© Touchstone / Buena Vista Pictures.
I've had the opportunity to interview a lot of eccentric actors, and by "eccentric," I mean in a "Wow, that guy is fucked up" kind of way. Viggo Mortensen, however, is eccentric in an intriguing, eclectic, non-fucked-up sort of way. When you talk to Viggo, you get the feeling that not only does the guy not belong in Hollywood; he doesn't even belong in this century. In addition to being an avid horseman and fisherman, he's an accomplished jazz musician (he's released three CDs), poet (he's currently working on his fourth book of poems), painter and photographer. I had no idea people still wrote poems, much less entire books filled with them.
For his first post-LOTR film, Viggo could very well have cashed in on his new-found superstar status by making a massive, special effects-laden summer movie. Instead, he chose to make a film about the relationship between a man and, well, his horse. Hidalgo opens this Friday. Viggo arrived at our interview once again clutching his faberge egg-shaped mug (his publicist politely informed me that it's for his "maté"). He also brought with him copies of a book of his photographs, Miyelo, which he distributed to all of the journalists present. Here's what he had to say about his latest adventure...
How did you become involved with this project?
I was approached, obviously because the Fellowship Of The Ring had come out and was a big hit. I assume that had everything to with the studio thinking this was a worthwhile gamble.
When did you become interested in horseback riding?
When I was a boy I rode a lot, until I was about 11. And then I didn't ride again until I was in my twenties.
Did you have to train a lot with horses before making this film?
That was the main part of my preparation - apart from what I did on my own, just in terms of the historical period, getting the cowboy thing right. I'd already had an interest in Native American culture. But really, what I spent most of the time doing, was being on horseback, and I practiced my Lakota while I was on horseback.
Did you do a lot of your own stunts?
With a few exceptions, I pretty much got to do most of the (stunts). I mean, you can see that on film, obviously. It's nice for the director - it doesn't always happen, but because I had a horse background, it made it a relatively safe gamble to let me do those things. I mean, it's always dangerous, even if you're a good rider. But to not have to cut away, to be able to be close on someone doing something that's obviously dangerous, is nice. It's an extra thing for the director, just like having a horse like the one we had, who has such a presence and is so calm on the set. You get a real personality from the horse.
Did you have any close calls, as far as the stunts are concerned?
I was lucky. Apart from getting really sore, I didn't have any really bad spills or anything. If you know horses, the most dangerous thing we did apart from the bareback stuff, was the start of the race. When you have a hundred horses and they don't cut their horses over there. In other words, they're not geldings so with 100 odd stallions and the Arabians over there, unlike the way they work with them here or in Spain or England or anywhere else, they just let the stallions fight. They're sort of unruly these horses and they're already a pretty high-strung breed and we're all packed together knee-to-knee and once the horses realize what we're up to, they're all wanting to go and they're all wanting to kill each other.
I'm on this little horse, which is effective visually because he's strong, but even though he's little he's got all this personality. He's a stallion who thinks he's pretty tough so he's wanting to pick fights. It was really the most worrisome moment in a way of the whole movie, was that, not this full-tilt stuff that was kinda scary at times. Some people did get hurt. We only did a few takes in those high winds and stuff and this one horse in particular just went somersaulting and the guy got run over and got hurt really bad but five months later he was back doing more riding. We were lucky considering. That start of the race was something Rex Peterson was having nightmares about. Once it was over, he was greatly relieved.
What was it like working with the director, Joe Johnston?
Joe Johnston has an old-fashioned approach to telling the story. In terms of moviemaking, it's more like sort of a Howard Hawkes approach. It has many virtues, but I think the fact that it respects the audience's intelligence. You go see this movie and there's a lot you can take from it beyond the pure adventure side of it, you know. He just did what the best directors used to do which is get the best cinematographer you can get, get the best cast you can, shoot in great locations and go to the effort to go to South Dakota and use Lakota people and do that stuff right. Make a really good thing out of the Buffalo Bill and the Wild West show, even though you're not there that long. The details, the look, the design - he did everything right. But don't let any one aspect jump out or call attention. Don't show off. Tell the story in a straight ahead away, and then there's a lot better chance that the audience can find things in there for themselves. There are a lot of layers under it. I mean, it's both an adventure and at the same time a thought provoking movie that leaves you, among many things for me anyway, thinking that people are people.
So, would you say this is an old-fashioned adventure film?
Yeah. [Nowadays] they think, "Okay, it's now, you gotta do something new." You gotta go special effects crazy or in the violence or it's gotta be showier kind of acting or even actors, I don't know if they feel the pressure or it's more to get attention. It's almost like the difference between tabloid movie coverage and serious criticism is now more and more blurred. So you find performances, actors and actresses going way over the top just to get attention for themselves. It may not be appropriate for the movie. It may not help the story but it gets them some work and some money and some magazine coverage. It can be interesting sometimes and funny. But is it something that I'm interested in going and seeing more than once? Probably not.
Another director could've taken this, and some people from the trailers or poster or whatever and the timing of it, although this was green-lit two years before September 11th and finished shooting before the war of Iraq, some people can think, "Oh, yeah, Americans want to make another big movie, a cowboy going over there to Arabia, sure, I know what this is." And it could've been done that way, like a jingoistic kind of thing, but it's not that at all when you see the movie. And people that I've spoken with traveling around the country, whether they be Muslim or Native American, they've been pleasantly surprised.
They've gone out of professional duty to see it thinking okay, you know, particularly the Muslim ones, thinking, "I've seen this before, I'm conditioned to it, even if it's unintentionally, having my culture in some way insulted or trampled or dismissed in Hollywood, and this kind of movie is bound to be that for sure." And then they come out and say it's an entertaining Hollywood movie that nonetheless, without making a big deal out of it, sort of treats [their] culture with some dignity and respect. And they're surprised, pleasantly surprised. So a Hollywood movie can be good and entertaining and fun. It doesn't have to be exploitative.
Were you surprised when they offered you the lead role?
Well, it made a certain amount of sense because The Fellowship of the Ring had come out and had done well, so all of us involved in that movie had more opportunities. I guess it probably was still somewhat of a gamble but less so in business terms because I was connected to this hugely popular movie that had just come out. There's no way I would have gotten the role without Fellowship of the Ring being a big box office hit. That's just business.
Does that bother you?
I've been in the movie business for 20 years. Why should it bother me? It makes total sense. Who am I to say that it should be - it'd be nice if it was different and they just cast always the right person. It's an expensive thing to make certain kinds of movies, movies like this and I understand it to a degree. You hope that they'll cast someone who makes business sense to them but also is at least somewhat right for the part. Now, it doesn't always happen. It can be annoying. I remember when I was first starting out, when I was screen testing for movies once, twice, three times, many times, it was down to me and another guy so many times in the first few years.
When I didn't really know that much what I was doing. I was just working on instinct doing my best, but I wasn't very experienced. And then someone would get the part because they were known and I thought "Well, I could have done better." You constantly hear that kind of thing but would it have made sense for the business people who were paying for it to have put me in it? Maybe not. Every once in a while, and I think this movie is that kind of case. So was Lord of the Rings. You look back at it now, it's like oh, of course. But it was a gamble to have a largely totally unknown cast which is what Lord of the Rings was. Most moviegoers didn't know most of the people in that movie. Same as with this one. I mean, it's being sold with the big head poster because of the Lord of the Rings thing no doubt.
But you've seen the movie and you can see that it's an ensemble and there are really good performances and really interesting actors and actresses in it, most of whom - apart from Omar Sharif and Malcolm McDowell who was in it for a bit, and just from recent, Lord of the Rings myself - you don't know these people. And it's gonna be similar I think because of the strong reaction I think that those people, Zuleikha, Louise were great, and Silas who plays Katib and Harsh who plays Yusef, and all these characters - Adam, Peter, Adoni, who plays the guy with the falcon, did a great job I think. I mean, all those characters, all those people are gonna get work out of this I think, in the same way. And that's a gamble for a studio to do that. They're just pinning it on this one guy that happened to be in the one popular movie. And you've got Omar Sharif in there which is great, but I guess it's a gamble and it was nice that they trusted Joe Johnston to cast the rest of the movie in the way that he did.
How important was historical accuracy in the making of this film?
For me, to have many families on reservations to talk about Frank Hopkins specifically, and his horsemanship and his connection to their tribes with stories that have been handed down through generations, why wouldn't that be true? As we were finishing the movie, these articles started appearing online, published in the Middle East and Arab countries through the efforts primarily of this industrious couple, the O'Reillys, to discredit Hopkins in any way they could and they've been very successful in getting their one sided and very misleading view out there.
But it's even bled over into legitimate newspapers who have just published it and taken their word. And it's obviously, clearly to me, misguided and I don't know what their motives are but it's not true. It's like one very narrow side of the story which I completely disagree with. I mean, in my experience and the stories I've heard, these people, some of them don't even speak English and certainly couldn't give a shit about Hollywood movies, but say yeah, my mother told me about this guy, this and that paint horse and it's like... I don't need to be whatever. It speaks for itself and I don't need to make any excuses by saying, for example, which I could easily just leave it at that, say it's not a documentary.
It's a story about a real person and real events and it's expanded on like all stories. Like the identity of our nation is really made up of expanding on stories whether it's Martin Luther King or George Washington or Babe Ruth or Buffalo Bill. That's how we think of ourselves as Americans, you know. Any nation expands or retells. These stories that I've heard from different places and Fusco and others have heard on reservations, there are slight variations and then they all come back to being about the same person and horsemanship and going over and racing and accepting this challenge. I don't have a problem at all.
Obviously these people do and I don't know what it is, what their motives are. I know that they're big Arabian horse fans. That's one of their motivations. There's a lady you probably read about in the LA Times recently that wrote something a week or two ago, it said 'Trail of Lies' and this and that and she didn't disclose the fact that she was an endurance rider and an Arabian horse owner and fan of that, which is O'Reilly's bag. And fine. I mean, it's interesting. It's kind of like the sort of Lady Anne of our story.
Are you going to be playing a character in Batman or is that just a rumor?
I suppose anybody that's in a couple of projects in a row, Lord of the Rings and now this, that have popular appeal, people are going to say stuff. But I'm not signed up to do anything at this point. I guess there is interest from other people but, at the moment I'm not available. I'm talking to you guys.