A Visit with Viggo. . . .
An Exclusive, Uncut Interview with Actor Viggo Mortensen
DATELINE—Wellington, New Zealand, Dec. 1, 2003—More than 100,000 rabid fans have descended upon this Kiwi capital to celebrate the world premiere of Return of the King, the last movie segment based on J.R.R.Tolkien's classic trilogy Lord of the Rings (LOTR). On this late spring afternoon before the movie airs for the first time at Wellington's renovated Embassy Theater, both cast and production crew stand along a seemingly endless red carpet surrounded by cameras and microphones, giving interviews and photo ops to media outlets from around the world.
Within the crowd, 25-year-old college student and LOTR groupie, Annie Love—armed with a poster and her digital camera—maneuvers her way toward the media venue. She's hoping to grab a glimpse and maybe even a photo of actor Viggo Mortensen aka Aragorn, the reluctant king in the series. Love has spent nearly six months in New Zealand on an international student-exchange program. With guidebook in hand, she's put in the miles both by car and by foot, scouting out LOTR sites on the North and South Islands. Love spots Viggo giving an interview.
Up goes her homemade sign "Sandpoint Loves 'Lord of the Rings.'" Viggo's attention is averted. He eyes the poster with an expression of familiarity. After all, he's been to Sandpoint a time or two.
"Is that Sandpoint, IDAHO? Are you from there?" he asks.
"Yeah," she nods.
Viggo waves and blows her a kiss.
"It was kinda neat," Viggo says several months later in a telephone interview for Sandpoint Magazine. "Seeing that sign among the thousands of people. . . ."
Since December, 2003, Love, a Sandpoint native, who cherishes that momentary acknowledgement from Viggo in far-off Wellington, has returned from New Zealand, graduated from Boise State University and started her career in Seattle. The much-heralded LOTR final segment cleaned up at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, Viggo has proceeded along his ambitious lifelong artistic journey, including a worldwide publicity tour for his starring role as 19th Century Pony Express rider Frank T. Hopkins in the old-time Western flick Hidalgo.
His movie/stage career unfolded with a somewhat rocky start in the 1980s, so much so that he quit telling his family to watch for him in his early roles. Some were forgettable; some even ended up on the film editor's floor. He did show up on screen as an Amish farmer in Witness. Winning the Drama-Logue Critics Award in 1987 for a Los Angeles stage performance in Bent provided a significant boost to his acting career. According to Premiere magazine, "four years later, he got his big break when he delivered a vivid performance as a malcontent in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, a Vietnam-era story of two Nebraska brothers."
Ironically, he had successfully auditioned for a Panida Theater stage role as Biff Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman before learning of his selection for Penn's movie. Deborah McShane, a Panida board member, clearly remembers the unpretentious, calm and kind man whose audition "created an energy shift in the theater.
"Karen Bowers (Panida's manager) heard the very quiet, knowing and sensitive voice," McShane recalls. "She stopped what she was doing and came down the aisle. We cast him in the role." Later, during the first rehearsal, an absent Viggo called to apologize because he'd gotten the part in the Penn movie and couldn't pass it up.
"It was really responsible for him to call," McShane says. "It was a great movie for him, and we felt really lucky to have had him audition at our theater. We've let him know he's always welcome at the Panida."
The actor's career has rocketed ever since that big movie break, especially thanks to his role in LOTR. Last year, Viggo Mortensen was honored as one of GQ magazine's 2003 "Men of the Year." Writer Allison Glock offered 23 reasons for his selection, including his given name "Viggo." Among other reasons, Glock noted his founding of Perceval Press (www.percevalpress.com) for authors and writers who "he believes are under-appreciated," his depth of knowledge, including three languages; his attempt (pre-Lord of the Rings) to personally answer every fan letter, his fetish for stating his beliefs but not taking potshots outside the country and his ability to persuade actor Ian McKellen (Gandolf) "to get his first tattoo—the number 9 in Tolkien fantasy language."
Through the accolades and media hubbub, Viggo Mortensen remains the reluctant superstar who prefers the process over the final outcome. He believes in showing up on time and totally dedicating himself to the project of the day, whether it be acting, photography, art, music, fly fishing, writing poetry, cooking from scratch, riding horses, enjoying family, keeping current on truly worldly topics, or retreating to nature.
Examples of his dedication to the art of acting are legendary among his co-stars. During the shooting of Lord of the Rings, while other cast members enjoyed their creature comforts, Mortensen reportedly spent his nights camping in the woods, still in costume, communing with nature and with the creatures. He carried his sword everywhere—all in an effort to get a true sense of the part. And, after chipping his tooth during a fighting scene, he insisted on using Super Glue to re-attach it rather than stopping the action. The powers-that-be, however, rejected his plea and sent him to the dentist. Colleagues call his commitment and passion on the movie set inspiring.
When he does have downtime, Viggo spends it at his North Idaho property in a forested area not too far from Sandpoint. Since his first visit here in the early 1980s, the New York native has considered Idaho's Panhandle a sanctuary. He can slip in and out several times each year to enjoy its beauty, quiet and solitude far away from the crowds of Los Angeles where he lives while not on location for movies.
And, locals who know Viggo respect his down-to-earth, extremely modest attitude toward his worldwide fame. Most residents and neighbors also respect his space, allowing him to maintain a veil of relative anonymity as he quietly visits stores and restaurants around the area. He's a fiercely private man who's both content and equipped to entertain himself.
Viggo speaks softly. He's especially reluctant to speak about himself. In fact, most information about the mega-star in his bulky press packet comes from colleagues or from journalists' observations during time spent with the Hollywood hunk whom most term a "Renaissance Man." This humble being of limitless interests is not reluctant, however, to reflect on his experiences, his passions or his observations of the world around him.
The following are some of Viggo's uncut thoughts expressed during a telephone interview last July with Sandpoint Magazine writer Marianne Love.
On seeing a Sandpoint sign among the masses in Wellington: I do remember—I think I noticed her and waved. I do remember being surprised at that ...I yelled 'Sandpoint, IDAHO?' I'm glad I saw her . . . there; it's kinda fun to see that.
On North Idaho and its people: I like North Idaho because the people mind their own business, and they're not overly impressed. People can coexist and do good work and bad work in anything, anywhere. The people I tend to respect are those that show up on time, prepared, and respect their neighbors and the people they're working with. People have been really respectful of my family in that area.
On the Kiwi Approach to the Environment: I found it reassuring that New Zealanders . . . they've seen in general what has happened where Europeans and North Americans didn't treat the resources as well as they could by overbuilding and logging and not taking care of the water. They're pretty environmentally aware.
There's a healthier balance in New Zealand between use of land for business and protection of natural resources. They've had a big influx of tourism and rising real estate prices, but they have their act together to protect the environment. More people are going to see that beauty of that country, and it won't be spoiled. It won't be hijacked by realtors.
I think New Zealanders, after this first blush of attention, will carry on and protect their place. They'll surely have visitors shooting many more movies there. More people will go there, but I think the Dept. of Conservation in that country is relatively strong, and the population supports its efforts. You don't have to be hippy dippy or a tree hugger—you can strike a balance between being practical in use of lands and preservation.
The people in North Idaho are generally that way too, it seems. In the Panhandle in particular, there's a reasonable balance. I think the voices on both sides and in the middle are at least heard and that there can be a healthy debate. That's why North Idaho looks like it does.
On his North Idaho Beginnings: That's why real estate prices have gone way up as compared to when I came in the early '80s. I've always been one who—when I made a little money—would rent, borrow or buy a car and go on a road trip. North America is full of amazing places.
Idaho was a place I first saw on a road trip in the early '80s and figured I'd go back. I returned there in the mid '80s, rented a house and bought a little land. I've spent a lot of time up there, and eventually my family came up. My folks from the Northeast think it's beautiful. They live near Canada where the climate and seasons are similar ; there's a little more variety of wildlife in North Idaho. The Northeast has a lot of deer and moose and waterfalls but North Idaho has more kinds of wildlife.
I come to North Idaho many times a year, and my family comes to see me almost every year. I like to just be outdoors and it's a beautiful place, especially for getting away from the city and the movie business. It's good to get away, just as it is in California. There's a lot in California that is not freeway and pollution; it's got forests and desert terrain; it's like a whole country of its own.
Idaho is like a whole national park; it has the highest percentage of public land in the lower 48 states, and there will always be a debate about what to do with it. I think it's important to preserve it because there's so much forest land, lots of water, rivers, lakes, wetlands, BUT it is finite. You can't assume you can do whatever you want with it. People are proud of what they've got in Idaho, and they want to keep it that way.
Yeah, there are bad apples who will buy big pieces of land and clear cut it for money to buy some more, often without even visiting the place. I think any reasonable real estate person will agree there has to be some balance with land use. There seem to be enough reasonable people in this area for a healthy debate to continue.
People seem to be able to talk, for the most part—with different coalitions consistently working to preserve the Clark Fork and the Pend Oreille and their feeder streams. They seem to be able to talk with people more purely interested in exploiting the land for profit. As long as there's dialogue, there's hope.
I don't think people anywhere are so dumb that they're going to believe all that they hear from any one special interest group. If you live in Sandpoint, I think you can see what's around you. When you drive from one place to another, you can see what's happening. The land between Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, for example, has become a shopping corridor compared to the farmland I saw in the '80s. People can see the changes and eventually decide what course to follow.
As an individual, I try to take care of the places I go to whether it's where I live or hide. It's a cliche, but leave the place looking better than you found it—pack it in and pack it out. I try to do that—always.
I do think organizations like the Clark Fork Coalition have done a good job working along with companies that make money on the resources. There are also lots of individuals who work hard privately to preserve what is there. . . they hike it, and they appreciate it. They're the people on the ground.
On the Sandpoint area's recent national media attention: I think the media attention tends to come and go. You might get an influx of people from outside, even legislators, tourists, or well-meaning individuals who get involved and do some good. But, it's the people who live there who'll have the best feel for the area.
A forestry person who's assigned to Idaho will usually really care. Maybe they've had a land-use idea they bring from another part of the country to Idaho which can help. In New Zealand, there are North Americans and Europeans who have brought along their ideas on forest management. So, there are things you can learn from outsiders, but I think the people who live there matter most in keeping things nice in their own back yard.
People of North Idaho are good hosts to people who come from other places, and they'll welcome the business that comes with the visitors. They have to live there, and they take care of the place. The national magazine attention will move on. Don't mess with what's working; keep the balance.
On North Idaho's Racist image: It's not typically North Idaho to be racist or intolerant or to pave the landscape and cut every tree. That's just not typical. People ask me, 'Why do you spend so much up there? Do you like being around those rednecks or Aryans?
I reply, 'I don't know any, and I've never seen any.' I know there are a few, but it's not typical of the people. There are good and bad people everywhere; it's just unfortunate that the bad people get a lot more attention than the good and average people. Same happens anywhere you go, I guess.
On Viggo—the person: I don't think we're the best judges of our own character. If I have a job to do on a given day, I do my best and try to treat people with respect. I mind my own business. I suppose I'm a private person; have been pretty much that way all along. I'm certainly not someone who can't sit for five minutes without calling someone or turning on the television set. I can entertain myself.
The people I get along with tend to be the same. You do have to get over shyness to be in the movie business, of course . . . . It depends on where I am on that day. I keep an open mind on what the day brings. I do try to spend time by myself each day, or I get stressed out. That's what I like about North Idaho and New Zealand; it is easy to do that in those places. If I'm not able to get outside and away from having to talk at least a little each day, I can handle it, but I'm happier if I get a little time to my own each day.
On his favorite spot in North Idaho: I've driven up and down the state of Idaho many many times. I have camped hiked, swum, canoed—it has beauty everywhere, but I do have a loyalty to North Idaho. The Panhandle is beautiful. I think it's one of the most beautiful places anywhere, but to pick one spot is hard and if I did and told people, you know what would happen....
On his passion for photography: I always did it; did it in high school. I like to take and look at pictures. It's an interesting way to be present where you are and remember things. That book (The Horse Is Good—Perceval Press—2004) was taken with a large format Hasselblad and a 35 mm. I haven't taken a plunge into the digital world. I have tons and tons of pictures.
You tend to be paying more attention when you have a camera. You look more attentively. You're much more aware of the landscape. Whether you use it or not, everything kind of changes when you've got the camera with you, the potential of using it.
On the personal satisfaction of acting: I think it's the story telling. It's nice when people who watch the movie tell you they connected with the story. If you did a part of a scene and had a good connection working with the other people—the characters—when it's working, it's a really great thing. . . it's definitely the story telling, the process of making the movie, that I am most interested in.
On Lord of the Rings and other movies: It was a hugely successful thing that's become part of the world culture. It was a longer shoot . . . was there over four years with one long one stretch for a year and a half. I'm glad they chose me; I made a lot of friendships. Lord of the Rings was an unusually interesting experience. I'm sure it will be the longest shoot I'll ever be in but also the most popular movie, the one that has affected most people in the world.
I've had good experiences in other movies, whether they were seen by a lot of people or not. They've taken me to interesting places and introduced me to lot of interesting people. Acting can be frustrating; it's not a regular job. When each job is over, you have to find another one. There's a certain amount of insecurity in that sense.
Hidalgo I really enjoyed. It featured a lot of beautiful places, and I wouldn't, in any way, put that below the Lord of the Rings. The locations were tough for the people and for the horses. We had horses that had to be found in different parts of the country, sent to California to be trained and then had to be transported to Montana and Morocco and South Dakota, encountering different kinds of weather. It was a long story. You tend to have a long experience like that and you can look at it as being frustrating or hard, but you tend to earn special bonds with the people and animals you work with, survive the experience with.
On Horse Experiences: TJ is the main Paint in the story. There were other stand-bys because one horse couldn't and shouldn't have done all the running physically. He had the personality. He was a very smart little horse: I'm glad I could stay friends with him; he's pretty unique. I may bring him to North Idaho.
He's just barely a horse—borderline between being a horse and a pony—he's smaller than the Arabians . . . he's now nine almost ten. He's pretty smart. He'd never been trained or schooled in any way—never been around a movie set. And he's smart enough to be good at getting out of doing things he doesn't want to do, or at least try to!
He's pretty well-trained now. Rex Peterson is well-known for being a horse trainer for movies. He helped me a lot. He's a Western Nebraskan cowboy who has a real gift with horses...he's amazing. He picked some really good horses for this movie. The main horse had to be a Paint. So, he went to American Paint Horse Association and traveled around the country looking for the candidates. He found what he liked and what the director liked. They couldn't be too old. The trainer generally buys them, and if he or she likes the horse a lot, they'll keep it. Rex does a lot of liberty work (where the horse performs with no restraint or direct contact from a person).
I've never really owned horses. We had horses in South America where I learned to ride. The classic Argentinian style is not too different from Western riding. You're using your legs and a loose rein. I learned on tough little horses like TJ. I hadn't ridden for a long time since I was a kid.
Then, I worked in Young Guns 2 and rode a nice horse in that one. I don't think I sat on a horse again until Lord of the Rings. I got to ride a fair amount there. They're into their horses in New Zealand. On the North Island, there's more dressage. On the South Island, you'd think you're at the rodeo at the Bonner County Fairgrounds. . . lots of ranches. Some of each of those different horse-people worked on the movie.
It would have been handy if they'd had more Western-trained horses since you have to ride one-handed for the battle scenes. We had to teach them to neck rein. Some were better than others at picking it up. For some of the big battle sequences, where horses were running in big charges, they put out an open call for horses and riders. New Zealand's a small country, so they had to look everywhere for candidates.
A lot of people showed up with horses. It was a mixed bag of experiences, but I guess it was that way in the Middle Ages battles too—so maybe it was realistic. People took pride in the movie being made in their country. They would bring their horses and camp out in their trailers. Many were there for a week to do the big battle. It was like a Woodstock festival for horse people.
The main session for the cavalry charge was done in that week, and other sequences were done in bits and pieces. The trainers had to teach the horses to fall and to deal with all those movie noises. I think in the extended DVD of Return of the King, there will be a section on the horses and trainers. There may be something in the Hidalgo DVD too.
On the Frank T. Hopkins Story: Early on, as we were shooting in Morocco, I started to come across information about efforts from a small circle of people determined to discredit Hopkins' story. There's something on the Internet called www.frankhopkins.com that has since tried to set the record straight. It's worth taking a look at if you're interested in the subject.
For example, they have a recent interview with an elderly couple who knew Frank Hopkins that is very interesting and informative. I spent at least half of my time on my press tour answering questions about the authenticity of Hopkins and his accomplishments, and generally defending him and his horses, as well as the Lakota people he is connected to.
You can go talk to people on the Pine Ridge Reservation today, and they'll tell you many stories about Hopkins that have been handed down through generations. John Fusco learned of Hopkins on the reservation. Much of his information for writing the screenplay is from Native Americans—Lakota, Blackfeet, and others—who have no reason to promote a white guy, really. He also received a lot of validating information from white ranchers in the West who knew about him and admired his work with mustangs and in long-distance racing.
He was way ahead of his time in the way he trained horses. There's a lot made of natural horsemanship these days, but Hopkins was writing about this 70 years ago. Horse people still talk about what he wrote as being ahead of its time. I mean it's indisputable that he rode and trained and raced.
A few biased people partial to Arabians are saying it was untrue, that Hopkins was a self-promoting con man. It's so unfair to him and to the people who had a connection with him. Actually, there's a lot more documentation on him than there is on a lot of people we admire in American history. It's unfortunate that the main-stream media took the deliberate misinformation and underhanded efforts at discrediting Hopkins at face value. But things are changing, surviving acquaintances of his are coming out of the woodwork all the time.
It is good to have a movie that's old-fashioned and treats cowboys with respect. But all that can get lost when you get the "Oh, I heard it's not true" comments. I can't believe that I had to spend half my time on the press tours dealing with that. My job became primarily to defend the movie's right to exist! It's a movie based on a true event, not a documentary. And it is a hell of a ride. That ought to be good enough—is for most movies—few of which can hold a candle to Hidalgo.
On his next two projects: During the rest of 2004 and through July, 2005, Viggo is working on two movies—one set in the Midwest and another in Spain.
The first one is with David Cronenberg, a highly respected Canadian director. The story takes place in small Midwestern town, much smaller than Sandpoint. I'm the father in a family, and the story deals with mistaken identity. It gets complicated. Some violent people show up from out of town and mistake me for someone else they have a bone to pick with.
I'm also doing a movie early next year (2005) in Spain. It takes place in the Seventeenth Century during the period when Spain was the biggest power in the world. Spain has never really told the story of its Golden Age of empire in a movie. The movie's in Spanish. I do speak Spanish from South America but will have to work on the particular dialect that will be used. It's an adventure story.
I play a career soldier in the Spanish army. It's an interesting period when Spain was economically the great power of the world—not unlike the USA now. One of the problems was that the average individual or soldier was a bit powerless. The people in charge weren't always eager for the population to be taken care of—like now, with the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots and corruption in the ruling class.
It's an interesting little peek at a time in history that somewhat mirrors our own time. I'll probably work on it four months. It's probably one of the most ambitious movies ever made by an all-Spanish crew. It will eventually come here. There will be some sword fighting good adventure in it.