By Miki Turner
Page 3 staff

LOS ANGELES -- Viggo Mortensen came into the room bearing gifts and carrying a terracotta cup with some sort of strange metal straw sticking out of it. The gifts: His new self-published photo book on horses and a DVD exploring the relationship between Native Americans and horses.

As for the stuff in the cup, it was some kind of loose-leaf herb tea concoction. He chatted more than he sipped, but it was immediately apparent that the 45-year-old star of "Hildago" (opening nation-wide on March 5) was a thirsty dude.

Viggo Mortensen
Despite the many movie credits to his name, Viggo Mortensen may be best known as Aragorn in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Mortensen, who was born in New York but spent much of his childhood in South America and Scandinavia, thirsts for knowledge. His curiosity about Native American culture and his affinity for horses are two of the reasons he wanted to be involved in "Hildago"-- the true story of cowboy Frank Hopkins, who was part Native American, and his horse Hildago.

A true man of many trades, Mortensen is an accomplished photographer and musician, who writes poetry, paints and even admits to being a New York Mets fan. Mortensen is perhaps best known for his work as Aragorn/Strider in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The third and final installment, "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is the front-runner for best picture in Sunday's Academy Awards.

Mortensen shared his feelings about Oscar and other such awards, horses and his new film during an interview at the St. Regis Hotel.

1. You're quite a renaissance man. Do you see a little of yourself in Frank Hopkins?

Viggo Mortensen: 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 has been like that of this character in this movie. [It] 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. You might not ever come to terms and agree with anything, but you can see that some of yourself -- 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. That's what I got from this film and working on "The Lord of the Rings" -- in the end people are people.

Some are good, some are bad?

Even if they're not people, they're people. Even if they're horses, they're people (laughs).

2. Are you an experienced horseman?

I can ride, and I like horses.

When did you learn to ride?

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 [director] 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 close-up and stay with me or shoot me wide and show me doing things and intercut things without trying to fake things so much.

Is it a little daunting to act opposite a horse or any other animal?

Even if you are an experienced rider, 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, and they sometimes do, go wrong.

3. Did anything go wrong?

I was pretty lucky. I didn't have anything really terrible happen. 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 were 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.

What became of him?

He broke his neck really badly but he recovered and five months later he rejoined us. He was riding again. So I would say that considering how dangerous the things we were doing, I'd say we were really lucky.

4. Your co-star Zuleikha Robinson recounted a near accident involving the two of you on horseback.

That could have really ended badly. 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.

5. You seemed to have bonded with the horse. What was your secret?

Viggo Mortensen
The actor fit right into his latest role as cowboy Frank Hopkins in "Hidalgo."
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.

Sounds like you were lucky. You got a good horse to work with.

TJ -- who plays Hidalgo -- this little horse 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. We 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. 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. 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 [screenwriter] 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.

6. Think your lucky streak will continue at the Academy Awards this weekend? Will the third time be the charm for "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King?"

I've really been racking my brain about it. I've lost sleep over it. Adding up figures and making out figures. I've got the compass out and I've got all the tools I could muster to try and come up with the answer of who's going to win. A crystal ball, everything else. I know this may be reaching, it may be a crazy thing to say, but whoever gets the most votes is going to win. I don't know, is that weird to say that? That's what I think (laughs).

So you're not interested at all?

I'm not into comparing movies or performances. In principle, I think the idea of rewarding a good effort is interesting, but movies are generally different from each other as are performances and the conditions on how the performances are given and how they're edited and so forth. I don't invest a lot of time in even thinking about it. I don't relate it to what I'm doing for a living. I understand it's a whole satellite business that's not directly in my opinion connected to movie-making or art. It's a nice thing I guess and I certainly wish everyone luck who was nominated on my team. But it certainly doesn't validate or invalidate the "Lord of the Rings" or Peter Jackson if it wins or loses any of the 11 nominations it has. It doesn't really matter to me.

7. What does matter?

The reward was I know a great effort was made by everyone. Peter did his best with this material and obviously audiences have embraced this material to the tune of billions of dollars by going and seeing it again and again and becoming mildly obsessed with it. I don't know how much more reward or validation you need. It's not going to matter one way or the other. Obviously, those who are nominated are anxious about it. I'm not worried about it. You have people voting. It's like the lottery or something. I mean, there's this arbitrary thing where there's five nominees, there's hundreds of performances every year. I don't know who votes for what. Seriously, I was making a long-winded joke, but all you can say is whoever gets the most vote wins.

Does it bother you that none of the actors from the film got a nomination?

Cast of LOTR at SAG awards
The blockbuster trilogy's final instalment, "The Return of the King," was a big winner a the SAG Awards. Could this be a sign for future Oscar gold?
The Academy is a bunch of individuals. It's not like this one brain making all these decisions. It's just a crap shoot really. I know Peter has been asked and I heard he expressed dismay that Sean Astin hadn't been nominated and there were 20 some odd people in principle roles. Who knows? I'm the worst person you can ask about this because I don't take it personally. In fact, I don't take it at all unless I'm asked. I don't think about it much. You can't deny it's a part of the business and it is big business. If you get nominated and then if you win, it means millions of dollars for a studio and to actors and directors. It's a big business deal to be included in that party and obviously some people do all they can to get there. They'll spend millions to get millions. It's a business. It's not why I got into it, let's put it that way.

8. Why did you get into acting?

It was one of those things I was curious about. At a certain point in my life, I made a transition. I don't know how or when but [it came] from just looking and being entertained by movies. I still go for those reasons. I like to be taken on a journey and either you believe it or not and like it or not. At some point, I started wondering how it was done. How do you create an illusion that seems so real or the feelings are so strong and so believable? I was just curious. Like anything, because I got some encouragement from the beginning, I stuck with it. Or else I wouldn't have.

9. How did you make Hopkins such a real character?

A lot of it has to do with the way 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. 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. What I like about Joe is that in telling the story, 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 made 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. That kind of straight-ahead, no-frills approach to filmmaking is one that's refreshing 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.

What about the cowboy factor?

People have commented as I've been answering questions about this movie, whether it be white Americans, Muslims, Native Americans in cities, small towns or rural areas. People have been pleasantly surprised that the 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. They see the poster, they see the trailer and they go "OK, I know what I'm going to see now" and they come out of it going "Well, hey that's actually kind of alright." That also does it for the cowboy. 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.

10. How did you perfect the Indian dialect in Hidalgo?

If you have an interest in it, like if you like working with horses it's easier working with them. I like languages. I'm interested in them and I got a lot of help. There were two individuals who helped. First, a medicine man from South Dakota who was the guy in the wagon at the end. He's the one who helped me with the language. And David Midthunder, who plays Black Coyote, lives in California and he's Lakota. He not only helped me with the pronunciation and the singing, but he also told me a lot of things. I got a lot of help and by visiting there and feeling welcomed. Also, before starting shooting I went up in the hills. And if you just pay attention, it makes it easier to learn. The Indian culture is something I've been interested in a long time before starting this movie. 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.

Miki Turner is a day and night laborer in L.A. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com