Viggo, the Desert King

Author: Julie S. Werenskiold
Publication: Film-Magasinet
Date: '04

He's been playing second fiddle all his life. But in "Hidalgo" he has the leading role - for the very first time.

"I would never get this opportunity without the success of The Lord of the Rings. I got this part just after The Fellowship of the Ring," says Viggo Mortensen. The Danish/American actor is 45 years old and has played in more than 30 movies, but always in a supporting part. And then he became world famous as the king Aragorn, and his agent suddenly started a telephone storm to his modest house in Topanga Valley, a remote hippie enclave in the outskirts of Los Angeles. Now it is streaming in offers of star status and leading parts.

"It is so busy sometimes that it isn't always so nice, you get no time for friends and family. When I meet a friend there is just time for a quick 'hello' and 'goodbye'", says Mortensen.

His hair is short cut, reddish, and he is dressed in a shirt and Wrangler jeans, in style with his role in Hidalgo, the movie Hollywood has bargained 90 million dollars on , believing that Mortensen's fame will make it pay.

Hidalgo is based on a true story about Frank T. Hopkins, the horseback rider that fought himself through the 4500 kilometers long race " Ocean of Fire " through the desert in 1891. Along the way he conquers all dangers, and at the end, finds himself. Have you found yourself?

"No," answers Mortensen. "I think that sometimes you're being told who you are. Perhaps you meet with an accident, or somebody dies, and suddenly there is nothing more important than what is happening there and then. Then you will be reminded of who you are and where you are. To learn about yourself is a process you go through as long as you live. One never finds oneself, but that is OK, I think, it is like a journey. "

Mortensen is considered a strange person, it's not only the philosophy, the paintings, the poetry and the photographing. He's become Hollywood's anti-celebrity, an actor without an ego, without bimbos at nachspiels, without shallow falsity, and many times without shoes. "It might be because I get less problems with my back, but it is also a sort of laziness, if I live in this hotel, and not going anywhere, why wear shoes?"

Mortensen has no mobile phone, no CD-player in his car, and does not party with other stars at pool-parties in Beverly Hills. He also brings his home-made herbal tea for interviews and is often quoting known poets as Immanuel Kant , Walt Whitman and Joseph Campbell. "There is something I want to say about life," he says suddenly. "It was Joseph Campbell who said that 'All life is sorrowful. We can not change the fact that life is sad, but we can change our way of handling it'. I think that Campbell meant that everybody gets older and at last they die. We lose memory, and people around you die and things change, and we go slowly downhill," the new megastar says quietly, and leans over the table with a careful smile. "If you accept this, you will be able to celebrate life and make the best of it."


The bunch of actors from The Lord of the Rings is known for their friendship amongst them after the filming. After locations in Dakota, Marocco and California, Mortensen could not just wave goodbye to the horse, TJ, who plays the mustang Hidalgo.

"I bought him," says Mortensen. "He has a fantastic personality. As soon as somebody yelled "Action!" he would either decide everything, or he got annoyed at me. He has an opinion about everything."

The director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) followed the horse with the camera when he was off screen, and he got TJ's real reactions on tape. Both Johnston, Mortensen and the manuscript author John Fusco had in mind to make the film about the world's most dangerous horse race like they made the classic American westerns.

"This is not a movie that brags about special effects and new camera-angles," says Mortensen. He did all the horseback-scenes himself, and did all his stunts, except one, where he jumps off a roof and lands on the horse. As expected, the nature lover Mortensen came out during the filming. Instead of getting in his car and driving back to the luxury hotel in Marocco, the anti-star chose to sleep in a modest camping-wagon in the middle of the desert. "It was very quiet, and the stars were fantastic," he says..

Mortensen is no stranger to the life of the cowboys. He lived on a ranch in Argentina from he was two years old till he was eleven. Then his parents divorced, and his American mother took the two brothers with her to the USA. He finished high-school and went to Denmark, where he made a living from selling flowers on the street. In 1980 it came to drama lessons in new York and evening jobs as bartender, waiter and ice-cream man.

"I'm not 22 years old. I have experienced a lot. I have had my ups and downs. I know that fame is a passing thing," says Mortensen, and points out that he has no intention of being Hollywoods next Harrison Ford. "Unless I consciously choose special genre-movies and fate sees to it that they sell a lot of tickets, my fame will evaporate, and they will look for someone else."

His career actually started with two big disappointments. Both the part in Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift" (1984) and Woody Allen's "Red Rose of Cairo" (1985) ended with Mortensen's scenes landing on the floor in the cutting room. He was first seen on the screen as the Amish farmer in "Witness" in 1985. He then came as a cannon-ball, with sparkling supporting roles in pictures like Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, Brian de Palma's Carlito's Way, the drama "A walk on the Moon" and the thriller "A perfect Murder"

Having the leading role in a big Hollywood production is therefore a new experience for Mortensen. Like Orlando Bloom (the elf Legolas) he was quite unknown before his shares grew sky-high as a consequence of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "If I should be a great star, I'm able to live with it, but I will not search for it. If you try to control things like that, the only thing you get, is frustration."

In " Hidalgo" the horseback-rider Hopkins is invited to the desert race by a sheik, played by Omar Sharif (Monsieur Ibrahim, Lawrence of Arabia). There Hopkins races against big Arab horses, while some of the competitors make a lot of trouble for "the American with the Mustang". "A lot of people thinks the film has something to do with the conflict between America and the Middle-East Muslims. But we were filming in the Saharas before the war started," Mortensen points out. He is strongly politically engaged and turned up on a TV-interview dressed in a T-shirt with the words NO BLOOD FOR OIL. "I do not think so much about fashion. But I try to wear clean clothes," Mortensen mumbles. "I was lucky with "the Lord of the Rings" and I am very grateful, but it has not changed the way I live my life."







































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