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Notes from the Russian Underworld: ‘Eastern Promises’ Stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel

[IMG:L]A gripping, dark and complex crime thriller directed by acclaimed veteran David CronenbergEastern Promises reveals a merciless, underground world penetrated by a shockingly violent Eastern European mob in which Russian crime lords engage freely in brutality, murder, deceit, drug and sex-trafficking.

Reuniting with his History of Violence lead Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg, in his latest work showcases Mortensen‘s irrepressible talent as the actor inhabits a charismatic, intimidating and conflicted Russian mob driver.

Joining the brilliant cast of actors is Vincent Cassel, who has carved a niche as the ultimate bad guy in films like DerailedCassel remarkably inhabits the role of a volatile son governed by his notorious criminal aristocratic family. Additionally, film critics darling Naomi Watts plays a determined and deeply affected midwife, triggered by a young girl’s mysterious murder. In her quest to unveil the truth, she is propelled into a horrific world governed by ruthless thugs.

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While at the the Toronto Fest, Hollywood.com had the honor of deconstructing the essence of Cronenberg-inspired performances through discussing the intricate characters portrayed by three of Hollywood’s most gifted heavyweights. 

[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: Upon meeting him, was David Cronenberg different than you expected?
Naomi Watts: He was very different. I had seen his work and it’s fairly dark and twisted and mysterious and unusual. You expect to meet this man…and for him to be inaccessible and brooding, but he’s just the opposite. He’s very light and always cracking jokes. Very easy going and uncomplicated. The thing about David is that he just exudes confidence. And, obviously that trickles down the line. We moved so fast and sometimes only taking two takes at a time. He doesn’t have story boards everywhere or big discussions. I think he’s just done it so many times and knows what he’s doing and knows what he’s after.

Viggo Mortensen: I looked forward to working with David [again] because I felt a strong connection with him and we have a similar way of looking at making movies. It’s about making a story work. I knew from working with him, and him working with me, that it’s about serving the story and he knew I wouldn’t be obsessed with making my character work at the cost of the film.

HW: Naomi, did you and Viggo have an instant connection on-set?
NW:
 Viggo is extraordinary. I’ve always admired his work. He was so dedicated, and when we got on the set he was in that character from morning to night. I really loved that he was doing that because it not only helps him, but those around him. I was just very impressed with him and I’d love to work with him again.

[IMG:R]HW: Viggo is so menacing but yet, so charming. Did it scare you a little bit?
NW: Because he’s a brilliant actor. He’s one of the most gentle, soft, warm, caring people you’ll ever meet. But, when he turns on that edge. Mmph! Frightening. There’s something about his eyes. He has such light eyes. They’re sort of soft, but piercing at the same time. They can change in an instant.

HW: That one of the most heinous love scenes ever!
NW: It was actually. It’s too violent! I thought being on the stairs was probably one of the best sex scenes since the one on the kitchen table in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981).

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VM: I knew I’d be in good hands with David and it’d be a respectful set. And, that it’d be as awkward and vulnerable as it needed to be. We talked about it before and he asked, “How do you feel this should be?” And I said, “It should be real. It should be like the rest of the movie. It shouldn’t stand out for being artificial or your doing special things with the camera to avoid seeing certain things, or make it look pretty. I certainly shouldn’t be primping, you know, for the nudity, it should just be what it is.” It should be realistic and that’s what we did.

HW: Your character Nikolai is a maverick, of sorts.
VM:
He’s useful to both sides, but he makes them [the law men] nervous. I think it should feel, and I think it does, that he’s between a rock and a hard place. Who can he trust and who’s going to trust him? Where is he going to go? Like any good movie story at the end you think, “Wow? I can guess at it, but what’s going to happen to these people? Tomorrow is going to be complicated for these people.” That’s good story telling where the director provokes you, you ask yourself questions, but he doesn’t give you any answers. You think, I want to see this again.

[IMG:L]HW: There’s so much going on with your character–how do you find a balance so your character doesn’t come across as a caricature?
Vincent Cassel
: You play with things. You push it, but if it’s a little too much you tone it down. It wasn’t hard to do. It was pretty logical to act like a kid, like I was with my father. So, I could release the energy when he wasn’t there and act like a thug as a vengeance, really. That was the two main aspects and there’s not really a third. With or without my father. Act like a kid when he’s there. Act as a tough guy when he’s not.

HW: Naomi, how do you focus for your parts?
NW: I just always try to find the truth of the character and yeah, be real. Sometimes that does take some intellectualizing it–and asking questions and trying to work out the mechanics of the scene. But then, you just have to let it all go and just be present in the moment and connect with the actors.

HW: Do you think losing her father made her stronger?
NW: Well, her original motive is the child who is motherless from the offset of the film. I think it’s important to her to reunite that child with another family member. But then from a completely self-serving point of view, she thinks there’s a way for her to be the mother to this child because she lost her baby which is such a painful thing. As time goes on it gets more and more complicated and she’s completely fascinated by this whole world and cannot let go. She wants that drama. It breathes life back into her sort of deadened state.

[IMG:L]HW: After your character’s father passes away, she memorializes him by driving his motorcycle. Were you a biker chick before this?
NW:
I certainly wasn’t. That was all David. His obsession with motorbikes. I had ridden a scooter…I like those. He told me I’d be riding a motorbike and he sent me the picture and I was terrified. I did one day of practice on a training bike and that was easy. Then they moved me to the bike we’d be using in the film the very next day. It weighs 400 pounds. We were riding in the rain and very wet roads…so, yeah…it was a big feat. I’m not some thrill seeking person who has to do their own stunts, but I could see how excited David was and I’m all about impressing my director.

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HW: Well, it’s good for your character. It really gave her an edge.
NW: Yeah, yeah.

HW: Do you think your character, Anna, is sort of naive, or gutsy to step into this underworld?
NW: She couldn’t let go. That’s what I loved about her. I would have stepped away from it well before she…well, she didn’t step away? I loved that she was intrigued. It awakened her. She was sort of living in a depressed state and not connecting with anything, and hiding behind her work. This awakened her spirit and taught her more about herself and her identity, and her whole Russian side of herself that she perhaps denied being a first generation. It gave her meaning in her life.

[IMG:L]HW: Vince, what was it like filming in Russia?
VC: It’s funny because the first time I met David I was just back from Russia. Where I went for a few days but I stayed for ten days because I thought this place was crazy. It was the sort of place that you get there and you realize you might die on the corner of the street but otherwise everything is possible. Everything is possible. I came back to Russia and I said, “We have to go back. We have to go shoot a movie over. It’s the right moment. It’s not going to last. Now! It will get organized and it will be a normal place.”

HW: How was it doing a remake?
NW:
It was interesting. I saw the original. It was intense. What was interesting was that David wanted to do the exact same shots when remaking the film. It was a great experience. He works from a very disciplined place. Everything is very worked out and very structured. That makes it a lot harder to be organic because you have so many notes in your head.

VM: I love what Sidney Lumet said, “The work consists in making the best possible preparations for accidents to happen,” because they will. If you’re really ready and you’re really prepared and you know what your character is, or if you’re the director and you know what the story is, you’ll be able to use those luck or unlucky things that happen. And David does that. But other than that, I don’t think in terms of concepts. I don’t think he really does either … There’s a Russian proverb, “If you chase two rabbits you won’t catch either one of them.” As complicated as the movie is the only way to get all those layers is by being specific and doing one thing at a time and being really focused on that. If you’re thinking in terms of concepts you’re generalizing and you’re not getting to the heart of it.

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