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Viggo Mortensen on his love of stunts, Argentinian tea and horses.
The heroic action star follows up the Lord of the Rings saga with another epic that calls upon his equestrian skills. John Millar finds out just why Hidalgo became his best friend in the desert
Viggo Mortensen's chiselled good looks and dashing style as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings and legendary Pony Express rider Frank T Hopkins in the epic horse adventure Hidalgo have earned him a place as one of the new heroic figures of cinema.
Off screen, he's a dapper dresser and a soft-spoken gentleman, with a fondness for a specific type of tea, as Film Review discovers when we meet in Los Angeles. Dressed in an immaculately cut green suit, he enters the room carrying an odd apparatus, a brown earthenware bowl from which sticks a silver tube.
This, he explains, contains a concoction which is Mate, an Argentinian tea, of which he is very fond. Discovering my interest, he politely offers a sip, but after sampling the drink I'd suggest that it is an acquired taste. Which brings us neatly round to the observation that Viggo Mortensen, a star who is of American and Danish extraction, has developed into a screen presence for whom millions have certainly acquired a taste.
Mortensen, who writes poetry, enjoys photography and paints, is that rare and interesting combination, a heroic screen action man possessed of obvious intelligence and sophistication.
As rising young British actress Zuleikha Robinson, his co-star in Hidalgo, says, "In Lord of the Rings Mortensen is a beautifully heroic character but a quiet soul."
The star, who made his screen debut as an Amish farmer in Witness and who replaced Stuart Townsend in the role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, has blossomed as an actor who is prepared to go that extra stride for the performance.
He famously broke a tooth while filming a fight sequence and fractured two toes during the filming of The Two Towers, in the scene where he kicks an orc helmet. The story also goes that he was so immersed in the skin of his character that he was completely unaware that director Peter Jackson had spent more than 30 minutes in conversation calling him Aragorn instead of Mortensen.
Interestingly, Mortensen was juggling his two most recent screen hero roles because of filming on Hidalgo when he still had work to do on The Lord of the Rings. "I got the part of Frank Hopkins after and to a large extent because of The Fellowship of the Ring, and we started shooting before The Two Towers came out. Even during rehearsals where I was getting to know TJ, my horse in Hidalgo, I was also having to go to New Zealand and do re-shoots.
"During the shoot for Hidalgo there were several times in different locations, including the middle of the Sahara Desert, where I'd have to go up on a hill or a sand dune and get cell phone reception to do interviews for The Lord of the Rings."
Famously, Mortensen prefers to do his own stunts - as was the case in The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo - and his thinking on that issue has nothing to do with machismo but is more about caring how the finished film might look.
"I know it gives the director more options. He can film closer and doesn't have to pull away because it's a stunt man, not me," says Mortensen, who agrees that this attitude puts him in danger.
"There is a risk even if you are confident. I had ridden since I was a boy on and off and so I was comfortable with horses. Before shooting on Hidalgo started I worked hard but nevertheless they are horses and [therefore] unpredictable and we were not filming on a track."
And the unpredictable struck during the filming of Hidalgo while shooting in the same part of the Moroccan desert where David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia. A scene was being filmed in which Mortensen and Zuleikha Robinson were together on horseback. Robinson, who was cast as the daughter of powerful sheikh Omar Sharif, was in front, holding the reins and Mortensen was seated behind her. It was a sequence that ought to have been fairly straightforward, but remember that old adage that warns of the danger of working with animals! For some reason the horse took off at a gallop, with the two stars holding on, and raced straight for a wall that looked far too high for it to have any chance of clearing. The situation was further complicated because there were two big pots on top of the wall and on the other side of the steep drop was scattered film equipment, light stands and some trucks were parked nearby.
A trained horseman, Mortensen was very aware that they were in the middle of a very dangerous situation. "I could feel that the horse was not slowing down, if anything he was speeding up. So I knew that something bad was going to happen," he says.
"We were either going to smash into all of this stuff that was around or he was going to try and jump the wall. Since I thought there was no way he could clear the wall, it would be even worse if he did jump. In a way I wished he would just smash into one of the buildings and get it over with.
"All of this was going through my mind very quickly and I didn't have control of the horse. I was behind Zuleikha, just hanging on. It was like driving a car when something goes wrong and I'm not a very good passenger because I am used to driving."
Then, with Mortensen imagining all sorts of mayhem, the horse leapt with so much strength that he went straight up and over the wall. Even then the actor reckoned that disaster was in store.
"I thought his legs were not going to be able to take the shock of landing and we were really going to have a wreck. We were coming down on to all these metal bits and pieces, lights and stuff but the horse hit a clear spot in between everything, and somehow we stayed on. Zuleikha lost the reins and I jumped off and grabbed them and miraculously nobody, including the horse, got hurt."
Looking back, Mortensen agrees that it could all have ended horribly. "It was very scary. We could have very easily been killed. Zuleikha was just giggling, later I think the shock hit her."
Amazingly none of this high drama was captured on camera. "But if it had been it would have looked like a special effect. It was beyond belief," says Mortensen.
At the end of the shoot Mortensen bought TJ, one of the horses that he rode in Hidalgo and he now keeps him outside of Los Angeles. "I ride him as much as possible. I rode him yesterday and again this afternoon. I must be a sucker for horses, I don't know why that is, because I also bought the two horses - Kenny and Uraeus - that I used in Lord of the Rings as well."
When Mortensen talks about TJ, the horse is referred to with the same sort of respect and consideration that he would grant his two-legged co-stars.
"The film is called Hidalgo and if the horse is not interesting then it's not going to be a good movie," says Mortensen. "His reactions in many situations were uncanny."
He also believes that the casting in Hidalgo of Omar Sharif, who after a semi-exile has just celebrated his return to the big screen with a Cesar for Monsieur Ibrahim, was both crucial and fortunate. "On Omar's return to international movies you couldn't help but think of Lawrence of Arabia when we were in the desert. It was beyond being a good luck charm for us, although it probably was that," says Mortensen. "It added something special having him there and the fact that we were shooting in some of the same locations where they'd shot Lawrence of Arabia made it very interesting. His casting raised the movie to another level."
His dedication to his roles is obvious and for Hidalgo Mortensen learned to speak Lakota, the language of the Sioux. His tutor was Sonny Richards who plays the older guy in the wagon at the end of the movie and it wasn't just a case of being able to repeat words or sounds in a parrot fashion. "I understood what I was saying," stresses Mortensen.
Sonny Richards is a medicine man, a spiritual leader and Mortensen says that his involvement in the project was really helpful; not only as a source of language but to select and train the ghost dancers who appear in the film.
"It is a tribute to Hidalgo director Joe Johnston and Disney that they went to that effort. They could have shot the film in California with local Indians or Mexicans but they went to South Dakota and shot with Lakota people, many of whom were related to people who had been killed or survived the massacre at Wounded Knee. They did a blessing and a whole ceremony before we started, involving smoking the pipe, singing and saying certain words. It was really good. We also brought some earth from the site of the massacre - obviously we couldn't shoot there because there is a graveyard there - and they spread it in the area where we were shooting. All those things they did well."
Mortensen agrees that the impact of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon on his career and life has been considerable. But he refuses to allow himself to get carried away by the consequences. "It's one of those things that you do every once in a while and you get lucky," he says. "There are very few actors who get the chance to be in a project like Lord of the Rings. It's not only an epic adventure story but it is moving and transcends national boundaries. Even in cultures that were not familiar with Tolkien - like in the Asian countries - they have embraced it because there are universal, mythological themes in it to which people can relate."
When I mention how incredible it must be when as a result of starring in Lord of the Rings, his face is on the side of an Air New Zealand plane, Mortensen shakes his head as though he's bewildered by it all.
"I know, it's scary," he says of the rush of fame that has come with such global success. "It is a little weird but this will pass. As you can probably guess neither my ego nor my sense of worth is tied to all that's happening. So if it goes away it's not going to be hugely depressing to me at all."
It becomes clear that this very thoughtful man has given over some serious consideration to exactly why he should be at the centre of a dream period of his career. "I don't know if all this that's happening to me is about timing, I think it's luck because I know people who are really talented and for some reason they can't even make a living. Why? There is no guarantee. All you can do is work hard to be ready if you get lucky. The director Sidney Lumet said that work consists largely of making the best possible preparation for accidents to happen. I think that's what it is."
While what has happened to Viggo Mortensen can't possibly be put down to good fortune, he insists on taking the view that he has been smiled upon. "To have a movie that is entertaining, moving, well made and also hugely popular...that doesn't usually happen to an actor. And now to be in Hidalgo, which people have warmed to, it makes me think that I'm very lucky to be in two projects in a row that have these qualities."
Or you could suggest that Viggo Mortensen is reaping the rewards for the effort, skill and dedication that he has given to his craft.