In his broken-in gray warm-up jacket, green flannel shirt and bare feet, he looks laid-back and easy-going. He sips a thick blend of green tea from a small, egg-shaped wooden cup through a silver straw. He speaks surprisingly softly and smiles easily and frequently.
But then you remember that this is the same actor who once smacked around Demi Moore and tried to do away with poor Gwyneth Paltrow. A guy who used the power of psychedelia to seduce happily married Diane Lane.
As he speaks, he illustrates what he’s saying with his hands, which are rugged and calloused, hardly the manicured, creamy-smooth hands of a movie star. His brown-black hair is cut short and certainly doesn’t look as if it has been fussed over by a high-paid stylist. If you saw him on the street, you would probably not peg him as an international sex symbol.
How could this be the same actor whose face is currently on posters and magazine covers, in video store displays, even immortalized on the front of thousands of copies of The Return of the King in bookstores around the world?
That’s a question even Viggo Mortensen himself can’t find an answer for. Presented with the image of him in full Aragorn glory adorning a copy of the French edition of Premiere magazine, he chuckles about his worldwide renown. “You can run, but you can’t hide,” he says, shaking his head slightly.
It’s quite a reality shift for a man who, prior to his success in the phenomenally popular The Lord of the Rings series, was a consistently well-reviewed—although not particularly well-known—character actor who had worked steadily since he first appeared on screen briefly as an Amish farmer in Witness in 1985. After making such less-than-sterling pictures as American Yakuza, the Wesley Snipes crime drama Boiling Point and Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Mortensen’s career momentum could be summed up by the title of one of his other films: Floundering.
In time, his luck began to turn. He racked up a few fairly high-profile jobs: in G.I. Jane (with Moore), A Perfect Murder (with Paltrow) and A Walk on the Moon (with Lane). Then, in 1999, he got a call to read for the role of the vagabond king Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and, within months, anonymity was a thing of the past.
“Big, fat head”
“In some ways, it’s a little strange,” Mortensen says of his celebrity status. “Because it really means on one level people assume they know you because they know a character that they’ve seen on screen or in a magazine.” He pointed to the Premiere cover. “That guy there in that picture: That’s me, but it’s not me. I’m behaving like someone else, I’m dressed like someone else, etc. So there’s a weirdness about that.
“But overall, I take it as a sort of indirect compliment… It tells me we got something right in the telling of that story.”
Now, Mortensen is in the midst of a publicity tour to promote Hidalgo, an old-fashioned adventure tale that marks the first time the star has carried a movie without a major female co-star (or a backup band of Hobbits, wizards and dwarves) to support him.
“My big, fat head is taking up a lot of space there,” he says with a grin while looking at a Hidalgo promotional poster. “And it really isn’t until now… looking around and seeing I’m by myself that I realize I’m responsible for selling it. While we were shooting, it wasn’t that way; it was no different than The Lord of the Rings, where there was a pretty big cast of very talented people all doing a very good job, and they didn’t have any sense of obligation or special sense of responsibility.
“It wasn’t my idea, the big, fat head poster, or to be here by myself. But I’m entrusted, I guess, to be brave or reckless enough to be the guy to convince you. Because I’m not someone who believes in hammering on something or telling people what to think or what to go see. But on the other hand, … I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed it, and got as much out of it as I did working on The Lord of the Rings, and I have no problem talking with you or anybody else about it.”
In Hidalgo, Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins, a late 19th-century cowboy-turned-professional-rider who joins a horse race across “the ocean of fire,” a 3,000-mile stretch of the Arabian desert. As he faces various perils and backstabbing enemies along the way, the strong-willed Frank proves to be endlessly resourceful, as well as surprisingly open-minded and curious about the mysteries of the Middle East.
“I think sometimes cowboys, or the cowboy idea, spirit, gets a bad rap in some quarters,” Mortensen says, “because people assume that being an individualist, or an independent-minded person, like a cowboy is supposed to be, that that means you prevent others from having their individual experience, whether you agree with them or understand them or not.
“And I don’t think that’s true. I mean, cowboys that I’ve met have been typically courteous. Even if they’re sort of bemused by something they see, they’ll at least let you be yourself. They might keep their distance, but they’re not gonna go out of their way to tell you you can’t be a certain way. … I think that, typically, is the cowboy spirit.”
A spirit, Mortensen adds, that is not exclusive to the American West.
“You see the cowboy archetype in samurai culture, in Lakota/Native American culture, in the Maori indigenous culture of New Zealand—it’s universal. Being independent-minded and an individual isn’t only an American thing.”
“Not quite a horse”
Preparing for Hidalgo required Mortensen to polish up his horseback riding skills, which he admits he had not used much in recent years.
“I had ridden when I was a boy, you know, pretty young, but then from, say, the age of 11 on, with almost no exceptions, just a few times,” he says.
“I remember, as a boy, just tearing off across a field, bareback, without checking for holes or anthills, falling a** over tea kettle, and, if the horse didn’t run away and I could eventually catch it, getting back on and not thinking much about it.
“As an adult, you’re a little more wary, you’re a little more brittle, and you can think ahead about the consequences. So if the horse starts swerving around and it’s not responding to you and you’re riding bareback at full speed, it’s scary; as a kid, you’re just exhilarated. Until you come off the horse, you’re not thinking of the danger. But that’s a human thing. As a kid, you don’t think much about, well, death. You’re just like, ‘Ooh, this is fun!’ ”
Considering Mortensen spends a hefty portion of Hidalgo astride the title character—even doing many of his own riding stunts—he was pleased to find he still like horses, “which made the job easier. If you like your job and you like your partner, it’s gonna make the job easier, and you’re probably gonna give the director better material.”
But that fondness does not prevent Mortensen from outing his co-star, T.J., now that the film is finished. Hidalgo, it turns out, was not played by a horse.
“The definition of a horse is 14 hands 3 and up,” Mortensen explained, “and below that, it’s a pony, not a horse. And T.J. is a mustang paint, or what’s sometimes referred to as an Indian pony: He’s 14 (hands) 2—just not quite a horse.”
T.J. was, however, a born actor, something Mortensen and the crew discovered early on in the shoot. “As soon as they would roll camera, he would do these remarkable things you see in the movie: reactions, sounds, little frowns, eye rolls, ear twitches.”
That made for many sighs of relief around the set since the interplay between Frank and Hidalgo is a crucial ingredient in the story and, as Mortensen says, “it’s not ‘Mr. Ed,’ it’s not animatronics. You have to be able to shoot him in some way so that it looks like he’s part of the scene.”
As for his own time in the spotlight, Mortensen isn’t naively predicting he’s going to be at the top forever.
“I always have in mind that I’ve been around long enough to have seen things come and go, and people come and go, (and) that maybe at times there’s an extreme fascination with a particular actor or actress or character. But it’s a passing thing: It’s the nature of those things that as something else popular comes along, people will move on…. And, if you look at it that way, you’re less likely to be disappointed when they move on to someone else.”