The humidity and the tropical heat of the New Zealand forests surely
helped to bring you closer...
The working conditions were harder than with most shoots. But that's
what is really fun about this profession: You disguise yourself and go
to play, one day in the forest, the other in the desert, and people do
their best so that the game is exciting and authentic. That's a dream!
Every kid would love to live like that. Add the fact that you get to travel
all around the world and gets to look at it through the eyes of the one
you're playing. The world seen from the perspective of a Prime Minister,
a ranger or a Frank Hopkins is very exciting.
Hidalgo is based, according to the publicity, on the true story of a
man who won a 3,000 mile race across the desert with his Mustang, against
thoroughbred Arabians. There is a small scandal surrounding the movie.
Some critics write that the race never took place and that Hopkins invented
at least half the story. Does that bother you, or that's just movies?
Hidalgo is a classic adventure movie. If some people take it as seriously
as the Gospels, the movie gets a subversive component: Some people try
to prove that Frank Hopkins' story isn't accurate. Why? Because they are
as offended as the sheikhs in the movie! Just because a Mustang could
be as good or even better as a noble Arabian horse. That shouldn't be.
It's about the matter of pure breed, which blood is better than the other.
As if these things hadn't brought about enough tragedy. But you in Germany
know that better than anybody.
What other people would have such a vehement interest in the image of
Arabian horses as do the sheikhs?
The discussion about the movie is guided and driven by a couple named
O'Reilly. They belong to the Long Riders Guild, with their seat in Kentucky.
The fastest and most pure-blooded horses in the US are bred there, and
Arabian blood is sacred in their eyes. Mr. and Mrs. O'Reilly are Arabian
fans, they would never ride anything else except an Arabian. They feel
offended in their honor and that of their horses. And how infuriated they
are! They've been busy for the past couple of years trying to prove that
a Mustang could never have won against Arabians. That's a huge fanaticism,
don't you think?
Sure. But what makes you so sure that the story of Frank Hopkins is correct?
I was in Indian reservations in Dakota and Montana, I met a lot of
cowboys and ranchers and Indians when I was preparing for the role.
All of them told me about Frank Hopkins - and these people don't work
for Disney. They say very good things about him, he's a legend and his
horse, too. He just must have been more than a boaster.
You really like him.
Frank Hopkins is the archetype of the American cowboy, who gets thrown
in to this completely different world. But he behaves decently. He's
polite, generous, interested, he respects the other's customs and just
fights back when he has no other choice. He's a nice representative
of his kind. And because he's curious, he has the chance to learn and
That's not what you imagine a cowboy to be, nowadays.
Of course not, that's the problem. The image of the cowboy suffered
a lot in the past years. It started with John Wayne, continued with
Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, and now, with George Bush Jr, it's
at its worst. He uses the cowboy myth to legitimize his political activities.
Are there still cowboys of the right kind?
I've met many. One of them is Rex Peterson, the man who taught me again
how to ride properly. He's just the way I imagined a cowboy as a kid:
an individualist, an adventurer with a free will, curious about everything
life has to offer and of course, unafraid.
A hero. And of course, horses are his best friends. Sure. But don't make
fun of it. I think, for me, it's a positive notion. A cowboy doesn't have
to be American and carry a Stetson.
Parzival was a European cowboy. A samurai is a cowboy. To me, a cowboy
is knightly, even if it sounds old fashioned and you can't really understand
Why do you think I can't really understand it?
It seems that way.
Well, it sounds a bit idealistic. Or let's say, it sounds more like Aragorn
than a cowboy.
I don't think so. Aragorn - aside from the fact that he's a fairy tale
figure - travelled around the world and speaks all the languages and knows
all the cultures. It's easy for him to be liberal and clever. A cowboy
doesn't know the world but he wants to discover it. Still, I know what
you mean. Aragorn and my ideal cowboy are related in their closeness to
nature, their quiet type and their lonesomeness.
You, on the other hand, are one of the most famous Hollywood stars. Do
you actually lead the life that suits you?
Who does? I try to make the best of it. On a day like today, for instance:
I have an interview after another. I could just sit and tell the same
things. But that's terribly boring. It's more fun to really talk to people.
Even when they ask funny questions sometimes.
here's a funny question: You ride very fast in "Hidalgo".
How come your hat doesn't fly off?
You have to pull it really deep on your forehead. That's not funny,
that's the oldest cowboy trick in the world.