Millions know him as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but there’s a lot more to Viggo Mortensen than that Tolkien trilogy.
A photographer, painter and published poet, this latter-day Renaissance man has rarely looked back since playing an Amish farmer in Witness, bringing his brooding charisma to movies as diverse as Crimson Tide, GI Jane and A Perfect Murder. He’s back on screen in Hidalgo, playing a real-life cowboy who travels to Arabia with the eponymous horse to take part in a 3,000-mile race across the desert. Virgin.net spoke to him…
VN: Did working with a horse on The Lord of the Rings prepare you for playing a cowboy in Hidalgo?
Viggo Mortensen: “There was a bit of riding in The Lord of the Rings so I had a head start, but the demands of this story meant I had to work really hard. I had the ability to do stunts an actor normally wouldn’t get to do; the director [Joe Johnston] could film me as close as he wanted to without cutting away. It’s always nice when you like your workmates, be they human or equine, and I had a good time with the horses I rode. However, no amount of physical training can prepare you for the kind of jarring you’re going to get. There were many times in this movie where you’re going at speed and you know it’s really going to hurt if you fall off! But it was worth it, if slightly painful at times and a bit scary.”
VN: How important to you was it that your character, Frank Hopkins, was based on a real person?
Viggo Mortensen: “It’s a good story that hearkens back to the classic Hollywood adventure, and there are a lot of values to the story I really like. But I placed a lot of importance in the fact it was about a person and a horse that really existed. There have been some efforts by a few individuals to discredit Hopkins, and unfortunately they have been quite successful. If the efforts by those people have even in the littlest way detracted from the value of this movie and the good things it talks about, I think that’s a shame.”
VN: Omar Sharif plays a sheik in the film. What was it like working with him?
Viggo Mortensen: “One of the great things about this experience was working with Omar; his casting was very important to the movie. It was already a good story, but him playing that part was a perfect piece of casting. It lifted the movie to another level, and personally it was a lot of fun to work closely with him and pester him for stories about making Lawrence of Arabia with David Lean and Peter O’Toole.”
VN: Hidalgo is obviously great fun, but do you think the movie has a message as well?
Viggo Mortensen: “If all the elements – cinematography, design, the script and editing – go towards telling the story, you’re going to have a better chance to interest people in the things that are underneath. Audiences are far more intelligent than movie companies often give them credit for, certainly in Hollywood, and just the fact that you have an American protagonist going to a Third World Muslim country is important. He has a chance to learn about what he encounters, and in so doing he can’t help learning about himself. That kind of story, especially in the times we’re living in now, I think it’s valuable. The way things are going today, it’s understandable that people are fearful and extremely reluctant to find common ground with others. This kind of story reminds you it is worthwhile; there are benefits from sharing time and experience and having your eyes opened.”
VN: After playing Aragorn for so long, was it a relief to be playing a different character in a different country?
Viggo Mortensen: “It was different, but it wasn’t as neat as it might look. I got the part of Hopkins after The Fellowship of the Ring, and we started shooting before The Two Towers came out. Even during rehearsals I had to go to New Zealand and do reshoots, and there were several times on location in the middle of the Sahara Desert where I’d have to go up on a hill or a sand dune to do interviews for The Lord of the Rings! So it was never one thing and then another. It was something I was grateful to have come to me: a good, thought-provoking story with a lot of potential. So though it was a little tricky scheduling-wise I thought it was worthwhile.”