Author: Tasha Robinson
Publication: The Onion
Date: 10 Mar '04
Mortensen has a hand in so many art forms that there's almost no room
on his résumé for acting. A poet, painter, musician,
and photographer, Mortensen has founded his own publishing company,
released experimental-music CDs, and exhibited his artwork around the
world. A globetrotting childhood and a 10-year marriage to X singer
Exene Cervenka (they divorced in 1997) have contributed to a colorful
image that's at odds with the down-to-earth roles he often portrays.
First seen in film as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir's 1985 thriller
Witness, Mortensen went from stage to screen with quiet competence.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, he appeared in several dozen films, notably
Sean Penn's 1991 directorial debut The Indian Runner, Kevin Spacey's
1996 directorial debut Albino Alligator, and Tony Goldwyn's 1999 directorial
debut A Walk On The Moon. Perhaps best known to early fans for his creepy
turn as Lucifer in The Prophecy, Mortensen steadily racked up roles
in films like American Yakuza, G.I. Jane, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake,
A Perfect Murder, and 28 Days. But when he was tapped to replace Stuart
Townsend as Aragorn, the displaced king in Peter Jackson's The Lord
Of The Rings trilogy, he became a household name. As the films' romantic
male lead and one of the two linchpins of a sprawling cast, Mortensen
remains at the center of a whirlwind of publicity that seems destined
to continue for some time, thanks to The Return Of The King's storied
Oscars sweep. Still, Mortensen is already on to the next thing: starring
in the Disney adventure Hidalgo, as 19th-century long-distance horse-racing
champion Frank Hopkins. Mortensen recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club
about Hidalgo, his version of "method" acting, and how painting,
writing, and fishing can take the place of resting between takes.
What was the casting process for Hidalgo like? How did you get involved?
Well, without the success of The Fellowship Of The Ring, I don't
think they would have seriously considered me at all. If they knew
my work, they might have thought I could be right for it, but they
wouldn't have had any way of knowing. It just wouldn't have happened.
To play that part in a big-budget movie, to be to some degree responsible...
Now that I see the way they're marketing it, with the big head-picture
poster... There's no way they would have entrusted that role to
me. So they were interested, and I had read it, and I thought it was an
interesting story. I met the director [Joe Johnston], and I liked
the way he talked about it. He didn't seem like someone who was
to, either intentionally or inadvertently, make a jingoistic story,
where the American goes over and straightens out some Arabs. I
could feel from the way he was talking that it was an entertainment, an
adventure story, but that he wanted to tell it in an old-fashioned,
straight-ahead fashion, with no frills. And I thought, "That's
good, he's sort of a throwback." He seemed calm and focused.
And the way he talked about Muslim and Arab culture, and Native
American culture, and even cowboys, he seemed like he was going to
You never know how it's going to turn out, but in the process,
it felt like things were handled well, and the lines of communication
were open. Adjustments were always being made to make sure we were
being respectful and thorough about things. And I was very happy,
when I saw the movie, what they chose to put in there, and how
put it together. I like it. Even though I was very closely connected
to it, when I saw it, once I got into the rhythm of it, I liked
the fact that it seemed to balance the adventure, the old-fashioned
movie side, with something else. The fact that you have an American
character in a big Hollywood movie go to the Third World and behave
in a more or less dignified way is refreshing. People have become
somewhat conditioned to seeing Hollywood not be as respectful of
their cultures as it could easily be.
Were the shooting conditions as horrible as they seemed to be from
You mean out in the desert? Yeah. And the winter was pretty cold,
too. It looked nice and sunny, but it was bitter. Sometimes the winds
were so extreme, and there was so much dust, that we couldn't shoot.
And the grit, and the dryness, and the dustiness and heat—it was
difficult, technically. A lot of the sound equipment and camera equipment
got messed up, and they were always fixing stuff. On a low level, it
was just an irritant. It was always in your eyes and everywhere, the
sand and dust. But also, a lot of people got sick, some seriously, including
the horse trainer. It got in their lungs, this very fine dust. And the
horses, as well—including T.J., the horse that plays Hidalgo.
The terrain was very hard ground, with a lot of rocks and stuff,
and with the dryness, sometimes they went a bit lame. They had trouble
at times. It was pretty demanding for a horse.
You actually bought T.J., and two horses that you worked with in the
Lord Of The Rings movies. Did you have much experience with horses before
No. When I was a little boy, I rode, but I didn't own horses. From
the age of 11 until Lord Of The Rings, I really didn't have much interaction
with them. Well, except for one movie, Young Guns II. For Lord Of The
Rings, I got to ride quite a bit. I had to kind of push myself, when
I could steal time, just to be ready for Lord Of The Rings. Those horses
weren't trained for riding one-handed, which we had to do, because of
are a lot of stories being told about how you got into your Lord
Of The Rings character—living in the woods, sleeping with
the horses, mending your costume yourself, and so forth. How much
that is true?
Whenever a project is really popular, as Lord Of The Rings has been,
and as I think Hidalgo will be as well, people want to know more
about the people involved. They'll tell a story once in a straightforward
way, and then it gets retold and exaggerated. I did what I'd do for
any role. You can learn as long as you want, as much as you want.
never get to the point where you say, "Now I know everything." I'm
comfortable as long as I'm exploring it. I was thrown into Lord Of The
Rings without much preparation at all. So the sword, and what I was
wearing, the props, were very important to that character, and I just
wanted to work on them. I was allowed to keep them, and wear them, and
mend them, and do things. So there's some truth to that. For Hidalgo,
I just spent as much time around horses as I could, which made sense.
On the reservation, I rode with some Lakota people, and there was this
amazing stallion that was the father of most of the horses we were riding
that day. He was quite old and he had a heart attack; he just fell down
and died. And they had a ceremony. They cried and sang and made a prayer
and made tobacco offerings, and eventually, they got the horse home
and buried it on this hill. Then we sat out that night and made a fire.
It was summer, so we were outside, and they just told stories — as
though it was a human that had died in the family — about this
horse. Odd things that had happened to him, funny things, sort of
like a wake, where they could unburden themselves. It was really beautiful.
I was given a hank of hair from his tail, and I used that to make
hatbands for my hats in Hidalgo.
You worked on the costuming yourself?
Yeah, one braid for each hat. You know, I had double hats, in case
one got messed up. And usually people don't think about this, but
you're in different terrain, and the dust is different colors, so
I had different hats for different periods, as the hat got more worn
out through the story. So I had to make more than one braid, because
we jumped back and forth throughout the sequences. They made these
really nice hats, and I broke them each in and made a headband for
each one. That makes you feel more involved. Until you start shooting,
and you get your feet wet, it's just a way to get into it, and to
connect with a role. And it's something that a guy like that might
How do directors generally react when you start working with the propmasters
or costumers on a film?
Well, I would never do it without asking. You just say, "Look,
I was just thinking, I could borrow these pants and ride in them, so
they'll be broken in already." You can show up the first day and
say "Hi, everybody, where's my clothes?" and put your clothes
on and just start. It's certainly possible. But I find that if there's
time to break them in and make them comfortable, make them second
nature... You know, if you see a cowboy in a movie and he puts his feet
the soles of his boots look brand-new, it's possible that he's just
gotten them re-soled. But still, it's a detail, visually, that you
would notice. Likewise, you would notice that they're broken in. But
than anything, it's just to get comfortable and get a jump on the
Ideally, what do you expect from a director or from your co-stars to
help you get comfortable in a new character?
Well, I never know what I'm going to get. But you will get information,
even if it's not overtly stated. You'll get advice or input if you're
looking for it. I know people who prepare their roles in such a way
that they technically look ahead and memorize their gestures, and
then they stick to it. Those that are technically proficient enough
it seem natural, but they do that and don't really take in what other
people are doing. They can do a fine job sometimes. But I personally
feel more comfortable, and feel that I'm more in the moment in terms
of building a character that helps the director tell a story, if
I prepare in advance, but then go with the flow of the moment. I think
Sidney Lumet who said something I really agree with. Roughly: "The
work is largely about making the best possible preparations for accidents
Good accidents, or bad accidents?
Both. I show up, and we're supposed to do a scene together. We've
even rehearsed it, maybe. But no matter how we do it, each take
is going to be slightly different. A word gets left out, or you say it
differently, or someone makes a noise—it just charges the scene.
If I've got tunnel-vision about what I've memorized and what I
want to get across, I'm less likely to notice the more subtle changes
take to take, from moment to moment.
How do you feel about rehearsal?
I love rehearsing, but a lot of directors don't, and some actors
don't. So you have to be... The one thing that's good to be, as
an actor, is flexible. And that's part of making the best possible preparations
and being ready for accidents. You have to be ready for a director
who says, "We're just going to shoot it." Or an actor who
doesn't like to rehearse, or in rehearsals doesn't give you much,
and then when you shoot, he does something else. If there's anything
I've learned, it's anyone who's... People talk about Method actors,
meaning someone that's prepared very, very well, or whatever they
mean when they talk about it. But the right method is whatever
works for you. And what works for me on any given day is going to
It's going to depend on things like, does the director, or do the
other people involved, want to rehearse? Do they believe in rehearsing?
How do they rehearse? Do they like to improvise or not? How do
they want to shoot the scene? Is it all one master, or is it bits
What kind of character am I playing? Does he talk a lot, or does
he not talk much? Do people speak quickly? There are so many factors.
If you have only one way of doing it, you're selling yourself short
and depriving yourself of a fuller experience, and possibly of
better work to the director, to use as raw material in building
Flexibility aside, though, is there a particular ideal you'd like directors
to live up to, or a personal preference about how they run things?
The directors I've enjoyed the most are secure enough in themselves
as people, and as directors, to be able to field questions and have
an opinion. Even if it's just having the guts to say "I'm not sure," or "I
hadn't thought about that," or "Let me think about it," or "You
know, I still don't know what the hell that scene means." [Laughs.]
Of course, you don't want to be a pest. A director has a lot on his
or her plate, so I try to only ask questions if I think they're important
and I can't figure them out myself. But sometimes it's just out of respect.
I mean, it's their story to tell, and it's up to us to help them tell
it. "How do you want this done, how do you see this, have you thought
about the connection between this and that?" I've been working
with all kinds of people, but the ones I enjoy working with the most
are the communicators.
of your roles center on fairly macho characters—sort of
grim, manly outsider types. How do you relate to that kind of character?
Outsiders, but I don't know if they're all manly. I mean, I think
there are elements in Jerome in Walk On The Moon, certainly in Aragorn...
I don't know, there are certain feminine traits. Well, I don't know
if it's specifically feminine. But they're not your typical macho...
In some ways, there's a certain courtesy, a certain open-mindedness.
Hesitation, doubt, things not necessarily associated with a kind
of macho character. I'm not disagreeing with you—I'm talking it
out, taking it in. What are you saying? Why do I always play those roles?
More whether you're aware of the degree to which you get selected for
roles that may be seen that way.
Your work in Lord Of The Rings stands out as unique in that you've
tended to work on a lot of effects-light, realistic dramas. Do things
change for you when you're working in an environment where what you
see on the set is markedly different from what's going to appear on
I guess it was not so much in the first movie, but increasingly in
the second and third, you get more of that stuff. But, no, not really.
I'm still trying to remember, obviously, who I'm playing, where he's
been up to that point in the story, and whether they're there or
not, who or what I'm reacting to. But still, knowing you are a vessel
which an idea of a person is coming through... I guess maybe it's
because we did things in so many different ways there, and dealt with
re-shoots over the last few years, with actors not being available...
I'd be acting with a tennis ball on a stand instead of Orlando Bloom,
who's off doing a movie somewhere, and he'd be doing the same with
me when he comes in. Looking at his stuff on video first, and then trying
to match the precedent he'd set, is a weird way to do things. I mean,
Peter [Jackson], out of necessity or out of inclination, availed
of every trick in the moviemaking book, and invented a few of his
own. I guess, through thick and thin, through real and less real, through
tangible and intangible situations, you just get used to being Aragorn.
You know, that was my job, so it didn't matter how weird things got.
Of course, I preferred to be working with real people who are in
scene at the time, with the director, and dealing with a natural
landscape. We had a lot of that, and that was my favorite. It was less
of an adjustment
for me than it might have been for some of the others, because although
I hadn't done much with special effects, I'd done a lot of work,
so I was a little more... For the less experienced or almost totally
actors on Lord Of The Rings, it was more of an adjustment for them,
to go "You mean I've got to just look at this nothing and act?" But
they obviously worked it all out, because they did a good job.
You're known for painting while you're on shoots...
Or taking photographs, or writing.
Is there any art form that lends itself particularly well to fitting
in between movie shoots?
VM: Painting is the least of them, but when I know we're in one location
for quite a while, I can do a little bit. Sometimes you don't have the
energy, and it's better if you lie down and take a 10-minute nap, so
you won't be deadweight the rest of the afternoon. That's a good idea
if you're in a state of tiredness already, which we were for most of
the last half of Lord Of The Rings. And for me, a place where I would
feel calm would be to look at photographs, or maybe take some, paint
a little bit, or re-write something. You can get that from reading a
book, too. A lot of places we were in New Zealand, we'd be by these
rivers and beautiful lakes, in really wild places, and I would just
grab my backpack and fishing rod and go take in the silence, instead
of waiting for the next shoot. It was really getting away from people,
is what it comes down to, one way or another. Because you're around
people all the time, and even though it's pleasant to sit and break
bread, it's all these voices, and it's nice to walk away, go fishing,
or just look around, take a picture or whatnot. Those are, ideally,
restful moments, even if they're active. When I'm writing or drawing
something, or cleaning my camera, or taking a picture, or thinking about
it, looking out the window or walking around the woods, then, when I
come back to work, I'm refreshed and mentally ready for the whole second
half of the day.