Viggo Mortensen jokingly asked director David Cronenberg if his naked fight scene in a bathhouse in Eastern Promises was Maria Bello's idea.
Was it payback for their tempestuous tangle on a narrow wooden staircase in A History of Violence that had left her back black, blue and purple?
"As crazy as people might think he is, he's a real gentleman and a good person to work for," the soft-spoken actor said of Cronenberg. "He said, so how do you feel about this? On the script, it simply says he walks in, sits down, he's got a towel on and these two guys come in, they're fully dressed and they have knives and there's a fight."
And Mortensen told Cronenberg that scene couldn't be any less realistic than the rest of the gangster thriller. "I knew it would be relatively painful, and it was, for obvious reasons. There's no pads.
"The two guys that were playing the parts of the attackers were good, so we didn't have to double anybody, and one guy was a Georgian who had been in the Russian military and recognized some of the things that we were doing, some of the movements. The other guy was a professional boxer, a Turkish guy, so they were perfect."
It took two days to shoot and left Mortensen a little banged up and bruised but still on Cronenberg's wavelength.
"I've been working for a long time, and I've worked with all kinds of directors, some better than others, but I never felt as in sync as I felt with him. History of Violence, in a sense, worked as a long dress rehearsal, I suppose, for Eastern Promises."
They share the same sensibilities about story and character emotions. "I like the fact that he doesn't answer the questions for you, he doesn't feel like he has to tell people, he respects the audience. And he respects the people working for him," which results in repeat crew members.
And while the R-rating for Eastern Promises is, in part, for strong brutal and bloody violence, Mortensen says this movie and History of Violence pale in comparison to other films.
"The body count in these movies is so much lower than The Departed or The Godfather or the Bourne movies. I mean, they're all interesting movies, but there's, like, three incidents of violence in this movie, but there's two that are very brief ... and one that's longer in the bathhouse.
"But they're shocking because they're very direct, no fancy camera work, this is what it looks like, and I think in that sense, he's very responsible."
Eastern Promises is about two worlds that collide in London: gangsters with Eastern European origins and a midwife looking for clues about a teenager who dies in childbirth. Naomi Watts plays the midwife, and the cast also includes Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel as father and son mobsters.
Cassel, whose real-life father was actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, thinks of his character as "just a guy that is in the wrong place in the wrong family. He's got the wrong father. He has to prove himself as something he's not. He's in a macho world and he's not macho."
Unlike Mortensen, this was Cassel's first time acting for Cronenberg, who says, "Casting is a bit of a black art, and half the battle of directing is in casting, in terms of the actors. You're not really doing an actor a favour by miscasting him, even if he's your best friend, if he's not the right guy for the role."
The director's instincts were a hit with audiences, who voted Eastern Promises their favorite during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
In looking for an actress to play the midwife, Cronenberg needed someone who would represent the audience. "She's the one we follow into this other world," and Watts was able to make Anna gritty, naive and sweet all at the same time.
Watts, who researched her character by meeting and observing midwives and watching a C-section delivery, learned she was pregnant while making Eastern Promises. She and actor Liev Schreiber became parents of a boy in late July and although she swore she was sleep-deprived, she looked fresh and slender, even with a slightly blousy black top, sweater and slacks.
She had kept the news of her pregnancy to herself until the end of the shoot. "I didn't want to do any more motorbike riding," which she had nervously mastered after two days of practice.
"We shot on wet roads, amongst traffic, 200 people standing by watching, as well as paparazzi. It was incredibly scary. I never managed to fall off, so it was good," and she didn't toss Mortensen off when he rode with her, helmetless.
Doing interviews during the festival marked her return to work, although she skipped parties, took frequent breaks during the day and generally kept a lower profile to spend time with her adored son, Alexander Pete Schreiber.
On this day, Mortensen looked like the younger, happier American cousin of his Russian mobster from Eastern Promises. He wore a Montreal Canadiens T-shirt under his pinstripe suit jacket, sported a moustache and goatee for his next movie (an Ed Harris western called Appaloosa), sipped hot tea and passed out CDs with his piano compositions.
Maybe he's right when he says the paparazzi have little interest in him.
"I think they find my private life relatively dull, compared to other people's. It's like how many pictures of him with his dog at the vet's or eating a doughnut outside the 7-Eleven or taking a nap in front of his house, do they need?". He imagines they say, "I wish he'd do some drugs or something. Naked."
When it comes to research, however, he seems as meticulous and obsessive as an A-plus student and says Cronenberg is, too.
The actor, whose turn as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings flung open more doors for him, researched the tattoos that turned up on the actors' bodies, translated his dialogue (and that of others) into Russian, met with people who shared his character's criminal background and spent two weeks travelling and people watching in Russia, while using public transportation.
On the days when he spoke only Russian on the set, Cronenberg quipped, "I didn't realize I was making a foreign movie." But, as the actor had learned on LOTR, some Elvish allowed watchers to feel as if they were eavesdropping on another culture, and Mortensen thought the same would happen here.
It had been an encounter with a gangster who does readings of Pushkin that led writer Steven Knight to realize he had entered another culture. That man became the model for the restaurateur played by Mueller-Stahl.
"What I like as the starting point for any story is where you've got these two worlds happily co-existing without touching each other, and then somebody accidentally walks into the other world," Knight said.
The screenwriter spent time with the under-funded Russian desk of Scotland Yard in London and with the police whose time is spent keeping a lid on the sort of people and sex trafficking shown in the movie. "What the police do is observe," since victims will rarely testify against their captors because their families are in jeopardy back home.
Knight, whose screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things was nominated for an Academy Award, is a keen observer and listener, a man who can wander into a sweatshop, buy a coat and learn the person at the sewing machine has an unusual hobby.
"People are not what you'd expect, and what endlessly fascinates me is reality is much odder than any fiction you'd ever create."