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Viggo Mortensen is no fan of westerns, so how did he wind up as the star of Appaloosa, an old-fashioned oater directed by and co-starring Ed Harris?
Well, Mortensen liked the script. And, more important, he liked working with Harris, who played his rival in A History of Violence (2005).
"I just think that most westrns are pretty terrible," says Mortensen, who'll turn 50 on Oct. 20. "But Appaloosa was really well-written. I liked the sparseness of the language and how, even though the characters are curt with each other, there's a polite, almost Victorian sensibility at work. That's true even when the circumstances are brutal or very basic."
And, Mortensen adds, "Ed and I see eye to eye."
After earning his first Oscar nomination for playing a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, Mortensen could have followed the money. Instead, he signed up for the shoestring-budgeted Appaloosa because, two years earlier, he'd given Harris his word.
"I wanted a guy who I could ride next to on a horse for 10 hours, never say a word and feel totally comfortable," Harris explains. "I figured Viggo would be the guy. He's the only man I wanted to play the role. If Viggo couldn't have done it, I don't know if I would have made the movie."
In 2005, when Harris and Mortensen were promoting History of Violence at the Toronto Film Festival, Harris slipped Mortensen a copy of Robert B. Parker's novel. A year later, he showed Mortensen the screenplay with hopes it would convince his pal to giddy up.
"I asked Viggo if he would commit to the film," Harris recalls. "He basically gave me his word. He was extremely busy. He's got his own publishing company. He was doing other films. It would have been a lot easier for him, in his life, to not have done this film. He said he would do it, and he did it, and he did a great job. I really applaud him for that."
Good thing Mortensen knows something about honor and loyalty because themes of faithfulness and betrayal drive the plot of Appaloosa.
Set in 1882 in the Old West territory of New Mexico, the film stars Mortensen and Harris as Hitch and Cole, itinerant lawmen who ride from town to town trying to bring order to the chaos.
In the small mining community of Appaloosa, a rancher (Jeremy Irons) has allowed outlaws to take whatever they want from honest townfolk. Enter Hitch and Cole to keep the peace.
Harris, who put the project in motion by adapting Parker's novel, says he was drawn to the unusual relationship between the two lawmen.
"These characters have to communicate who they are without really talking about it," Harris says. "They talk about stuff, but they don't really talk about their inner feelings.
"These are not domesticated men. Their home is wherever they are at the time. They have been traveling together for years. They share a certain bond. They trust one another and rely on one another for their very survival. Where does a woman fit into that?"
Which is not to say that Hitch and Cole go Brokeback. In fact, while establishing their authority in Appaloosa, the buddies run into a woman (Renee Zellweger) who entrances both of them, testing their decade-old partnership.
"Dramatically, it's really interesting when Renee's character comes into play," says Mortensen, who in 2002 founded Perceval Press, an independent publishing house specializing in art, poetry and critical writing.
"I found her to be mysterious and, for a woman of that time, quite direct. She isn't the archetype of the whore or the loyal wife, which you see in a lot of westerns. She's very different."
Before filming began, Harris rewatched a saddle bag full of westerns, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine and The Wild Bunch.
Mortensen, for his part, will only admit to admiring a few classics, including High Noon, Man of the West, Missouri Breaks and Open Range starring Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner.
Of the later film, he says, "Like our movie, they handled the gun-fighting and shooting really well. There wasn't any glamorizing of the violence."
Thanks to his performances in such films as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Portrait of a Lady and A Walk on the Moon, Mortensen seems uniquely comfortable in period films.
This fall, he continues time-traveling with The Road, John Hillcoat's futuristic thriller about a father and son journeying across the country in search of safety; and Good, a drama about a language professor in 1930s Berlin who becomes involved with the Nazis.
Asked why he's so often cast as a man out of time, Mortensen says, "I think maybe that's how people see me. When I started my career, I could never play a bad guy or a dangerous guy. Then once you do that, that's all (casting agents want you to do.) This is a business after all."
Mortensen admits he often selects films that force him to lose himself in exotic worlds, whether it's Middle-Earth, Little Russia or Woodstock in the '60s.
"I do enjoy period pieces," says the actor, a New York City native who spent his childhood ping-ponging between South America and Denmark. "I think there's always a lot of food for thought when you set something in the past.
"Also, I think its fun because these movies often take place outdoors. On this one, we had a lot of fun riding horses. We all had the most amazing costumes. There's an element of childlike play to it. In period pieces, you get to lose your own clothes, shed your skin and live in another world. I enjoy that part of acting."