Mortensen joins another hero quest in 'Hidalgo'
Author: Bonnie Siegler
Date: Mar '04
in New York to a Danish father and American mother, Viggo Mortensen
traveled extensively from age eight living, in Venezuela, Argentina
and Denmark. Ultimately Mortensen, who now lives in the tony beachside
community of Venice, California (right outside Los Angeles), credits
his father’s wanderlust, with his acting success. “As a
kid, you fantasize about all the adventures you’re going to have”,
says Mortensen, “you imagine yourself exploring the world, being
a cowboy – or Indian. I wanted that adventure so I tried to do
a lot of things.” Indeed, among the other things the 45 year old
actor does is write three books of poetry, publish collections of his
photography, perform jazz on three CDs and show his paintings at galleries
worldwide. Since his screen debut as a young Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s
Witness, Mortensen’s career has been on an upward trajectory even
before his Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the release of his first
film since the Oscar winning The Return of the King, Mortensen plays
Frank T. Hopkins, a cowboy who travels to Arabia with his mustang
to compete in a high-stakes 3000 mile race across the desert, in
logistics on Hidalgo must have been difficult – shooting
and still doing press and reshoots on Lord of the Rings.
I remember several nights where I’d be in the middle of the Sahara
Desert going up on a sand dune with a cell phone and doing an interview
for “Fellowship of the Rings”. With “Lord of the Rings”,
it was 4 years and there was overlap. At some point you need to get
back to work and I did, knowing it would be a bit confusing, busy and
complicated. And as usual it became twice as complicated and busy as
I thought it would. We were shooting pick-ups in the Mojave Desert,
then I’d be driving back to Los Angeles for three hours, getting
on a red-eye going to New York for a day of interviews, taking another
plane back, going right to work.
Did you do any research for the role of Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo?
I did what I could. The obstacle at first, which made it more interesting,
is that there isn’t a lot written about him. In fact, it’s
what’s not written about him that I found the most interesting.
I respect and had it confirmed by the oral tradition, of his appreciation
for the Spanish Mustang, which for a white person to appreciate that
at the time, was rare. The Native Americans knew what they had as
far as an amazing horse with heart and endurance. What I found interesting
is that there’s a long standing oral tradition all over the
West, not just among white ranchers and Mustang enthusiasts, but
significantly on reservations across America, about variations
of stories on Hopkins
handed down through generations.
Do you like horses?
I probably wasn’t the most rabid enthusiast. As a kid, not just
in America, but all over the world, little boys image to be cowboys
or Indians. In this movie, I got to be both a cowboy and Indian.
You are a city boy though?
I was born in Manhattan but I didn’t grow up there. I moved back
there in my twenties. I traveled a lot with my parents. I got to know
horses as a boy in South America. The horses there come from the same
part of Spain and North Africa so they’re similar looking horses.
Why did your family choose to live in South America?
My dad went where he could get work. He was offered a job there.
He’s from Denmark, raised on a farm and did a lot of various
ventures. He’s a self-made man, put himself through school and
got a degree in business. He managed a big ranch that we spent time
on and that’s where I learned to ride a lot. He was sort of
a restless person and traveled a lot. I guess I get that trait
What new riding skills did you have to learn?
I got to revisit something that I did as a kid, which kids do in
a fearless way, which is riding bareback and not thinking about
it. As a kid you don’t normally think about injury or death – you
just sort of do stuff. I can remember where I’d ride full blast
across a field of high grass and hit an ant hill. The horse did a
somersault, and I’d have to get up and chase him. Sometimes
I’d catch him – and then sometimes not. As an adult, even
though I had muscle memory to get reacquainted after being sore
for about a month, not only with the physical aspect but the true
for horses. There were a lot of times I was wary that if I fell
off, there was a lot of rock below me.
Did you wear special padding for the bareback riding?
Too late when I realized I should have. We invented something to
ease the pain that I created for myself and called it The Nacho
Pad. There’s that bone that I kept hitting on that’s not your
and it’s not your... (laugh) It’s your nacho. So it was
like an elbow pad but I had already done the damage.
this a harsher shoot in terms of weather compared to past films?
After the experience of filming Lord of the Rings, everything is
kind of relative I suppose in terms of length of shoot, climate,
and the hardships. Being in the Sahara Desert was kind of tough and especially
for the horses we brought over because they weren’t raised in
that environment. Their hooves would crack and dry out no matter what
we did. That surface was so hard. The dust was sometimes blinding
and get in your lungs. It’s not by accident that those people
are covered – it’s practical. Some people ended up in
the hospital for a little bit because of lung problems. No matter
how hard it got, you were still in an unbelievably beautiful place
every day. Because I do like horses, I’m riding around the Sahara
Desert so what’s to really complain about.
You kept a horse.
I kept PJ, the main horse. He’s sleeping in right now…(laugh).
I keep him at a friend of mine’s ranch a little bit out of town.
the hardest kind of acting scene for you to do?
Well, the last 3 years, I’ve tried just about every trick in the
book. It’s always a little harder to do a scene by yourself whether
it’s because the actors are not available and you’re acting
with a tennis ball or blue screen instead. Because I agree with Sidney
Lumet, a fine American director, who said something to the effect that
the work consists in making the best possible preparations for accidents
to happen – in other words, be as ready as you can be and show
up on time. Come in as ready as you can, and then it begins. Then it’s
what’s going to go wrong that will make it interesting. I do feel
that all good acting starts with good reacting. And if you don’t
have the person there, it’s hard to do.
spirit quest of Frank Hopkins seems that it would be appealing
to you since you do write poetry, do photography – he’s
the man who’s divided, goes through this process and comes out
whole. Is that part of what appealed to you?
Essentially that’s what a hero quest is always about for everybody
who ever lived and will live. We all, in some ways, me included, like
to see stories like this. A little movie like Whale Rider, which I really
loved, is just as much an epic hero quest as Hidalgo or Lord of the
Rings. I think everybody in their life goes through stages and is challenged
in big and little ways. Everybody has to become an adult in some way
whether it’s like the Legend of Percival or Frank Hopkins or anybody
else… these characters learn what they can, are taught things,
and at some point, have to make up their own mind like all adolescents
who get to that point. You have to let people make their own mistakes.
Sometimes they end up being right but other times it involves some pain
for everybody on some level but that’s part of growing up and
becoming a whole person. That’s what a hero quest is about. In
a story like this, it tells you what happens on the journey, but also
the ordeal and surviving the ordeal is an improvement on your life and
in your character, usually. It’s how you deal with difficult times – keeping
your composure and dignity – that is telling and forms you.
Where do you go to get centered?
Away from people (laugh). If I could get out of going to my own movie
premieres, I would. Or if I’m going to be around people, ones
who will let me know in a hurry when I get ahead of myself. I’d
put my son at the top of my list. He’s quick to remind me or
take me down the peg if necessary. A horse will do that too.
your son at an age when he’s testing boundaries and as a parent
how do you deal with that?
Oh yeah, he’s been doing that for a while now. So as a parent,
you just hang on and realize that you’ve got something to learn
too. He’s a really cool, open-minded kid who’s kind and
thoughtful, but he does have a healthy respect for me and all adults.
What do you want this film to say to the audience?
I don’t ever want a movie to say anything. I’m adverse to
telling you, or anybody else, what to think about any movie I’m
in. If somebody asks me about something, I’ll give my opinion.
What I like about this movie, is it speaks for itself and it’s
done in an old-fashioned way. It doesn’t show off any aspect of
film making. If you want to get more out of it, that’s up to you.
The story was written two years before September 11, 2001. It was certainly
shot before the last invasion of Iraq. So it’s coincidental that
it’s about an American cowboy that goes to the same region that
our young armed men and women are involved in now. People are people
and we are all connected. It’s part of life. Most people are curious
about other cultures. Hidalgo is a no frills adventure story.
there’s one mistake that you made in your acting career that
you learned something valuable from, what was it?
Pretty long list (laugh). It’s too long a list. I guess that’s
writing another book of poetry right now?
I had my car broken into and had my last three years of writing
stolen. I stupidly didn’t have it on a computer. They just grabbed this
one sack that had everything in it. I had stopped for 5 minutes in
front of this place and somebody just did a smash and grab. I had
my passport, diary, journal, about 80 poems, a book of handwritten
short stories – right in my own neighborhood of Venice.
you like acting better than your other creative outlets?
I don’t choose sides that way. They’re all different ways
of remembering things and participating in life. And life goes by