An Evening With Viggo

Source: AFI, Arclight Theater

This is a transcript of the Question & Answer session with Viggo that followed the AFI's screening of Eastern Promises at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood. Please note there were brief moments that were not clearly audible but this transcript is as accurate as it can be from the source tape.

An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07
An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07.
© Deryck True. Used by permission.
Moderator: How did you first become involved with the project, was it talked about at all when you were still working on A History of Violence, or was there some time in between?

Viggo: I don't think he had read that script at that time, but we talked towards the end of shooting A History of Violence in Ontario about doing something else, you know, and there were two different projects that I can remember him seriously considering doing and this ended up being the one. The other was a sort of a strange take on Hollywood actually which would be nice to see him make that; it's kind of a dark comedy about Hollywood, and, you know, I dunno if he'll make that.

But then he, he said, "I'm gonna do this one, and what do you think?" And I hesitated for a little bit just because I was, I realized with this kind of character and his background which I didn't have, I didn't know much about, and the language and everything else, that I would need to have enough time to do that and once I realized that I had enough time to do that, I said yes. I was eager to work with him again because I had a great experience the first time.

Moderator: Can you talk a little bit about the type of process you did in getting your research, getting into this character, which is not unlike the character in A History of Violence, in the sense that he has kind of two sides, a dual personality in a way.

Viggo: Yeah, he does, and I mean but that's, I mean, yeah, I don't think, which is great about David; he doesn't reference other people's work and he doesn't reference his own work. He just sets out and tries something different each time, which is why I think he gets better and better, you know. He's not like most directors who've established themselves and been around for thirty-odd years; he just tries it, he just goes into it. Obviously, he has a lot more experience than someone the first time out, so he's able to get rid of a lot of things in terms of shots and script stuff; he's able to really cut it to the bone and do what's essential. But I mean in spirit, he's like a brilliant guy just out of film school who's just happy to be able to make a movie and as great as A History of Violence was, it still took him a little while to pull it together and someone to say, okay, go ahead.

He's, I mean I think one of the reasons we get along so well is that he's similar to me in that he looks at it as an adventure truly, you know, and he really is a monster for research and detail, and then, even though he says disparaging things like, "Well, who cares, you know, we're just...", but really, he does care, and, "Just do it," you know, like that, but he's joking.

You know, he - at the same time that I was getting ready, before going over to Europe, reading, re-reading novels and poems, listening to music that I knew and then new music that, you know,was from Russia, he was doing the same thing, and then we would share those notes. And then I said, "Well, you should see this documentary, The Mark of Cain, about the tattoos and prisons, made by Alix Lambert," with the special thanks I just saw there on the screen; that was nice. And, you know, he likes to just research to death anything he's doing because he enjoys what he does. It's obvious from the work, but it's obvious being on the set with him that he really likes what he does, so it's fun, there's a sense of play there, you know.

And we would share these things and, David: "Ah, you just re-read that," and so forth. "Yes, I just re-read that, too, and what are you reading now?" And, "Oh, I'm reading Mandelstam poems and..." "Yeah, I know some," "Well, I'll send you this one." You know, like that, things that are peripheral, that don't have anything to do, that just have to do with Russian-ness, and what was. You know, A History of Violence was, essentially, well, it was a Cronenberg version of America, I guess, but it's, it's not so much about American violence any more than Eastern Promises is about Russian violence.

And, he, he and I both knew that there was a lot to learn here. With A History of Violence, there were certain things, language, landscapes, clothes, everything, that were familiar, genres even, but with Eastern Promises there was a lot to learn and it was fun to learn. And I like working with people who enjoy what they're doing or enjoy learning new things, so there was a lot that went into that.

It was more language-based; yes, there's that identity thing, you know, which is a theme you find in his movies a lot, but the character I'm playing in this one is different, you know. He's quite aware of what he is doing and who he is and what his goals are, whereas I suppose the character I played in A History of Violence is lying to himself on some level because he has to, you know.

An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07
An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07.
© Deryck True. Used by permission.
Moderator: Well, when you're playing a character like that, that has some hidden aspect that we, as the audience, don't know until a certain point in the film, I mean, are you playing these scenes thinking, "I'm a Russian mobster," or are you thinking that "I'm an undercover cop pretending to be a Russian mobster"? I mean, it's a subtle point but as much as you could articulate something like that. I mean, when you're playing the role, is that, you know, where is your mindset?

Viggo: I mean, part of the fun for me, whatever the process, is that most sets aren't as enjoyable as David's and most end results of movies aren't as good as his. The part that I like is when I say, OK, I'm going to do this, whether I have a week to prepare or I have a couple of months like I did here, is...well, what happened between the birth of the character, literally, you know, since he was born until page one of the script, and that' can never stop, you know, detailing that. And I always make that life up for myself so that when I show up, you know, whatever happens, whatever David decides to do, or whatever Peter Suschitzky decides to shoot, however he shoots it, and whatever the other actors bring, most importantly, I'm going to be able to react as this person.

I know that I will never, no matter how hard I work at it, let's say I have ten years to prepare this, I'll never get to know fully or fully be, you know, Nikolai. But I also know that I will never constantly be aware of who I am, you know; I think that's true for most people, unless you're the most perfect monk or something, and even then I'm sure there's, you know, bad days, too. [laughter]

But it's still worth trying and I think that's why David Cronenberg in some sense is a very compassionate individual. I mean, as a, as a human being, I think he's very evolved, intellectually, but also on some level even though he's, you know, an avowed atheist, he's very spiritual, you know.

To me, both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are movies, mostly about compassion, you know, about, somehow there are people and more people than we probably know, who in the most difficult circumstances will do the right thing anyway and there's no explanation. That's what compassion is; you just do it because you're compelled to do it. You connect; you realize that you' your action, by your selfless action, to connect, you are saying, you know, we are connected, and there is something really spiritual about that.

I think that the ending of A History of Violence is like the ending of this movie; there is a settling, and you're left thinking, "What's going to happen to these people? I'm not sure, hard to speculate, and I'll probably go talk to my friend about it afterwards or I'll think about it myself." I went alone to the movie theater and the next time you see the movie, you might think, more layers. You have a lot of questions, no answers. You know, he's too respectful of the audience to do that, unlike most directors, even good ones, and...which is why his movie - if you go see this movie a second time and a third time, you see more, not less.

And most movies that you would say are, you know, the better movies of the year, that's not true. You might not even want to see them a second time, really, if you're completely honest with yourself. [laughter]

And I think he's on a whole other level; I mean, and it's amusing and I say amusing because it's, you know, who cares in the end, you know; his movies are going to stand the test of time. But these lists that are compiled of the best directors and the best movies, they're - they're populated with really mediocre works of art, frankly, and made by mediocre artists, maybe nice people, certainly well-promoted people [chuckles] but they are mediocre! And it's like comparing a promising Little Leaguer to a Major League Hall of Famer, which is what he is, you know. That's just my opinion.

Moderator: I wanted to ask about one, one scene in particular which I think is the scene that'll, that'll make it onto your, yours and David's clip reel when you get your lifetime achievement awards at eighty, which is the bathhouse sequence. It's one of the most brilliant pieces of action, I think, you know, that I've ever seen in a movie. Can you talk a little bit about what you thought when you first read that scene which I assume, you know, included the fact that you would be nude throughout it, and then what the actual, you know, staging and filming of that was like?

Viggo: Umm...well, I mean, it didn't say that you're nude; it just said it was in a bathhouse, and, you know, and David said to me, as we're working on the choreography, you know, gym clothes and this and that, go into this room and that room, and it's all taped off like with a play and eventually we built a set and we tried it there...A-N-D...I said, "Well, you know.." he goes, "what you want to wear, a towel?" I said, "Well, the towel's going to come off pretty quick, I think, you know, the way I'm going to get thrown around." So, you know, I've been in those bathhouses, and, you know, when it's really hot, you put that towel over your shoulders, and just sort of sit there and sweat and it would make sense to just get that out of the way, then you wouldn't have a continuity problem and we could just get on with it. I mean, sooner or later, you're going to be naked, so what's the difference? And that towel is not going to protect you much when you hit the ground over and over, so...there wasn't really, you know, any question whether I was going to be naked or not.

But I was grateful for the fact that he is so efficient as a filmmaker that we shot was basically the first day we got the meat of it, which is, pun intended. [much laughter] The small takes of most of the, you know, like the first room and then we did the second room all as a piece and then the next day we went in and fine-tuned some things, so he was very efficient. Another director might have taken a week to do it. It was good because I was kind of banged up by the end of the first day, and so it was nice to get it over with. But he was very focused; it was very...I thought it was really well-done. It was good that he showed everything; it wasn't, it wasn't flashy.

Same with A History of Violence, really, and people will say, and I've seen it written where, in Eastern Promises as well as A History of Violence, well, it's so violent, I don't know if I can take that. In reality, no. In Eastern Promises, there are three incidents of violence, you know, the two throat slashings and this, you know, fight, in the bathhouse, and they don't really last that long in terms of screen time. You know, you take other movies, The Departed, whatever, last year, any number of movies that have action in them, there's a lot more violence. But the way he shoots it is so true-to-life, without hiding things, without showing off, in terms of camera work, or anything, that it stays with you; it's shocking, and you feel the consequences of it.

But, even there, there's a strange connection between people, you know, that sense of two lonelinesses that, that touch for a time, you know. This is the fact of where we are, though. In that scene, for example, just as in the brothel scene, which to me is more, that sequence is more unsettling in a way, because it deals with what the subject matter...of sex trafficking and...I don't know. But in both cases, this is, these are, we are here together, we are making contact and even in that, the end of that bathhouse sequence, you know, it's like, "I'm gonna have to do this." But they see each other, these people look at each other, and you see them look at each other, and obviously, to kill someone with your bare hands or with a knife, it's not a simple or beautiful or cool thing as so many filmmakers try to show. It is terrible and it is terminal, you know; that's what stays with you and I think that's why some people think, oh, it's so violent, which it's not, all-in-all, compared to many movies.

Eastern Promises ArcLight Screening 12.6.07
Eastern Promises ArcLight Screening 12.6.07.
© Deryck True. Used by permission.
Moderator: I'm going to take a few questions from the audience if there are any...right, right here in front.

That was a two part question about what he does to prepare right before an emotionally demanding take and what he does between takes.

Viggo: Well, the same as with any kind of scene. I just try to be relaxed, you know; I mean, on time, you know your lines, you know what the scene's about, but then you drop everything, you forget everything and you trust that whatever you've prepared and that the director has helped you with is there.

Relaxation is the most important thing. Most of the time as an actor, I think you're really on your own. You don't always get help from other actors. You can look for it and you don't usually get help from directors because directors don't know how to help an actor relax and don't know how to create a relaxed atmosphere on the set. They just don't; it's not that they're bad people, necessarily, although some of them I would say probably are. [laughter]

But, but David is, you know, he is. It's not only the result of his work, which is, thought-provoking, you know, that humanist streak that he has even though people are like, wow, it's horrifying, it's violent. There is something, there is a connection between people that is, that element of compassion I spoke about, but also in his behavior as a human being, you know, the way he prepares his work and the way he is on, the way he treats the crew, which is why they repeat with him so much. The way he treats his actors...there is a sense of play. Even during the most horrible sequences being shot, there is a sense of fun. Umm...and there's curiosity, always, you know. That's why I say he's like a film school grad...he just came out of film school like that ready to make a movie; you know, he's like that really. And he makes you feel comfortable, he makes you feel welcome, he makes you feel included, genuinely, everybody there. And that is a way to relax people, too. It helps you to just focus and just be there, so yeah. I mean, I have bad days and good days, and there's times where I just don't get there quite or I don't feel I did but often you're doing better than you think and he's helpful that way. I mean, there's that old sort of adage, oh, just breathe, breathe and that's true, you know. I do that.

I just try to just sort of not think about anything just before and not think, well, what's my lines,, what am I gonna..., you know? It's there! I mean, you either know the choreography of a sequence, the lines, or you don't at that point. Going crazy about it five seconds before you're gonna do it, that's not gonna help you really. So...

Audience Member: There's been a lot of speculation on the net, a lot of people have reported that there might be a sequel to this, or there might not be a sequel to this, and I was wondering, do you feel that this film was complete or do you think that...

Viggo: [talking over her] You don't, do you?

Audience Member: I beg your pardon?

Viggo: Do you not?

Moderator: The question is about the possibility of a sequel.

Viggo: And whether the movie was complete.

I absolutely feel that it's complete and that it's telling that life is complete and it's telling in that it's never complete in its telling. You know? That's what I get from David Cronenberg is that life will go on. I felt after watching A History of Violence and after watching this movie, I asked myself, "What's going to happen to these people?"

It's going to be complicated. Well, that doesn't mean, I mean, any work of art, you know, if it's good, begs for a continuation. If it's bad, it begs for a burning, I suppose. [laughs]

But...but definitely, you could imagine these people, but you could have said that about A History of Violence as well. I think that some people, as far as I understood about Eastern Promises, you know, seemed frustrated by it in some way; well, that...that's how it ends, you know. But that's part of him, not just because, but because that's who he is; he's an original.

As I say, he doesn't reference others and he doesn't reference himself. He subverts genres; he subverts expectations, you know; he does so here too. There is nothing incomplete about the ending and there is nothing complete about it, you know, which is fine with me. I like coming out of a movie, or coming, walking away from a painting or hearing some music and thinking, "Yeah, but...[sighs]...why did it change there to that and why is that; I mean, they didn't put eyebrows on that face? I mean, what the hell is th..." You know what I mean?

But the fact that you're asking about it means that you're interested in it, simply; I don't know, I think. That's my opinion anyway. I think it's complete, but it'd be interesting to see Nikolai go to Russia or something, I suppose. [laughs]

Audience Member: Congratulations on your BIFA award.

Viggo: Oh, thank you very much.

Moderator: It's a question about getting the voice of the character and also how his other artistic pursuits feed into his acting.

Viggo: Well, like I was saying before, there was a lot to learn on this one. It wasn't like a character I'd played, really. The language was quite different, the culture. I'd never been to Russia, etc.

So there was a lot to learn there and I just listened to people and watched them and then when I went to Russia, I saw the places, and ate the food and walked in the streets and rode the subway and just sort of tried to figure out a little bit what their sense of humor was. I think the sense of humor of any people, it tells you a lot about how they deal with difficulties in life, you know. And, I mean I wasn't conscious necessarily of, you know, modulating my voice in any particular way. I was basing it on people that I saw and a region in Russia where I was meant to come from, coupled with his experiences in Moscow, St.Petersburg and then beyond, you know.

And so that - and also when I met, you know, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl and saw how they were speaking, you know, I adjusted, you know. Well, OK, I should be more newly arrived, or seem to be, and so forth. It's just, I adjusted to them. But before I got to London, before I even went to Russia, I had done most of my work, translated everything to Russian, you know, was going to mostly speak English. And then got some help from other people after I got it professionally translated by a Russian academic, people who had backgrounds, you know, prison backgrounds and so forth, Russians, and they helped me with slang, which we included, you know, that this academic didn't know of or wouldn't use, you know, and so forth. And that was helpful. And, um, and then some, the Ukrainian I speak to the girl in the brothel and stuff like that, all those things helped.

And then the way I spoke English, uh, spoke to how long I'd been in London and to what part of Russia I was from. It was really interesting that. So in this case - every preparation is different - language, sound did have a lot to do with it you know. And I listened to a lot of music and I listened to a lot of recordings of Russian poets and things like that. Intonation you know.

An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07
An Evening With Viggo In LA: 12-6-07.
© Deryck True. Used by permission.
Moderator: Time for a couple more. Yes, there. The question is about the brothel scene. It disturbed this woman. And how as an actor or actually how he personally is affected by being in a scene like that.

Viggo: Well, it's interesting that you say that. I'm glad that you said that, because people have talked, you know, for obvious reasons, about the bathhouse scene because it's a few minutes long and it's, you know, you're seeing an actor naked all the time and it's quite up front as far as it's this survival aspect of it, the brutality of it. I mean it's a work of nature, you know, at its most basic, that sequence. But so is the brothel scene in some sense.

And to me, the brothel scene, that whole sequence and the thing between the men and it's also, obviously - there was the actress, Theresa, who played the woman there. That whole sequence from downstairs to upstairs in that room and everything, it is to me more, and was in the doing, more disconcerting, more upsetting and thought-provoking in some ways than the bathhouse scene. So it's interesting you say that because most people will always talk about the bathhouse scene. Well, it went right to the grain of it, to the core of the, of what the movie in part is about.

I mean that's what connects us. That's what connects me to Naomi's character and that's what sets the story off. This young girl dying, this 14 year old girl. Um, that's what it's about. So then when you - it's one thing to read about it in the, you know, newspaper or even see a documentary. It's like you have a distance. But there you don't, even though it's a creation, a movie creation, it's a Cronenberg version of reality, it's still right there, you know. It's not that you're reading about it, it's not a special report, it's actually purporting to be happening. You're seeing it and yeah, it was disturbing in that sense, but that's good.

Moderator: I'll ask the last question actually which is you talked about, uh, that your accent was affected somewhat by Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl and I'm wondering if you would talk a little bit about other ways, other details about what that relationship was like working with those two actors in particular because you are kind of a family of sorts in a movie and you had told me a little earlier about how sometimes you, you know, get something from the other actors you're working with and sometimes you don't. How, how did that work in this case? Especially when you have 3 non-Russians playing Russians extremely convincingly?

Viggo: Ah well, it was, I liked working with them. Semyon...I mean Armin Mueller-Stahl's done over 200 movies. He's a great theatre actor. He's also a very good painter. He's a really good storyteller, basically. And um, he's so subtle and has so much control in his acting that is was great to watch him. You know, it reminded me of watching Gene Hackman work. You know, I did a movie called Crimson Tide and I would go to the set on days off to watch him and Denzel Washington sparring and that was interesting.

And Vincent Cassel is a very brave actor and a very intuitive, very intelligent actor, but they have different energies. You know, Vincent's more, you know, he seems like he's all over the place, but he's not at all. It's very...It's perfect what he did, I think. I mean I really thought that he gave a great performance and um, but we all have sort of, certain different ways, we're different kinds of people, so it was just fun. I've been lucky over the years. I've worked with all kinds of interesting people.

One thing for sure about both of them, however they approach the work, is that they don't, they don't rest on the day that they're there working. I don't know what they did to prepare, um, but when you're working with them, they're very focused from take to take and something different happens each one. And in that sense, we were of like minds, I think, whether - I really liked that Picasso said one time, he said, "Only leave until tomorrow those things that you are willing to die having left undone." And that's the way they are from take to take, you know. I think it's a great way to be.

And David's that way, too, but it, it's relaxed, but that's what we're here for. You can make jokes about other things, but when they say "action!" it's the first time. And that's, it's great to work for people like that, especially if they're experienced and really know what they're doing.

Moderator: Viggo, thank you so much.
Last edited: 9 December 2007 10:48:30