Royalty came to Dallas recently when Viggo Mortensen, the recently-crowned King Aragorn of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” visited to discuss his new film, “Hidalgo.”
Mortensen stars as Frank T. Hopkins, a long-distance Cavalry dispatch rider devastated by the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, who accepts a challenge to enter the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile race in the Arabian Desert, on his wild mustang Hidalgo. Omar Sharif co-stars as Sheikh Riyadh, the organizer of the contest, in the film shot mostly in Morocco’s Sahara Desert by Joe Johnston (“October Sky,” “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III”).
“Let’s face it,” the soft-spoken actor, also known for his poetry and photography, said modestly, “without ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, or the one that had come out—‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (‘The Two Towers’ was imminent)—without the success of that first part of the trilogy, there’s no way I would have been given this part, the responsibility of playing Frank Hopkins in a big-budget movie.”
Mortensen explained what attracted him to the history-based script.
“I find that moment in history, that period, a pivotal one, especially for the United States—the end of the nineteenth century, the closing of the western frontier and the Wild West, the beginning of the mythologizing of it. It’s interesting to have a cowboy, along with his horse, be the character that takes you through this period, traveling across the sea at a time when America and Americans were looking beyond our borders.”
But beyond the historical interest, Mortensen added, “Hidalgo” is simply a good yarn. “I like the story because it’s old-fashioned in the telling,” he said. “It’s not a message movie, it’s not a revisionist western, it’s just an entertaining adventure story. But there’s a lot of stuff to think about in it. The audience—for a change, because a lot of big-budget movies don’t do this—is treated with a certain amount of respect, allowed to make up their own minds about what they think about it and get out of it beyond the adventure.
These kinds of stories are really ordeals–classic challenges to adventure, the kind of story that’s been told as long as there have been people and will always be told as long as there are people. You’re faced with a challenge, a call to adventure, and you can say yes or no. And [at the end] you realize it was more about how you got through it than whether you got there. In situations like this, you get to observe a character like Frank Hopkins or a horse like Hidalgo. Do they keep their composure, their dignity—including how they treat others—in really stressful, difficult situations? And if they don’t, at times, do they have the good sense and decency to recognize that and make amends? Frank certainly learns a lot about himself in the course of this journey, probably as much or more about himself than he does about the people he encounters. And he returns home with the benefit of this knowledge and experience.”
And Mortensen sees “Hidalgo” not as a star vehicle, but “just as much an ensemble as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is.” He was excited about working with Sharif, he said, “especially since we were shooting the film in some of the same places where he shot ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’”
But he waxed especially enthusiastic about his co-star T.J., the pinto horse that (apart from stunt doubles and triples in a few scenes—he recalled a man who, every morning, would “carefully paint each horse—all the spots and stuff—in the same colors, to match T.J.”) plays Hidalgo. The mustang, Mortensen said, is “Frank Hopkins’ conscience…the one who keeps him going, or pulls him down a peg when he’s not doing things right.”
And T.J. captured that perfectly.
“The horse has a personality, a very distinct personality,” he said. “That isn’t made up by imposing human characteristics on him—it’s not animatronics, it isn’t Mr. Ed. It’s just a horse being a horse. It has to do with his participation, his interaction. The first few times it happened on set, when he would react appropriately, in a jealous or possessive way, or would just keep an eye on things, or was annoyed with me if my character was acting foolish or drunk, he would have a very strong reaction—the gestures, the sounds he’d make, pinning his ears back. Even the way he’d look back—there’s a point in the story where Frank’s kind of made a compromise in his mind and decided to quit—and the horse sort of looks back [at him]—that’s a typical T.J. thing to do. It’s not a digital effect. All those things he did really helped us. We were lucky, very lucky [to have found him].”
Mortensen said that he enjoys playing all sorts of characters, not only heroic ones, but that figures like Aragorn and Hopkins are especially appealing. “I wish I was as courageous as they are,” he added. “You can always learn something from other people, and if you’re lucky enough to play characters like Frank Hopkins or Aragorn, it’s a chance to go on a journey and think about it.”
Mortensen is traveling to city after city to promote “Hidalgo.” It’s the most extensive press tour he’s ever taken, surpassing even the one for “The Lord of the Rings.”
“I’m going to more places spending more time discussing this movie than we did on ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” he said, still smiling. “So it’s a good thing I like it.”
“Hidalgo” is a Touchstone Pictures release.