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Dust storms in the Sahara, endless sand in everything, countless days of hard yakka, lots of tough stunts Ė but thatís nothing after Lord of The Rings for Viggo Mortensen, who tells all about his latest film, Hidalgo, to Jenny Cooney Carrillo Ė except about his relationship with the trusty TJ.

Is there anything Viggo Mortensen canít do? Apparently not. The rugged 46-year-old star who became King Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is also a noted artist who writes poetry, takes photographs and composes music. Now, heís proven that he can carry a Hollywood movie without the help of Tolkien, as his adventure drama film Hidalgo JUST took US$19 million on its US opening weekend. (Australian release: March 18, 2004)

Hidalgo is based on the (supposedly) true story of cowboy Frank T. Hopkins, one of the greatest endurance riders in America in the 1890s who also worked with Buffalo Bill as a show rider. Along with his beloved mustang horse Hidalgo, Frank becomes the first American invited to enter the Ocean of Fire, a grueling 300-mile survival race across the punishing Arabian Desert. With his competitors vowing victory, the race becomes not only a matter of pride and honour but a fight for survival as they attempt the impossible.†

The down-to-earth Viggo is passionate about this project; he financed and produced a book of his photographs from the film, titled ĎThe Horse is Goodí, and also produced a short DVD with documentary footage he shot of Native American Indians talking about Frank T. Hopkins and his own tribute to Hidalgo, both of which he proudly hands me as we sit down at a Century City hotel to talk about life after Lord of the Rings.

How do you feel about western movies?
I worked on Young Guns 2 back in 1990 but otherwise I havenít had much experience with that genre. I do consider myself fortunate that most actors donít usually get a chance to even one time be in a movie that is not only epic and entertaining but also thought-provoking and has a lot of popular appeal. Now Iíve done two projects like that in a row: Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo, so Iím very fortunate.

Are you a fan of any western movies?
I donít have one particular western hero but there are actors who are not known for being great western actors yet their performances are great in them. Like in 1947, nobody would have expected Montgomery Clift to be able to stand up to John Wayne in Red River, a movie I really like, and that performance as a cowboy is great. I have an affinity and an interest with Buffalo Bill because on my motherís side of the family we are related to William F. Cody, so that made it particularly interesting to work on this story.†

What kind of research did you do?
The writer of the movie needed to know all about Arabia and about that race but as Frank Hopkins, I could be as ignorant as I wanted about that part of the world because as the character in the story, even though Iím interested in different cultures, I didnít know anything about what I was getting myself into when I said yes to be in that race. So what I needed to focus on to prepare for this role was just working with horses and getting as comfortable as I could and understanding as much as I could about how cowboys related to horses and the way cowboys specifically in 1890 would have acted.†

Was it tough?
Yeah, but it was also fun. As a boy I would play at being a cowboy or an Indian like a lot of boys do and in this movie I get to be in a way both a cowboy and an Indian! As well as the horse riding my other job was to do the best job I could at seeming to be fluent equally in English and Lakota and that was the hardest part.†

How realistic was the Native American Indian culture shown in the movie?
Every effort was made by everybody to go the extra mile and take the authenticity very seriously. We could have shot in California but we went to South Dakota to shoot the Wounded Knee massacre, and we did it with Lakota people and a medicine man who was their spiritual leader, Sonny Richards, who trained people in the ritual of the song that I also got permission to sing later in the film. When we shot the massacre scene, even the most hardened crewmembers were moved. There was a silence and respect that you donít usually see on a movie set. This is a great adventure story and we wanted to do it right and with respect for the Arab culture and the Native American Indian culture.

How physically demanding was this film? Did you have to use doubles or stuntmen?
I think you can see when you watch this movie that there isnít much doubling or computer work. What special effects were used were subtle, and didnít drive the movie. As far as the movie being hard, certainly after the experience of working with Peter Jackson for the past few years, itís all relative (laughs)! I remember one day being in the Sahara Desert and riding on the horse and I passed a couple of crew members who were grousing a bit about how long weíd been there and how hot it was and how much they hated the dust storms that screwed up the cameras and so on - and I actually laughed! Not in a mean way, but I just said, Ďguys, come on!í We spent so long on Lord of the Rings working in diverse locations and different weather conditions that it prepared me for pretty much anything. I think the desert was harder on the horses than on us, because the dust gave them congestion and the dryness would make their hooves crack no matter how much grease we put on them, so that was hard.

Did you do all the riding?
There was an excellent stuntman, Mike Watson, who would always try the difficult things before me but with the exception of one or two things, I pretty much got to do all of it, and thatís not because my ego requires that I get to do all my stunts as I do here or in Lord of the Rings, but I know itís of service to the director. You can see in Hidalgo and Lord of the Rings that it is me in those scenes and that is helpful to the movie. I rode a lot as a kid and I was familiar and comfortable with horses so game to try. I do have to admit that in the middle of some of those stunts I did start to regret saying yes, when I saw the stallions packed together and I was barely in control. When youíre a kid, you remember going full blast across fields of high grass and falling and somersaulting off the horse and you donít think about it. As an adult, youíre more fragile and I was always thinking about Ďif I fall off here with all these rocks, itís going to hurt!í So I think itís good to have a certain amount of respect for the situation and for the horses.

What kind of special bond did you develop with T.J., the horse who played Hidalgo?†
I donít talk about my relationships! (laughs) They do say that you shouldnít get involved with your co-workers, but sometimes it happens, you know?†

Now that Lord of the Rings is over, have you been able to digest the impact that it had on you, personally and professionally?
Iím aware of the fact that I would not have got the part of Frank Hopkins in this movie without The Fellowship of the Ring, which is the film that had come out when I got this part. But to be honest with you, Iíve been on a press tour for four months talking about Lord of the Rings and I havenít had time to consider what youíre asking. I have a little less privacy and a little less time for myself but I have to mostly take that as flattering and as a compliment. It means that you, together with the other people, have gotten something right or helped a director get something right. Youíve struck a chord and so you canít complain about that too much.

Do you feel you can reclaim your normal life after Lord of the Rings or will things always be different after success of that level?
Your life is as out of control as you allow it to be, but I think most of the time I will endeavour to continue to mind my own business and let other people mind theirs, unless their business infringes on mine and then Iíll say something about it or do something. But I donít really have an easy answer to that question. I know that for the next few months Iíll be travelling again to talk about making movies instead of actually making movies (laughs) and I wonít be able to sleep with T.J. every single night (laughs), but these are crosses we have to bear! Iím not very good at planning ahead and when I am forced to think too far ahead it stresses me out, so I guess I have no answer.

Published March 18, 2004

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