Author: Dagmar Dunlevy
Publication: Buy magazine
Date: Aug '04
As dashing as he is un-Hollywood, this actor burst onto the scene with
The Lord of the Rings. We get past the Orcs and Elves to talk about
Hidalgo, the movie that put a lock on his A-list status.
annually for centuries, the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile survival
race across the Arabian Desert, was a challenge restricted to the
Arabian horses ever bred. In 1890, a wealthy sheik (Omar Sharif)
the first time invited an American, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen),
and his mustang Hidalgo to enter the race. So outlines the story
of Hidalgo, and the validation that Mortensen’s career will
have impressive breadth and brilliant longevity.
lived in South America from age 2 to age 11, relocated from Argentina
to upstate New York in 1969, attended Warren Robertson’s Theatre
Workshop and began his acting career in New York, moved to Los Angeles,
and has confidently risen to the top of any director’s most-wanted
listed. This new Hollywood icon comes from humble though cultured
roots, which is reflected in his thoughtful demeanor. His refreshingly
character off-screen made our chat all the more enjoyable.
With your cultured background and your artistic bent, some people refer
to you as a Renaissance man. What does acting give you?
I’m sure it helped that my dad had a kind of itinerant work life.
Our upbringing, my two brothers and myself, involved a lot of travel
and a lot of uprooting and different schools and so forth, which is
not so uncommon in the modern world…. I do get to continue to
do that, not only physically traveling to places but the very notion
of acting, as I see it, the foundation of it in a moment is reacting.
Any good acting is about being there. You prepare as much as you can
and then it’s let’s see what happens! But what you’re
really doing is, you have the opportunity to get inside another person’s
skin when you’re playing a part, and that’s a form of traveling
as well. So it probably helps that I had that background and it probably
adds to my interest in pursuing this kind of job.
After The Lord of the Rings, is it possible to reclaim your life as
it was before?
Regain control? If I ever had it. I mean, your life is as out of
control as you allow it to be, I think, most of the time. I will
endeavor to continue to mind my own business and let other people
unless their business infringes on mine, and then I’ll say something
about it or do something, but I don’t have an easy answer for
all that you are—actor, father, composer, photographer,
movie star, and that your current fee might be too expensive for
some projects, how much time do you spend on the business side
of your life?
First off, I didn’t tell Time magazine or whatever magazine to
put me there. That just happens, and not all of that is bad, either.
Most indirectly, it’s a compliment to the work that I did with
other people because it struck a chord and it was good. And as far as
being too expensive—I don’t really … I could just
as well go do a play or a small movie. I don’t have a particular
goal in mind in terms of only doing epics, movies in which I do stunts
that could kill me. That’s the only thing I am going to do now,
you know! (Laughs) It could be anything. I don’t really plan that
far ahead. And perhaps it would be wise to sit down and in some financial
way think ahead because I am not twenty years old, and how long can
I do certain jobs? I try to be conscious of what a story’s about.
In other words, I didn’t have to explore any character I played
as much as I perhaps did, but I’m curious about it. I make it
my business to find out as much as I can, because I think that’s
being responsible and professional.
let’s talk about Hidalgo. There’s no doubt that you
are a cowboy at heart, and that your love for horses is genuine.
Are there any historical figures that were your idols growing up?
The more I learn about Frank T, Hopkins … the more I’m interested
in him. He’s a very complex individual. As far as western heroes,
I don’t have a particular one. I have an affinity and an interest
in Buffalo Bill because on my mother’s side of the family we are
related to William F. Cody, and so that made [Hidalgo] particularly
interesting… It will be interesting for my family [to see scenes
I’m in] with Buffalo Bill…
was some controversy about the factual content, some feeling that
your character Frank T. Hopkins was a fraud. What’s your
I’ve paid attention because obviously I am involved in the story
and I care about it even though it’s obviously not a documentary,
it’s a movie, a retelling of events surrounding a real person
and real accomplishments. I have noticed that the source of all of [this
controversy] are a couple of people named O’Reilly who also go
by another name when they’re in other parts of the world. Whatever.
It’s a very one-sided and temporarily effective effort on their
part. I am not sure what their motivation is other than their strong
loyalty to the Arabian breed. Ironically, certainly horses don’t
differentiate between culture or boundaries. The roots of the Spanish
Mustang and the Arabian: they come from the same part of the world.
The Spanish borrowed the Arabian. The stock is the same, and if there’s
one thing the story tells you, it's that people are people and horses
are people too. We are connected. Also, to hear … particular Native
American peoples talking—long before this movie was even considered—generations
ago, talking about a guy who for all intents and purposes was a white
guy in appearance, relating him to their culture and to their horses.
I don’t think they would have gone out of their way to do that
for no reason. There is this oral tradition that has been sparked by
these people… His name is Leo Runs With Buffalo, I think, and
he’s from up in Montana. There are many people, families, who
talk about this man.
On a lighter note: The bond between you and the horse, TJ, is really
touching. Have you slept with him?
(Laughing) Slept with TJ? I don’t talk about my relationships…
When the film wrapped, you two had to part ways.
Well, they do say that you shouldn’t get involved with your co-workers,
but sometimes it happens. He has some say in this too, but if it was
up to me, I would certainly see him this evening, and I think I may.
You’re exciting me a little bit. (Smiling) This story, unlike
some other movies about animals, is a story in which you’re meant
to get to know the animal. After all, this movie is not called The Passion
of Frank Hopkins. It’s called Hidalgo and so, who was Hidalgo?
It’s not a special effects-driven or animatronix digital kind
of movie where you fake it or you impose human characteristics … on
an animal. In that sense, a lot of it was out of our hands. It was in
So the horse had natural acting ability?
We can only fake it so much. What was fortunate was that Rex Peterson
found a horse in TJ who, although [he] had never been around a
movie set in his life, was very involved. In the first week or so it seemed
to be just luck, a coincidence [that TJ performed so well]. He
bored and just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And
then, every time they’d say “Action,” TJ would do
something. He’d seem annoyed or jealous or possessive, angry
or whatever seemed appropriate. We looked at the director or the director
looked at the cinematographer: “Did you get that? That’s
great. We must keep the camera on this horse. This is good!”
Any temper tantrums?
Oh yeah, but nothing terrible. He's got his own opinions about things,
and he's often right. He's giving looks. It was just uncanny and because
he kept doing it, we realized there's something to this and just made
sure he's in the shot. I would say that I don't know what percentage
but definitely a lot more-half of what you get as far as who Hidalgo
is, is beyond what we did and beyond what John wrote for us. It's
TJ's personality and you're lucky there.
is so humble! He just gives too much credit to that ol’ horse.
Check out Hidalgo on DVD and you decide who deserves the title of “leading
Viggo's Top 5 Films:
1. Death in Venice
2. Deer Hunter
3. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
4. The Passion of Joan of Arc