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At the end of the shoot Mortensen bought TJ, one of the horses that he rode in Hidalgo and he now keeps him outside of Los Angeles. “I ride him as much as possible. I rode him yesterday and again this afternoon. I must be a sucker for horses, I don’t know why that is, because I also bought the two horses — Kenny and Uraeus — that I used in Lord of the Rings as well.”
When Mortensen talks about TJ, the horse is referred to with the same sort of respect and consideration that he would grant his two-legged co-stars.
“The film is called Hidalgo and if the horse is not interesting then it’s not going to be a good movie,” says Mortensen. “His reactions in many situations were uncanny.”
He also believes that the casting in Hidalgo of Omar Sharif, who after a semi-exile has just celebrated his return to the big screen with a Cesar for Monsieur Ibrahim, was both crucial and fortunate. “On Omar’s return to international movies you couldn’t help but think of Lawrence of Arabia when we were in the desert. It was beyond being a good luck charm for us, although it probably was that,” says Mortensen. “It added something special having him there and the fact that we were shooting in some of the same locations where they’d shot Lawrence of Arabia made it very interesting. His casting raised the movie to another level.”
His dedication to his roles is obvious and for Hidalgo Mortensen learned to speak Lakota, the language of the Sioux. His tutor was Sonny Richards who plays the older guy in the wagon at the end of the movie and it wasn’t just a case of being able to repeat words or sounds in a parrot fashion. “I understood what I was saying,” stresses Mortensen.
Sonny Richards is a medicine man, a spiritual leader and Mortensen says that his involvement in the project was really helpful; not only as a source of language but to select and train the ghost dancers who appear in the film.
“It is a tribute to Hidalgo director Joe Johnston and Disney that they went to that effort. They could have shot the film in California with local Indians or Mexicans but they went to South Dakota and shot with Lakota people, many of whom were related to people who had been killed or survived the massacre at Wounded Knee. They did a blessing and a whole ceremony before we started, involving smoking the pipe, singing and saying certain words. It was really good. We also brought some earth from the site of the massacre — obviously we couldn’t shoot there because there is a graveyard there — and they spread it in the area where we were shooting. All those things they did well.”
Mortensen agrees that the impact of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon on his career and life has been considerable. But he refuses to allow himself to get carried away by the consequences. “It’s one of those things that you do every once in a while and you get lucky,” he says. “There are very few actors who get the chance to be in a project like Lord of the Rings. It’s not only an epic adventure story but it is moving and transcends national boundaries. Even in cultures that were not familiar with Tolkien — like in the Asian countries — they have embraced it because there are universal, mythological themes in it to which people can relate.”
When I mention how incredible it must be when as a result of starring in Lord of the Rings, his face is on the side of an Air New Zealand plane, Mortensen shakes his head as though he’s bewildered by it all.
“I know, it’s scary,” he says of the rush of fame that has come with such global success. “It is a little weird but this will pass. As you can probably guess neither my ego nor my sense of worth is tied to all that’s happening. So if it goes away it’s not going to be hugely depressing to me at all.”
It becomes clear that this very thoughtful man has given over some serious consideration to exactly why he should be at the centre of a dream period of his career. “I don’t know if all this that’s happening to me is about timing, I think it’s luck because I know people who are really talented and for some reason they can’t even make a living. Why? There is no guarantee. All you can do is work hard to be ready if you get lucky. The director Sidney Lumet said that work consists largely of making the best possible preparation for accidents to happen. I think that’s what it is.”
While what has happened to Viggo Mortensen can’t possibly be put down to good fortune, he insists on taking the view that he has been smiled upon. “To have a movie that is entertaining, moving, well made and also hugely popular…that doesn’t usually happen to an actor. And now to be in Hidalgo, which people have warmed to, it makes me think that I’m very lucky to be in two projects in a row that have these qualities.”
Or you could suggest that Viggo Mortensen is reaping the rewards for the effort, skill and dedication that he has given to his craft