© Focus Features.
Like any actor who invests something of himself in his work, Viggo Mortensen is a lot like the characters he plays - no, not homicidal, like his Tom Stall in A History of Violence, or particularly heroic, like king-in-waiting Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films. But like them, he is complicated.
For example, Mortensen obsesses about his craft like a Method actor. But according to David Cronenberg, who directed him in 2005's A History of Violence and his most recent film, Eastern Promises, opening Friday, he likes to have a lot of laughs on the set. Then again, sets are often not very satisfying for him.
"Sometimes you're on a set with a director who doesn't have the intelligence and the ability to communicate with his crew and his actors the way David does," says Mortensen, who's sporting a bushy goatee for a Western he's shooting with Ed Harris. "It's not the ideal shooting experience, and maybe the end result isn't so good, either. But you've always got what you learned for the character."
Mortensen had a lot to learn for Eastern Promises. Here he plays Nikolai Luzhin, a Russian chauffeur and aspiring mobster living in London who has spent time in jails and has the tattoos to prove it. His ambitions are complicated when he befriends a midwife (Naomi Watts) who is trying to find the relatives of a newborn whose mother, a Russian prostitute, died in childbirth. Her search reveals the tough world of London's Russian mafia, where the blini are rich and life is cheap.
To burrow into the part, Mortensen, 48, spent several weeks in Russia walking around and taking public transportation. He learned a bit of Russian and had all of his dialogue translated into the language, some of which eventually made its way into the shooting script.
During the shoot itself, he had a Russian cable station on in his room while he was washing his clothes and making dinner. He says he styled Nikolai's enigmatic, withholding nature after Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To acquaint himself with the gangsters in this world, Mortensen learned all he could about the tattoos they sport. He consulted a documentary on the subject, titled The Mark of Cain, and talked to guys who had them.
"I talked to them about what they meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they'd been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were," Mortensen says. "Basically their history, their calling card, is their body."
Mortensen's commitment to the part was more than skin-deep: He goes all the way in a bathhouse scene that's already gained notoriety. In it, Mortensen fends off two would-be assailants while completely nude. For him, there was never any question about how it should be played.
"I said, 'Just shoot it as if I had clothes on, only I don't,'" Mortensen says. "There's no point in trying to shoot around it. Let's just show the reality of it, and whatever happens, happens. I'm aware that people might do screen grabs [on computers]. And there's any number of horribly unflattering images they could create from that. What are you going to do? People do what they do."
Both Mortensen and Cronenberg feel that the shock value in the scene comes not from the actor's nudity, but from the fact that he's so vulnerable. Cronenberg compares it to the shower scene in Psycho, where Janet Leigh's nude body is stabbed repeatedly but audiences don't actually see that much of her. (Mortensen, as it happens, co-starred in the 1998 Psycho remake.)
During the Eastern Promises scene, "People scream and hide their eyes," Cronenberg, a former horror filmmaker never afraid of matters of the flesh, says with relish. "It's pretty satisfying."
While this sort of body-and-soul dedication was what the part required, Cronenberg says he wanted Mortensen for other reasons. He thought the actor had a "Slavic look" and knew he had an ear for languages (Mortensen, whose mother is American and father is Danish, grew up partly in Argentina and speaks Danish, Spanish, Norwegian, French, Italian and Swedish). Though he concedes that Mortensen's bankability after the Lord of the Rings films was a factor, Cronenberg says he was aware of the actor as far back as his film debut in 1985's Witness.
Meanwhile, some audience members who swooned over Aragorn might be wondering why Mortensen is working with the likes of Cronenberg, who delights in making people scream and hide their eyes. He could play variations on Aragorn over and over again and get paid handsomely for it. But he hasn't gone that route.
"I'd like to, when it's all said and done, say that I have at least a few stories that I feel proud of," says Mortensen, who'd like to retire some day - real soon, he says - with his horses to Idaho.
"I don't just want to look back and say, 'I was on x number of magazines.' As far as money goes, there's a saying in Denmark: 'Your last suit doesn't have any pockets.' You can't take it with you. You can make all the money you want, but who cares?"