Viggo Mortensen
Author: Staci Layne Wilson
Publication: American Western Magazine
Date: Mar '04

Viggo 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 the movie.

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 feed 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 going 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 film?
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 through 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.

I 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 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.

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.







































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