Watch CBSN Live

From King To Cowboy

Viggo Mortensen has been a working actor for 20 years, but playing Aragon, the man who would be king in "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy, has made him a certified movie star and sex symbol.

Mortensen now has a new epic in theaters, playing a 19th century cavalry rider who enters a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert in "Hidalgo."

The film is based on a true story of a guy named Frank Hopkins, who, Mortensen tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, was a cowboy from South Dakota.

"He was actually born in Wisconsin. And the story takes place in 1890, an interesting point in our country's history," Mortensen says. Hopkins had won a lot of endurance races across the United States.

In "Hidalgo," Mortensen plays Hopkins, who learns to accept his heritage with the help of his partner, Hidalgo, a half-wild Spanish Mustang. Both were invited to enter the Ocean of Fire, a grueling race across punishing terrain of the Arabian Desert. With his competitors vowing victory, the race becomes not only a matter of pride and honor, but a fight for survival.

"He was pretty much unbeatable, and these Arabian gentlemen heard about him, used by Buffalo Bill as a showman thing: 'This is the greatest endurance horse-racing team in the world.' The Arabians said, 'No, we have the best horses and he's going to have to prove it.' So it's kind of a dare," Mortensen explains.

The film has a sort of old-fashioned feel to it. Mortensen notes, "It's true when they say they don't make it like that anymore. It's kind of true. It's not just that it's an old-fashioned, hugely entertaining story, like a 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' story, but it's also about something, without being a message movie."

There are interesting parallels from this story, as a guy who has conflicts in his past that he has to resolve, with his role in 'The Lord of the Rings,' from the standpoint of being born to be something, but having to go through a journey of self discovery and trial in order to get it himself.

Mortensen says, "They are different kinds of people. Obviously, Hopkins hasn't traveled the world like Aragorn has but he has that same attitude which is 'What I don't know about, at least I'm curious, other cultures and so forth. Aragorn and Hidalgo, like "The Lord Of The Rings," after a while it's not whether you get there, whether you win the race or finish. It's really what you're learning along the way about yourself."

As an actor, Mortensen says he enjoyed making the film, especially getting to ride a horse like the one in the film. "He's got some wheels on him," Mortensen says, adding that he ended up buying the mustang he rode the most on the film.

"T.J., who is the one you see most of the time. He's got so much personality; you really get to know him apart from the other actors in the movie."

Some Facts About Viggo Mortensen

  • Viggo Mortensen was born to a Danish father and American mother in New York City on Oct. 20, 1958.
  • Mortensen was raised in Manhattan and South America and fluently speaks Spanish and Danish as well as English.
  • Soon after moving to Los Angeles, Mortensen landed the role of the captain in a stage production of "Bent" and a small role in 1984's CBS miniseries "George Washington."
  • Mortensen made his feature acting debut as an Amish farmer (and younger brother to Alexander Godunov) in 1985's "Witness."
  • In 1988, Mortensen offered a strong turn as a rebellious inmate in Renny Harlin's "Prison."
  • In 1991, the actor was effective as a returning soldier in "The Reflecting Skin."
  • Sean Penn cast Mortensen as a veteran with a violent streak in 1991's "The Indian Runner."
  • In 1993, Brian De Palma gave Mortensen the part of a wheelchair-bound snitch in "Carlito's Way."
  • In 1995, director Tony Scott cast Mortensen to play the concerned, conflicted weapons officer in "Crimson Tide"; and he played the Devil who battles Christopher Walken's angel Gabriel in "The Prophecy."
  • In 1996, Mortensen displayed his charm as one of Nicole Kidman's loyal suitors in "The Portrait of a Lady."
  • In 1997, the actor earned respectful notices for his role in "Albino Alligator"; and a taskmaster training recruits in "G.I. Jane."
  • The actor was cast in 1998 as the artist-lover of Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder"; he also talked the role Sam Loomis, Marion Crane's boyfriend, in Gus Van Sant's remake of "Psycho."
  • In 1999, Mortensen co-starred with Diane Lane in the 1969-set drama "A Walk on the Moon."
  • In 2000, Mortensen co-starred with Sandra Bullock in "28 Days."
  • Viggo Mortensen was cast as Aragorn in 2001's "Lord of the Rings", a role he took on after the movie's creators decided to pass on the previous choice.
  • View CBS News In