Author: Staci Layne Wilson
Publication: American Western Magazine
Date: Mar '04
Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins in the new "Western by
way of Arabia" action adventure film from Disney. He took a few
minutes out of his busy schedule to talk about the movie, and the
controversy surrounding the man vs. the legend as he's portrayed in
Hidalgo is a horsy adventure which will appeal to kids, but some of
it is rather violent. What age do you think this movie is best for?
You probably should ask [director] Joe Johnston that. I'll pass the
ball because I don't really think of the audience when I'm working,
at all. I figure that if I make a sincere effort to learn as much as
I can about the subject, about the story and about the character I'm
playing and do my best to contribute to the storytelling, to be helpful
and open to reacting to what's going on when I get to the set, to in
the words of Sidney Lumet make the best possible preparations for accidents
to happen, then I'm doing my job. And if we get it right and it's put
together right, then there's a good chance that people will gravitate
toward it. I know the studio needs to think I suppose of demographics
in even green lighting a movie. Well, is this gonna appeal to enough
people? Is it worth the money? That's why I think a lot of big budget
movies tend to sometimes overdo it in terms of crossing the T's and
dotting the I's and making sure in the marketing and in the movie itself
that you know this is the bad guy, this is good, this is bad, pay attention
to this, and that.
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 doesn't do that. It has many virtues,
but I think the fact that it respects the audience's intelligence. You
go see this movie and there's a lot you can take from it beyond the
pure adventure side of it. He 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.
So, would say this is an old time action adventure?
Yeah. [Nowadays] they 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, that sort of to
the industry — 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
and seeing more than once? Probably not.
It challenges the audience to really watch it.
And it depends on the director. Another director could've taken this,
and some people from the trailers or poster or whatever and the timing
of it, although this was green-lit two years before September 11th
and finished shooting before the war of Iraq, some people can think,
'Oh, yeah, Americans want to make another big movie, a cowboy going
over there to Arabia, sure, I know what this is.' And it could've
been done that way, like a jingoistic kind of thing, but it's not
that at all when you see the movie. And people that I've spoken with
traveling around the country, whether they be Muslim or Native American,
they've been pleasantly surprised. They've gone out of professional
duty to see it thinking okay, you know, particularly the Muslim ones
thinking 'I've seen this before, I'm conditioned to, even if it's
unintentionally, having my culture in some way insulted or trampled
or dismissed in Hollywood, and this kind of movie is bound to be that
for sure.' And then they come out and say it's an entertaining Hollywood
movie, that nonetheless without making a big deal out of it sort of
treats [their] culture with some dignity and respect. And they're
surprised, pleasantly surprised. So a Hollywood movie can be good
and entertaining and fun. It doesn't have to be exploitative.
What were your impressions of the Hopkins character?
He's someone who I would see as ignorant, does not have a lot of
knowledge about the greater world. There's a lot he doesn't know.
How could he? But he makes up for that lack of information by being
at least somewhat interested and somewhat curious, and respectful.
You have many moments that show you that. For example, the starting
line. Adoni with the falcon, Sakr, he comes up and says in a respectful
way, which others are more insulting, he says you know, 'I have to
say that in my opinion and those of my colleagues and my god, Allah,
it's a sacrilege for you and this horse to be here.' And Frank says,
'mm hmm, well, good luck to you too.' I'll do my thing, you do yours.
I like that. On a lot of levels I think it tells you that again, people
are people and it's worthwhile to make the effort to find some common
ground. In the end, it is more what happens on the way than it is
about finishing the race. In a way, Hopkins in the story learns perhaps
even more about himself than he does about those he encounters. It's
a learning experience. It is a test of character and patience and
all of that.
How important was historical accuracy to you in the making of this
That's what I'm referring to. For me, to have many families on reservations
to talk about Frank Hopkins specifically, and his horsemanship and
his connection to their tribes with stories that have been handed down
generations. Why would that not be true? It's interesting to me and
when I started seeing — once we finished — as we were finishing
the movie, these articles started appearing online, published in the
middle east and Arab countries through the efforts primarily of this
industrious couple, the O'Reillys [of the Long Riders Guild], to discredit
Hopkins in any way they could and they've been very successful in getting
their one-sided and very misleading view out there, misinformed and
making a go of that which is I guess what you're referring to. But it's
even bled over into legitimate newspapers who have just published it
and taken their word. And it's obviously, clearly to me, misguided and
I don't know what their motives are but it's not true. It's like one
very narrow side of the story which I completely disagree with. I mean,
in my experience and the stories I've heard, these people — some
of them don't even speak English and certainly could give a shit about
Hollywood movies — but it speaks for itself and I don't need to
make any excuses. For example, which I could easily just leave it
at that, and say it's not a documentary.
It's a story about a real person and real events and it's expanded
on like all stories. The identity of our nation is really made up of
expanding on stories whether it's Martin Luther King or George Washington
or Babe Ruth or Buffalo Bill. That's how we think of ourselves as Americans,
you know? Any nation expands or retells. These stories that I've heard
from different places and Fusco and others have heard on reservations,
there are slight variations and then they all come back to being about
the same person and horsemanship and going over and racing and accepting
this challenge. I don't have a problem at all. Obviously these people
do and I don't know what it is, what their motives are. I know that
they're big Arabian horse fans. That's one of their motivations. There's
a lady you probably read about in the L.A. Times recently that wrote
something a week or two ago, it said 'Trail of Lies' and this and that,
and she didn't disclose the fact that she is an endurance rider and
an Arabian horse owner and fan of that, which is O'Reilly's bag. And
fine. I mean, it's interesting. It's kind of like the sort of 'Lady
Anne' character in our movie.
had Arabian/Appaloosa crosses that were bred for endurance and Arabian
people are very picky about their horses — they didn't like the
spots on my horses.
They're [unintelligible] and that's fine. But the thing that is so
silly and what I like about the story is that the horse has such a strong
personality. Horses don't look at religious beliefs and boundaries.
They transcend that. The Spanish Barb, what the mustangs are, their
roots are exactly the same as these Arabians anyway, pretty much. So,
what is it that people are getting so crazy about? And the story keeps
coming back to that idea that we're not just one thing. We are connected
to other people and the horses themselves are connected. It is one world.
This is what the story tells me in a lot of ways without being a message
movie. It think it's interesting. On the one hand if I was to talk to
you about what I found fascinating when I went up to meet people and
talk on the reservation, hearing this oral history, oral tradition of
what happened. That was amazing and affirming and great. You would go
'Yeah, so what? Yawn'. But the fact that there's these people out here
doing this other thing, then it becomes more interesting, I suppose.
Did you do most of the riding yourself?
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. Because I rode as a kid, I was comfortable and
they felt it was a worthwhile risk. I'm sure the producers 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 riding mishaps?
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 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. We're all packed together knee to 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. 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.
What did you think of Seabiscuit, as a horse lover?
I liked that story and I think comparing movies is always a weird
thing but since the name of the movie is the name of the horse (like
this movie), I think in this story I do think you get to know the
animal as an individual performer, as a character in a way that you
didn't in Seabiscuit. They're different kinds of movies but the horse
has a lot more personality. In Seabiscuit you're told that the horse
has personality. You're told he's small and an underdog. It's other
people talking about it. In this you can see Hidalgo's behavior, this
horse. We were lucky we had T.J. He just played so much personality
and he has opinions about everything. It was really funny. The first
couple of weeks he'd react in a certain way, whether it was possessively
or jealous or annoyed.
So you really bonded to him?
Yeah. Whether I bonded or not, he was just involved. In rehearsals
he'd be like, 'I just want to eat.' Then [while cameras were rolling
he was completely different]. We'd say, '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
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.
I heard you actually bought T.J.?
How many horses do you have?
I've got two. From Lord of the Rings and then this one.
Where do you keep them?
Just outside of LA. At a friend's place who has a horse also. The
ones in New Zealand I haven't brought over yet because they were doing
re-shoots last fall 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.
Some actor keep props, you keep horses?
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. Or maybe
it's just because horses are interesting people.
How old is T.J.?
He's about ten now I guess.
Do you have a personal favorite horse or animal movie?
There's one black and white movie made in the south of France in
this marshy region. It was just beautiful.
It was called Run Wild, Run Free.
But I think that this one [Hidalgo] accomplishes a great deal. I
don't think that I would put one above this one as far as a story
where it isn't Mr. Ed where you're putting human traits on him. It's
not animatronics. It's actually a horse giving you all these reactions;
a horse being a horse and that's interesting and understandable enough
and has a really entertaining adventure on top of it, I would say
and I'm biased obviously but I'm pretty happy with this one.