Viggo Mortensen has a hand in so many art forms that there’s almost no room on his résumé for acting. A poet, painter, musician, and photographer, Mortensen has founded his own publishing company, released experimental-music CDs, and exhibited his artwork around the world. A globetrotting childhood and a 10-year marriage to X singer Exene Cervenka (they divorced in 1997) have contributed to a colorful image that’s at odds with the down-to-earth roles he often portrays. First seen in film as an Amish farmer in Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller Witness, Mortensen went from stage to screen with quiet competence. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he appeared in several dozen films, notably Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial debut The Indian Runner, Kevin Spacey’s 1996 directorial debut Albino Alligator, and Tony Goldwyn’s 1999 directorial debut A Walk on the Moon. Perhaps best known to early fans for his creepy turn as Lucifer in The Prophecy, Mortensen steadily racked up roles in films like American Yakuza, G.I. Jane, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, A Perfect Murder, and 28 Days. But when he was tapped to replace Stuart Townsend as Aragorn, the displaced king in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he became a household name. As the films’ romantic male lead and one of the two linchpins of a sprawling cast, Mortensen remains at the center of a whirlwind of publicity that seems destined to continue for some time, thanks to The Return of the King‘s storied Oscars sweep. Still, Mortensen is already on to the next thing: starring in the Disney adventure Hidalgo, as 19th-century long-distance horse-racing champion Frank Hopkins. Mortensen recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Hidalgo, his version of “method” acting, and how painting, writing, and fishing can take the place of resting between takes.
The Onion: What was the casting process for Hidalgo like? How did you get involved?
Viggo Mortensen: Well, without the success of The Fellowship Of The Ring, I don’t think they would have seriously considered me at all. If they knew my work, they might have thought I could be right for it, but they wouldn’t have had any way of knowing. It just wouldn’t have happened. To play that part in a big-budget movie, to be to some degree responsible… Now that I see the way they’re marketing it, with the big head-picture poster… There’s no way they would have entrusted that role to me. So they were interested, and I had read it, and I thought it was an interesting story. I met the director [Joe Johnston], and I liked the way he talked about it. He didn’t seem like someone who was going to, either intentionally or inadvertently, make a jingoistic story, where the American goes over and straightens out some Arabs. I could feel from the way he was talking that it was an entertainment, an adventure story, but that he wanted to tell it in an old-fashioned, straight-ahead fashion, with no frills. And I thought, “That’s good, he’s sort of a throwback.” He seemed calm and focused. And the way he talked about Muslim and Arab culture, and Native American culture, and even cowboys, he seemed like he was going to be evenhanded. You never know how it’s going to turn out, but in the process, it felt like things were handled well, and the lines of communication were open. Adjustments were always being made to make sure we were being respectful and thorough about things. And I was very happy, when I saw the movie, what they chose to put in there, and how they put it together. I like it. Even though I was very closely connected to it, when I saw it, once I got into the rhythm of it, I liked the fact that it seemed to balance the adventure, the old-fashioned entertaining movie side, with something else. The fact that you have an American character in a big Hollywood movie go to the Third World and behave in a more or less dignified way is refreshing. People have become somewhat conditioned to seeing Hollywood not be as respectful of their cultures as it could easily be.
O: Were the shooting conditions as horrible as they seemed to be from the film?
VM: You mean out in the desert? Yeah. And the winter was pretty cold, too. It looked nice and sunny, but it was bitter. Sometimes the winds were so extreme, and there was so much dust, that we couldn’t shoot. And the grit, and the dryness, and the dustiness and heat—it was difficult, technically. A lot of the sound equipment and camera equipment got messed up, and they were always fixing stuff. On a low level, it was just an irritant. It was always in your eyes and everywhere, the sand and dust. But also, a lot of people got sick, some seriously, including the horse trainer. It got in their lungs, this very fine dust. And the horses, as well—including T.J., the horse that plays Hidalgo. The terrain was very hard ground, with a lot of rocks and stuff, and with the dryness, sometimes they went a bit lame. They had trouble breathing at times. It was pretty demanding for a horse.
O: You actually bought T.J., and two horses that you worked with in The Lord of the Rings movies. Did you have much experience with horses before these movies?
VM: No. When I was a little boy, I rode, but I didn’t own horses. From the age of 11 until The Lord of the Rings, I really didn’t have much interaction with them. Well, except for one movie, Young Guns II. For Lord of the Rings, I got to ride quite a bit. I had to kind of push myself, when I could steal time, just to be ready for The Lord of the Rings. Those horses weren’t trained for riding one-handed, which we had to do, because of the swords.
O: There are a lot of stories being told about how you got into your Lord of the Rings character—living in the woods, sleeping with the horses, mending your costume yourself, and so forth. How much of that is true?
VM: Whenever a project is really popular, as The Lord of the Rings has been, and as I think Hidalgo will be as well, people want to know more about the people involved. They’ll tell a story once in a straightforward way, and then it gets retold and exaggerated. I did what I’d do for any role. You can learn as long as you want, as much as you want. You never get to the point where you say, “Now I know everything.” I’m comfortable as long as I’m exploring it. I was thrown into The Lord of the Rings without much preparation at all. So the sword, and what I was wearing, the props, were very important to that character, and I just wanted to work on them. I was allowed to keep them, and wear them, and mend them, and do things. So there’s some truth to that. For Hidalgo, I just spent as much time around horses as I could, which made sense. On the reservation, I rode with some Lakota people, and there was this amazing stallion that was the father of most of the horses we were riding that day. He was quite old and he had a heart attack; he just fell down and died. And they had a ceremony. They cried and sang and made a prayer and made tobacco offerings, and eventually, they got the horse home and buried it on this hill. Then we sat out that night and made a fire. It was summer, so we were outside, and they just told stories—as though it was a human that had died in the family—about this horse. Odd things that had happened to him, funny things, sort of like a wake, where they could unburden themselves. It was really beautiful. I was given a hank of hair from his tail, and I used that to make the hatbands for my hats in Hidalgo.
O: You worked on the costuming yourself?
VM: Yeah, one braid for each hat. You know, I had double hats, in case one got messed up. And usually people don’t think about this, but you’re in different terrain, and the dust is different colors, so I had different hats for different periods, as the hat got more worn out through the story. So I had to make more than one braid, because we jumped back and forth throughout the sequences. They made these really nice hats, and I broke them each in and made a headband for each one. That makes you feel more involved. Until you start shooting, and you get your feet wet, it’s just a way to get into it, and to connect with a role. And it’s something that a guy like that might have made.
O: How do directors generally react when you start working with the propmasters or costumers on a film?
VM: Well, I would never do it without asking. You just say, “Look, I was just thinking, I could borrow these pants and ride in them, so they’ll be broken in already.” You can show up the first day and say “Hi, everybody, where’s my clothes?” and put your clothes on and just start. It’s certainly possible. But I find that if there’s time to break them in and make them comfortable, make them second nature… You know, if you see a cowboy in a movie and he puts his feet up and the soles of his boots look brand-new, it’s possible that he’s just gotten them re-soled. But still, it’s a detail, visually, that you would notice. Likewise, you would notice that they’re broken in. But more than anything, it’s just to get comfortable and get a jump on the character.
O: Ideally, what do you expect from a director or from your co-stars to help you get comfortable in a new character?
VM: Well, I never know what I’m going to get. But you will get information, even if it’s not overtly stated. You’ll get advice or input if you’re looking for it. I know people who prepare their roles in such a way that they technically look ahead and memorize their gestures, and then they stick to it. Those that are technically proficient enough can make it seem natural, but they do that and don’t really take in what other people are doing. They can do a fine job sometimes. But I personally feel more comfortable, and feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of building a character that helps the director tell a story, if I prepare in advance, but then go with the flow of the moment. I think it was Sidney Lumet who said something I really agree with. Roughly: “The work is largely about making the best possible preparations for accidents to happen.”
O: Good accidents, or bad accidents?
VM: Both. I show up, and we’re supposed to do a scene together. We’ve even rehearsed it, maybe. But no matter how we do it, each take is going to be slightly different. A word gets left out, or you say it differently, or someone makes a noise—it just charges the scene. If I’ve got tunnel-vision about what I’ve memorized and what I want to get across, I’m less likely to notice the more subtle changes from take to take, from moment to moment.
O: How do you feel about rehearsal?
VM: I love rehearsing, but a lot of directors don’t, and some actors don’t. So you have to be… The one thing that’s good to be, as an actor, is flexible. And that’s part of making the best possible preparations and being ready for accidents. You have to be ready for a director who says, “We’re just going to shoot it.” Or an actor who doesn’t like to rehearse, or in rehearsals doesn’t give you much, and then when you shoot, he does something else. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s anyone who’s… People talk about Method actors, meaning someone that’s prepared very, very well, or whatever they mean when they talk about it. But the right method is whatever works for you. And what works for me on any given day is going to be different. It’s going to depend on things like, does the director, or do the other people involved, want to rehearse? Do they believe in rehearsing? How do they rehearse? Do they like to improvise or not? How do they want to shoot the scene? Is it all one master, or is it bits and pieces? What kind of character am I playing? Does he talk a lot, or does he not talk much? Do people speak quickly? There are so many factors. If you have only one way of doing it, you’re selling yourself short and depriving yourself of a fuller experience, and possibly of delivering better work to the director, to use as raw material in building a story.
O: Flexibility aside, though, is there a particular ideal you’d like directors to live up to, or a personal preference about how they run things?
VM: The directors I’ve enjoyed the most are secure enough in themselves as people, and as directors, to be able to field questions and have an opinion. Even if it’s just having the guts to say “I’m not sure,” or “I hadn’t thought about that,” or “Let me think about it,” or “You know, I still don’t know what the hell that scene means.” [Laughs.] Of course, you don’t want to be a pest. A director has a lot on his or her plate, so I try to only ask questions if I think they’re important and I can’t figure them out myself. But sometimes it’s just out of respect. I mean, it’s their story to tell, and it’s up to us to help them tell it. “How do you want this done, how do you see this, have you thought about the connection between this and that?” I’ve been working with all kinds of people, but the ones I enjoy working with the most are the communicators.
O: Many of your roles center on fairly macho characters—sort of grim, manly outsider types. How do you relate to that kind of character?
VM: Outsiders, but I don’t know if they’re all manly. I mean, I think there are elements in Jerome in A Walk on the Moon, certainly in Aragorn… I don’t know, there are certain feminine traits. Well, I don’t know if it’s specifically feminine. But they’re not your typical macho… In some ways, there’s a certain courtesy, a certain open-mindedness. Hesitation, doubt, things not necessarily associated with a kind of macho character. I’m not disagreeing with you—I’m talking it out, taking it in. What are you saying? Why do I always play those roles?
O: More whether you’re aware of the degree to which you get selected for roles that may be seen that way.
VM: I wasn’t.
O: Your work in The Lord of the Rings stands out as unique in that you’ve tended to work on a lot of effects-light, realistic dramas. Do things change for you when you’re working in an environment where what you see on the set is markedly different from what’s going to appear on the screen?
VM: I guess it was not so much in the first movie, but increasingly in the second and third, you get more of that stuff. But, no, not really. I’m still trying to remember, obviously, who I’m playing, where he’s been up to that point in the story, and whether they’re there or not, who or what I’m reacting to. But still, knowing you are a vessel through which an idea of a person is coming through… I guess maybe it’s because we did things in so many different ways there, and dealt with all the re-shoots over the last few years, with actors not being available… I’d be acting with a tennis ball on a stand instead of Orlando Bloom, who’s off doing a movie somewhere, and he’d be doing the same with me when he comes in. Looking at his stuff on video first, and then trying to match the precedent he’d set, is a weird way to do things. I mean, Peter [Jackson], out of necessity or out of inclination, availed himself of every trick in the moviemaking book, and invented a few of his own. I guess, through thick and thin, through real and less real, through tangible and intangible situations, you just get used to being Aragorn. You know, that was my job, so it didn’t matter how weird things got. Of course, I preferred to be working with real people who are in the scene at the time, with the director, and dealing with a natural landscape. We had a lot of that, and that was my favorite. It was less of an adjustment for me than it might have been for some of the others, because although I hadn’t done much with special effects, I’d done a lot of work, so I was a little more… For the less experienced or almost totally inexperienced actors on The Lord of the Rings, it was more of an adjustment for them, to go “You mean I’ve got to just look at this nothing and act?” But they obviously worked it all out, because they did a good job.
O: You’re known for painting while you’re on shoots…
VM: Or taking photographs, or writing.
O: Is there any art form that lends itself particularly well to fitting in between movie shoots?
VM: Painting is the least of them, but when I know we’re in one location for quite a while, I can do a little bit. Sometimes you don’t have the energy, and it’s better if you lie down and take a 10-minute nap, so you won’t be deadweight the rest of the afternoon. That’s a good idea if you’re in a state of tiredness already, which we were for most of the last half of The Lord of the Rings. And for me, a place where I would feel calm would be to look at photographs, or maybe take some, paint a little bit, or re-write something. You can get that from reading a book, too. A lot of places we were in New Zealand, we’d be by these rivers and beautiful lakes, in really wild places, and I would just grab my backpack and fishing rod and go take in the silence, instead of waiting for the next shoot. It was really getting away from people, is what it comes down to, one way or another. Because you’re around people all the time, and even though it’s pleasant to sit and break bread, it’s all these voices, and it’s nice to walk away, go fishing, or just look around, take a picture or whatnot. Those are, ideally, restful moments, even if they’re active. When I’m writing or drawing something, or cleaning my camera, or taking a picture, or thinking about it, looking out the window or walking around the woods, then, when I come back to work, I’m refreshed and mentally ready for the whole second half of the day.