Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
For this week’s Seasoned Ticket, I planned to dig up an interview I did with then-little-known Emily Blunt in 2004, when she came to the Seattle International Film Festival with Pawel Pawlikowski to promote their film My Summer of Love. The director went on to win an Oscar for Ida, and his film Cold War will be Oscar-nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film. Blunt, of course, went on to become an international star, and is everywhere this week (and delightfully so) in Mary Poppins Returns.
I remember the interview being a good one, including the part where Emily Blunt fixed my tape recorder, which I couldn’t figure out how to do. A fine actress, and also handy.
However, I can’t find the interview, so forget that. Instead, I found an interview I did with Viggo Mortensen, currently starring (and, it must be said, delightfully so) in Green Book, where the actor is transformed into a beefy goombah from the early 1960s. It’s a terrific comic performance in a film that was always destined to be widely debated for its racial politics. But Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are splendid.
Anyway. I talked to Mortensen in 2004 for the release of his post-LOTR starring vehicle, Hidalgo, a movie that should have been a hit but, curiously, wasn’t. The actor proved as thoughtful as rumored, and I share some of those thoughts in the interview below—an interview that concludes with a citation from the Mr. Ed theme song.
Viggo Mortensen interview
Viggo Mortensen has been working in films since 1985 (he was one of the Amish in Witness), and for a decade and a half he had decent supporting roles and interesting performances without ever quite breaking through. That changed when he replaced another actor in a movie shooting in New Zealand, and rode the role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings to worldwide fame.
Perhaps that’s why when he came to a Seattle hotel room for a roundtable press junket recently, he looked as though he hadn’t caught up to his stardom yet. Sincere and uninflected in his delivery, Mortensen doesn’t really fill a room—although his style draws people toward him, which may be the key to his appeal.
Dressed casually in a green checked shirt, sipping tea through a metal straw from a leather cup, the actor proved himself more talkative than many of his onscreen roles. He’s also fully aware of how The Lord of the Rings has changed him—or at least changed the way the world looks at him.
“It’s like anything in life,” he said of the glare of publicity. “It’s more about your attitude toward it than the actual thing itself. To get an inordinate amount of attention, as I and everyone involved in Lord of the Rings has…I don’t know, I guess you make the most of it and keep in mind that it’s something that’s not going to be the case forever.
“I don’t go out of my way to try to get more attention. I’ve gotten enough attention for several lifetimes, certainly, in the last year. And with the groundswell that I’m feeling for Hidalgo, it’s probably not gonna end soon. But it will.”
Hidalgo is the first movie that really requires Viggo Mortensen to carry it, to be a star as well as an actor. He looked at the poster for the film, with his face looming Mount Rushmore-like over everything else, and seemed amused. “These categories of lead actor, supporting actor, movie star, character actor—all those things, they’re labels that don’t ring that true to me. I mean, a good actor is always a supporting actor….you’re supporting the story and you’re supporting the other people that you’re working with. That’s your job, you know.
“If you start buying it, really believing this sort of hype and attention, where you happiness or contentment is dependent on that level of attention continuing, then you’re going to be in for a rude awakening at some point. And you’re also getting farther from what got you there in the first place, which is the work. The process of telling a story or doing a job. That’s what counts, and you gotta keep your eye on that ball, I think.”
Mortensen seemed keenly aware of the power of a big movie to reach people. “You could make a documentary,” he said, “that involves the Lakota, and their horses, and Arabs, and it might not be seen by millions of people, which there’s a chance this movie will be.
“The vehicle, the chassis, is reminiscent of old movies, the good old movies, western or otherwise—there’s adventure, there’s a fair amount of excitement. But inside that chassis are a lot of other more profound and thought-provoking concepts or values that you can take with you. It’s good to have a movie told that way, and it’s also respectful to the audience.”
With almost every answer he gave, Mortensen, who is also an author and visual artist, expanded his thoughts to some larger perspective. (Maybe that’s what makes him the king.) He mused on the themes that kept him intrigued by a project such as Hidalgo. “In some ways,” he said, “Hidalgo goes to another place, beyond storytelling. It goes to the idea that people are people, simply, and that it’s worthwhile to look for common ground with others, especially those that seem different.
“I think that we’re just as connected to Chinese, or Iraqi, or Argentine people, or Canadians from New Brunswick, as we are to the people that we know…it’s up to use to figure that out if we want to. But you’re not gonna learn a lot unless you make some consistent effort to learn.”
On an earthier subject, Mortensen spoke with affection of the movie’s Hidalgo—his horse, with whom he developed a strong relationship (one that has continued since the movie ended). “When I was a boy, I rode quite a bit, and obviously on Lord of the Rings I got to revisit that. On Hidalgo, I was basically on a horse every day.”
The horse develops far more personality than Seabiscuit. “His reactions were uncanny,” said Mortensen. “As long as you keep the camera on him, he’s gonna do stuff constantly. But it’s not Mr. Ed….there’s no animatronics, or digital ways of tricking you—we’re not imposing human traits on the horse. A horse is a horse.”
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.