Viggo Mortensen joins another hero quest in 'Hidalgo'

Author: Bonnie Siegler
Publication: N:Zone
Date: Mar '04

Born 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 Hidalgo.

The 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 from him.

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 affection 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.

Was 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.

What’s 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.

The 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.

Is 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.

If 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 my answer.

You’re 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.

Do 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 fast.







































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