Along with some other online outlets RopeofSilicon.com got a chance to sit down with Viggo Mortensen, the star of the upcoming film Hidalgo to talk a little about the film and what the role meant to him.
Hidalgo is the story of Frank Hopkins and his famed horse Hidalgo, and their journey to the Middle East to run the greatest long-distance horse race ever, the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. Word of Frank Hopkins got to a wealthy Arabian Sheik and once he heard that Hopkins was considered the greatest rider the West had ever known the Sheik immediately invited Hopkins to participate, and so the story goes.
On the day of the interview Viggo was casually dressed and easy to talk to and wasn’t afraid to expand on the questions he was asked. We got started by asking him just what drew him to the Hidalgo script, and he had a lot to say.
“I liked that it was potentially a rousing adventure story, a classic heroic journey like Lord of the Rings, but from a different point of view, it is the same sort of story that has been told as long as their has been people, and will probably be told as long as there are people where a challenge is presented, big or small, to an individual or a group of individuals. It’s an ordeal, this story, like other stories like it are, and during those kinds of stories and journeys you tend to see what is happening to the character, how the character is affected, the character is forged in some degree, but the experience is more important than what happens at the end, whether he lives or dies, or wins or loses and then to complete the cycle in the classic hero journey there is one more step, that step is what the person or group of persons do with what they learned from the experience.”
With that in mind, after Viggo read the script he had to ask himself if the characters in the film were able to learn from their experiences, and there was one other thing he wanted to make sure about the film and that was to make sure the story was treated with respect.
“I guess it could have been approached from a different way, you could have gone toward making it a generalistic exercise where a crusading cowboy goes and kicks ass in the Middle East, or it could have been a heavy handed message story. What I like about the way [the director] Joe Johnson told it is that he is able to tell an entertaining and thought provoking story and [at the same time] respect the audience. This movie is done in the way they used to make movies, in a sense where you are entertaining and giving the people a lot to think about, but you’re respecting the audience enough to leave a lot of it up to them. They can draw their own conclusions, even though it is a big budget movie it’s not hammering a message home, it’s not telling you what to think about Frank Hopkins or other people, it is just showing you people interacting in situations where it only takes you part way. This movie shows you that when you spend time with anybody, no matter what their belief system or world view may be, that if you spend a little time with them you’ll find some common ground eventually. The rest is up to you, which drew me to doing it.”
Viggo then got into the heart of the film and the perceptions that can be drawn from viewing the trailer and just by hearing what the movie is about, all in relation to what is currently going on over in Iraq.
“I also liked the fact that I signed up for this before the recent invasion of Iraq, and our last few days of shooting were just as that was happening. People have thought, ‘Oh, well, they’re capitalizing on that. Sending a cowboy over to the Middle East, riding against a bunch of Arabs and Muslims, and oh, yeah sure I know what this is.’ Some people have said that.”
He then took us back to a screening in Toronto where he met up with a Muslim reporter and he asked her, “So you saw the movie?” and she said, “Oh yeah, I had to see it.”
Viggo said, “She had this poker face so it took me a while to figure out how she felt, and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s my job and it would have been unprofessional to show up here when I have the opportunity to see it and not see it, so I did.'”
He then asked her, “So what did you think?” and she told him, “Well, I went into that movie knowing I wouldn’t like it, and that I would never recommend it to my friends or family, thinking it would be offensive.”
So he asked her again, “So what did you think?” and she said, “Well I completely changed my mind a little way into the movie. I was relieved to find that in this entertainment story that my culture, in passing, was treated respectfully as if it was no big deal to do so.”
This is when Viggo’s spirits seemed to lift as this was exactly what he was hoping for and he said, “Really it ought to be that way, it shouldn’t be remarkable that men, women, Arab, Christian, East, West are shown for what it is and I have had Native Americans say that they are surprised as well. It is all because you see the poster, you see the trailer and you have been conditioned as an audience, whether you are Muslim, Native American, or Anglo, or Christian or whatever, you have been conditioned out of Hollywood, to often, even if it is not intentional, to seeing different cultures being treated in a condescending way or being insulted or perverted in some way. So you are kind of expecting that, especially with something like this, and especially with what is going on in the world right and since the race is the heart of the story and takes place in that part of the world. I think people [at the screenings] have been pleased, and obviously the movie company has been encouraged by the popular reaction that they have gotten from a variety of audiences, which makes more work for me, since this is a movie I like and I think it worked on a lot of levels, and obviously other people do too. So they keep adding it to more countries and more cities. I never thought it would be possible, but I am going to go to more countries and more cities than we ever went to for Lord of the Rings.”
If that doesn’t tell you something, then I don’t know what will…
We then moved to Viggo’s choices in projects to take on and he said, “I like the big stories and the big landscapes. I guess I am interested in ordeals, whether you are in the Sahara desert or you’re in New Zealand or wherever, but I also like small stories that can take place in a room, in a kitchen sink drama. The things that we remember in life are the good and bad things that happen to us, that are out of the ordinary, whether it’s a horrible car accident or friends that have gotten sick and died or family problems, things that come at you and take you by surprise and rearrange your life for a long or shorter period, those are the things that you remember and that you potentially learn something from. Any ordeal clears and purifies your vision of yourself and how you fit in or don’t fit into the world. Those are the stories I am drawn to.”
So how does Viggo face the challenge of playing a character based on a real person as opposed to the fictional role of Aragorn that we have grown to love over the past few years?
“I try to be respectful to what I can learn about him. In the case of Frank Hopkins it’s not just what’s written, which is limited, it’s specialized equine history, people whom have written about Hopkins over the past 70 years, writing about his forward thinking in terms of appreciating the Mustang as a breed and its soul and its virtues, about his techniques, his training and his breeding, his approach to racing. Hopkins was known as much for taking good care of his horses and for them finishing in very good condition compared to the other horses, which a lot of times would not ever be able to race again, as he was for winning.”
Viggo seemed to want to find out as much as he could about the character, which played into his quest to respect the cultures and characters involved in the film.
“There’s an oral tradition of stories about Hopkins and Hidalgo and other horses that have been handed down from grandfather to grandmother and so forth, it’s really interesting to hear about it and you can learn a lot. Also, there is the Black Feet Reservation, when we were up in Montana shooting the end sequence. A lot of the wranglers that were helping us manage that huge herd of horses were mostly Black Feet Indians, and there was a woman who lived in the nearby town of Browning that still talked about having met Hopkins when she was a little girl. There are those things and I tried to respect that.”
“I also have in mind that this is myth and there are a lot of things that are expanded on or added to it that are metaphor and are helpful in highlighting certain values and certain ideas, and I think that’s the purpose that men serve, our identity as a nation, any nation’s identity is largely based on myth, on story telling, making up stories and exaggerating on the accomplishments of extraordinary individuals. You see it all the time whether it’s John F. Kennedy or George Washington or any number of men and women who throughout history have done something extraordinary or unusual or extraordinary events, good and bad.”
Viggo was able to not only draw on current examples to relate his thoughts but his feelings on respecting myth went as far back as Mussolini and the Germans.
“But, myth is used sometimes in the wrong way, such as the Germans did in the 30s in using Nordic mythology to justify unjustifiable programs and actions. You saw the Italians do it, Mussolini did it as far as the ideals of ancient Rome, you see Bush and Reagan do it with the myth of the cowboy, the idea that turns people off in this country and abroad is that sometimes they think of cowboys as being individualists, whose individualism is predicated on preventing others from being individuals, which is not the cowboys I’ve met and the ones I worked with on this movie aren’t that way. They’re like all American and kind of like, sometimes, ridiculously stubborn, but they’re self sufficient and generally stoic but they also have a healthy sense of humor about themselves and what they don’t know about, just like Frank Hopkins, they’re at least curious about, and they allow others to have their individual experiences. The idea of a cowboy is something that is given a fair shake in the story [of Hidalgo], which I like, without it being obvious.”
Viggo’s passion for this film are apparent just as is his passion for poetry and his publishing business, if you haven’t had a chance to learn more about what Viggo has done outside of the movie biz, then click here to learn a bit more about Viggo and his accomplishments.