Viggo, is there a draft in here?
Viggo Mortensen, the actor who became a household name after he played kingly, sword-wielding Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is generating buzz again - this time for what he's not wearing in Eastern Promises. The movie opened Friday.
Mortensen is nude in a dramatic fight scene that has become the talk of his fans and movie Web sites. The four-minute battle, in which Mortensen sports nothing but tattoos, is among the most violent in this or any other movie of the year. And it represents one of the few times in mainstream film when major male characters are shown fully nude, particularly in fight scenes.
"It took all of about eight seconds to decide that the scene had to be done naked," Mortensen explained during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, where his bare fight also was the subject of chatter.
Eastern Promises is the actor's second collaboration with director David Cronenberg, a specialist in dark violence in the world of arty movies. The first was 2005's A History of Violence, his best role up until now, as an everyday guy who had a violent past he tried to hide.
In Eastern Promises, Mortensen portrays Nikolai, a mysterious Russian who is the driver and undertaker for the Russian underground criminal cartel in shady, lowlife London. In one scene, he uses a hair dryer to defrost a dead body before he cuts off its fingers.
But that gruesome scene is overshadowed by the fight, in which Nikolai is confronted in a steam house by two clothed assailants.
"There had to be that vulnerability, and, yes, I think it comes across," Mortensen said. "I was definitely vulnerable, but I trusted David. David gets a bum rap with talk about his movies being violent. To the contrary, I think the last thing he would condone would be gratuitous violence. If anything, Eastern Promises is about compassion. The Russian underground has a code of ethics. They are criminals, but they are family."
He's grateful to Cronenberg for getting the scene done in two days. It was originally choreographed to take six.
"I knew it would be physically rough," Mortensen said. "There's two big guys in leather jackets and knives, and I'm naked. Yeah, it felt pretty awkward and dangerous, but that's what the scene required. For obvious reasons, I couldn't wear pads, and, just as obviously, I wasn't going to let a stunt guy move in there. I was facing death, and it wasn't going to be in a long shot."
"And," he added, "I wasn't going to have anyone worry about camera angles or quick editing."
The makeup people had to come in after every shot and cover his bruises. The setting was on a hard, tile floor, and his two co-stars were instructed not to take it easy.
"On the morning we were to do the scene, I woke up with a bad back," he said. "I knew I was going to hurt with all the blocks and throws. But, in a way, it was payback for the stairs scene in A History of Violence where Maria Bello took a bad pounding on those wooden stairs. I got paid back and then some." (In the earlier film, he and Bello made ferocious love on a staircase.)
Recent headlines include "Is it Hot in Here, Or is it just Viggo?" from Newsweek magazine, and "Viggo Mortensen digs into naked emotional turf" from the New York Daily News.
His co-star, blond Naomi Watts, said, "I think this scene is a memorable moment that will go down in cinema history. You just can't believe the intensity of it."
Many women around the world have had an itch to strip Mortensen naked since he played the travelling man who seduced a housewife played by Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon in 1999. On film, he has also wooed Nicole Kidman (The Portrait of a Lady, 1996) and Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder, 1998).
A woman who runs the Viggophile.net fan site told Newsweek, "I don't want to give the impression that we're all sex-crazed middle-age women, but we are quite looking forward to that scene."
Off screen, Mortensen is shy, introspective and the single father of his teenage son, Henry, whom he calls his best friend. He's a poet, artist, photographer and writer, and he is more apt to quote Immanuel Kant or Joseph Campbell than any film producer.
He doesn't deny he once said that it wouldn't bother him if he never made another movie. "There are so many other things to do," he said, "but the movies make the other things possible."
His father was a Danish farmer who met his American mother in Norway. He was born in New York City but grew up in Venezuela and Argentina, where his father managed chicken farms and ranches. After a divorce, his mother moved him and his two younger brothers back to New York.
He went to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and got a degree in Spanish and government. After graduation, he lived in Denmark and concentrated on writing poetry and short stories. He was published as a poet before he was known as an actor and has had both his art and photography exhibited in galleries from Los Angeles to Denmark.
He owns the publishing company Perceval Press, devoted to publishing new writers. Before fame, though, he worked as a dock worker and a flower seller. He also worked as a translator for the Swedish hockey team during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
After three years of acting classes and theatre work, he made his film debut with a small part as an Amish farmer in Witness (1985 with Harrison Ford). He married Exene Cervenka, the singer with the punk band X. The marriage lasted 11 years.
He nearly turned down the role in The Lord of the Rings because it meant living in New Zealand for two years, away from his son. His son, though, was a big fan of the books and persuaded his father, finally, to take the role.
An avid horseman, he bought the movie horses he worked with on both The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo (2004) and asked for more riding scenes in both films.
He speaks fluent Spanish, French and Danish but had to learn Russian for his role in Eastern Promises, a side challenge that he says "was one of the best things about this job.
"After months of studying the language, I went to Russia to brush up on it. I wanted to be sure that I spoke Russian with a British accent. There is a difference. The studio gave me a ticket from London to Moscow, but I had to pay for the rest of the trip myself. I believe in research."
The Spanish epic Alatriste, already a hit in Europe, awaits a U.S. release this year. Just finished is his starring role in Good, a drama about the rise of national socialism in Germany. He'll begin shooting Appaloosa, a Western with Renee Zellweger, in two weeks. It is likely that he will be fully, or at least partially, clothed for most of it, but he said, "Whatever the part requires will be provided. I'm not going to compromise in any way."