© Touchstone / Buena Vista Pictures.
The gentlemen who was the official horse trainer in the movie was full of praise for your horsemanship. Was it the case that you didn't have to do much training beforehand, or did you do some to top up what you already had?
You can always learn more for one thing, but the demands of this story, in terms of riding, and the amount of riding involved, meant that I had to work really hard. The advantage, I suppose, having ridden as a boy, was that I was able to get a bit of a head start, which was also helped by Lord of the Rings.
I had recently become re-acquainted not only with the physical side of riding, but also with my affection for horses, and the enjoyment that I get out of being around them. But the best thing about it for Rex, and especially the director, was that I had the ability, because of my background, to do a lot of the stunts that an actor normally wouldn't get to do. The director could film me as close as he wanted to, without cutting away, if he wanted to.
But it's always nice when you like your job, and you like your workmates, whether they are human, or equine, and I had a good time on this movie.
What about riding bareback? Is that as much fun?
Well, it is fun. I liked it as a boy, and I found that it's helpful, each time you do ride, to try it without a saddle, because it's good for your balance. But no amount of preparation and physical training is going to prepare you for the kind of jarring that you're going to get. That sequence that you see is a lot of cuts, and a lot of takes, and we did that for days. There was no way around it, so it was always going to hurt after a while. But it was worth it.
It was also very scary sometimes. The start of the race, for example, even though I had a saddle, being bunched up with that many stallions means things can go wrong, and sometimes did. There were a lot of times in the movie, as opposed to when I was a boy and I'd ride without worrying about it (as kids do), I knew that if I fell off it would hurt. There were many times when you were going at speed, and you looked down and saw the ground rushing by, the odd rock, that you realised that if you fell off, you know, it's really going to hurt.
I gather you bought the horse, TJ, after Hidalgo, as you did with the one in Lord of the Rings? Is this a common thing for you?
The humans haven't gone for that, no. There's no amount of money that would make them do that [laughs].
But it wasn't about rescuing an animal, it was just the way to continue the friendship, and I'm glad that Rex Petersen said I could have first dibs at TJ.
Where did you separate the man from the myth in your portrayal of Frank T Hopkins. How much myth did you go with?
I would have been happy to go with 100% myth, when it's a good story, especially as it harks back to your classic, Hollywood adventure story. There are a lot of values to this story that I really liked.
The fact that it is about a person who existed, and a horse who existed, and about some event that happened, that exists as a long-standing oral tradition, that's come down through generations, I place a lot of importance on that.
It may or may not be the reason you're asking this question, but there have been some, unfortunately fairly successful, coverage by a few individuals, over the past couple of years, first in Arab newspapers, to discredit Hopkins, and they've made the curious link between how true is it, and yes it's also insulting to Middle Eastern Arabs. I mean, all you've got to do is see the movie to know that's not true. These people, interestingly enough, are riders and big fans of the Arabian breed.
But what I learned the most about Frank Hopkins, and Hidalgo, and the other horses that he rode, and in some cases herded, was in the American West - not just from white ranchers, but most importantly to me, from American Indian tribes; from native Americans, in different families, from people who were unrelated to each other, people who didn't know each other, and may never meet, unrelated to movies. You would often find someone who knew about Hopkins, who would tell you about this or that, and there were always variations on the theme, but they would all be about Frank T Hopkins, Hidalgo and this race...
So why would these people, for generations, have related a fairly Ango-Saxon looking, or European American, to their culture? I mean they haven't certainly been treated all that well by their culture, so there's no reason for it. So I find that not only interesting, but also a validation of the story. It took it to another level for me.
If those efforts by those people, who are not really that up front about their motives, I think, has in even the littlest way distracted from the value of this movie, and the good things that it talks about, then I think it's a shame.
Omar Sharif is known for his love of gambling, so did you ever go out gambling together at all?
No, but he's also known for his love of horses, so I guess every time he makes money, he either gambles it away, or buys race horses that don't usually win anything [laughs].
But one of the great things about this experience was working with him, and I think his casting was very important to the movie. It was already a good story, but him playing this part, I mean he's very right for it. The man he plays speaks several languages, he has some curiosity about the West, Omar has one foot in the east and one foot in the west, he lives in France, he's an Egyptian Muslim, and he's a perfect piece of casting.
Also, in terms of cinema history; obviously because of his connection to Lawrence of Arabia. You know, it just lifted the movie to another level, so, personally, it was a lot of fun to be able to sit close to him, not only working, but kind of pestering him with questions about David Lean, Peter O'Toole, and what it was like for an Egyptian actor to have that experience.
Did you have any chance to do any paintings or poetry while filming in such exotic locations?
I wrote quite a bit, and I took a fair amount of pictures, some of which I've shown, and some of which have been published in different places. There wasn't much time to paint. I was either sleeping, or sitting on a horse. But I did have a couple of cameras in my saddle bag and took a lot of pictures from the horses' point of view, and from the rider's point of view.
Is that how you wind down?
I would do it during the day, too, in between takes. A couple times, I even took a couple of riding shots, from the off-camera view. Sometimes the pictures would come out, and sometimes not.
When you're working really hard, day after day, for me if I take a nap during the day, I'm pretty useless for the rest of that day, and it was a way of changing gears for a bit, to draw something, or photograph something or even just stare out the window and look at things.
Then, when someone says 'back to work', you feel rested, somehow.
There are a lot of strands going on through this film - such as racial issues, those about family - which of them struck the biggest chord with you?
Well, there were a lot of things that interested me, initially, and then more as I went along. I personally think that story-telling, whether it's written or in a movie, and the elements that go into it, the cinematography, the design, the script, the editing, all the elements have to go, first and foremost, towards telling the story. In this case, also entertaining and sweeping you along on an interesting story. If those are in place, you're going to have a better chance to interest people on everything underneath, the subtext of the story.
I think that audiences are far more intelligent than movie companies often give them credit for, certainly Hollywood, and in this case, it was nice to have a story be told in that straight ahead way, it's almost like Howard Hawkes could have directed this movie. There's no messing around.
As beautiful as Lawrence of Arabia or John Ford's movies are, there are times when they linger just a tad on the landscape, and even though we have some of the same landscapes as they had in Lawrence of Arabia, they were really in service of the story at all times.
When I read the script, just the fact that you have an American protagonist that goes to a Third World region, and is more or less welcomed, and whatever he doesn't know (which is a lot) about the place he's going to, the culture, the points of view, it seems so different. But he's at least curious about it, so he has a chance, therefore, to learn, and does so. In the process, he also learns a little bit about himself, and that kind of story, especially in the times we're in now, is valuable, I think it's good.
People can walk out of a movie like this, that's an entertainment, an adventure, but they can say Arabs are interesting, and native Americans are interesting. Cowboys are interesting. Even the cowboy image, in a lot of places, both inside and outside of America, has a mixed, or even negative reputation, as an archetype. The idea of a cowboy, people have come to think, is as an individual, whose individualism comes at the cost of others.
You see clearly with a character like Hopkins that this isn't the case. He makes up for what he doesn't know by being interested, and by learning about it. So for that reason, and for some other ones you mentioned - such as mixed blood, pure blood - it's shown to be a nonsense. I mean, we all have parents who are mixed. The way things are going today, that issue - issues of race, differences, cultures, languages, points of view - it's understandably hard, in the wake of things recently, such as Madrid and September 11, that people in the east and west are not only fearful, but reluctant, to even make an effort to find common ground with others.
And this kind of story, I think, in some ways will remind you that it is worthwhile, because there are benefits from sharing experiences and opening our eyes a little bit.
Given what you've just said, and given there has been some criticism of the movie for that, has that surprised you?
No, but what I have found is that the movie will tend to speak for itself. That's not to say that you're going to please everybody, cos you never are, but I've had many Muslim journalists, for example, and native American journalists, who have seen the movie, tell me, 'well, even though I went, somewhat reluctantly, but out of professional obligation, I was expecting to see something different from what I saw; something more simplistic, and even if unintentionally, something that insulted my culture, and I was pleasantly surprised.'
It is an adventure story but, nonetheless, it clearly makes an effort to respect different culture and languages.
You've been associated with one role for the past three years, so how much of a relief was it to try and learn a different character, such as this?
Well it was a different story, but it wasn't as neat as it might look. I mean this movie comes out now and those other ones came out before. But, in fact, I got the part of Frank Hopkins after, and to a certain extent, because of, the success of The Fellowship of the Ring.
And we started shooting before The Two Towers came out, and even during rehearsals, while I was becoming acquainted with TJ, and riding with the Dakotas and so forth, I was also having to go to New Zealand for re-shoots, and then come back and change gears during the shoot.
There were several times, in several locations, including in the middle of the Sahara Desert, where I'd have to go up on a hill and get a cell phone reception, and do interviews for Lord of the Rings.
And while we were doing post-production on Hidalgo, and reshoots for that, I had to go to New Zealand to do reshoots for Return of the King, so it was never one thing and then another.
I haven't really had chance to stop and think. It was something that I was grateful to have come to me, so I knew it was going to be a little tricky scheduling-wise, and I knew I was going to be pretty tired by the end of it, but I thought it was going to be pretty worthwhile, and it certainly proved to be.
Joe Johnson said that you reminded him of a matinee idol of a bygone era, such as Gary Cooper, how does that make you feel?
Very flattered, because they are very good actors. What they were good at, beyond what they looked like, or whatever their presence, is the same thing that I admire in Omar Sharif, which is a kind of acting that is often under-rated and under-valued. Often the prize goes to the attention, or a bigger kind of acting, that sometimes involves histrionics and screaming and crying, or more obvious - even if the people who pull it off tend to do it very well - but it's harder to do that smaller kind of acting that, say Gary Cooper, or Spencer Tracy, or Omar Sharif do, because that acting is really based on reacting, and finding technically a way to relax and be available to your environment, and the people, and animals, and whatever is going on, on-set. When it works, it looks so easy, that people under-estimate it, but I think that is often some of the hardest kind of acting. I'm therefore very flattered that he would put me in that company.
Are you more at home with a pistol or a sword when it comes down to the fighting?
I'm not a big fan of fighting, I tend to like to work things out. As far as working with props, in a story, I think it tends to take a little more courage to fight with a sword. You're closer to a person, you know.
What was the most gruelling thing you had to endure?
Well, we only needed a sand storm on one day, so of course it was blue skies and not a breeze in sight. But we had a lot of days when it was very dusty, and it was blowing for hours and hours, and ruined a lot of equipment. It was tough on the horses and the people.
But I always enjoyed where we were, I knew it was unique places and a good story. But probably the most tricky thing we did, and the most dangerous, was the start of the race, when there was also a lot of wind blowing on that day. If you have a hundred horses that close together, you're asking for trouble, especially when they're all stallions, Once they all take off, and all that energy is released, especially when they've had one go at it and know what's expected, it can be disastrous.
There were some really bad falls. On the second take a guy's horse just somersaulted, and he was run over by a lot of us. That guy did get hurt pretty badly, but we shot long enough that five months later he returned to us and was riding again.
I mean the producers didn't really know how dangerous it was, because it was coming off alright, but Rex Petersen was really sweating bullets that day.