Viggo rides again
Author: M E Russell
Publication: The Oregonian
Date: 05 Mar '04

A fire alarm is screaming in the background at Viggo Mortensen's Seattle hotel. The movie star's on the phone talking about "Hidalgo," and apparently he's not getting off the line.

"Sorry about the noise," he says.

The alarm's a maintenance test, it turns out. Mortensen is jokingly advised that if it comes down to doing a telephone interview or going up in flames, he really ought to hang up. "Might be a tough choice though, right?" he replies. "Once I hear the wisdom coming through the line . . ."

Such optimism! But then, life's been good for Mortensen these past few years. The 45-year-old actor, artist, poet and musician was best known for a long string of supporting actor turns, in such movies as "Carlito's Way," "The Indian Runner" and "A Walk on the Moon." Then he was cast (as a last-minute replacement for Stuart Townsend) as Aragorn in "Lord of the Rings."

His "Hidalgo" character, Frank T. Hopkins, is Mortensen's first post-"Rings" role, and for "Rings" fans, it couldn't be a better follow-up.

Like Aragorn, Hopkins is a two-fisted, tortured hero with his feet firmly planted in two cultures: those of Native Americans and the cowboys of the frontier American West. Mortensen freely admits to the similarities: "Hopkins is a particular kind of cowboy struggling to find his way. (He faces) tests that you can see in other fairy tales and stories. I think Hopkins' (story) is based on some of the events of his life, but it's also a myth. This isn't a documentary."

Set in 1890, "Hidalgo" centers on Hopkins' role as the first American invited to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a grueling, 3,000-mile horse race across the Arabian Desert that turns out to be more survival ordeal than competition.

The Oregonian spoke with Mortensen about "Hidalgo," "Lord of the Rings" and cowboy philosophy -- with a quick detour into the veracity of Hopkins' biography, which has come under fire for being somewhat larger-than-life. Following are highlights.

"Hidalgo" spends a lot of its opening act on Hopkins' Native American heritage.
There was a lot more. They cut a lot out. I've talked to a lot of Native American press and Muslim press -- and after seeing it, they seemed to be relieved that a big-budget movie can, without making a big deal about it, treat their cultures with a degree of respect. I think it treats cowboys with respect, too. I think people have gotten a twisted view of cowboys, because of cowboys epitomizing something that I don't think is very cowboy-like: the idea that "independent-mindedness" means that you prevent others from having their individual experience. That's not the cowboys I know.

As in "Lord of the Rings," you seem to have taken great pains to speak in a native dialect whenever possible -- in this case, a Native American dialect.
Yeah, Lakota. It needed to be credible that Hopkins was as comfortable in that language as he was in English. We worked as hard on that as we did on the horseback riding. It wasn't just saying the words correctly, but understanding as much as possible the full meaning behind them, the tradition behind a song -- how to sing properly when you're in that state of exhaustion. Just being respectful, basically.

It was probably nice to be respectful to a culture that actually existed this time around.
Tolkien made the Elvish up, but there's roots in languages that I've heard -- Finnish and Welsh. Although I felt that Aragorn, just as much as Hopkins, follows in a tradition of people who accept challenges and go through ordeals. And that has a connection to any culture. There's been some flak -- minor, on the Internet, I don't know what the motivation is -- of people saying, "Well, (Hopkins' story) is all baloney. Did he or did he not do this or that?" You know, the oral tradition has been handed down about Hopkins. (Screenwriter) John Fusco heard about Hopkins initially on the reservation. There's a limited amount about him -- mostly from equine historians or people who've written about his appreciation of the mustang and his forward thinking in terms of training and techniques for endurance racing. I put a lot of stock in the same stuff that Fusco heard -- at Pine Ridge Reservation (in South Dakota) and on the Blackfeet reservation.

I like the lessons stories can tell you. But myth can also be twisted. The cowboy myth has been pulled out of that bottom drawer once in a while by people -- (President) Bush and others -- to try and justify other things. But generally speaking, what's at the heart of any myth is gonna come out. Tolkien was worried that Nordic mythology was going to be irrevocably damaged by Hitler's government's use of it to justify their actions. That obviously didn't happen -- "Lord of the Rings" is founded on (Nordic mythology). So the cowboy ideal will live on. Because it isn't only in America that you have this kind of independent-minded, stoic and yet chivalrous archetype. You can find that in medieval Europe, samurais in Japan, Masai warriors in Africa, Lakota warriors, Viking warrior-poets .

Aragorn and Frank T. Hopkins are both from bicultural backgrounds, and they bring different cultures together.
Which I like. Unlike Aragorn, Hopkins hasn't traveled the world; he has no idea what he's getting into. But Aragorn has learned that he has more in common with others than not. He's constantly looking for common ground. There's that guy (in "Hidalgo") who says, "It's sacrilege that you're in this race" -- and (Hopkins) looks at the guy and says, "Well, good luck to you, too." That's a very telling moment for him.

In "Hidalgo's" epilogue we learn that Hopkins raced well into his 60s. Are we due for 20 years of "Hidalgo" sequels?
(Laughs) I don't think so. There's a really good story about him: When he was pretty old and hadn't raced for a while, some young Cavalry officers were gonna have this race -- a 50-miler or maybe a 100-miler. And some of them were talking: "You see that old guy? He won all these races and he's really amazing." And (others were) saying, "Yeah, sure. Those old guys always tell those big stories. I doubt it." And even though he wasn't in shape, Hopkins said, "Well, let me have a horse." And he not only won -- he was sitting in a chair waiting for them (at the finish line).

If "Hidalgo" does well, they may want to tell more of his legend.
The reaction so far has been really positive. (Director) Joe Johnston tells the story in a very old-fashioned way that's not showy -- respecting the audience enough to let them make up their own mind about what was underneath -- the idea that it's worthwhile making some sort of conscious effort to understand the world instead of dismissing it outright.

Now, you actually bought T.J., the horse who plays Hidalgo.
Oh, he's awesome. Half of the reactions that T.J. came up with weren't scripted. He kept reacting in a seemingly appropriate or jealous way -- annoyed because I wasn't with the program or wanting to quit. . . . It went from something where we thought, lucky coincidence, to realizing that once you say "Action!" he's gonna . . . do stuff. He's involved somehow, in some freaky way. It was more than any of us could have hoped.

What's the difference between bonding with a horse actor and bonding with a human actor?
I don't see it being that different, to be honest. Just as with people, if you treat a horse with respect and you earn its trust, the working relationship's gonna be easier and probably more fruitful. I always try to be as prepared as possible, and then be open to things going completely differently, whether I'm working with a human actor or an animal actor. A lot of times, the accident can be incorporated into the story -- as long as you're in character.

In your recent Vanity Fair profile, you quote Immanuel Kant: "Seek not the favor of the multitude." Have you reflected at all on the fact that, in pursuing your own muse, you've accidentally found the favor of the multitude?
Well, they'll move on to someone else soon enough. (Laughs) As long as you don't hang your hat on it, then you're focusing on what you're supposed to be focusing on -- which is the work that you're fortunate to get, and the experiences of interacting with other people to do the job. What you learn. What you see. Where you go. It's not gonna help you do a better job if you start buying into the windfall of the movie doing really well. I've worked in other movies where I've worked hard, and we thought we had a good movie, and it just hasn't struck a chord. That doesn't invalidate the job you've done.

Of all the creative acts you're engaged in that aren't acting -- poetry, painting, music -- which one gives you the most satisfaction?
I don't separate them. I think it's all the same impulse: to observe, to interact and participate in your own life, which is short. I guess it's my way of trying to focus on the world a little more than if I would if I just was lying there watching TV.

How are you managing to carve out time with your son, Henry, given everything that's going on?
It's tough, you know? It's been a very busy time. This too shall pass. The last couple of years have been really lucky -- to be in two projects that I've learned from and that other people have connected with, too. Most actors don't even get one of those.

Why haven't you participated in the "Lord of the Rings" Extended Edition DVD commentary tracks? Any chance we'll finally hear you on "Return of the King"?
I understand that it's interesting for a movie buff to hear the director's point of view, but I'm just a believer in letting the movie speak for itself. I've supplied other materials and photographs and whatever, trying to be helpful -- I'm certainly in the extras a lot, talking about stuff. But the movie should speak for itself or not, and I think the Extended Editions so far have done that.

You must be delighted to get the "Houses of the Healing" sequence back into the "Return of the King" Extended Edition.
Well, I don't know what's in there. But if (Peter Jackson's) adding 45 or 50 minutes, as I hear, I would be surprised if that wasn't in there. There's a lot more material before the "Paths of the Dead," and I don't know if he's using it or not. I hope he is. There's stuff that helps Miranda Otto's character and Karl Urban's character, and Dominic Monaghan's. I would think "Houses of Healing" is probably a given because it's such an important part of the book, and I really did honestly miss it.







































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