"I was taught Russian by Russian prisoners"

Source: Komsomolskaya Pravda

© Focus Features.
Lately he's the favourite actor of David Cronenberg, the handsome, nordic man Viggo Mortensen (aka Aragorn in the epic Lord of the Rings and the blue-eyed corporal, taunting Demi Moore in G.I. Jane) plays a Russian mobster named Nikolai Luzhin in his new movie. But there are complete substitutions and nothing is real in the world of the creator of The Fly and Naked Lunch. Especially if the action takes place in London, where every Russian can be found to be a double agent.

You speak Russian amazingly in this movie.

Glad to hear that, you are the best judge! When I agreed to this role I worried about one thing only - not to repeat the ugliness, which happens in many movies about Russians, which were shot without their participation. Even the Russian language sounded completely wrong sometimes. When Russians try to depict Americans, it looks rather funny too, though.

That is why I became acquainted with a Russian translator and he translated for me all the scenes where Russian is spoken. Then I met real Russian prisoners, like my character. That's who I consulted. "You don't talk like a prisoner, but as doctor or professor!," they said and instructed me on how to do it right. For example, I owe them the first phrase which I say to Naomi Watts (What is the ...?). I convinced Cronenberg to use such live, "street" language in the movie.
Also I studied tattoos carefully. As you know, it's a prison tradition, which is now fading into the past. Young prisoners don't make tattoos at all, or they make some of Mickey Mouse. There is globalization even in prison. I wanted Nikolai to abide by the thievish foundations.

And then I went to Russia - to see the people, to listen to the language in order to reproduce it right as much as possible.

Did you travel incognito?

Yes, I didn't take a guide with me - I was not in need of that extra filtering. I wanted to see it all for myself, without anybody's help. I just walked the streets, went by bus or subway, and watched how the typical Russians looked.

And what are your impressions?

I don't want to generalize, but, for me, you have special kind of humour. It isn't expressed with smiles. The faces are gloomy, and I guess your attitude to life can be determined as: we are still alive, in spite of everything. It's as if people say to each other: I thought, today would be terrible, but it seems everything turned out all right. But tomorrow we can't avoid disaster. If not - there will be holiday.

That's my impression and it became stronger as I moved east, reached Yekaterinburg, rented a car and drove around villages, small towns. People are used to having hard lives there. They've lived such lives not for ten, not for a hundred, but for thousands of years. For me, a stranger, their faces said - "we are still alive and it's almost funny." There are very strong people there - they have not committed suicide yet! In comparison with Americans, Europeans, you are real "tough nuts", you are afraid nothing. You are used to knowing that it is all going wrong. And if something is going good - it's infinite happiness.

Did anybody recognize you in Russia?

Almost never. In the provinces people always understood that I was not a native, but I was not recognized as a foreigner. After Lord of the Rings I am usually recognized immediately, after several minutes staying in some bar. But not in Yekaterinburg! Although one boy shouted "Aragorn" to me, but it was only a rare case. People didn't suspect an American actor could be walking nearby.

The name of your character is Luzhin, and also the name Valery Nabokov is mentioned.

It's what David thought out. We decided to give Nikolai the surname of the Luzhin's Defence hero would be funny and proper - he plays a definite chess game too.

The attitude to Russians in London is complicated, especially after the scandal with Litvinenko.

I knew that your rich nationals had bought flats, houses, even soccer clubs there - not only Chelsea, I have heard that Russians might be buying Arsenal soon. The scandal with Litvinenko happened at the time of shooting, and I was witness to how people became suspicious towards Russians. They looked around when they heard a Russian accent. That was the same as people in New York reacted to Arabs after September, 11th. I wore Russian prison tattoos and didn't wash them off in order not to waste time in make-up every day. One day I was in a bar and saw that some Russian visitors, rich "new Russians", were horrified. They probably decided I had pursued them. I was glad they recognized me as a compatriot, but next time I washed the tattoos off.
Last edited: 12 October 2007 15:27:44