By Jordan Riefe
I'm not critical. I never judge the characters I play. Viggo Mortensen battled Orcs, so we're pretty sure he can do anything. His performance in his first team-up with director David Cronenberg in A History of Violence was a stand-out. Now he's back as Nikolai Luzhin, a driver for one of London's most powerful crime families in Eastern Promises. While Viggo took time out to talk to the press in L.A. for Eastern Promises, we were on hand to get the goods on the gritty actor, his character, and what it's like to work with D-Cro for a second time.
Viggo Mortensen on getting into his character, Nikolai:
"Well, one lazy way to do it is just to watch gangster movies and copy that. But for one thing, I don't think that Russian gangsters or that sort of subculture, the underworld that's Russian or Eastern European, I've never seen it where I've really believed it that much in any movie, so there wasn't really a good example. And I also just don't work that way. I like to find out for myself. Part of the fun and sometimes most of the fun, depending on how well the shoot goes and the experience of shooting a movie is in the preparation. That's where I learn things. That's the thing I think I like most about being in this line of work is that I go and learn things. I'm forced to learn things if I, in good conscience, want to feel that I've done my best. And in this case, it was important to get the language right, to sound Russian, and inflections, when not speaking Russian, and the grammar and the particular slang and syntax of a person from his walk of life. That helped me a lot."
Viggo on his research for the role:
"I did meet a few people that were more or less from Nikolai's walk of life that I normally wouldn't meet. Why would I want to unless I just happened to and got along with him, for some reason? But in this case, it was a question of speaking a little bit with people who initially were reticent, understandably, to share anything. I told them, I said, 'I'm really not out to make fun of or make a caricature of you or anything that I think might be your way of life. I'm not critical. I never judge the characters I play. I'm just trying to make them credible, that's all.' Then when they realized that I wasn't the enemy, that I was actually just doing research, they were very helpful. Even in them explaining things, it wasn't so much the information, it was the way they would explain, how they would look at me, and how they would be aware of their environment. All those things were interesting to me, as an actor, trying to soak up as much as I could and being really focused on what they were saying and how they were saying it. One of them in particular was talking about how it was a relief to see someone who seemed to want to do it correctly, from their point of view, because Russians as depicted or the Russian language as spoken in movies made outside of Russia, particularly movies made in North America and Western Europe, they're always cliche ridden and really terrible. The speech -- it's just not believable. And to them, they're either amusing or annoying or both. And so my goal was to not fall into that category."
Viggo Mortensen on David Cronenberg:
"He creates his own world. He wants it to be based on some specific, very meticulously researched reality. So no matter how far a field he might go with his imagination, the foundation is going to feel sometimes disturbed but always real. And that's the way the fights look, for example. That's the way the behavior is. That's the way the language is, I think, to a certain extent in his stories. I knew that from working with him on History of Violence. And that's why I like to work with him so much. Although he has to oversee a lot more than I do, I too as an actor, have always been interested in the story, not just in what I can do with my role. And I approach things like he does. I'm very meticulous. And I'll go to extremes to turn over every stone and look under it before the movie starts and during the shoot. You never know where you're going to pick up something from. But at the same time that you're so analytical and obsessive about the research, when you show up on the set each day, you just sort of let it go and you assume that whatever is important, from all that research is going to serve you without having to analyze it too much so that you can be fully attentive and there for the crew and there for the other actors. I see him as working in exactly that way. And that's, I think, why we have such a good shorthand."
On the kind acts committed by his character:
"Well, I think it's interesting... the word kindness, because I thought about that recently quite a bit because you get to this point when the movie is coming out, and then you start doing something that I never do. It goes with not judging. I don't want to analyze it. I want to prepare and just do it and be focused. Now you're forced to break it down a little bit in a different way. I do think that you look at the movie and go, 'Oh God, this is going to be another twisted, suspenseful, film noir thriller, it looks like, - which it is and very well constructed. But as brutal and hard and cold as some of the people in the story are, and the story itself seems to be, in the end, about kindness and it's about compassion in spite of big obstacles to behaving that way, to showing any kindness. And to some degree, it's about not just my character. It's about what a character will do, in a complicated world, to help someone who can't help themselves. To me, compassion is when you do something against all logic, almost. It doesn't serve you. It may even put you at risk physically, professionally. You're not going to get any benefit from it, and no one may ever know that you helped that person. It's like the person in the street that you help and walk away, and you've done it for whatever reason. Nobody is ever going to give you something for it. Not everybody does it. But as much as it's about brutality and cultural misunderstandings and intolerance and lying, deceit, savagery, it's also a movie about kindness and compassion, surprisingly, but it is nonetheless about that."
On the deeper meaning within his character:
"I have - I don't know how many - four dozen tattoos or something on my body in this movie, and a lot of them are pieces of songs or out of Russian literature, poetry or just sayings that people know about but that have more than one meaning. And there's one that was on a Russian prisoner. Actually, I saw it twice; once on someone's torso and once on his leg, I think. But anyway, I have it on my back. It says, 'The important thing is to remain human,' in Russian. And to the people that had those tattoos, mainly I think the important thing is to remain human means be your own man. Take it like a man. Don't respect authority, be a tough bastard and don't forget, keep your dignity. It's all that, but it also has another meaning, in the face of this hideous existence for people and very severe way of life. It was almost like that was something I remembered or I thought of a lot, that phrase. For Nikolai, that's sort of a guiding principle, in the end, strange as it might seem at first, when you meet the guy. The important thing is to remain human in the face of all this."
Viggo Mortensen on coordinating the fight scenes with David Cronenberg:
"David is very open and direct and I feel safe being so with him. We understand each other. As a matter of fact, as we were trying to work out the choreography, I was saying, 'We don't have to go around -- you can throw me over that, and I can do this. And we can try it.' I showed him, 'Yeah, I can do it. I'll be sore, but it's doable. You might as well do it for real.' And he goes, 'I don't know how we'd shoot it, and the towel,' and I said, 'Yeah.' The reality is those guys at a certain point, once they're in there, just because it's hot, you'd cover your shoulders with your towel. You'd do whatever. But in any case, even if I had it on, it's going to come off. And why handcuff yourself as a director? Let's just shoot it. It would be silly if the whole movie seemed realistic and gritty and all of a sudden this scene is you're clearly trying to avoid seeing someone's body entirely or something like that. It would just be dumb. So there was never any doubt about it. It wasn't like we got there on the day and it was like, 'Let's do it this way.' No, I knew going in what I was getting into. I knew that the world we live in, you know, people will freeze frame things and do what they do. Most of those images probably won't be very attractive or whatever. But to me, if you do something right and you do it realistically, there's a satisfaction in doing that."