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Where were you born and raised? What were some of your childhood interests? And how did you develop an interest in acting?
Well, I was born in New York City, but shortly thereafter moved. My dad got work in South America, and I lived for a year as a child - before my brother was born - in Venezuela. And then we moved - I guess around the time he was born, I can't remember - to Argentina, and I lived there 'til I was eleven. And then moved to the United States. And my parents split up. And, I don't know, I always liked short stories, and poems, and books, and history, and eventually plays and movies, like most people. And I was living in lots of places - in Denmark, and stuff - and I'd moved to New York. And I was just starting to think about it, because when I was in Europe I was seeing a lot of movies that I hadn't known, and so I was getting an education, or educating myself about the history of movies - like, seeing a lot of Scandinavian movies, and seeing a lot of French movies, Russian movies, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Ozu, you know? All the greats. Pasolini, Bertolucci. And I just had no idea. And I started to look at better performances including, at that time, I guess, people like, I don't know, Meryl Streep, or Chris Walken in The Deer Hunter, for example, or any number of movies that I saw at that time. I had made a transition to not just being entertained or moved, but wondering how it worked. What was the trick to doing something in a way that I felt a connection and that I would be moved emotionally, sitting there in the theater long after the fact of the movie having been made, not just the projection of it? How is that done? Or, on the stage, same thing. So I was just curious, and it was one of many things that I tried at that age. It sort of stuck, I think, mainly because I had a good teacher, a man named Warren Robertson. He worked with me, and kind of encouraged me, and felt I had some, you know, raw talent or whatever. Everybody needs a little encouragement.
On that note, actually, I'm very interested to know how you tackle a part. Some people cite the Method, some people cite other techniques. Do you have a specific approach?
Well, every part's a little different, you know? I did a movie this summer called Good, and a lot of it ended up being music. I ended up - I got ahold of a piano so that I could play every evening before going to bed. And instead of looking at the script, which I already basically knew, I would play the piano. Because this character - it's a movie called Good, from a C.P. Taylor play - when he stresses out, the more stressed out he gets as things are changing in the thirties in Germany, and his family is in upheaval and stuff, and he feels guilty about a lot of things, these choices he's making as he goes along professionally and personally - his outlet, or his escape, is music. He imagines that people are singing - on the street, and wherever he is, in parks, or in buildings, at work - and they're not really. The music's being played, and then he takes a second look, and they're not. He's, like, feeling like he's losing his mind, you know? For him, the escape isn't alcohol, or drugs, or whatever - it's music. And so I started playing the piano every night, and as I was playing I would be thinking about what we had done that day, and what we were going to do tomorrow, and any number of things about the story. And I'd never tried that, and it worked, you know? So who knows what works, you know?
Obviously, for Eastern Promises, the language was very important, and going to Russia was very helpful. But the one thing I always do, and I've always done from the beginning instinctively - because it's interesting, and it's the fun part, regardless of how the shoot goes, or what the result is of the movie - I can always count on the benefits of asking the question: "What happened between the cradle and page one for this character?" And that answer is endless, you know? It's as big an answer and as complicated and layered an answer as you want it to be. And I never stop working at that. All during shooting, I'm always coming up with stuff so when I meet another character and I'm talking, I know exactly where I came from, you know, irregardless of whether, as usually is the case, that's never mentioned, you know?
For many years, you played a lot of very good roles, but not the sort that would attract superstar attention. And then, when you were offered The Lord of the Rings, I gather that your gut was to not do it, but that you were ultimately convinced to do it. Since that's what many people associate you with when they hear your name, I have to ask: How were you convinced to do it? And, looking back at those three films, which seem very different from the other sorts of work that you've done over your career, are you pleased with your decision to have done them?
Yeah. I mean, I worked in the same way even though it's a fantasy and, you know, its invented worlds, and languages, and so forth. You know, the foundation of The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien readily admitted, was Celtic mythology, but especially Nordic mythology, and sagas, and history, and, you know, the epic poems from the Middle Ages and all that, and old English poems, all kinds of stuff, Beowulf, The Volsunga Saga - a lot of different characters which, from my childhood reading and adolescent reading, I recognized, to my relief, because I hadn't read the book, and I'm on the plane - I basically got cast and had to go fly there the next day, and it's a twelve hour flight, so I read a lot of the book, and I was relieved, not too far into it, to start to recognize some of the ideas, some of the descriptions, the characters, you know? There was a feeling of it being familiar. But when I was first offered it the day before, I said, "I don't think it's a good idea. I'm very flattered."
You know, and at the time, nobody knew what it was gonna be. It sounded like a grand project, but I hadn't read it, and I knew they'd been there for months rehearsing, and they'd been shooting a couple of weeks, and I just thought that I wouldn't be the ideal choice for them - better they find an actor who was familiar with the material, at least, you know? So I kind of said, "Let me think about it for a little bit, but I don't think I'm gonna do that." And I hung up, and my son was there - who was eleven at the time - and he was familiar with the story, and he had overheard, and he said, "Is that Lord of the Rings you're talking about?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "What character?" And I said, "Oh, it's Strider" - back then I guess he was called something else - and he goes, "That's the guy who's the king!" And I said, "Well, whatever." And he said, "No, it's really good. You should do it." I said, "Well, you know, it means that I'll be away a lot." It was longer than I thought - I thought I was going to be able to come back a lot. But he said, "No, you should do it." It wasn't the final, convincing thing, but it encouraged me to at least thing about it a lot more seriously - not that I wasn't, but to actually think about doing it. And, in the end, I just figured the combination of him saying that and also just a slight curiosity - thinking, "Well, if I don't do this - it sounds like an unusual thing to do three movies like that - if I don't do it I may regret it." But as soon as I started reading the book, I thought, "Oh, this is good. I'm enjoying this. This is very interesting. This will be a real education and re-education, as far as mythology." I mean, I read so much and learned so much during that shoot.
I'm very interested to know how you then arrived at the decisions to do Hidalgo, which is a really nice movie, and then to make two films with David Cronenberg, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Also, I wonder if you feel, as I do, that those two movies seem somewhat related, in that they are both about men with secret pasts who have a much greater capacity for violence than the people around then might have imagined...
First, Hidalgo was just sort of a - in some way a family movie, but in some other ways a very serious movie. I mean, I like horses, and I'm interested in history, and Native American history, in particular. And I was aware of what happened, in reality, in 1890 at Wounded Knee, and that it wasn't generally - you know, Dee Brown's book notwithstanding, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and specials that had been on TV about it, and a lot of other writings, but for the general population it's a forgotten kind of 'lie' in our history, and a real black mark, really. You know, close to three hundred, I guess, unarmed Lakota people were gunned down, and it was just a mess - you know, a lot of nervous soldiers shooting, and shooting each other, and just a mess, really - certainly not a shining moment in history. But, at the time, it was reported in the papers as a great victory for the U.S. Army, and revenge for Custer, and twenty-seven medals for bravery, I think, were handed out to these guys - and, you know, that was wrong. And I thought that in a popular entertainment kind of medium, you know, a movie that would reach millions of people, as it did and has done even more on DVD - I said that was worth doing just for that, just 'cause it shows that.
But, you know, without Lord of the Rings being successful, as it was, you know, I wouldn't have had that role, Frank Hopkins, and neither would I have gotten A History of Violence. You know, the fact that Dave wanted me to do it - he still needed the producer to say, "Yeah. Yeah, we can get behind that." So you need to get lucky, too, and I was in the right place at the right time for that. As far as violence that surprises people, I don't think - the violence in Eastern Promises - that it's surprising that this guy's capable of that. You know, you know right away that that's his job - I mean, I'm a babysitter, a bodyguard, a troubleshooter - that's pretty clear. I guess how tenacious he is maybe is a little bit of a surprise. And they do deal, as many of his movies do, you know, touch on that - the themes of identity, or confusion of identity, or reconstruction of personalities, or deconstruction of personalities, all that. But the difference, I think, between the two characters, generally, is that in the one case in History of Violence, the character is deluding himself, not just others, to some degree. In Eastern Promises, the character is not deluding himself at all. He knows exactly what he's doing, and the risks he's taking, and why he's doing what he's doing. He's very clear on his objectives. But, nonetheless, when he meets Naomi Watts' character, she brings certain things out of him - she provokes a further kind of compassion, maybe, a little more, or brings out a certain side of him, just as he brings out a certain side of her. It's an interesting kind of a very subtle dance between them, you know, where they don't connect at first, and then they gradually do, and then they basically start to understand each other's humor, and start to trust each other a little more, and it's kind of interesting.
I want to give you an opportunity to talk about the extensive preparation that you did for Eastern Promises, because everyone who works with you talks about how well prepared you always are - the things you did with the accent, and reading up on tattoos, and traveling to Russia and meeting with people who, I gather, would be something like your character...
Well, the first question: By the time I went to Russia, which was only a couple of weeks before we started shooting, I had done most of my preparation - I mean, I had met Russian people here, and I'd done a lot of research, read a lot, watched a lot of Russian movies, listened to a lot of Russian poets on recordings, and got translated by an academic translator here, a Russian, all of my dialog and all the dialog of any potential Russian speakers in any scene I was in, just to have it and make it available to David and whoever was interested, if they wanted to try any of it. And then I was lucky to meet someone else, who wasn't academic, who was actually a guy who had been in one of the prisons that, you know, I purport to have been in, and had a couple of tattoos, and just knew that life, and he was able to take what I translated and change it to where the slang was correct and, you know, that it was more like someone would speak from my background - my character's background - having been in those prisons and come from a certain part of the country, a specific part of the country. And all that was helpful, so that by the time I got to Russia I was, kind of, ready.
But that was really the icing on the cake, and there was a lot of hard to describe things that just made me feel more confident about who I was playing, and that I was on the right track, or that tweaked it in a certain way, you know? Once I had been in the village where I'm from, once I had seen the way people dress, and look at each other, and interact, and what they laugh about, and what they don't think is funny, how much or little they look at each other, how quiet or not quiet they are, you know, how it is to ride the subway, and the bus, and the train, and to walk around in towns, and cities, and countrysides, the weather, the food - all those things that you can read about, but to experience it is a whole 'nother thing. By the time I got to London from Russia, I was really ready to go, and I was ready to be useful to David, I think, and also to the other actors, you know, to Naomi. That 'otherness' that I represent was specific to me - what that otherness was - and therefore I believed in it, and it was easier, maybe, for her to believe in it, and hopefully the audience, you know? But it was pretty extensive compared to a lot of other roles 'cause there was so much I didn't know - the language, the culture, you know, and everything else.
Also - and I apologize, because I'm sure this is something you're a little sick of being asked to discuss, but - I have to ask about the steam bath scene. I gather the script was vague in terms of what the scene called for, but you were convinced that it was necessary to do it the way it was done, and I'm interested to know what led you to make that kind of a brave decision...
Well, we were pretty open with each other. You know, David said, "What do you think about this towel business?" - something like that - and, "What are we gonna do?" And I said, "Well, that's gonna come off pretty quick anyway, so it might as well be over my shoulders like I've seen guys do, you know, 'cause it's very hot the higher up you are - you know, your shoulders and head - so they often will cover themselves like that, just sit there, and stew. And it just seemed right. It's gonna come off anyway, so why not, for the sake of continuity and being efficient, just let it be off, 'cause it's gonna be off in a second anyway once I start getting thrown around. And he knew and I knew that, because I couldn't have pads on, that I was gonna get banged up a little bit, which I did. But, you know, fortunately he was very efficient, and shot it relatively quickly compared to what other directors would have done, you know? He accomplished the shooting of a very ambitious sequence visually and, you know, geographically [laughs] or whatever, with a minimum, really, of takes and angles. He really got it down fast.
One last thing that occurs to me: I remember that in 2004, after The Lord of the Rings, you had been invited to join the Academy, but declined. Now, with Oscar buzz surrounding another performance, I'm sure a question will be whether or not you are amenable to awards, or do you share Marlon Brando's idea...
No, no. I mean, look, first of all, I haven't any - much of any - experience with that. I mean, I was pleasantly surprised to hear, a week or two ago, that I had won an award in England for the British Independent Film Award - Best Actor, you know, and against some really fine actors over there. And that was a very nice surprise. I couldn't go 'cause I was in New Mexico shooting Appaloosa; I would have gone had I been able to. I was nominated for Spain's equivalent of the Oscar for Alatriste, also, earlier in the year. And I was able to get that Sunday to go and come back on the Monday morning. David gave me permission - I was shooting Eastern Promises at the time - and I went. Didn't win, but I went.
So my feeling about it is I'm not gonna go just to go to one of those things. I think it just seems like a terrifying thing. But if you're nominated, I think, in my opinion, you know, you go. And if I were, I would be flattered, and grateful, and all that - even knowing that it's kind of a crapshoot, and a lot of mediocre gets recognized, for some reason, above other stuff that should be, including, say, David Cronenberg, who's never been nominated, which I find puzzling, or Tim Burton. I mean, Werner Herzog probably won't get nominated for Rescue Dawn, but he should, as should some of the actors, but they probably won't. I guess the best way to describe it would be to quote, you know, of all people, Winston Churchill - and I'm not a big fan of his, by the way. I know that he was a pioneer in promoting the aerial bombing - just to try out the equipment, basically, in the 1920s - aerial bombing of Iraqi civilians. So he did, you know, a lot of good things that he's remembered for - said a lot of good things, anyway - but he also did a lot of bad things, so I have mixed feelings about him. But one thing he said about medals - his thoughts on medals - which you could apply if you just change the word 'medals' for 'awards' - he said something that I think I agree with, which is: "Never seek them. Always accept them. Never wear them." And so that's how I feel about it. If it happens, fine. I've also been in the business long enough that I know that if the movie - if any of the principal actors; or if the director, importantly, or the movie itself, even more importantly - gets nominated for an important award, that means that the movie probably will get to be in the movie theaters again in this country, which is where I think it ought to be, you know? I think people ought to get a chance to see it who haven't yet, 'cause it's a great movie. And I hope that, you know, Cronenberg won't, for some reason, get overlooked - unjustly, in my opinion - this time as he was completely for A History of Violence. I hope that won't happen. We'll see. If it doesn't happen, though, it's not gonna change my opinion of the movie. I'm not gonna suddenly go, "Well, it didn't get nominated for Best Movie. I guess it's not such a good movie." I know it's a good movie. [laughs] I don't need convincing, you know? But sure, it would be flattering.