The night before Viggo Mortensen is scheduled to talk to a few journalists in Detroit about “Hidalgo,” which opens nationwide today, he asks his publicist to accompany him to a bookstore so he can buy a few things to autograph. Rare is the day when Mortensen isn’t asked to sign something, so he wants to be prepared.
After selecting a few volumes on which his face prominently appears on the cover, he gets in line at Borders, and when “next” is called, the clerk, who is either exceedingly cool or clueless, doesn’t even look up, much less ask Mortensen whether it is good to be the King. Far from being offended, Mortensen is relieved.
“I can honestly say that I did not enter this world for the fame,” says Mortensen, who, after 20 years in the world of movies, achieved it anyway by playing the warrior Aragorn, the man who would be king of Middle-earth, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The final film, “The Return of the King,” took home 11 Oscars on Sunday — including best picture — sweeping all the awards it was nominated for and tying “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic” for the most wins ever.
Mortensen, however, wasn’t there to see it.
“No disrespect intended,” says Mortensen, leaning forward in a chair in his hotel suite and looking decidedly non-regal in flannel and jeans, sans socks and shoes. “I have this very clear memory of standing on a sand dune in the desert while I was making this movie, holding my cell phone in the direction of a satellite, trying to get a signal so I could do an interview for ‘Rings.’ I’ve done everything there is to do in that chapter of my life, and now I’m living this chapter.”
This chapter, “Hidalgo,” is based on the true story of Frank T. Hopkins, a onetime Army dispatch rider who traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and is described at the greatest long-distance endurance rider in history. In 1889, a freight magnate named Rau Rasmussen bankrolled Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, to Saudi Arabia to compete in a 3,000-mile race across the desert that legend said had been held annually for 1,000 years. The race took more than two months to complete and proved to the world that American open-range paint horses could compete with the finest-bred Arabian stallions.
“Making ‘Lord of the Rings’ was an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Mortensen, who made “Hidalgo” between reshoots for “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” “But I have to admit I enjoyed making ‘Hidalgo’ as much as I did those. I actually think this movie strikes really similar chords in the story it has to tell about tolerance and bias and having faith in yourself and perseverance.
“Just like a lot of people had a certain presumption about fantasy movies before ‘Lord of the Rings,’ they have some of the same misconceptions about cowboys. This movie gets a lot closer to the bone than a lot of Westerns do.”
Mortensen, the son of an American mother and a Danish father, grew up in New York, Argentina and Denmark — which he continues to visit three times a year — with “this great desire to learn and experience as much as I could.”
He loved to read and was writing poetry as early as he can remember. In high school, he added photography and acting to his areas of interest and was doing all professionally — “if not successfully,” he says — by his early 20s.
He moved from New York to Los Angeles to pursue acting in the early 1980s, and his first appearance on film was playing a French officer in the TV miniseries “George Washington.” Jonathan Demme cast him as a sailor who tries to pick up Goldie Hawn in a movie theater in “Swing Shift,” but ended up rewriting the scene and cutting Mortensen out.
The same fate befell him in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” but he got noticed in a supporting role as an Amish farmer in “Witness” and took work where he could get it. He’s in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre III” and did a short stint on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow.”
During the same period, he published his first book of poetry, began studying jazz and got married in 1987 to Exene Cerveka, singer for the influential punk band X, which recently re-formed.
Sean Penn gave Mortensen his first major film role in Penn’s first film as a director, “Indian Runner.” He played the violent, antisocial Vietnam vet brother of police officer David Morse.
“We were a little ahead of the curve on that one,” says Mortensen. “It was a small, character-driven film made before independent film had its breakthrough, and the studio tried to market it like a regular Hollywood movie. I got good reviews, but nobody saw it. I had a son by that time, and I was out of money and seriously questioning whether I wanted to pursue it or not. I spent as much time playing music and painting as I did looking for work. ”
Today, Mortensen professes to be glad he didn’t get the leads he was up for in big films like “Grey-stoke” and “Dracula” — and not only because the films were less than well-received. If he had earned fame at that age, he says, he’s not sure he could have handled it.
“It happened when it was supposed to happen,” he says. “In the meantime, I managed to stay busy with other things and learned to live a pretty rounded, and grounded, life. ”
Mortensen was not Peter Jackson’s first choice to play Aragorn. Jackson began filming after nearly two years of preproduction in 2000 with Stuart Townsend in the role, but eventually decided Townsend lacked the gravitas to play the conflicted Aragorn.
“He was simply too young,” says Jackson. “It was my mistake. Only after Viggo flew over (to New Zealand) and began working was I able to relax and get on with it. He was exactly what I had pictured from the beginning, but I didn’t really know that until he was there and showing me.”
Mortensen, who was divorced in 1997, says he thought he knew the commitment he was making when he agreed to shoot three movies in 18 months. But he wasn’t really prepared for the incessant international promotion between the releases of the three films, the regular returns to New Zealand for reshoots and the physical demands of the project. He suffered broken bones, muscular injuries and routine exhaustion.
“When we were shooting ‘Hidalgo,’ we had this bitter sandstorm that just devastated the cast and crew, and everyone was complaining about the conditions. I was like, ‘Hey, this may be tough, but I can handle anything they throw at me now.”’
Mortensen admits, however, that he wouldn’t mind doing something less physically and environmentally challenging for his next movie, though he claims to have no idea what that will be.
“I feel like I’ve done pretty well making the ‘Rings’ trilogy and then ‘Hidalgo,’ playing two heroic and complicated characters in good movies, so it wouldn’t bother me a bit to take some time to do some reading and writing and relaxing with my son. When something good comes up, I’ll consider it. In the meantime, I’m happy just to be here.”
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