[IMG:L]Viggo Mortensen may have convinced audiences he is a man of extreme talent and many faces, but it seems that for the first time in his career Mortensen has found his creative soul mate. Together with David Cronenberg, he has made two award-winning movies that despite many similarities could not be more different.
The main thing these films have in common is the admiration of viewers and critics alike. Hollywood.com caught up with Mortensen to discuss his character Nikolai, and why his collaboration with Cronenberg is so gratifying.
Hollywood.com: You have done two movies now with David Cronenberg that both deal with organized crime and identity issues. Do you ever feel there was a danger of repeating yourselves?
Viggo Mortensen: Well ... not really. One thing I like about Cronenberg as a director is that he doesn’t reference like a lot of other directors do. Obviously it’s the same guy directing both History of Violence and Eastern Promises, so there are going to be traits in common. He tells a story on its own terms every time and I like to do the same as an actor. I wasn’t worried about it. Every day when we wake up we put together our personalities. We deal with different people we encounter in the course of a day in different ways. We present ourselves in different ways. In Eastern Promises my character is quite clear on who he is and what he is attempting to do, what he is sacrificing, what’s at stake. He’s not lying to himself in any way, really, whereas the character in History of Violence is deluding himself on some level.
[IMG:R]HW: What attracts you to these morally ambiguous characters?
VM: I think all people are morally ambiguous. I think it’s impossible to fully and constantly know yourself and be aware, but it’s still worth a try. And I always ask myself; if he’s described as this bad, bad person why is he bad? In other words, when is he good? What is his potential to not be bad? What triggers his badness? Likewise, if someone seems to be just the soul of goodness, there must be something else to it, you know. I mean, I just think people are endlessly interesting no matter what you’re playing as an actor. I think all people are interesting. So I don’t consciously look for someone who is morally ambiguous.
HW: Nikolai’s physical characteristics--the straight, rigid posture, the slicked back hair, and the sunglasses--were these details you came up with on your own or did you collaborate with David Cronenberg?
VM: It was definitely a collaboration. I like to work that way. I enjoy the teamwork aspect of movies and movies where teamwork isn't encouraged don’t usually turn out that well. In the case of Nikolai, Mary-Lou Green basically came up with the idea and David had his input, and so did I as far as the hair, the tattoos or something that was only mentioned in passing in the original script. I found some information about the history of Russian criminal tattoos and I brought those to the attention of David and he brought it to Steven Knight, and that became incorporated. And then Denise Cronenberg (David Cronenberg’s sister, and costume designer) came up with the clothes and we just sort of fine-tuned and picked particular kinds of shoes and suits. It was done in complete collaboration which I really enjoy.
HW: So what does Cronenberg bring to the table that is so different from other directors?
VM: He never loses his sense of play, you know. He simultaneously takes his work and the storytelling extremely seriously and does not take himself at all seriously. In other words, he’s not heavy-handed as an artist or as a person. He’s got a very subtle touch and he’s got a good sense of humor. He’s able to -- better than anyone I’ve seen -- create a very relaxed, productive atmosphere on the set. And that’s why he basically has the same crew from movie to movie because they really enjoy working with him. I don’t think it’s an accident that actors generally do their best work, or close to it, for him, because he is inclusive and you can feel that he welcomes your suggestions.
[IMG:R]HW: I have to ask you about that steam room fight. Was that a tough shoot to do?
VM: Well it was physically somewhat painful and I was sore afterwards, but I knew that would be the case just the way the scene was laid out and the fact that, for obvious reasons, there’s no kneepads or elbow pads. But like all of the movie, it was really interesting to shoot because he’s so clever about the construction of his sequences. And it was satisfying. I mean, I thought it was done the way it should have been done and it was done very efficiently. It really only took us two days to do it and we did the bulk of it on the first day. It’s just in-your-face work of nature and survival, you know, and I thought on an emotional level, on a physical level, on a visual level it was good. It was satisfying. It’s certainly not gratuitous because at the end of it, you know that everything’s changed. [Nikolai]’s very good at protecting himself and being a step ahead of everyone else, but as it turns out, Armin [Mueller Stahl]’s character is a step ahead of him
HW: When Nikolai is sitting there in the restaurant and he’s flipping the watch back and forth, what was going through his mind? He looked like he could have gone in several different directions...
VM: Well that’s one sign that it was a well told story, the fact that you even have the questions. Most movies, even halfway decent movies, you don’t walk away with as many questions. I’m not going to tell you what he was thinking. I know what he was thinking, obviously, but it’s good that you wonder. David put me in the same booth where Armin was sitting before - in the same position, with a newspaper, also with a bottle of vodka and with a suit, and with a particular color of tie to symbolize his ascension. I think one feeling you get from it--I did--is; beware of what you wish for, because now what? And what’s good about this movie in the same sense as History of Violence was good and satisfying on an artistic level is that at the end of the story you feel that it will continue. Life is never complete. [The film] doesn't give you answers. You have to think for yourself and I think that’s the highest form of respect you can pay an audience member.
HW: Do you ever see yourself going back to the character of Nikolai?
VM: It’s funny because there’s several people that have asked that. You could easily carry on. Nikolai could go to Russia to hide out or when Armin gets out of jail, what’s he going to do? Or even from jail, who is he going to direct to try to regain what was his? How safe is the uncle? How safe is Anna? What is Kirill going to think? How long is it going to take him to realize that in some sense he’s been betrayed? All of those things. You could tell any number of stories about it. But I don’t think the movie is incomplete. I think it’s perfectly incomplete like life is.
[IMG:L]Q&A with Director David Cronenberg
After years of collaborating with some of the most respected actors in the world, David Cronenberg seems to have found his creative soul mate in Viggo Mortensen. Together they have made two award-winning movies that despite many similarities could not be more different. The main thing these films have in common is the admiration of viewers and critics alike. Hollywood.com caught up with the legendary director to discuss the filmmaking process, how to research the Russian mob, and why Viggo is his go-to guy.
HW: You write a lot of your films, but you didn’t write this one. How is your approach different when making something that didn’t come from your imagination?
David Cronenberg: Well, it’s easier.
DC: Well, sure, because writing an original screenplay is very, very difficult. So when I have a project that’s not my own, I have immediately a lot more objectivity. And it’s still a collaboration. In my early days, when I had written all my own screenplays, I thought you can’t be a real filmmaker unless you write your own screenplays. But then The Dead Zone came along as a project and I really wanted to do it and I had a very good experience with that. It felt really good to me and then I realized that it’s a very interesting and valuable thing to be able to mix your own blood with somebody else’s – in that case, Stephen King’s. You know, it’s like a marriage. You are doing something that neither one of you would have done on your own and you create a unique thing. So after The Dead Zone, I stopped worrying about whether I was writing it myself or somebody else was writing or it. If everything is working properly, it’s pretty much equally satisfying, you know? I don’t really find it that different.
HW: How did the Eastern Promises script change from what it originally was?
DC: It changed a huge amount, especially the last third of it. In Steve Knight’s original script, Anna and Nikolai end up together, the baby is sent to Russia to the baby’s grandmother and Nikolai’s cover is blown. Therefore, he’s no longer able to be part of the mob. And that’s pretty different.
[IMG:R]HW: You ended it in such a way that you could all return for a sequel...
DC: Yes. I mean, we were mostly worried about making the movie work on its own, but it’s true that a lot of people have said that they were just dying for more of Nikolai. I don’t know about a sequel, but I think there’s lots more to be said. I mean, we did a lot of interesting research that we couldn’t really use in one movie. So there’s a lot of interesting things that would immediately pop to mind if we talked about a sequel.
HW: What kind of resources did you use to research the Russian mob?
DC: Viggo and I in particular, we did things from reading Dostoyevsky novels to watching documentaries on Russian prisons to Viggo going to Russia on his own without any guide or translator and traveling to Siberia. He also met a couple of ex-prisoners -Russian criminals- in LA and talked to them about their mentality and about tattoos and about the kind of Russian that they would speak on the streets and stuff like that. Many levels of research that you can do without necessarily talking to any mobsters.
HW: Is Viggo the kind of guy who would search out trouble for the sake of research?
DC: No, definitely not. What he was trying to do was to avoid being visible at all. Being invisible is very important to an actor and to any artist, really. I mean, in this celebrity crazed era, we kind of lose sight of that. But you need to observe people who are not observing you. You don’t want their behavior to change because they’re suddenly in the presence of a famous person. You want to see how they smoke a cigarette, how they talk to each other, how they drink a beer. All of these things are crucial to creating a character.
HW: Do you think that made his character stronger?
DC: Absolutely. I mean, especially the feedback that we’ve gotten from Russians is astonishing, you know. They totally can’t believe he’s not Russian. It’s not just the way that he speaks, but the way he moves and holds himself and sort of the dark humor that’s evident in his face even when he’s not saying anything. It’s very Russian. After all, an actor, all he has to use as his instrument is his body; his face, his voice, the way he stands and so on. So all of that was very important and that’s why Nikolai is so convincing.
[IMG:R]HW: Is Viggo now your go-to guy? Or is it coincidence that you felt like both these projects were perfect for him?
DC: I love Viggo. And basically I’d love to have him in every movie that I direct because he’s such a wonderful ally. But at the same time, you don’t do an actor a favor by miscasting him. So if I hadn’t thought he was the best guy for that role, I wouldn’t have offered it to him. I always thought he looked very Slavic, you know, that there was some Russian in him somewhere. And then when I started to read this script, it was obvious to go to Viggo for that.
HW: Of course. You also have Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, and I imagine all these people come to you for parts in movies. How does casting in general work for your movies?
DC: Well, you know, I never assume that people want to work with me. In fact, I’ve really come to feel that most of the time it’s the role more than anything else. I mean, if an actor’s desperate to play that role, he’ll usually find a way to convince himself that the director’s okay. But at the same time, I do have a pretty good reputation amongst actors and so they’re not likely to just dismiss my offer out of hand if I am interested in them. So casting is kind of a black art. It involves many, many strange things. But mainly, it’s really the director’s responsibility ultimately to make sure that the actors all seem like they’re in the same movie. We’ve all seen movies where there’s one or two actors who seem to be somewhere else somehow. And I would blame the director for that.
HW: Why did you feel that Naomi Watts was good for this role?
DC: The role required a woman who was believable as an English midwife. Of course she’s got to be attractive in the way that Viggo’s character is attractive; that is, like a real person. We all talk about chemistry, but it’s a strange thing. I never got to see Viggo and Naomi together until we were shooting. So I have to imagine, from knowing her work and his work; will they have some chemistry on the set? Will it work? So once again, it’s a mysterious thing.
[IMG:R]HW: Your actors speak Turkish and Russian. Was language an issue?
DC: Yeah, I think everybody was concerned about it, because--and not to anyone’s surprise--we discovered that you’re not going to be able to find five great Russian actors who can also speak English really well. And therefore, you’re going to have to start creating a common Russian accent for an American, a Frenchman, a German; Armin, and a Pole; Jerzy Skolimowski. And then they all have to sound like they come from the same country. It was a lot of work.
HW: It must be such a compliment then, to have all these Russians say it was believable!
DC: Absolutely. I mean, Viggo’s Russian in particular. When we showed it in Toronto, a Russian journalist came up to him and started speaking Russian to him because she was sure that he was fluent in Russian, which he isn’t. So obviously he had mastered it enough to make it completely convincing.
Eastern Promises will be available on DVD Dec. 23, 2007.