An interview with actor Viggo Mortensen and writer John Fusco about their new film Hidalgo
- Viggo Mortensen (Texas Chainsaw III: The Saw is Family) -
O: Good morning.
O: So, you’re not supposed to work with children or animals…
Viggo: People have said that, but I’ve never had a problem. In the last twenty years I’ve worked with babies, and infants, and adolescents, and dogs, and cats. Horses. I don’t think that statement's true. It’s like human actors. The more interesting they are, they more interesting the interaction can be. If you’re open to them. If you resist, and you’re jealous of their abilities and their presence, then you might have a problem.
O: Did you pursue this role, or did they come to you?
Viggo: I didn’t know about it. No. I was approached. The Fellowship of the Ring had just come out, and it was a hit. So, I assume that had something to do with it. Actually, that had everything to do with the studio thinking I was a worthwhile gamble. I’m not sure what movie director Joe Johnson had seen. I don’t think he had seen The Lord of the Rings. I think he saw something else. I can’t remember what he said it was.
O: Have you always been a horse rider?
Viggo: When I was a boy, I rode a lot. In Argentina. Then I didn’t until I was in my twenties. I had moved away from that. There were a couple of times when I was around horses, and I might have jumped on two or three times. But I didn’t really ride on a regular basis. In Young Guns 2, I had a small stint on that. I got to ride a horse there. Then, again, with Lord of the Rings. But not a lot.
O: Did you train for this role?
Viggo: Yeah. I had too. That was the main part of my preparation. Apart from what I did on my own, I studied the historical period. How to walk right. I already had an interest in Native American Culture. It was important for me too see the film in Lakota as well as in English. I made that effort. What I spent most of my time being was on horseback.
O: Did you have a stunt double?
Viggo: Yeah. Well, you have to have a stunt double. I had this guy, Mike Watson. He doubled for me. And he would always show me stuff before I would do it. With a few exceptions, I pretty much got to do most of it. You can see that on film, obviously. It’s nice for the director. It doesn’t always happen, but I had a horse background. I was a horse person, so it made it a fairly safe gamble to let me do those things. I mean, it’s always dangerous, even if you’re a good rider. Something can always go wrong. But to not have to cut away. To be able to do a close-up on someone during something that’s obviously dangerous is nice. It’s an extra thing for the director. Just like having a horse like we had in TJ. He had a lot of presence, and he was calm on set. You get a real personality from this horse. You get a performance that you might not get on another movie. It’s not animatronics. Here, it’s just a horse being a horse.
O: Did you really sleep on the floor of a reservation?
Viggo: No, they had beds. I don’t know what night you’re talking about. I’ve been up there several times. That was one of the many things that interested me about this project. Learning about the Native American tribes. Especially the Lakota. I’ve been interested in them for a long time. When we played cowboys and Indians as a kid, I always wanted to be the Indian. Here, I get to be both. The first time I went through the Pine Ridge area, I went across the border to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where Crazy Horse was killed. And I went to the museums. I’m interested because I am Lakota on my mom’s side. I went to that part of the country to study those tribes. I had a real respect for them. I went up there to meet Sonny Richards, a Medicine Man that taught me what I had to speak. And I met a lot of other people. Gradually, they let me in when they saw I was not meaning any harm and that I was being respectful. I got to ride with them before the shoot, and I got to go into the hills. After the shoot, I went back and did part of the Big Foot ride. Now, I have friendships. I think they were taken with the fact that a big studio took that effort, especially when they could have shot in California with whomever, with Mexicans or Californian Indians. No, they went up there and shot with the Lakota people. A lot of the extras were descendants of people that had been shot or survived the actual massacre at Wounded Knee. Everything was done with a ceremony or ritual. Everything was done with care.
O: You sang, once again, in this. Was that your own composition?
JF: No. That was a song that belongs to a Medicine Man that passed away. His name was Fool’s Crow. He was very famous. Frank Fool’s Crow. The title of the song means, “It is I.” That song was perfect for that sequence, because it’s a moment where you’re done, really. And I’m saying, “Here I am. Please tell me what you want. Thy will be done.” That sort of thing. The tribe asked for permission to do that particular dance and that song. Not that they couldn’t have done it otherwise. But it was done in the right way. And they taught me how. Those guys would do that all day long. At the end, their voice would be really raspy. I like that Joe Johnston didn’t fix that in Post Production. He just let it be.
O: What fascinates you about this time period?
JF: Many things. Those that I’ve mentioned, about the two different cultures. I think America, as a group of people, as a nation, in the end of that century…It’s ten years or less before the Spanish-American War, and all that. It’s when the United States has reached both oceans. They’ve taken what they could from Mexico, and now they’re starting to look outside their borders at the rest of the world to see what their place is. For better or for worse, that was the beginning of this period, where America became this super power, and it expanded. It’s an interesting period, and interesting to have that in a big Hollywood movie. We have an archetype that goes overseas during that period of time. And he goes to a place he doesn’t know much about. Fortunately, in this story, it’s not a man that goes to spread Americanism. Or something. He goes on an invitation. Not that everyone welcomes him, as you can see in the story. But he goes with an open mind. What ever he’s ignorant about, that’s a lot. How could he know anything about that world? It’s a different world. But what he lacks in information, at least he makes up for it by being somewhat curious about it. He’s interested in it. People have said, without making a big deal about it, that the Indian culture and the Arab culture is treated with some respect in this story. Cowboys are too. I like that about this story.
O: Did you instantly bond with the horse?
Viggo: No. He had a strong personality. When he was little, he ate more than the other horses. And he thought he was big. TJ was very smart. And kind of lazy. He was good at getting out of work. He knew how to pretend he couldn’t hear you. Or didn’t learn how to do a certain thing. He had a definite personality, and I thought, “Wow, this is going to be a little bit of a choir.” But that made it interesting, and we got to know each other. He’s a smart animal. You’re not going to be able to lie to them, or force them to do things for very long, successfully. You have to earn their trust and their respect. You have to ask nicely.
O: You bought the horse?
O: So, you’ve entered a new phase here. Your name’s the only one on the front of the poster.
Viggo: That’s marketing. That poster certainly wasn’t hanging in the lunch tent everyday in the Sahara desert. It’s not like they said, “Don’t forget we’re making the Big Fat Head poster movie.” You know? This is just the way a movie’s sold. And I understand that. A lot of people know and love Omar Sharif, including myself. But because Lord of the Rings has done so well, this is what we have. But that’s not the way the movie was made. This was as much an ensemble piece, in many ways, as Lord of the Rings. And I think that a largely unknown cast is going to get a lot of work from this. Pretty unanimously, people across the country have warmed to the idea of this journey.
O: Did a lot of stuff get cut out of this movie?
Viggo: There was quite a bit. But I think what Joe did was in keeping with the way he shot the movie. Very streamlined, very straight ahead. It’s like old fashion moviemaking. Nuts and bolts, don’t mess around, and be respectful in that sense. Let the audience decide for themselves.
O: What’s next for you?
Viggo: Ugh, I don’t know. I’m doing this every day for the next couple of months. It’s hard to thing about anything else. I haven’t had time to read anything.
- John Fusco (Young Guns, Thunderheart, The Babe) -
O: Where does your interest in the main character stem from?
JF: My interest in Frank Hopkins? Twelve years ago, when I was on the Pine Ridge Reservation for Thunderheart, I was dong research into Native American horses that had come into extinction. I was tracing certain Lakota bloodlines, and it became an obsession. I was interviewing an elder, Chief Fool’s Crow, who was the ceremonial chief. He was 103 years old. I was getting his information on the history of Lakota horses. He told me the story of Hidalgo and Frank Hopkins. I just remember thinking, “Wow!” Because of the research into horses, this story was fascinating. But as a screenwriter, I thought, “This is an incredible movie.” I wasn’t sure if it was going to be Lakota legion; just oral history. I started looking into horse history books and came across the actual story of this half-breed endurance horseman and his painted mustang Hidalgo. I wasn’t really sure if I was going to do the movie at that point. I was intrigued enough to start collecting the materials. There are 72 years of writings about him and about the race. But not a whole lot of information. We only know so much about him. I finally told my wife, “I’m going to do Hidalgo. It’s been calling as the thing I want to do.” She said, “So, you’ve got to go in, you’ve got a horse, you’ve got three thousand miles of sand…What the Hell are you going to do with it all?” We had little signposts from Frank’s letters. We knew what he fed his horse. And about different sandstorms along the way. But there was this vast canvass. There was a lot of latitude for me to work with.
O: Where does your fascination with Native American culture come from?
JF: I grew up in the unlikely place of Connecticut. The Eastern Woodlands. It was semi-rural where I grew up. I was fascinated by the Piqua and the Mohegan Indians of that area. The interest came out of my love for wild life and nature. I started reading up on a lot of Native American philosophy. It just spoke to me in such away, it transcended into a spiritual belief at such a young age. It has influenced my life in many ways.
O: You were adopted by a tribe?
JF: Yes. This goes back to the same time I was with Grandpa Fool’s Crow. He became my grandfather in a hookah, a making of relatives, ceremony. I was there for a long stretch of time. Five years on and off, while I was researching Thunderheart. I got involved in the politics of Pine Ridge and the unsolved murders there. I was told by the local people that I needed to have Grandpa Fool’s Crow’s permission and blessing if I was going to go deep into this thing. We became good friends, and I won his trust by learning the language. I studied the language until I got to the point where I could speak with him. He spoke very little English. He liked that this white boy had learned the Lakota language, and could come and talk to him. He would tell his stories and his history, when we did the sweat lodges and the ceremonies. Some people thought, you know, I’m just this guy walking around the reservation saying I was going to do a movie there. Then, one day, I show up with camera trucks and two hundred people. We shot the movie, employing a lot of people on the Reservation. Fool’s Crow, unfortunately, passed away just prior to shooting that. But, his extended family on the Reservation invited me to a ceremony in the Porcupine District of Pine Ridge, and they did an official “making-of-relatives” ceremony, where I was adopted into a family and into the tribe. I was then given certification papers by the tribal president. It was a real honor. They did it after the film had come out. And they had really strong, positive feelings about it.
O: What are your feelings toward the Indian Gaming Reservations?
JF: That’s such a hot potato. There’s a real bifurcation amongst all the tribes. There are just so many gray areas. It does bring money into the tribe. But, more and more we’re learning that money is only going to so many people up the ladder. The grassroots people aren’t really reaping the benefits. Time or Newsweek did an expose recently. It continues to be a real topic. It’s galvanized a lot stuff going on in Indian country. It’s a tough one.
O: How do you feel about the similarities between the opening moments of Hidalgo and the opening moments of The Last Samurai? They’re identical.
JF: I didn’t see The Last Samurai. I read a review. But when I read that, I would have to say I was really disturbed.
O: Does it seem like a rip-off? You were around first…
JF: Yeah, my script was around for many years. But that’s not to suggest anything. I called everybody involved with this movie and said, “Red alert!” You know? “What is this?” It tends to happen. But the first act? I was like, “What’s up? This is my guy.” Of course, that comes from Hopkins story.
O: I’ve read that Hopkins was eager to work with Buffalo Bill. In your movie, he’s a little apprehensive. Why is that?
JF: Well, everybody wanted to work with Buffalo Bill. But that was because there was nowhere else to go. The real west was done. The whole life they knew was over. There was one letter from Sitting Bull where he talks about, “He’s my best friend. He’s such a kind and generous man.” Then you read another letter, and he says, “This is terrible. We were paraded around England like we were a couple of monkeys.” So, there was a real ambivalence there.
O: What about your Femme Fetal being British. Was that a political statement on your part?
JF: No. That came from the studying of Arabian horse breeding. Again, this is touchy because she comes from the descendants of Lord Byron. They are very touchy about this stuff too. There were certain women like Lady Blunt and Lady Wentworth, who were British and traveled and lived with certain cultures. And they just went native in order to pursue the obsession of the true Arabian bloodline. She’s just a fascinating character. She just lives for Arabian horses. Frank is racing against Arabian horses, and she’s someone whose life depends on winning this race. And this son of a bitch just won’t die.
O: Were there actual incidents where people died in the race? Was there sabotage? Was it a no-rules situation?
JF: Hopkins said that Endurance Racing rules weren’t made to order. His accounts of certain extreme endurance races were illegal. These were done on the QT. The SPCA at the time cracked down hard on these races because a lot of horses were left dead in ditches. So, I have accounts were people were shooting at the horses. I don’t have a lot of details, you just have to imagine 1890s Arabia, and the passions of horsemen, and how high horse passions run. They were out there in pretty primitive conditions.
O: I heard the horse that was actually out there was named Joe.
JF: No. Joe was one of Frank’s horses. He raced Joe from Texas to Vermont. Frank did not race Joe over there. He chose Hidalgo. He had his own stream of horses. In fact, we believe there are still descendants of that stream in Blackjack, Oklahoma. I’ve been involved with a documentary about that. Joe was a buckskin, and one of his favorites. Frank rode him in the 18 hundred-mile race from Texas to Vermont in 1886.
O: When you say a Buckskin, what do you mean by that?
JF: That’s a horse from the Done Factory. That means he’s basically a done horse.
O: And Hidalgo was a painted mustang?
JF: He was a Spanish Mustang Pinto.
O: How old would Hidalgo have been around then?
JF: He was 8 years old.
O: Is that old for an endurance horse?
JF: No. Not at all. My best horses that I have now are 22 and 24 years old. In fact, Hopkins, in his writing, used to always say, “Give me a lazy 22 year old horse, and I’ll win that race. Because that horse isn’t going to try and kill himself. He isn’t going to get all worked up by the colts running past him. He’s going to know what he can do. He is going to listen to me, and we’re going to have a relationship. And in the end, we’re going to win it.”
O: When did Hopkins die?
JF: In 1941.
O: Did you get a chance to talk to any of his relatives?
JF: There are none. He left his widow Gertrude. She was 32 years younger than him. He met her through Ringling Brothers.
O: How true is it that Hopkins purchased all those horses, like at the end of the movie, and set them free?
JF: One of his goals was to buy as many of these horses from slaughter programs as he could, and prove their merits by winning endurance races. It still goes on today. I bought registry. We’re still up against it because there’s prejudice against their size. They’re considered a rare breed. They're considered to be the Spanish Mustang. They’re descendants of the horses that first came to North America. But still, the way to prove their merits and keep them preserved is to prove them in the endurance fields, which is where they dominate. This has created a feud between the Arabian horse community and the Mustang community. I mean, it is bloody. I love Arabian horses, they are amazing. But they have a real sense of superiority.
O: Were you on the set?
JF: For all the US stuff. I was unable to go to Morocco. We shot in South Dakota, Montana, Nevada, California. In South Dakota, we shot right near Wounded Knee. One of the exciting things about that, because of my relationship there on Pine Ridge, we got actual descendants of Wounded Knee massacre survivors to come out and play Ghost Dancers. And with the 7th Calvary actors, we had actual descendants of soldiers that were in that. Things were really tense. We had to keep the two camps far apart. Before and during shooting. I was down there with the Lakota. It was a reunion for me in many ways. Some of the people were really upset. Some of the old women sat there, looking up at the soldiers, chanting to their great grandmothers. One of these ladies crawled all the way to the Badlands with a bullet in her head. These old women had lost their uncles…
O: You’re lucky they didn’t curse the movie.
JF: We had a medicine man from Pine Ridge do a ceremony before filming.
O: I noticed some Lakota sayings being spoken by Viggo when he talks to the horse…
JF: He does speak Lakota throughout. He says little things. In his preparation, one of the things he did when he was cast was call me and ask who I knew on the Pine Ridge reservation. And could he go there. I hooked him up with a traditional family full of Lakota horsemen. He went and slept on their floor on the res. And he lived with them. And he learned Lakota horsemen technique. And he did a ride to Wounded Knee; to the massacre sight. One of the things he was really interested in was Lakota horse commands. He felt this would have come back from Frank’s childhood. When he learned to ride; so he uses these little words for stop and go.
O: So he learned the language from these people?
JF: He did. In a short time, I was amazed. And, of course, the Lakota people really appreciate it when a non-Indian takes the time to learn it because so few of their children today speak the language. I had a woman; Nelly Two Bulls was a teacher at the reservation and she brought me into a Lakota language class. She introduced me to the class and she said, “Speak Lakota to them.” So I started speaking it. They all just kind of looked at me. And she said, “So, are you embarrassed now? He’s not from our Culture but he’s taken the time to study it so he could speak to our elders. We’ve got to preserve it.” When they heard Viggo, I loved seeing the reactions. They were so excited. He has perfect inflection.
O: Did you keep any of the horses after filming?
JF: Yes, Oscar. I took him home.
O: I heard Oscar was mean.
JF: Who said that? He does have a little edge. They don’t tell you that when you’re writing the check. I brought him home, and he was the jumping horse. He did a lot of the jumps in the film. I told my son’s horse trainer that, and she said “Can I play with him for a little bit?” She thought he was really good, so she said, “Do you mind if I take him out to a few shows?” We were away for a couple of weeks. We came home, and there were blue ribbons all across the front of the barn. And he’s been winning in unlikely events.
O: What happened to the other three horses?
JF: Viggo took TJ, the main horse that played Hidalgo. I have Oscar in D.C., and RJ, I believe, is still in France.
O: What’s next for you?
JF: There are no horses in it. Actually, it’s a transition from the horse to a V8 Ford. It’s a Western Gangster film based on a true story.
O: Is it on a reservation?
JF: No. It’s not on a reservation. It’s in Texas. In 1934, the Great Depression.
O: Can you give me the tile?
JF: I can’t do that…
(I later found out it’s a movie about Bonny & Clyde seen through the eyes of the Sheriff that hunts them down.)
Dont't forget to also check out: Hidalgo