Hidalgo: An Interview with Viggo Mortensen
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Hidalgo: An Interview with Viggo Mortensen
Though Viggo Mortensen crashed through into mainstream movies with his
unforgettable performance as the would-be King Aragorn in the Lord
Of the Rings trilogy, the actor has in fact been working steadily
in Hollywood for twenty years now, starting with small roles in such films
as Witness and then going on to win critical raves in acclaimed
films like Sean Penn's 1991 drama The Indian Runner. His latest
film Hidalgo tells the true story of Frank T. Hopkins, one of the
Old West's last living cowboys who in 1890 won a famous 3000-mile horse
race, besting hundreds of years of tradition as the first non-Arab runner
to do so. Mortensen spoke to Blackfilm.com about making the film, honoring
the beautiful animals on whose back he relives Hopkins' legend, and dealing
with the windfall of publicity he's endured in recent years as the star
of one of Hollywood's biggest film series of all time.
Why did you want to do this role after Lord Of the Rings?
Looking at it right now, because at the time it was just a story that was interesting to me for several reasons. When I first read it, first of all, I read it and thought, this is a really interesting story. I'd never heard of this guy, there are a lot of things that I do know about and am interested in, horses, Buffalo Bill, because I think he was instrumental in creating the western genre, for better and for worse, his mythologizing of the west, which is touched on in this movie. And because I'm related to him through my mom's side of the family, so it's kind of interesting and it will be interesting for my family, these things that I heard about when I was a kid, and all the books and the movies that I've seen Buffalo Bill portrayed in, and photos that there is available of him, I've been to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming a lot of times. It's a great museum. And now I'm playing scenes with him. And I thought JK Simmons did a great job. That was interesting. I've been interested in Native Americans, particular in plains Indians and specifically Lakota culture for a while, but I got to learn a lot more on it. I like the period of history, I like the end of the nineteenth century, especially for this country, it's when they began again for better and for worse, for the next hundred years or more until now, to look beyond the borders, look it's place in the world and like that, so a lot of things that were interesting, but when I look back at it now I think that not many actors get even one chance to be in a project like Hidalgo or Lord Of the Rings that, is both in my opinion, are really entertaining adventures or ordeal or challenge stories, heroic journeys, that are also thought provoking, not just a yarn, and have popular appeal.
Why are you drawn to films that have such physical demands?
I've done lots of different kinds of movies. I've been around for a long time in terms of - compared to a lot of other actors. I've been working on and off for twenty odd years. It is true that as different as it is and as different as Joe Johnston's straight ahead, old-fashioned approach is, or Peter Jackson's approach, there are elements of the story that are as I sort of touched on somewhat similar, they are ordeals in which the person's character is tested, in which a person learns about themselves, things that they otherwise wouldn't perhaps. I don't know, those are the kinds of movies that I sometimes go to see, but they also be small movies, I think one of the best movies I saw last year was Whale Rider, and that's a heroic journey as well. It's much more intimate, it's a smaller story in some sense, but it's as much an epic journey with mythological underpinnings, and it's moving and it takes you on a journey as an audience member, just as much as Hidalgo.
Around horses as a child?
You'll see in this book, in the beginning there's a picture my brothers and I on horseback when we were very little. When I was a boy I rode a lot in Argentina where we lived until I was about eleven, and then we moved my brothers and I away from there, but you remember certain things from when you're a kid and I got to do one western, Young Guns 2, and then The Lord Of the Rings I got to ride again and get reacquainted. And on this one I was on a horse everyday. I really enjoyed it and it was good for the director obviously that I was comfortable, because he could film me doing it.
Do you feel pressure on your career now that your name is above the title of a movie?
It's not above the title on the screen, which is where it counts, but I personally don't think the director or the actor should ever be above the title. I like that old-fashioned way of doing movies where the story is what counts. And in the way this is told it's certainly in that way, it doesn't show off anybody or any filmmaking aspect, it just tells the story and respects the audience enough to let them make their own mind up.
Your profile has risen and your name is above the title on the press kit.
Yeah, it is, and it's the big fat-head picture (he looks at his face on the press kit). But that's not how the movie was made, it wasn't like they had the big fat-head on set everyday to remember that this is the big fathead movie.
Is there more pressure on you?
I don't feel that, maybe others might. Maybe I'm in some sort of denial, I don't think so. I felt the same on this movie as I did on The Lord Of the Rings, there was this ensemble and interestingly, just like on Lord Of the Rings, the studio took a chance on a group of largely unknown performers to tell the story, and I think the same thing would be true that happened with Lord Of the Rings, where this cast is going to get a lot of opportunities and work out of this, because it does have the chance to be pretty popular.
I understand your trip to Wounded Knee was special
I've been to the Pine Ridge Reservation through that part of South Dakota, because of my interest in their culture, some of their great leaders and thinkers like Crazy Horse and their medicine men, Fool's Crow, Black Elk. Because of things I'd read growing up, I've been going there since 1985, but I'd never gotten to know people very well, I was an outsider, but with this movie I got to go to prepare, to ride with people there, which is a somewhat closed society, because they have good reason to mistrust outsiders historically. But they are very warm and welcoming when it gets right down to it. And I went riding, got to know some of them, I worked with a medicine man to learn to speak and to sing that song, and I had some good experiences there, and then we went up and filmed and I think it was great that Joe Johnston and Disney went to an effort that they didn't have to go to, they could have shot the massacre at Wounded Knee reenacted it in California with whoever, anybody that looked right. They went to South Dakota, they shot it with extras who were from there, a lot of them were descendents of people who were either killed or survived the massacre at Wounded Knee, likewise Calvary, some of them had connections, which made for an interesting atmosphere. And because the approach of the ghost dancers, which was the hub of these several days when we were there, we were all hearing them singing, because they do it all day, they got special permission, did everything right, even some earth was taken from the real Wounded Knee site nearby and spread around, people did things in such a heartfelt way that it meant a great deal, it impressed everyone involved, even the most hardened grip or the transport guy, who was just watching and taken in by this. And when I was there, which is probably what you're referring to, I said like a lot of people, "Yeah, of course I'll come back,' and I knew I would because I had already made friends there, and I had the predisposition to like the culture and the place, and I did go back between Christmas and New Year's for the Big Foot Ride which commemorates what happened there. I rode with them in the snow and stuff and that was interesting. And then I've been back recently, on this North American press tour, we went to Redwood City and then onto Pine Ridge and did radio and Native American press, and I think it's important and I'm glad that Disney is reaching out, not only to them but to the Muslim press, because it's one of those rare things that a Hollywood movie doesn't really have anything to be ashamed of in that area. Even inadvertently they do not offend or trample on those cultures, they make a good effort there and those who have seen it, particularly the Muslim press because they go on and they're conditioned to, let's see what horrible things we do this time, they've come out and said, "I was pleasantly surprised, and I would recommend it to my friends and family.
Is it true that you bought the horse?
TJ, yes I did. I thought about it all during the shoot. And the latter part of the shoot I ask Rex Peterson who owned him, who found him, the trainer, what he thought about that, and he said, "You can have first dibs on him certainly.' And I know he was happy for me to have him. I just wanted to keep up the relationship with him, it wasn't a question of possessing him, it was just staying in touch with him. He's at a friend's place just outside town, where I can go and ride him a lot.
Are you planning to buy a ranch of your own?
I used to live north of here, a ways up in Idaho, I used to live there, and I do have a little land there and I might eventually.
Do you also have the horse from Lord Of the Rings?
They had to stay and do re-shoots until towards end of last year, and since then I've been on tour with Lord Of the Rings and now this, it hasn't stopped. And that one week I had off at Christmas after several months of touring, I chose to go up and do the Bigfoot Ride, so I really haven't stopped and I haven't had a chance to go back to New Zealand, so when this stops I'll probably go and get them.
Chris Cooper said he'd been around horses all his life, but he still doesn't trust them.
Well, I have a healthy respect for them, that's for sure. Something can go wrong, they're not machines. And if you know horses, even a little bit, you realize very soon that if you earn their trust and ask rather than demand that they do things in a polite way, you're going to get a lot more out of them and you're going to get better work on film certainly. There were many times that I was afraid doing this shoot.
You obviously liked the animal.
He's unusually intelligent and unusually self-possessed and he's easy going and calm for a stallion. He'd never been in a movie before, never been around a movie set, and for him to put up with what he put up with and perform all those tricks, and really it's acting, to act that fried, and to fall down and then to stay down when there was camera crew around and lights, and the wind's blowing, and to allow me to do dialogue and do these things with the knife, he was incredible.
Are you relieved that the press is coming to an end for you?
Yeah, I still have a couple of months to go and many, many hundreds of interviews so I can't even see the end of it right now. This is like asking me in the middle of the Sahara Desert if I could picture the end of it, or asking me in when we were in Wellington, New Zealand, or doing the battle of Helm's Deep or something, if I was looking forward to the end, it's like it doesn't even compute.
Will you travel when it's over?
I love traveling, but that's pretty much all I'm going to be doing, although I'm not going to be seeing things, I'll be going to Argentina, Japan, Spain, France, Sweden for this in the next few months, which sounds great and glamorous but I'm basically, as I've been doing for the past several weeks, arriving in a city in the evening, sleeping a little bit, get up early, do press all day, jump on a plane that evening and go to another city. So you don't really see anything other than what you see out the window.
For someone who does extensive research, how frustrating was it for you to play a real person that is hard to find any information about him?
It was hard but what was rewarding was in making the effort and just going out to the reservation, which is where John Fusco heard about this story, it wasn't from a book it was the oral tradition, and one of the things I'm going to give you has just one of the people who talk about it, he's a Blackfeet. This guy Leo, who runs with buffalo, a older gentleman from Montana - he's one of several individuals, different tribes, families that don't know each other, different language groups, everything else, who speak about the same person, Hopkins, and this horse, and other horses that he worked with, who relate this, by all appearances, a white guy back to their culture and he horse, so it's not just white ranchers and horse enthusiasts that talk about him with affection and admiration. His forward looking, in terms of appreciating the mustang, or his humane training techniques. Now people like Monty Roberts and others like Horse Whisperer fame, that kind of humane horsemanship, that kind of training is something Hopkins was writing about in a fair amount of detail 50 years ago. But the oral tradition is the thing that I value the most and going up there and learning in that way having to make the extra effort was actually really interesting to me, and this one guy talked about this story which was handed down from his grandparents to his parents to him.
Did Omar Sharif share any stories with you about old Hollywood?
Oh yeah. All these other things that were interesting that I mentioned about getting into it, and above all that it's a good story. And Joe Johnston said, "And guess what else? There's a good chance, we're not completely sure, that Omar Sharif may be in this movie, playing that part.' And I said, "Oh, that would be great. Is there any way to ensure that?' And he said, "We can just hope that he says yes.' I was really happy when I found out that he had, because even if another very good actor plays his part, it's not the same because of the historical connection, we're in the Sahara Desert, in some cases some of the exact locations that they'd shot 40 years earlier Lawrence of Arabia. It just lends something, even for those who haven't seen that movie, younger audiences, there's just something there, some unspoken connection in terms of film history, and just the fact that he is an intelligent person who is Arab, I don't know, it was perfect casting.
Did you play bridge with him?
No, I'm not that foolish. But to just sit close to him playing scenes and being the beneficiary of that energy and charm that he has, that presence was great. But above all, the storytelling, he has great memory and a lot of it was perked up I think by being in the places we were in. He would talk about David Lean and he'd talk about the first time he'd met the director, when he came in to be cast. And then shooting, his adventures and misadventures, not all of which are suitable for public consumption, with Pete O'Toole on and off the set. It's fascinating. For an actor to get that history that I'm not going to find in any book, to get it straight from the horse's mouth so to speak was great.
Have you met any of Hopkins descendants? Have they seen the film?
I don't know if they have or not. I know that I haven't met them, I know that there was one lady who is 94, she recently just passed away, she was Blackfeet from removed from the Lakota reservation, she lived up in Montana, and she had met him as a little girl and we talked about that. But you'd have to Fusco about that, I don't if he's met them or not, but they are - for example, David Midthunder, the guy who helped coach me, as an extra he's Black Coyote had long black hair who is deaf and he has the rifle taken away and it goes off in Wounded Knee, he said his mom would tell him about his Hopkins fellow. And she said that there are Hopkins up there in Montana that are connected to him, and they're on the reservation in South Dakota, they're supposed to be. I didn't meet them.
How selective are you becoming as you become successful?
I don't really have a plan, I don't have much time to think about it right now, honestly, I'm doing this every day, which doesn't leave much time, at the end of the day I'm pretty tired. I don't even have time to think about it. I'm talking to you, how can I read a script? I don't really plan it, I didn't plan to do this after Lord Of the Rings, I certainly didn't plan to do a big epic story. I'm just looking like always for something that's stimulating, or I hope to find a good story, a challenge whether it's big or small.
How politically motivated are you? Are you going to vote this year?
I don't know if I'm any more motivated than anyone else, I'm curious about the world and I have a resistance to just assuming that what I see on TV is the gospel truth. I suppose I'm curious about things, I'd like to find out as much as I can for myself. I do think that it's an important election that has the usual trappings of one liners and shallow politicking, but it is a pivotal moment in history, and I don't think you have to be of any political persuasion to see it's a crucial time in American and world history and that the leadership of the United States is instrumental in making a pretty big mess of things in a lot of ways, and I think a change would be good. What that change should be I don't know.
Would you ever consider running for political office?
Shit, no. Movies are complicated enough and there's enough deceit and bluffing and media manipulation and everything else in the movie business. I don't need to have more.
Are you going to the Oscars next week?
I believe I'm going to be on tour supporting this movie.
What film are you rooting for for Best Picture?
I've been racking my brains, who's going to win? And you analyzed it and you get out the slide-rule, it's a very complex thing, but I've come up with this perhaps this very simplistic conclusion and it's I think at the end of the day it'll probably be the one that gets the most votes.
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