Viggo on buying horses and his relative, Buffalo Bill. The ''Hidalgo'' star talks about ''big, fat head'' movies and why he owns a few of his costars (literally)
Viggo Mortensen
Credit: Viggo Mortensen: Tannis Toohey/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press/NewsCom

King Aragorn is ditching his crown, but he ain’t giving up his trusty steed. ”Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen is following up the swashbuckling horseback trilogy with yet another sword and pony show. ”Hidalgo,” (in theaters March 5) is based on the true story of endurance horse rider Frank T. Hopkins and moves the 45-year-old actor into the 19th century, but there’s plenty to remind fans of his adventures in Middle-earth. talked to Mortensen about his equine attachments, tackling touchy issues in his new film, and why he isn’t the ”big, fat head” you’ve seen on the movie poster.

Are you only doing horse-riding epics from now on? We’re starting to wonder.
I’ve done lots of different kinds of movies. Remember, I’ve been around for a long time. It is true that, as different as ”Lord of the Rings” and ”Hidalgo” are, these are hero’s journeys. But I also like small movies. One of the best movies I saw last year was ”Whale Rider.” That’s a heroic journey as well, but it’s much more intimate.

Why follow up ”Lord of the Rings” with a movie that has such similar elements?
When I first read ”Hidalgo,” I thought it was a really interesting story. I’d never heard of this guy, but there were a lot of things in the script I knew about, like horses and Native American culture and Buffalo Bill. I’m related to him through my mom’s side of the family, and I had heard stories about him through my family when I was a kid. But more than that I really like this period in history, when America looked beyond its borders to find its place in the world.

Are you feeling the pressure of having your name above the title on this film?
It’s not above the title on the screen, which is where it counts. I personally don’t think the director or the actor should ever be above the title. I like that old-fashioned way of doing movies where it’s the story that counts. But yeah, the poster has the big, fat head picture. But that’s not how the movie was made. It’s not like they had the big, fat head on set every day and wanted you to remember, ”this is the big, fat head movie!” I don’t feel pressure, so maybe I’m in some sort of denial.

This film deals with two groups that Hollywood hasn’t always handled well: Native Americans and Arabs. How do you feel about the way the filmmakers addressed them?
It’s one of those rare things when a Hollywood movie doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of or inadvertently offend or trample on those cultures. It was great that [director] Joe Johnston (”October Sky”) and Disney made the effort to go to South Dakota and [film] the massacre of Wounded Knee with people who were actually descendents of the people who were either killed or survived. They got special permission and did everything right, even having a ceremony where some dirt from the real Wounded Knee site was spread around. The filmmakers make a good effort to reach out, especially to the Native American and Muslim press. They’re conditioned to wonder, ”What horrible thing did Hollywood do this time?” But many of them said they were pleasantly surprised and would recommend it to friends.

You bought some of the horses you worked with on ”Lord of the Rings.” Do you snap up Hidalgo, too?
Yes, I did buy the horse. I thought about buying him all during the shoot. I asked Rex Peterson, who owned him and who had found him, and he said, ”You can have first dibs on him,” and I know he was happy for me to have him. It wasn’t a question of possessing the horse, I just wanted to keep up the relationship with him. He’s unusually intelligent, self-possessed, and calm for a stallion. He’d never been on a movie set, and for him to perform all those tricks and fall down and then stay down while there’s camera crew around was incredible.

There’s an election coming up, and you’ve been very outspoken against Bush’s policies. Any thoughts?
I don’t know if I’m more politically motivated than anyone else, but I have a resistance to just assuming that what I see on TV is the gospel truth. I like to find out as much as I can for myself. I do think that its an important election that has the usual trappings of one-liners and shallow politicking. It’s a pivotal moment in history. I don’t think you have to be of any particular political persuasion to see that the leadership of the United States has been instrumental in making a pretty big mess of a lot of things in a lot of ways. So I think change would be good. What that change should be I don’t know.

You’ve played a king. How about a run for office?
S—, no. There’s enough deceit and bluffing and media manipulation in the movie business. I don’t need to add more.

  • Movie
  • 136 minutes