“The Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen stars as Frank T. Hopkins in the new Touchstone action-adventure film Hidalgo. The American cavalryman and his horse, Hidalgo, ran the greatest long-distance horse race ever run. Hopkins, once billed as the greatest rider the West had ever known, and his trusty mustang pitted themselves against world-renowned Arabian horses and wily Bedouin riders, who were determined to keep them from finishing the race. The contest became not only a matter of pride and honor, but a race for survival as Hopkins and Hidalgo attempted the impossible.
Viggo says that Hopkins feels like such a real character because of the way director Joe Johnston told the story. “It’s not just the way I approached the character, and a lot of it has to do with the way cowboys seem to be. In other words I think that Joe Johnston’s approach, which is perfect for this story, was a straight ahead, no nonsense approach. It’s more of an old fashioned way of making movies. Old fashioned in the Hollywood sense. The Howard Hawks approach I guess, Bill Wellmann or John Ford even. Ford and even David Lean went out of their way to accommodate the landscape. What I like about Joe in telling the story is he got the best cinematographer he could get a hold of, cast it as well as he could, he had a great design. The effort that he and the studio went to to go to South Dakota and use Lakota people, some of whom were descendants of people who had survived or been killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. Those kind of things, layerings and subtext are all great. But he didn’t allow any of the filmmaking process to show off, to stand out. Even the landscapes, it’s all there and that kind of straight ahead, no frills approach to filmmaking is one that refreshingly because you don’t see it a lot of the time when movies cost so much these days they tend to want to make sure you get it. This is good, this is bad, look how great this looks, look at these effects.”
He adds that Johnston and the studio respected the audience enough to not tell them what to get out of the film. “It’s not a message movie and it’s not a exploitation movie. It’s not a special effects driven movie, everything that’s in there works to the purpose of telling the story. As far as cowboys go, whether it be white Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, cities, small towns, rural areas..people have been pleasantly surprised that Native American culture, Muslim, Arab culture is being treated with a certain amount of dignity for a Hollywood movie. It wasn’t what they expected or were conditioned to see. In a lot of places in the United States and certainly even more places around the world the image of the cowboy has become for some people a negative one. The word cowboy implies a strong, stubborn individual whose individualism depends on pulling down other people’s individualism. The cowboys I met and liked and learned from are not that way. They are people who are like Hopkins in the story if someone comes up to them and says, ‘You don’t belong here, I don’t like you, it’s sacrilege.’ He’s like ‘Well good luck to you to.’ He’s like ‘Well, you do your thing I’ll do mine.’ Whatever he’s ignorant about which is a lot. How is he supposed to know about Arabia and Arabic and even Arabian horses. He really doesn’t know much about them going in. Even the Europeans he meets they are just as weird to him and different. Lady Anne and her husband, it’s as odd for him to encounter the Arabs in some ways. Whatever he doesn’t know, whatever he’s ignorant about, he at least makes up for it by being curious about it. With that comes the beginning of being respectful and open minded. That’s how I ideally see cowboys as being.”
Viggo says that he sees a bit of himself in the character. “I’m certainly curious about people. As a kid, I moved around a lot. I was raised in a lot of different places and thanks to working in the movies, I’ve gotten to keep traveling. I’ve always been interested in other cultures and languages. My experience, like that of this character in this movie, has taught me that people are people essentially and that no matter where you go or no matter how much you disagree with people or dislike them at first glance you generally have much more in common with them than not. All it takes is spending a little bit of time with them. Especially when you go through a trying situation like Hopkins’ ordeal in the movie which is to finish this race. You’re stuck together, it doesn’t matter who they are, you’re going to overlap some way. Your needs, your fears, we’re human beings. It’s a simplistic thing to say and that’s what I got from this film and working on The Lord of the Rings. In the end people are people. Even if they’re not people, they’re people. Even if they’re horses they’re people (laughs).
We’ve seen Viggo ride horses in the “Rings” trilogy and now in Hidalgo as well, but is he an experienced rider? “I can ride and I like horses. I rode a lot when I was a boy which was helpful for the purpose of shooting this movie. It helped me get up to speed. It gave me a head start and it gave Joe Johnston the unusual opportunity of shooting the actor doing dangerous things. He didn’t have to cut away or simulate. He could shoot in closeup and stay with me or shoot me wide and show me doing things and intercut things without trying to fake things so much. But even if you ride it’s not a car, it’s an animal and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re not on a track, you’re on all kinds of terrain and things can go and they sometimes do go wrong.”
So were there any accidents on the set? “I was pretty lucky, I didn’t have anything really terrible happen,” he says. “A couple of people had some really bad wrecks. The most dangerous thing we probably did was the start of the race because you had 100 stallions at the starting line and that’s just dangerous putting them all together. But being in a situation where the horses are all revved up and they got to go and there is all this dust flying and other than the first couple of guys you can’t see anything. And you’re getting pelted with stuff. There was a couple of bad spills, one in particular when a horse was somersaulting and a guy was run over by a bunch of the other guys behind him and he was sent home on a board. He broke his neck really badly but he recovered and 5 months later he rejoined us, he was doing riding again. So I would say considering how dangerous the things we were doing, I’d say we were really lucky.”
Speaking of horses being like people, he says he really bonded with the horse in the film. “Oh, it’s just like with people. You’re going to get along better working with them human or equine if you ask politely rather than demand that they do things. If you earn someone’s trust rather than insist on it then there’s some halfway place you meet at and the horse ends up working more eagerly with you rather than it being a chore. It’s a lot harder and more tiring and you don’t get the same results on screen if it’s otherwise. But it wasn’t just working in a good way the way Rex Petersen did or my approach, it helps to create some kind of bond, but you also have to be lucky. With the horse, TJ, who plays Hidalgo, this little horse, he had so much personality and he seemed to have opinions in an uncanny way. It seemed at first to be coincidence and it kept happening. Well, just keep the camera on him even if he is absent minded in rehearsals. When you say action he’d act jealous, tired, annoyed, possessive, whatever and it almost always seemed to be right. I have no explanation for it we were just lucky and it happened too much to be chance. Because it’s not Mr. Ed and it’s not animatronics and we’re not forcing human qualities on the animal. It’s a horse being a horse so it’s either going to be interesting or so so and you’re going to have to fake the rest. It added a lot more than John Fusco could have written or we could have imagined. The horse is actually his own character, he has a very strong personality in the movie and it adds a lot more.”
Viggo was almost in an accident with co-star Zuleikha Robinson on horseback.”That could have ended really ended badly, he says. “We were very lucky, this horse went over this huge wall, I don’t know how the horse did it actually, and just landed like that way. I don’t know how we didn’t get hurt. All three of us were lucky. She was great by the way and I don’t think she rode when she was a kid. She had to get up to speed from zero. She probably had been on a horse before but she learned a lot and really applied herself as much with the writing and the Arabic. You hear this from someone who most people don’t know as an actress and you’re like ;Wow.’ Not only is she perfectly cast and beautiful and everything you hope to have in a movie but she applied herself and she’s obviously very gifted and intelligent. Her horsemanship was really good. It’s not easy to ride through that marketplace and it was tough. She did a great job with the horse I think.”
Mortensen also had to perfect the Indian dialect in the film. “If you have an interest in it, like if you like working with horses it’s easier working with them. If you like a story, and so forth. I like languages, I’m interested in them and I got a lot of help. There were two individuals, first of all a medicine man from South Dakota who was the guy in the wagon at the end, and he’s the one who helped me with the language. And David Midthunder, who plays Black Coyote, and he lives in California and he’s Lakota. He not only helped me with the pronunciation and the singing but also told me a lot of things. I got a lot of help and by visiting there and being made to feel welcome before starting shooting I went up in the hills. And if you just pay attention it makes it easier to learn. It’s something I’ve been interested a long time before starting this movie, Indian culture. I certainly worked as hard to seem as fluent in that language as in English for this character. I worked as hard on it as much as the horseback riding. When you’re a little kid it’s not unusual for kids to imagine themselves as cowboys or Indians. In this movie I got to do both which was fun.”
Hidalgo opens in theaters on Friday, March 5.