When he takes off his shoes and timidly sits down in the classy, Ritz-Carlton chair, Viggo Mortensen is anything but rugged.
The long, black hair that came with his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films has been replaced by fluffy, light brown spikes. He speaks quietly, so softly that at some points, he is almost drowned out by the slight hum of the air conditioner. The only things Hollywood about him are his unreal, clear blue eyes.
Despite the fact that he is here to discuss his latest film, Hidalgo, Mortensen is as far from the typical movie star as he can get.
Although Mortensen became a familiar name with the success of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on the beloved novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, he had surely put in his face time long before. With a career spanning 20 years, his most memorable roles (or not-so-memorable, depending on how you look at them) have been as the alcoholic baseball pitcher Eddie Boone in 28 Days, Gwyneth Paltrow’s dangerous and passionate lover in A Perfect Murder, boyfriend Sam Loomis in Gus Van Zant’s 1998 remake of Psycho and Master Chief Urgayle in G.I. Jane.
His recent fame, however, may help him push his latest passion — the lessons and story behind Hidalgo. While the rest of his fellow Lord of the Rings cast was at the Oscars, Mortensen was probably watching TV from the bed and breakfast in suburban Michigan, where he was staying.
While filming Hidalgo, Mortensen became absolutely captivated with the film’s history and its lessons. Before his interviews, he has journalists read an article about his visit with the Lakota American Indian nation in South Dakota (where the film’s story begins).
Having learned more about the Lakota tribe, Mortensen seems to have acquired quite an affinity for its culture. The people of the nation, even 100 years later, still talk about Frank T. Hopkins, the hero of Hidalgo. “They have a tradition of speaking about him and his experiences with horses and his connection to the people, beyond what you can find written,” he explains, making sure the four of us in the room had read the aforementioned article.
Mortensen believes that Hopkins, half American Indian and half Caucasian, can be a hero in everyone’s eyes. Respect and admiration draw from Hopkins’ success in American endurance races, his bravery in a 3,000-mile race across Saudi Arabia and his behavior when he returned home. The movie is extravagant, but Hopkins’ life was real — an extraordinarily simple man who did extraordinary things.
Actually, as the film ends, it is hard to tell if the audience should think of Hopkins as a real, simple American or as a hero.
“A hero,” Mortensen replies, “in the same sense you are if you make a conscious effort to understand your place in the world and understand your connection to others.”
Partly vague, partly inspired, Mortensen’s response may be derived from the other lessons he hopes the movie will teach.
Hopkins, the most unassuming of Americans, was able to go to an entirely different world — and he made out just fine.
Mortensen fears that, “because the history of big-budget Hollywood fare has been one in which you’ve seen Native American culture, Islam and Arabs at the very least misrepresented,” it will (and already has been) criticized for being anti-Arab or anti- American Indian. “You see that poster, you see the trailer, and you say, ‘Oh, God, not another movie like that — cowboy goes over there, he’s gonna solve the problems or he’s gonna tell ’em what to do,” says Mortensen. “These are people not seeing a movie,” he adds, explaining that the film “treats the cultures in a respectful and dignified way.” In the ends, this is a story about “a guy who is invited, goes out on a dare really, doesn’t know what he’s getting into and makes up for his ignorance by being curious.”
The culture in the Middle East was so different from what the former Pony Express rider was used to, but Mortensen reiterates that the common human truths were the same — elements like family, perseverance, love and heroism. “It doesn’t matter what culture you live in,” he says. “It’s the same story you get all the time, it just depends on how well you tell it.”
Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif, who played Sheikh Riyadh in Hidalgo, was part of the team that helped depict the Arabic culture so well. Plus, for Mortensen, working with Sharif — who earned Mortensen’s respect for his legendary performance in the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia — was “remarkable,” and “not just as an actor.”
Outside in the hallway, some employees are chatting and setting up another room. Mortensen, without hesitation, gets up to shut the door. Atypically Hollywood, he apparently knows how to open and shut doors on his own. He returns, thinking nothing of it.
Conversation inevitably goes back to the desert, where most of the film was shot. Some days during production, Mortensen said he would ride out into the expanse and “it would be all stars, sky and sand as far as you can see. On the one hand it shows you how isolated and insignificant you are as an individual, but on the other hand, it tells you how connected you are.”
Hidalgo, in Mortensens’ eyes, presents that same effect — the reduction of humans to the simplest of elements, in turn, reveals a sort of equality. “It’s a story that to me, without being a ‘message movie’ or political in any way, does speak to the fact that it makes a lot of sense to try to find common ground with other people,” he explains. “You can ignore that fact your whole life, but as soon as you separate yourself, you’re depriving yourself of the experience of getting to know other people.” Mortensen’s views about the Arabic culture have an underlying political tone, but at the same time, they are humble.
Underneath it all, from the politics to his fashionable blue jean shirt, Mortensen is a simple man — surprisingly similar to his character in Hidalgo.
The actor seems to seek simple goals: acceptance, equality and art. Despite his unpretentious demeanor, he is, at heart, an artist. His left brain clearly holds the reins, as exemplified by his rambling answers to questions and his published works of poetry and photography. Regardless of his ridiculous success with his Lord of the Rings reign, Viggo Mortensen is not looking for fame or fortune. He only wants to continue doing what he loves — promoting self-discovery, equality and, of course, art.
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