Viggo Trades Reign for Reins

Author: Nicole Child
Publication: Daily Californian
Date: 04 Mar '04

"Do you wanna go out there? We could do it out there,” whispers Viggo Mortensen as soon as his press manager leaves, with no hint that he is kidding. Four reporters nervously look at each other. Is Viggo Mortensen, star of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hidalgo,” really asking us to climb out the eighth-storey window of the Ritz-Carlton? I suppose it doesn’t seem all that unlikely, given his reputation. As my $10 imitation suede boots stomp all over the (undoubtedly very expensive) couch in Mortensen’s suite in an attempt to climb out the window, I hear Mortensen warn, “Be careful, don’t get hurt. You’ll get me in trouble.”

One by one we join Mortensen, who sits on the narrow concrete balcony cross-legged, wearing rugged jeans, a stained sweater and black socks. I almost feel sorry for him, as I think that he would be much more at home on the grass or on a beach, watching the sunrise. He is eager to begin talking. And once he starts, it’s almost impossible to get him to stop.

I play with the idea of asking him about my real interest, “The Lord of the Rings,” but I am there to discuss his new film, “Hidalgo,” in which Mortensen loses his kingly crown and ranger attire for the hat and spurs of a great American cowboy. But it turns out “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t a topic to avoid, as Mortensen brings it up himself. When asked why he chose to accept the role of frontierman Frank T. Hopkins, he admits that his first big hit helped.

“I wouldn’t have had the option of accepting it or not accepting it ... if ‘The Lord of the Rings’ hadn’t been so popular—the studio wouldn’t have backed the idea of me being in it, even if the director liked the idea,” he says.

“Hidalgo” follows the life of Hopkins, the half-American, half-Lakota Indian cowboy/long-distance rider/rodeo performer/horse tamer/every type of American hero you can imagine. “Hidalgo” refers to the name of the Spanish mustang that Hopkins rode to victory in the famous Arab horse race, the “Ocean of Fire.” The film was shot on location in Morocco, with some scenes respectfully shot in South Dakota, in memory of the Wounded Knee Massacre, a haunting setpiece that opens the movie.

Mortensen explains that he likes the story of “Hidalgo” for much the same reason he liked “The Lord of the Rings.” “It extols the values of looking for common ground with others, especially with those who seem very different and maybe those you don’t agree with and don’t understand,” he says.

But while Mortensen admires the film for showing Hopkins as a curious, though slightly naive American trying to survive in an Arab culture, he doesn’t believe the purpose of the movie is to show Hopkins adapting to Arab culture. He denies, and even takes pride in the fact that “Hidalgo” is not what he refers to as a “message movie.” As Mortensen insists, “It shouldn’t be remarkable to have a story in which a variety of cultures are represented and you see that people are people.” Instead, he sees “Hidalgo” as a “straight-ahead action movie,” not intended to push morals or ideals on its audience.

In the midst of this semi-philosophical discussion, Mortensen’s press manager glares at him through a side window, having finally discovered where he has disappeared to. Mortensen laughs and promises he will return to his posh suite in five minutes. Somehow, he manages to fill that time with 15 minutes of discussion about various subjects. One subject is culture. Filming of “Hidalgo” began shortly before the invasion of Iraq, but didn’t deter the cast and crew from plunging forward into this work.

“It was important not to make a big deal out of (the cultural differences),” Mortensen says. “(The film) treats people who are in the audience as intelligent people who can draw their own conclusions and find whatever subtext they’re gonna find, whatever connections they’re gonna make … without being told what to think.”

Who can talk about the Middle East without discussing current events? Not even movie stars can resist. “Let’s face it,” Mortensen says, “our government and our president has made no bones about using (the cowboy) as his image…that sort of cowboy talk and cowboy slang and all the things that … misappropriate the cowboy myth. (It seems) that being and having individualism means preventing others from being individuals. That’s bullshit. That’s not what a cowboy is about.”

Politics aren’t the only thing about which Mortensen is outspoken. An artist, photographer, musician and poet, Mortensen has used his celebrity status to draw attention to struggling artists. Though he knows that many people who come to his poetry readings or buy his artwork are attracted to his role in “The Lord of the Rings,” he thinks the publicity can only be a positive thing, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. Besides, Mortensen isn’t worried about “stretching himself too thin” or wearing out his reputation. Mortensen admits that he never really had a long-term career goal for acting, and that he is impressed that he’s made it this far. “I feel pretty lucky,” he says. “(It’ll) be hard to top (recent successes) probably. I should probably quit while I’m ahead.”







































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