He’s a photographer, an actor and an editor of books about bio technics - and he’s also related to Buffalo Bill. In his latest movie he plays the, based on a real person, part of Frank T Hopkins - the cowboy who rode faster than anybody else. Klas Ericsson from Ingmar magazine tried to find out if VM - or at least his new character - isn’t a bit too good to be true.
Viggo Mortensen is sitting in the Oscar room at Grand Hotel in Stockholm. It’s the day after the taping of Sen kväll med Luuk. In front of him, in a gourd cup, he has the South American tea called Yerba Mate. Fittingly the gourd cup has a horse motive. Next to Viggo there’s a pile of his own photography books - also with pictures of different horses - which he hands out to the journalists in line to interview him.
Viggo is in Sweden to promote Hidalgo, the horse movie based on the autobiographical book by cowboy Frank T Hopkins. According to the books - and the movie – Hopkins was the fastest rider of them all. And he was the noblest of them all. And he seems to have been the least prejudiced of all the men ever to walk this earth, except maybe for a certain Jesus Christ - whose destiny and adventures recently also was made in to a movie (directed by Mel Gibson).
Fact is that there are similarities between Hidalgo and The Passion of Christ. In Hidalgo, Frank T Hopkins and his horse have to endure a lot of suffering and hardship when they carry out their race through Iraq and Jordan. The horse Hidalgo is an impure mustang and the movie does its best to dismiss all meaning of race. Frank T Hopkins rides, and suffers, for glory and for turning away all allegations about noble blood being more than mixed. Hopkins and Hidalgo come close to dying, but are saved by some of Hopkins’ relatives; a bunch of Indians, who appear as dancing and humming spirits, which gives the movie a slight touch of new age mumbo jumbo.
In The Passion of Christ, as we all know, Jesus of Nazareth - on his way from Gethsemane to Golgotha - suffers for all human sins. He actually even dies at the end, just to resurrect for the credits.
It is rather easy to understand why Viggo Mortensen took a liking to the role of Frank T Hopkins. Partly the character isn’t too far from the part of Aragorn in the LOTR movies, but mostly Viggo gets to ride again. During the shooting of LOTR Mortensen got so fond of two of the horses he rode that he actually bought them. He hasn’t had time to take them over to the US yet, they’re still at a friend’s place in New Zealand. Hidalgo, played by the horse TJ, is staying with another friend - back home in the US.
“I’ll have to build a strong enclosure before I can keep the horses at my own place” Viggo Mortensen says after sucking a big mouthful of Yerba Mate. “But TJ was a special horse. Very special. He could really act. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but he managed to get all the neighs at the right place - which you don’t exactly expect from a horse. And it just continued, so I ended up buying him.”
How do you act against a horse?
“You’re as polite as you are towards humans. You’ve got to respect their acting talent.”
And that is how it sounds like, the whole time. After interviewing him for 20 minutes I’m convinced Viggo is the nicest person in the world (or, the alternative, he’s keeping children locked up in secret dungeons). He’s already handed out his signed photography books - I get one called The horse is good, which is about horses being nice. Viggo Mortensen simply has to be the perfect man.
Admittedly he’s played a few villain parts, like the one in Sean Penn’s lovely ‘Bruce Springsteen adaption’ of the Indian Runner - where he got his breakthrough as an actor - as well as a traitor in Carlito’s Way. Now he makes books about horses being nice. Viggo Mortensen is the perfect man! And if you need more proof: In the little box next to him there’s an essay collection that he’s the editor of. The fact is that Viggo Mortensen has put together several deeply serious essay collections about everything between bio technics and god knows what.
He also paints abstract paintings.
And he’s been together with Exene Cervenka, singer of the rockabilly inspired American punk band X. Viggo himself - who grew up in the USA, Denmark and Argentina (where he learned to ride horses), who also is a photographer, an actor, an editor, a musician, an artist and a philosopher - was not a part of the LA punk scene when he met her in the mid 80’s.
”When I met Exene I didn’t even know about X, or maybe I had, at the most, heard about them. But I liked a lot of the music I heard after that.”
The couple divorced in 1997, after 10 years of marriage, and they have a 16 year old son - Henry. It was, by the way, the son who is said to have encouraged his father to take the part as Aragorn in LOTR - after Stuart Townsend either left, or got sacked (the story varies a little depending who’s telling it). Now the son, according to Viggo, is a little tired of dad’s hero status.
“His friends say it’s cool I’m Strider and Aragorn, but he says no, I’m not that cool really. He has a healthy lack of respect towards all adults.”
You see! Viggo Mortensen is the perfect man!
However, his career hasn’t really had the perfect continuation you would have expected him to have after spending four years in a chain mail. After LOTR, Hidalgo is the only thing he’s done (unless you count his photo exhibits, books, art work and eh, essay collections). He, himself, is obviously totally unconcerned about this.
“I don’t plan my career very much. If I like a story I get interested in the movie. Hidalgo was a classic Hollywood story, a bit like Howard Hawks could have done it. But what I think makes this movie unique is the thought-provoking sides that the audience, for once, don’t get written on their noses. They get to see the massacre at Wounded Knee and how Buffalo Bill, with his show, perverted the picture of the Wild West.”
And where does it lead, if nothing gets written on any noses?
“The message of the movie is that people are people and… horses are horses. The important part isn’t that it’s an American who goes to an Arabic country, it could have been anybody. It’s not an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie, and even if it’s very far from a documentary I think it’s a movie that respects the Arabic culture. Frank T Hopkins might not agree to everything he sees, but he respects their customs."
But wasn’t Fran T Hopkins a big phoney? There are people who claim that he was never a part of the Buffalo Bill show, and that he worked with building subways. His books are often dismissed as humbug - which you can’t really tell from the movie, said to be based on his life.
“I’ve read all I could find on Frank T Hopkins and the fact is that he was very modern. He recommended the same training techniques as in the movie The Horse Whisperer. Almost all the critical voices directed against him come from people who rank Arabic full bloods higher than other horses. There have been critical articles in the LA Times, but they’ve been written by people who ride Arabic full bloods. And I’ve heard stories about Hopkins, all over - from Wyoming to South Dakota. There are a whole lot of stories about Frank and Hidalgo among the American natives and I don’t understand why they’d idolize a white cowboy if there wasn’t a reason. You hear the same stories everywhere, about the same guy. Sure, they’re not exactly documentary stories that would hold entirely after a source check but the guy existed, he rode horses and he won lots of races.
So, you mean that the bad reputation Hopkins has is all about horse political schemes?
“Yes. Sounds a bit funny, doesn’t it”
“But I think that if the movie is going to wake a lot of controversies at least people should hear both sides of the story. ”
So he did ride with Buffalo Bill?
“As far as I know, he did. And he also wrote about the forgery of history that Buffalo Bill was responsible for, which was also heightened by the media and the government. And it’s a little bit funny, because I’m actually related to Buffalo Bill on my mother’s side and have always had some interest for him and his fate.”
Next is another big historic movie - to be shot in Spain. Viggo doesn’t reveal the title, but he will be speaking Spanish - the third language, besides Danish and English, he speaks fluently.
“I talk like they do in Argentina, and that differs a whole lot from how they spoke in Spain about 500 years ago. But it’s a historic movie, set at a time when the Spanish empire was at its biggest. I portray a soldier who starts to unravel the hidden corruption among his superiors, and he starts to revaluate his opinions.”
It sounds like exactly the sort of part Viggo Mortensen looks for these
days. A lonely, decent - not to mention perfect - man, in a time with
pigs. Preferably on horseback.
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