VIGGO Mortensen reveals to MICHAEL McKENNA in Los Angeles his passion for photography and horses.
At 45 and despite almost two decades in the business, Viggo Mortensen became an overnight discovery with his role as Aragorn, the noble warrior king in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
He is now an undeniable movie star, sex symbol and, with his latest western/Arabian adventure Hidalgo, Hollywood’s newest leading man but don’t think that acting is the length and breadth of Mortensen or that he has fallen for fame.
He was “too busy” to attend last month’s Oscars, where the trilogy scored a equal record 11 awards, and otherwise avoids the spotlight, preferring the company of his teenage son to his acting peers.
In fact, acting is something the New York-born, Argentinian-raised Mortensen seems intent on portraying as a tolerable living to support his other pursuits in life.
“I really didn’t expect to be doing this for so long,” he says. “I still question why I do it.”
It may seem a strange question for Mortensen who, after just three years of acting classes, landed his debut in 1985’s Witness, before going on to make 38 other movies – alongside masters like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. But Mortensen, even as a kid, didn’t restrict his dreams to the big screen. He wanted to do it all – and still does.
“As a kid, you wonder about all the adventures you are going to have and you imagine exploring the world,” he says, in his soft, deliberate manner. “Most people, after a while, sort of repress that desire and instead live in a box and never attempt it but I wanted adventure, still do, and so I try a lot of things.”
To make his point, a barefoot Mortensen, otherwise resplendent in pea-soup coloured silk suit, comes to the interview armed with his latest photographic book.
A collection of pictures from the Hidalgo shoot, in the US and Morocco (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed), the book reveals a very creative artist.
It is not his first time in print.
Over the years, Mortensen has written three books of poetry, performed jazz on three CDs and shown his photographs and paintings in galleries around the world.
He even runs a book publishing company in Los Angeles where he reluctantly lives to stay in constant touch with “best friend” and son, Henry, 16, the only child from his decade-long marriage to musician Exene Cervenka.
It is a list of achievements that rivals that of his latest character, Hidalgo‘s Frank T Hopkins.
The new movie, also starring Omar Sharif in his first Hollywood film in decades, is about a cowboy who crosses the ocean to compete against 100 Arab riders in a 4800km race across the Persian desert.
Hopkins, before he died in 1951, had profitably persuaded pulp fiction writers he was the son of a Sioux Indian squaw, the only white survivor of Custer’s last stand, a Pony Express rider at age 12 and a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
For good measure, the books detail how he was even shot seven times. But Hopkins’ greatest claim to fame was how – after winning several long-distance rides with his mustang Hidalgo – he accepted the challenge of an Arab sheik to compete in the legendary race.
Held for 1000 years, across a route that stretches from Yemen to Damascus, Syria, the competition involved 100 Bedouin riders mounted on the finest pure-bred Arabian horses.
The only problem for Mortensen, and the producers of the “based on a true story” movie, was doubts about the credibility of Hopkins’ story hitting the mainstream as it was released in the US.
There has been little evidence offered that such a race ever existed and Arab horse breeders and historians in the US are now saying the legend was made up.
In recent weeks, historians have also said they have failed to find any mention of Hopkins in US Cavalry records, in accounts of the Battle of Wounded Knee, or in the extensive records of Buffalo Bill’s travelling show.
But it this doesn’t seem to faze Mortensen. “I have faith in the story, I have not problem at all with it,” he says. “It wasn’t just the white ranchers that have talked about him, handed down from generation to generation, the stories of his achievements.
“But also the different Indian tribes, families that don’t know each other, that talk about him and about how they’re grandfather had seen this guy and his painted horse.”
Regardless of the story’s authenticity, Mortensen says he is intrigued at portraying a man who has been traumatised by the massacres of the Indian wars and come to feel like an outsider in his own country.
“This is a man, a cowboy, who’s probably never even seen the ocean and now he’s got to hack it in a race in the Arabian desert,” he says.
“The odds are stacked against Frank. Compared to the Arabian horses, the mustang Hidalgo looks like a little dog – a pony next to their steeds.”
It took three months for producers of the $100 million movie to find their star horse but according to Mortensen, it only took days for the actor to “bond totally” with the animal, otherwise known as T.J. The horse and rider became so enamoured with each other that Mortensen decided he wanted to become T.J’s owner once filming was done. “I thought about it all during the shoot,” Mortensen says. “I just wanted to keep up the relationship.”
T.J. is now settled on a ranch outside LA and whenever Mortensen rides him, the actor’s memories of his childhood and filming Hidalgo come sweeping back.
Mortensen counts himself fortunate that with both The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo, he had projects, which were not only rousing sagas of heroism but also offered thought-provoking inner stories. But he hates his name is being used above the title in much of the publicity for his new movie.
“I personally don’t think the director or actor should ever be above the title,” he says.
Furthermore, he resists any suggestion that the success or failure of Hidalgo rests on his shoulders.
“I feel the same with this movie as I did with Lord of the Rings – there’s this ensemble and interestingly enough, just like Lord of the Rings, the studio took the chance on a group of largely unknown performers to tell the story.”