It's not often an actor buys his co-star. But then again, Viggo Mortensen isn't your average actor. And come to think of it, the co-star isn't some hot young filly - it's a real horse.
'I just fell in love with him [on the set of Hidalgo],' Mortensen says. 'He doesn't live with me [in Venice, Calif.]. He stays at a friend's house, and I go over to ride him as much as I can.'
In Hidalgo, which opens Friday at local theaters, Mortensen portrays real-life horseman Frank T. Hopkins, who was a dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry. In 1890, a sheik invited Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, to partake in the gruelling Ocean of Fire horse race.
The first American to ever participate in the prestigious race, Hopkins wasn't expected to finish the 3,000-mile ride across the Arabian Desert, much less win. As for the feisty mustang, Hidalgo was considered inferior to the purebred Arabian horses that had always won the competitions. They were two outsiders whose purpose at the competition was to lose.
'It was a funny thing when we began shooting, because the horse would do certain things that we thought were flukes,' says Mortensen, who is lounging in his suite at the Peninsula Hotel in downtown Chicago. 'He would look at you a certain way or react to a line, but he would do them consistently. There was no trainer prompting him. He made my job really easy because it became almost instinctual. We had a really good partnership.'
Unlike the love triangle in The Lord of the Rings trilogy between his character (Aragorn), Arwen and Eowyn, there is no romance for him in Hidalgo. There is Hopkins and his horse. Romantics may not approve, but the swashbuckling action will delight adventure fans. And animal lovers.
Until the LOTR films, Mortensen was recognizable, but not yet a huge star. He was the seedy bad boy who lured Gwyneth Paltrow away from Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder (1998). He was the tough Navy SEALS commander who made Demi Moore's life a living hell in GI Jane (1997). And in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Mortensen played one of Leatherface's psycho kin.
But it was his turn as Aragorn, the man who would be king, that made him a movie star. On the set of the Lord of the Rings movies, his colleagues gave him the nickname 'No-Ego Viggo.'
'The guy is a stud with women just following him around wherever he goes,' says Elijah Wood, who played head hobbit Frodo. 'But he is the last one who'll ask anyone to do anything for him. He'd rather just go do it himself.'
On this afternoon, the 45-year-old actor is clad in loose blue jeans and a red sweatshirt touting Hidalgo. His hair has been cropped. And, in deference to Chicago's cold, he has on a pair of black socks, but no shoes.
Actually, there's a good chance Mortensen has the smallest shoe collection in Hollywood. On any given day (or evening), the actor may be found padding his way around barefoot. Even in the bitter New Zealand winter - where LOTR was shot - he chose to walk around barefoot when he wasn't in character.
'Am I really barefoot every time you talk to me?' Mortensen says, laughing. 'I don't really think about it, but I try to be comfortable and not make things too complicated. I like to be respectful and dress appropriately, but if that can coincide with what's comfortable then that's what I'll try to do.'
By now, Mortensen's renaissance man label is well known. A published poet and photographer, he has had numerous gallery shows featuring his bold paintings. He has published books and sung on CDs. And recently, he and longtime business partner Pilar Perez formed their own boutique publishing company Perceval Press.
The pair are aware that some fans will see the business as an outlet to get in contact with Mortensen. The web site states that Perceval will not accept letters, gifts or scripts addressed to him.
'It's not my place to say who is an art fan and who isn't,' says Mortensen. 'If someone wants to come to a gallery because they like me as an actor, I welcome them. If they end up leaving with an appreciation of art, that's great. If they leave just having a great time, that's fine with me as well. But you don't have to have studied art to know what you like and what is pleasing to you.'
Born to a Danish father and an American mother, Mortensen lived anything but a xenophobic life. He is fluent in Spanish, thanks to the days when his family lived in Argentina. He's also fluent in Danish and has a working command of the Lakota dialect, which he learned for Hidalgo.
'One of the [Native Americans on the set] was telling me that I got the accent right,' Mortensen says. 'That meant more to me than a good review of the film. It was really important to me to not make a mockery of this culture, which has such history and depth.'
As for his horse, Mortensen has no big plans for him, except to enjoy riding him. Laughing he adds, 'I suppose I could make some money off him renting him out for birthday parties for kids. I'll have to think about that.'