Starting in 2001, movie fans from around the globe came to know and love Viggo Mortensen as the noble, charismatic leader Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But for his last two major film projects, his characters have teetered in the middle before travelling to the opposite end of the heroic spectrum, proving that he's not so concerned with his screen image as much as he is finding complex, challenging roles to get his hands dirty.
Who says you can't tarnish that One Ring to rule them all?
The digging Mortensen's been doing in the last two films has been under the auspices of acclaimed director David Cronenberg, the provocative filmmaker who's examined the dark side of Mortensen's characters in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, which opens in wide release Friday.
Mortensen plays Nikolai, a Russian mobster entrenched in the bloody criminal underworld in London, and Naomi Watts plays Anna, a midwife who takes interest in the diary of a young prostitute after she dies in childbirth. Wanting the writings interpreted, Anna's and Nikolai's paths intersect, and a relationship develops: leading the die-hard Trans-Siberian foot solider to question his loyalties and controlled existence.
While Mortensen in real life speaks fluently in four different languages, he said becoming the character wasn't merely about learning a new language and getting an accent right for the sake of a movie, but properly representing a culture - which explains why he spent two weeks immersing himself in the country prior to filming.
"I knew something about Russian culture already, since I appreciate Russian music and art, but their history is a very complex one," Mortensen explained in a recent At The Movies interview. "I presumed certain things and knew certain things. But that only helped me on a surface level."
So Mortensen treated his trip to Russia like going to class, with the difference being that he was enrolling himself in the school of hard knocks. That's because Mortensen's ultimate responsibility was to play a member of the Vory V Zakone, a brutally intense criminal brotherhood forged in slave labour camps in the 1930s in the wake of Stalin's Great Terror.
"What I like about this line of work is that once you get into a role, you can learn as much as you want - and you realize that it's endless the things you can learn about a person's background," Mortensen said. "And it's not just the language, but the choice of words and syntax and slang that a person like this would have in their background - and given where they are coming from, how it affects their outlook on life and climate and circumstances they grew up in."
At the very least, Mortensen said, experiencing another culture - even if it involves encountering some disreputable people - gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own life.
"I think that if it doesn't make you a better person, it makes you more informed and layered in terms of understanding other people. But that's what working in art can do for you if you look at it that way," said Mortensen, who's also a poet, painter, photographer and musician outside of the movie business. "My interest in preparing for a character is the same for taking a photograph or writing a story. It has to do with curiosity about the world from my point of view and life as we know it to be is relatively short. There's any number of things that you're not going to be able to learn even if you try as much as you can."
Mortensen said that as much as you learn and bring to a role, it's not the be-all, end-all. He insisted that you need a "good boss" like Cronenberg to drive the portrayal home.
"Even if you do all your research work meticulously and interact in a believable way with the other actors, and they do the same for you, then you really need a director paying attention to the little details and subtleties of the interactions while they're shooting or editing," Mortensen said. "If you don't have a keen observer of human behaviour, that stuff is going to get lost. Characters like Nikolai or Tom Stall in A History of Violence can come across as not just one-dimensional, but flat. Reactions that are so minimal, so subtle, can tell so much. Just a little gesture to blink, or hesitation to speak or look at someone can be so telling."
"That's what's great about David," Mortensen added. "You know that everything you say and do is going to be watched very carefully. What's useful is going to be made good use of, and what isn't, he'll be upfront and say, "I know what you're trying to do there, I think, but I don't need that so let's not waste time with it."
As for Aragorn, Mortensen doesn't have to worry about circling back to Middle Earth again. The character will be following him everywhere he goes for quite some time.
But does it bother him that some fans keep associating him with that one role?
"Hell, no - it was a great experience," Mortensen affirmed with a laugh. "Let's be frank. If it weren't for the success of those movies, no matter how much David Cronenberg might have been aware of me - if at all - without The Lord of the Rings, there's no way that he would have been permitted to cast me in the movies that I've been with him."
Mortensen said it comes down to Hollywood economics - where cash isn't available unless a name actor is involved. Fortunately for the actor, who turns 49 next month, the Rings movies helped him make that name.
"They may say, 'He may be good for the part, but nobody knows who he is. We're sorry. You're going to have to find somebody else'," Mortensen said. "I can only say 'thank you' to the people's kids, including mine, who went to see The Lord of Rings - sometimes more than once."