Viggo Mortensen

Author: John Makarewicz
Publication: CHUD
Date: 04 Mar '04

I arrived at the Four Seasons in Atlanta about thirty minutes early. This was to be the first interview I would ever conduct and needless to say I was more then nervous. It didn't help that the receptionist had me believing I was backwards when I asked her for the Hidalgo suite. She went in the back for a long time and I could only assume she was trying to figure out what to do with me when they other desk guy stepped in and gave me the news.

After finally tracking down the hospitality suite the press was to be waiting in, I got situated in a private corner of the room. The girl who greeted us at the desk in the front gave us some documents that Viggo Mortenson had requested we read before conducting the interview. One was a fluff piece about Viggo. It mostly amounted to an imdb.com-type biography and didn't really reveal anything outside of the public realm. The other was a little more in-depth . It discussed Hidalgo and more specifically, went into detail concerning Viggo's interest in the Lakota Indian tribe, who are represented in Hidalgo. Viggo is very connected with their story, it seems, and has even released a photography book of one their rituals, The Ghost Dance.

After reading the articles I settled in and waited. And waited. I guess that is what I should have expected but it certainly did not help my nerves. I tried to cool out and relax but two press people in the room would not let it happen. I am easily agitated and without getting into too many details, these fellas were fucked. The discussion about Hidalgo and film in general these guys had ruined my Wednesday. Fortunately, it also restored my confidence. If these guys are going in before me, surely I would come out looking halfway decent.

I found out that they were splitting us into groups to conduct the interview and that I would be matched up with a girl from CNN.com. We talked a little before the interview and discussed Hidalgo. Here's what we decided:

• Hidalgo is not a great movie but its certainly good. Enjoyable. It has a carefree, sort of adventure feel to it that I feel is often lost in today's films. I was asked by Nick if I thought the movie resembled The Mummy in its tone and I told him it was more on par with Indiana Jones light and I stand by that. I am not saying it's up to the quality of those classic films, it just has a similar tone.

• Hidalgo should be a modest hit. As I said before its not a great film in terms of being classic but word of mouth should be positive considering the time of year and the competition.

• Hidalgo is full of shit. It's fairly obvious, without even knowing Frank T. Hopkins story, that the movie is stretching the truth a lot but it is still a fun movie to watch.

• Hidalgo has Viggo, who has great charisma. Viggo should definitely find a nice place for himself in Hollywood for so long as he chooses to occupy it.

It was time to go in and finally talk to the man but before going in we were informed that we should shy away from any Lord of the Rings type questions. That was fine, considering a hadn't planned on asking any. We were also tolled that Viggo was very long winded so chose our questions wisely. I pondered whether Viggo would want a publicist calling him long winded for a second and then put it in the back of my mind. We were headed in.

We entered the room and there was some sort of fan photo shoot going on. I quickly released that these two people, with there arms around Viggo and everyone sporting a painful smile, were "journalists" that went before us. I thought to myself I would feel unethical playing grab ass with my interviewee but then again what do I know.

After they left we were all formally introduced to Viggo and the sprightly publicist who warned us, "No Ring talk," told us we had fifteen minutes.

My first impressions of Viggo are a little hard to explain. He has an elusive reputation but I found him very down to earth. At the same time, however, he came off as quite mysterious. He spoke in a hushed, thoughtful tone and sounded very poetic in his speech patterns. Even when he wasn't saying much of anything I felt compelled to listen.

Dressed in a casual button-down shirt, tucked into some Carhartt workpants, he had neglected to wear shoes which instantly put me at ease.

CNN.com girl and I sat down awkwardly, mostly on my end because I was not sure where Viggo was going and didn't want to end up looking ridiculous, sitting too close or something. After all the formalities were out of the way we were free to began the interview, but before I get to that I would like to say this:

The interview that follows was not conducted under the best circumstances, what with my inexperience and all but I think that you guys will find it interesting. With that said not all of the questions came from my end, this is the straight interview as it was recorded. Also bear in mind what I said about Viggo's speech patterns. It will help you get it together.

[Note that John Makarewicz's comments and questions are in bold, Viggo's in normal type.]

Did you see the movie?
Yes I did.
Did you like it?
I did. It was refreshing to see an older style of filmmaking and it almost reminded me of Indiana Jones.
It reminded me of Howard Hawks. It's beautiful but it's not showing off the filmmaking skills or anything, it's just telling the story.

I noticed in the Ghost Dance scene the film delved a little bit more into that stylistic sort of filmmaking but it worked because it was only that one scene.
You noticed that they did it very simply. I mean they could have used a lot more technology. I mean Joe Johnston is the guy who designed a lot of what George Lucas did in the first three Star Wars. That’s his background. So he could have gone to town if he wanted but he said, “no I want it very minimal.” You’ve got the sand storm too but other then that it is pretty straight ahead.

Can you tell me a little about Frank T. Hopkins character and what specifically drew you to this movie?
Well, I like the fact that it was an adventure story in the sense that there is a challenge presented. Its an ordeal. There are ordeals in our lives, and times when, or moments where things become a little more pure, a little more clear - visions of ourselves where we can see and get a glimpse of our place in the world. And there are also times that define what we are like and what our character is. Its something that those who are around us - family, friends, coworkers or whatever - would be able to give us a better description of. I guess its in those moments where you really test it, that you get a glimpse of yourself. It could be small things, you know, having a car accident or getting a flat tire at night and suddenly you are in the middle of the road and wherever your mind was going…because I think most of the time you are not fully present. You are thinking what was I doing yesterday but you are still having a conversation. Your mind is tricky that way. Or you’re driving down the road with the radio and your soft drink and your thinking 'am I late or am I early or what am I going to do with my time or God I wish I hadn’t forgen to do that, I have to call someone', you know, your mind is gone. All of the sudden, flat tire, you spin off into the ditch, it’s raining, its nighttime, and suddenly its only about, its raining, its nighttime and how am I going to fix this tire. See what I mean? It becomes very immediate and real and you are in the moment but most of the time we’re not. And I think its during these stressful situations… and I think its why people go to these movies. And it's when they are well made and not just sitting there showing off, and the people are actually involved, and it is done in a straightforward way that it lets you put yourself in there and find examples for your own life and even lessons for your own life. It [film] allows you to live vicariously through it, it allows you to sort of get into it, forget, or focus on certain aspects. I found that when a movie works, like this one does for me, it takes me somewhere, not just to escape but to really go through something. My mind tends to jump around once and a while. If it does a little bit I just try to equate it with things in my life or things that I should work on.

You seem very attached in the Ghost Dance scene, was that something you researched for this role or..?
No. I had read about it. I have been interested for many years in Native American culture, in particular the Lakota culture. I don’t know why, I just have always been interested in the plains Indians, especially the northern tribes, the Cheyannes, the Crow, the Arapahoe, and in particular the Lakota people. You know Crazy Horse, you know that, especially the nineteenth century. I had read Mooney’s book, you know, his study, written a few years after the fact. In 1894 it came out, or something like that. I read other accounts, including Brown’s book, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, I had read that in the seventies, you know, when I was younger. I valued those many things in this movie. It's such a simple movie but when you start looking at the different pieces that go into it, or even the different relationships with the different characters. Or with the different Arab characters and how East meets West and vice versa. But there are a lot of things in this movie, that even if they’re shown in passing, they work as a catalyst. They are valuable glimpses, even if it's in a big budget movie. You know, its not a message movie and not like any kind of revisionist western. But just in showing that [the Ghost Dance], in some truthful sort of way, and the Wild West show, in some truthful sort of way. And the differences of approach to living and looking at life in the west and in the east. These things are done, in sort of a light and a subtle way and a simple way and it allows you to get into it. I find that if you want to do the same thing, get the same kind of ideas, or stimulate the same kind of thinking and you do it in a heavy handed way and you (Viggo mimes being heavy handed, literally) it often, people don’t want to hear that. I don’t. I go like okay, you know (Viggo mimes being passive) you didn’t have any imagination to do this in artful way. You know, this is not a documentary, its meant to be an entertaining movie, a good story. But when its done right, its subtle, but its there. And I thought that Wounded Knee, the massacre at Wounded Knee, was one of those events that was handled well. It was nice to see it in passing, done right, and without making a big deal about it.

With all your creative outlets, the photography, your music, is there one that you find you value most.
No, I would just say that I don’t separate them. I think that they are all kind of part of the same deal. You know, different ways of doing pretty much the same thing. Paying attention and being here and being present and noticing what things look like and feel like to you. You know, it’s a subjective thing, it always will be, your point of view. But often times, as I was saying earlier, I think we sort of go through our day and go through our lives and not really paying that much attention at all or not nearly as much as we might. It doesn’t mean you sort of have to be sitting here (Viggo mimics paying attention) its just being there and it can be very simple and you don’t have to do anything but we get out of the habit of it because you get pushed and pulled by different people and circumstances and noise and distractions and regrets and aspirations for the future, you know what I mean, you’re just not there. For me, a way that I’m comfortable experiencing life or communicating or asking questions, is to do it with a camera, or a pen, or as an actor, you get to get together with a bunch of people. I guess that if there is a difference its that when I’m done with my acting job someone else finishes it, the rest of the job and puts that piece into the overall part of the movie. Other then that I don’t really separate them and a lot of the times they seem to overlap.

Do you find that a lot of these projects, like your publishing house Percival Press and I actually just read that you collaborated with Buckethead, which I found to be surprising because he is sort of an abstract character...
Do you know of him?

Yeah, I saw him a few years ago with Les Claypool and Bernie Worrel doing his Bucket of Bernie Brains thing.
What about his playing?

Oh, phenomenal. How did you hook up with him? How did that come about?
That happened a while ago. That was probably, God, maybe nine years ago now, I’m not sure how long ago it was. Somebody approached me who had heard and read poems of mine and I had done some spoken word on a radio show one time, maybe the DJ recommended me, I don’t know. But someone who was producing educational CD’s, you know, for high schools I guess, was doing a series and one of these CD’s or recordings where going to be a collection of spoken word with music pieces about Greek Gods and I did one of them, you know. And then I added sounds I felt where appropriate and sort of did a rough mix and sent it off to New York. They added some guitar to it and sent it back and it sounded great. I kept thinking, wow, who’s that, that’s really beautiful and really sensitive to what the theme of the story was. You know everything was just really well done and I asked them who it was. “Oh its this guy Buckethead, do you know how that is?” And I said, no. And it turned out he moved back around that time from New York to southern California, where he’s actually from. And I looked him up and asked him if he wanted to work on anything else, if he had any other ideas. Since then we’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of hours of things and some of those we collect and put out on record. He’s just somebody I really enjoy working with. [He’s] very open minded and pretty brave. He’s so gifted, he can pick up any instrument. He’ll always say (Viggo mimes being indifferent) I’ll try something. First take, he always blows you away. Any style almost and he’s extremely gifted. I think for him, to work with me, I’m obviously not, you know, a professional musician or a professional music producer or anything like that, so I don’t work in a conventional way and I don’t have set rules for how we are going to do each take or how long its going to be or what approach we are going to take, so I think it’s probably refreshing for Buckethead to just go ahead and play. And be safe, he can be safe in making mistakes, doing whatever. I’m never going to make him do something and I would never use something he didn’t like so I think its a safe atmosphere for him to be really creative.

Going into this movie, you were already an accomplished rider, was that a draw for you?
Well I needed to get better then I was and you can always improve, obviously. And I needed to really pay attention, which I did, in getting ready for this job. Fortunately, I had ridden when I was a boy quite a bit so it was a question of brushing up those skills and I got a bit of a head start by getting to do that on Lord of the Rings. I knew I was going to be on a horse everyday and someday all day long, you know. It’s also a particular type of riding in a particular time, the way a cowboy would ride is not the way anyone else, necessarily, would ride. I mean there are similarities but there is certain aspects to it, there’s certain ways of dealing with the horse or speaking to it, all of those aspects. And just being comfortable. You have to do a lot of riding and a lot of, in some cases, you know, dangerous or even things that don’t look very dangerous because they just work. You are just sort of riding straight ahead really fast, but it can be (dangerous) depending on the terrain and how the horse is doing and how you’re doing, especially if you are not using a saddle, you know, you’re bareback. So it just takes getting into shape and working at it and I had really great help from a guy named Rex Peterson, who is the horse trainer and Gene Walker, who worked with the actors a lot and Mike Watson, an unbelievable stuntman, who really gave me great advice and a lot of help. The fact that I like horses probably was very helpful, you know it always helps if you like what you’re doing and you like who you’re doing it with. I just wanted to give the director as much as I could because the closer he can film the character and if it’s the actor doing the stunts, it’s all the better. You can see its him and you get more involved, I think, as an audience member. It goes with that simple style of filmmaking. Its not about a lot of cuts, you’re watching him and then there he goes.

You really can see that it's you riding and I think your work ethic really shows through in a lot of your roles, you know, you dedicate so much of yourself.. Well, ever since Lord of the Rings your name has been attached to just about every project and we’ve even heard stuff like a punk-rock sequel to Psycho.
Actually when we were doing the Psycho remake, that’s something I suggested to Gus Van Sant. I said it would be interesting, you know a certain amount of people in that world and I know some and I can think of some that would be interesting in that cast. We were sort of joking but its something I suggested to him a long time ago and I guess now he’s actually thinking of doing it. Which I don’t know if its true or not but its interesting.

We have also heard you were attached to a couple other movies like Killing Floor.
(Viggo mimes baffled)

I guess that’s news to you.
(laughs) Yeah. Well that’s probably something that happens anytime a person or people are in a project that has a lot of success at the box office and people will, just to have something to write about, make up stories about them. If your'e under the radar and just working away like I mostly have been for the past, almost twenty years, I guess, then people don’t tend to do that. People don’t tend to link you romantically with all sorts of people you maybe have never met. Sometimes it’s funny and then sometimes its not funny when it persists and people are calling you and going hey, you know, your mom, your cousin, or God forbid, your girlfriend or your spouse or whatever. I think its just a function of movies, being in a popular movie and you know it will pass as soon as something else is a big deal, then they’ll move onto that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
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