Behind The Banter, Actor and Director Offer Serious Insights

Source: Dallas Morning News

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Eastern Promises Press Conference - TIFF: 9-8-07
Eastern Promises Press Conference - TIFF: 9-8-07.
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"This is the first time they've inflicted the two of us together on somebody," says Mr. Mortensen, star of the new film Eastern Promises. "They're afraid to do that."

"You're obviously special," says Mr. Cronenberg, the film's director.

My first thought: What have I gotten myself into here? These guys have teamed up for two dark, soul-probing stories of men pushed to extremes. In 2005's A History of Violence, Mr. Mortensen plays an upstanding Midwesterner with a talent for attracting hoods and using lethal force. In Promises, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens Friday, he plays an enigmatic Russian mobster in London, handy with a butcher knife but drawn to a midwife on a mission (Naomi Watts). Mr. Cronenberg is merely the master of macabre body horror (see The Fly and Scanners, among other stomach-turners).

Are they about to play pin the tail on the critic?

Soon an interview pattern emerges. They start answering every question with a round of bantering one-liners. This clears the way for matters of great substance and consideration. After two collaborations, they're as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes.

How did they work to create Mr. Mortensen's Nikolai, covered in tattoos and minimalist of motion?

"I just followed orders," deadpans Mr. Mortensen, 48. "And I just told him to do whatever he wanted," says Mr. Cronenberg, 64.

Then they're off on detailed explanations of why physical detail and economy of motion are so crucial to screen acting.

Take the tattoos that cover Nikolai's body. They were merely alluded to in Steve Knight's original script. Then Mr. Mortensen found a series of books on tattoos in Russian prison culture and a documentary, The Mark of Cain.

"Viggo wanted to know what each tattoo that was going on his body meant and why they were there," says Mr. Cronenberg. "It's almost like the script was waiting for this stuff to come. I sent the documentary and the books to Steve and said, 'When we do our next rewrite you're gonna die to incorporate this stuff because it's so rich.' No writer could resist this stuff."

Then there's Nikolai's stillness. He exudes intensity but wastes nary a motion.

Mr. Mortensen: "They had to freeze-frame me." Mr. Cronenberg: "It was stop-motion. I worked him like a puppet."

They're here all week. Try the veal.

Mr. Mortensen says he picked up a lot of Nikolai's stillness from observing Russians, but it's also a matter of acting philosophies he shares with Mr. Cronenberg.

"A lot of the information you get about the way a character is thinking and feeling is very subtle," Mr. Mortensen says. "It's a look or a hesitation before saying something or a blink or not looking at someone. You need a director who loves those details and pays attention to them as he's shooting and during editing. Otherwise characters played that way seem very flat and one-dimensional. With David, you know you're in good hands so you feel safe to play big or small."

So actor and director must have developed a strong working relationship after back-to-back collaborations, right?

"We both have such bad memories that neither of us could remember we had worked together," says Mr. Cronenberg. "It was only when I saw photographs that I realized."

"Then he said, 'I told myself I wouldn't work with that guy again,' " says Mr. Mortensen.

But seriously, folks.

"If you have a relationship with an actor and a crew you can start a film at a much higher level immediately," says Mr. Cronenberg. "You don't have to get to know each other and settle in and find out all the little things about each other, strengths and weaknesses and how to get the best out of each other. You know how to do that, and if you like each other you're flying. You're not afraid and you're not worried about antagonisms or weird hostilities."

Of course, it helps if you can share a good joke once in a while. Or, in this case, every few seconds.
Last edited: 13 September 2007 14:46:16
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