The 45-year-old Lord of the Rings hero and impassioned Mets fan stars in Hidalgo, just out on DVD.
Best sporting event you've attended?
The 1972 Olympics in Munich. I didn't have tickets, but there was a huge glass wall at the swimming hall, and me and some other kids illicitly climbed up to the glass to watch. I saw Mark Spitz and Gary Hall Sr. Since I swam it was amazing.
At the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, you worked as a translator for the Scandinavian teams. How did you pull that off?
I was at St Lawrence University in New York, and there was a call for volunteers with language skills. I spoke the Scandinavian languages because I'd lived in Denmark. The best thing was, I got free passes to events, and every night I'd watch hockey. The only game I didn't see was the U.S. final against Finland, because I had to go back to school.
You were at the Miracle on the Ice against the Soviets?
It was unbelievable. You were kind of hoping they'd win, but you knew there was no way it would happen. And right before your eyes, a miracle. It was such an underdog story. That's what fascinated me. Maybe that's why I love the Mets.
For your Vanity Fair cover story, you brought the author a cardboard box of stuff that included a book of poetry that comes with an owl-shaped pewter trinket. What did you bring SI for this interview?
Well, since we're on the phone, I don't have anything for you. I can probably get you some San Lorenzo [Argentina soccer team] gear. Let's just say I brought you a 1969 Tom Seaver jersey. Then you can say: 'I can't believe you're giving me this.' And I'll say: 'That's all right, it's just a thing.'
You're a fan of the Argentine soccer team San Lorenzo, and in April you were given a plaque and a lifetime membership card. How did you and San Lorenzo hook up?
Along with having similar colors, San Lorenzo is a little like the Mets in the sense they don't have the biggest treasure chest. But every once in a while they beat the big guys anyway. A few years back I was speaking to a Hispanic journalist, and the subject of soccer came up. I asked if the interview would be seen in Argentina. I said say 'hi,' to the Argentine people where I lived as a kid and in particular to Los Cuervos, the San Lorenzo fans. Somehow somebody in their P.R. department got wind of that and said if you ever come down, come see a game. Eventually through Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo I had the opportunity.
You, Michael Vartan and Jerry Seinfeld have publicly proclaimed your love for the Mets. Explain how you got started.
I was about 11 when I came to the U.S. in '69. I got a crash course in baseball that October when the Mets won the World Series. Even though we moved to northern New York -- it was a Yankees town if anything -- the Mets were my team from then on. I've stuck with them through thick and thin. If I'm in town when they come to L.A., I'll see them play. It's not any easier being a Mets fan than it is being a fan of San Lorenzo. You have to have a lot of perseverance -- that's what being a fan is about. You can't be a bandwagon guy. When we began shooting Lord of the Rings in New Zealand in '00 there was a guy who taped the Subway Series games when we were working, and I would watch them late at night. God, that was hard to watch. It was crushing. Horrible. It made me want to kill some more in the next scene. Or at least kill a certain pitcher.
You kept the sword you used throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you actually bought the horse from Hidalgo. Any other sports memorabilia floating around the Mortensen house?
I have enough shirts to field a whole San Lorenzo team, and I have a couple of different autographed baseballs and a Phillies uniform. It's nice to have the jerseys and horse, but those are things and objects. It's what you carry inside you. If you're a Mets fan, it's the ups and downs and the memories of the games you've seen that matters. The best thing I carry with me from the Lord of the Rings -- and most of the actors and crew would agree -- was the experience of doing it.
Hidalgo is set in the 1890s and tells the story of Frank T. Hopkins, who accepts the challenge to enter the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. Could you imagine ever competing in such an event?
The real Hopkins wrote that there wasn't much written about it because a lot of those race were done on the QT. Even back then, animal protection agencies had a problem with these long races, hundreds of miles, thousands of miles. There was a famous race he won from Galveston, Texas to Rutland, Vt. That just doesn't happen anymore. It was a huge thing at the end of the 19th century -- not just in this country but in all of North America. It really pissed Hopkins off that a lot of people would race, and when they finished, their horses would be done. They would practically ride them to death. Hopkins was as well known for winning races as he was for the good condition in which the horses finished the race. ... It would be interesting to try sometime. After making this movie I've gotten some invitations from places in Britain and Europe, but I haven't had time. You can't just say: 'Okay, I'll show up.' I would have to work at it and work with a horse. And I'd want to be fair to the horse. They told me they'd provide a horse, and I could just show up. Obviously, they saw the movie and thought I could just do it (laughs). But I love horses -- it would be fun.
You've spoken passionately about your love of riding. What is it about horses that capture your soul?
It's a great sport. It's great physical exercise and good for your balance. It clears your mind. It's similar to the way people talk about riding their Harleys down the highway or sailing boats or running long distances. You get that same thing from riding horses and spending time with them, but you also have that connection with the animal. You are actually connecting with this other being. Just like Hopkins does in the story, I feel that way.
Your mother, Grace, was a descendent of Buffalo Bill Cody, right?
There's a great museum in Cody, Wyo., called the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. It has one of the best collection of Plains Indian artifacts and paintings. I went to their research library about 15 or 20 years ago and looked through their files and saw my mother, her sister and my uncle as descendents in the family tree. It was pretty cool. And it's ironic because in Hidalgo I got to play scenes with Buffalo Bill.
Do you have a physical regimen for demanding roles such as Hidalgo and Lord of the Rings?
Like most people I can be lazy, so it's nice to have a goal or deadline or reason to work out. I feel better when I get to exercise, or when I'm outdoors. I like to hike, swim and run, and I love to play soccer.
Speaking of which, you star in Hidalgo and your favorite team just recently acquired outfielder Richard Hidalgo. Should our readers take away anything from this odd confluence?
Oh, I think it bodes well for the Mets. One can only hope anyway. I am an eternal optimist. You have to be if you're a Mets fan.