Viggo Mortensen, best known for his roles as Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo and Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, may or may not be the hottest actor ever. Why you ask? Because he loves horses of course! He not only rides and is a fierce advocate for horse welfare, most notably wild mustangs, but he’s also published a book of horse photographs titled The Horse is Good.
In an interview with AMC TV, Viggo made these comments about working with horses.
As far as getting along with the horse, the same rules apply anywhere, with any horse, to some degree. Every horse is different, and even the same horse is different on any given day. But if you show them a certain respect, and you don’t try to force them to do things, you end up getting better results, and –on a practical level–it will make shooting a movie that requires you to actually be riding a horse easier. If the horse is more relaxed, you can get better shots,” he explained.
I had ridden when I was a boy, but I never really rode much again until, well, I had a supporting part in Young Guns II, which was shot in Arizona and New Mexico about 12 or 13 years ago, in which I got to ride a little bit. In The Lord of the Rings, of course, I got to ride a little bit in the second and third parts of the trilogy. But it wasn’t until Hidalgo that I got to ride every day.
A large part of the preparation–beyond trying to get historically into what that period was, and learning more about the Lakota culture, language and traditions–was to ride as much as I could, to get comfortable with the particular horse that I’d be riding, and just to get back in shape–get my balance back. I think you have a physical memory of things you learn when you are a child. Sometimes, just by refreshing it, you can regain most of what you knew, although, as an adult, I am warier. I remember, as a boy, just tearing off across the field, bareback, without checking for holes or anthills or anything. As an adult you’re a little more brittle, and you can think ahead about the consequences, so if the horse starts swirling around, or not responding to you when you’re riding bareback at full speed, it’s scarier, whereas, if you’re a kid, you’re just exhilarated.
I also found that I still liked horses, which made the job a lot easier. If you like your job and you like your partner, it’s going to make the job easier, and it’s probably going to give the director better material. It certainly did give Joe Johnston the opportunity to film me as close as he wanted to, and without cutting if he so chose, because I could ride and could do the stunts, and so forth.
In another interview with IGN, Viggo recounts how he bonded with his horses on set and eventually bought three after filming ended.
Hidalgo also required Mortensen to spend an inordinate amount of time upon a horse, almost more than he spent during the filming of LotR. The film utilized upwards of five different horses to reprise the role of the titular Hidalgo. But it was with the main horse, T.J., that Mortensen developed a lasting bond. In fact, the bond was so strong that Mortensen actually purchased T.J. after the filming concluded. This was not the first time that Mortensen has purchased one of his co-stars, however.
“I bought the two horses I rode in Lord of the Rings, as well,” he reveals. “I bought the one in Lord of the Rings ’cause I had–even though I wasn’t with him all the time, I just developed a real good friendship with him. His name is Eurayus. He kind of came into the movie similar to the way I did. You know, didn’t have much preparation and was just thrown in and had to swim, basically. And it was rough on him and it took awhile for us to kind of get in sync and for him to be comfortable around the set. So we got to be close and I wanted to stay in touch with him. And, you know, by the end he became almost a real ham. He became so good at it that he was just relaxed and happy. He had been a performing horse, but an equestrian competition horse. So the cameras, lights, and some of the things we had to do… and also the gear. I mean the saddle and chainmail and all that stuff, the battles. So we got through it together and became friends. That was that story.
“And then there’s another horse named Kenny that I ride in the beginning of The Two Towers. He’s a chestnut brown-colored horse. And he was just pretty and again it was a situation where we were shooting and they didn’t have the right horse and I said, ‘Lemme just borrow that one,’ and I pointed to one of the wranglers who was riding him. So I just jumped on him, put a Rohan saddle on him and I rode him that day, immediately on camera. But he was very easy and relaxed and I just wanted Eurayus to have a buddy.”
As for T.J.?
“I had no intention of buying a horse off of this movie. But with T.J. he was… I don’t know, I just got to really, really like him. He’s got such a unique, strong personality. He’s a very small horse, you know, technically he’s a pony. I mean he’s about 14.2 hands. And 14.3 and up is a horse and [anything] below [that] is a pony, technically. He’s a small horse, but very intelligent, very quick learner, for a stallion very relaxed on the set. He wasn’t afraid or worried about the lights, camera, or anything. He was totally calm. You know that comic strip Andy Capp? That guy with his hat? I just think of him like that. He would just be there like, ‘Whatever.’
And you see that kind of thing from him a lot. He just did uncanny things. His reactions were consistently appropriate, whether it was displaying jealousy or possessiveness or being the conscience or being like, ‘C’mon, let’s go’ or being annoyed. Do you know what I mean? His expressions were very vivid. I mean you can see it in the film. And you can see that it’s not a Mr. Ed or a faked animal story. I didn’t know that T.J. would be so into it, you know consistently coming up with stuff. First you think it’s coincidence and then you realize, ‘Wait a minute!’ In rehearsal he’s just all over [the place] like a horse, distracted, but as soon as you say, ‘Action,’ he’s like in there, watching people back and forth, rolling his eyes, whatever. It was pretty uncanny. But we saw it. On film you see it, too. And there’s a lot of stuff he did that we might not have caught or just wasn’t included. Everyday he was doing stuff. It adds a lot, I think, to the story. The story would have been good anyway and you could have filmed it some way to get enough to where you think, ‘OK, the horse has his own kind of view. That’s nice.’ But not to the extent that you get that in this movie. And a lot of that has to do with the horse himself, just our good luck of having him as that character.
And it’s amazing to me, he picked up all these tricks and did all these things. Even the acting of being really fried and then falling down, a lot of horses wouldn’t just fall like a sack of potatoes, they would go down slowly and protect themselves. And then once down, once you’re fussing around and there’s cameras and this and that and there’s a gun and there’s all this movement, they wouldn’t stay there, you know what I mean? And for a stallion on top of that, they’re just gonna be more touchy. And a stallion who has never worked in the movies before. It’s incredible what he did. I mean we were really lucky there. It could have been a lot harder.”
Awwww! Viggo loves his ponies! Here’s a behind the scenes look on the set of Lord of the Rings.
Still not quite a Viggo-maniac? Well, how many A-list actors do you know that will let a horse give them a good solid, sweaty, hairy, bridled head rub?
Or share their oatmeal with a mini?
Like I said… Hottest. Actor. Ever.