While it's an age-old clichéd observance, especially in relation to meeting actors, it still sends you for a loop when you come face to face with someone who you have perceived to be larger than life and they aren't. Case in point, Viggo Mortensen really is a lot shorter than you would expect. But then again, isn't that often the case with most actors? Let's face it, the very nature of cinema is to create an alternate reality and as such the Silver Screen always makes our celluloid heroes larger than life.
Physical stature aside, the next thing you notice about Mr. Mortensen is that he's incredibly soft spoken. He talks slowly, in a casually methodical manner that actually let's you see that he is thinking about what he is saying as well as thinking ahead to what he will say next. The result is casually contemplative. In this respect, he's also incredibly down to Earth. Yeah, I know, that's a turn of phrase that is attached to the description of a lot of famous people. Yet in the case of Mortensen, it's aptly accurate. On the day we met in a quiet suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, Mortensen was dressed in well-worn blue jeans, a weathered fleece jacket with a hand sewn UN patch over the left breast. His shoes were nowhere to be seen - nothing but socks adorning his feet - and he was drinking tea out of a coconut-sized gourd that had a silver mouthpiece (for easy sipping access) attached to it. He was most un-Hollywood like, completely unpretentious, although a bit tired from his current whirlwind PA tour in support of his latest venture, Hidalgo.
Speaking of which, while most of his Lord of the Rings compatriots have been rather quiet on the film front (with the exception of Sean Astin in 50 First Dates and Liv Tyler in Jersey Girl), Mortensen immediately followed up his epic turn as Aragorn with another stint in a slightly epic-tinged film. This time around, however, the subject matter is based not on fantasy, but rather on the true story of Frank Hopkins, an American cowboy who traveled to the Middle East to participate in the 3000-mile "Ocean of Fire" horse race.
On the surface there are noticeable similarities between the LotR and Hidalgo projects. For starters, Mortensen - who by the way is fluent in several languages - needed to learn the basic nuances of the Lakota language, which he spoke in several scenes during the film. How was learning an almost lost Native American tongue, say in relation to having to learn Elvish for the Lord of the Rings trilogy? "It helps if you know more than one language," Mortensen states. "You have a little head start on adapting, you can get your mouth around certain words and vowel sounds a little easier than if you only come at it from an English speaking background."
So, was one harder than the other to pick up? "Elvish or Lakota?" Mortensen asks rhetorically, pauses ever so briefly, before continuing to elaborate. "No. I mean I think they're similar. Not similar languages, but both in like there were some [words] that were harder [to learn] than others, just like there were in Elvish. I don't think that one was harder than the other. They were quite different, actually. Especially when they're sung. They're both quite beautiful."
Language lessons aside, Hidalgo also required Mortensen to spend an inordinate amount of time upon a horse, almost more than he spent during the filming of LotR. The film utilized upwards of five different horses to reprise the role of the titular Hidalgo. But it was with the main horse, T.J., that Mortensen developed a lasting bond. In fact, the bond was so strong that Mortensen actually purchased T.J. after the filming concluded.
This was not the first time that Mortensen has purchased one of his co-stars, however. "I bought the two horses I rode in Lord of the Rings, as well," he reveals. "I bought the one in Lord of the Rings 'cause I had - even though I wasn't with him all the time, I just developed a real good friendship with him. His name is Eurayus. He kind of came into the movie similar to the way I did. You know, didn't have much preparation and was just thrown in and had to swim, basically. And it was rough on him and it took a while for us to kind of get in sync and for him to be comfortable around the set. So we got to be close and I wanted to stay in touch with him. And, you know, by the end he became almost a real ham. He became so good at it that he was just relaxed and happy. He had been a performing horse, but an equestrian competition horse. So the cameras, lights, and some of the things we had to do...and also the gear. I mean the saddle and chain mail and all that stuff, the battles. So we got through it together and became friends. That was that story.
"And then there's another horse named Kenny that I ride in the beginning of The Two Towers. He's a chestnut brown-colored horse. And he was just pretty and again it was a situation where we were shooting and they didn't have the right horse and I said, 'Lemme just borrow that one,' and I pointed to one of the wranglers who was riding him. So I just jumped on him, put a Rohan saddle on him and I rode him that day, immediately on camera. But he was very easy and relaxed and I just wanted Eurayus to have a buddy."
As for T.J.? "I had no intention of buying a horse off of this movie. But with T.J. he was...I don't know, I just got to really, really like him. He's got such a unique, strong personality. He's a very small horse, you know, technically he's a pony. I mean he's about 14 Hands 2, I guess. And 14 Hands 3 and up is a horse and below is a pony, technically. He's a small horse, but very intelligent, very quick learner, for a stallion very relaxed on the set. He wasn't afraid or worried about the lights, camera, or anything. He was totally calm. You know that comic strip Andy Capp? That guy with his hat? I just think of him like that. He would just be there like, 'Whatever.' And you see that kind of thing from him a lot. He just did uncanny things. His reactions were consistently appropriate, whether it was displaying jealousy or possessiveness or being the conscience or being like, 'C'mon, let's go' or being annoyed. Do you know what I mean? His expressions were very vivid. I mean you can see it in the film. And you can see that it's not a Mr. Ed or a faked animal story. I didn't know that T.J. would be so into it, you know consistently coming up with stuff. First you think it's coincidence and then you realize, 'Wait a minute!' In rehearsal he's just all over [the place] like a horse, distracted, but as soon as you say, 'Action,' he's like in there, watching people back and forth, rolling his eyes, whatever. It was pretty uncanny. But we saw it. On film you see it, too. And there's a lot of stuff he did that we might not of caught or just wasn't included. Everyday he was doing stuff. It adds a lot, I think, to the story. The story would have been good anyway and you could have filmed it some way to get enough to where you think, 'Okay, the horse has his own kind of view. That's nice.' But not to the extent that you get that in this movie. And a lot of that has to do with the horse himself, just our good luck of having him as that character. And it's amazing to me, he picked up all these tricks and did all these things. Even the acting of being really fried and then falling down, a lot of horses wouldn't just fall like a sack of potatoes, they would go down slowly and protect themselves. And then once down, once you're fussing around and there's cameras and this and that and there's a gun and there's all this movement, they wouldn't stay there, you know what I mean? And for a stallion on top of that, they're just gonna be more touchy. And a stallion whose never worked in the movies before. It's incredible what he did. I mean we were really lucky there. It could have been a lot harder."
Mortensen's love of horses even flowed over into his other passion, photography (Mortensen runs his own publishing company, Perceval Press, and regularly puts out books of his own photography, along with ones highlighting the work of other artists). One of his most recent books, The Horse Is Good, seems to fit in nicely with the relationships he has cultivated with some of his onscreen steeds. "The Horse Is Good was just kind of an exercise. It's just the small part of the results of an exercise that I embarked on pretty much as we started shooting, more or less. Which was I realized that I was gonna be in the saddle most every day and some days all day long. And that point of view is different than sitting here or standing or walking down the street. You're up higher, you're moving a different way, the perspective of the rider through the camera or holding it down lower to get the horse's point of view, with the landscape, the people, and the animals and all that. I thought it would be interesting to do a collection of images, 'cause we'd be in different places - the Northern Plains, U.S., Sahara Desert, the Wild West Show, going down the street, who knows where, on horses. And so that's what that is. So there is some direct connection, but it's also a little more abstract. I mean it was something that interested me on the fringe of doing this movie.