Viggo Mortensen Talks ‘Eastern Promises’

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Eastern Promises is one of the best films 2007 had to offer. It just barely missed my Top Ten which is a testament to how strong a year it was. I watched it twice in theaters and about three times on DVD. I think David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen have a hell of a dynamic relationship working right now and I hope they continue finding projects with each other. I was able to interview both Viggo (via a teleconference) and Cronenberg (via the phone as well) and try to deconstruct a little of what makes the film so special. However, be aware of SPOILERS!!! as details of the plot and the oft-discussed ending will be touched on at some length.

You’ll notice I started both interviews the same way. Viggo and Cronenberg have now made two films that are so very different yet share so many of the same themes. They’re almost like two sides of the same coin. And without further adieu, we’ll begin with the Viggo Mortensen interview.

I’m interested, you have done two movies now with David Cronenberg. They both deal with organized crime. They both deal with identity issues. They have a family as the central theme in both films – brotherhood. And yet they could not be anymore different. I was wondering if you guys ever felt there was a danger of repeating yourselves?

VM: Well not really. I mean, one thing I like about Cronenberg as a director is that he doesn’t – not only he doesn’t reference like a lot of other even good directors do – other people’s work and other directors’ movies.

He doesn’t even reference himself really. Obviously it’s the same guy directing both History of Violence and Eastern Promises, for example. So there are going to be – I guess even unconsciously there are going to be traits that are in common. But I think that what makes him get better and better as a director and why he’s such an original voice is that he doesn’t work from a conceptual point of view. He doesn’t think I have to copy or avoid copying anything I’ve done before.

He tells a story on its own terms every time and I like to do the same as an actor. I think he always does that. And no, I wasn’t worried about it. I mean, there are certain things like you mentioned. There’s sort of a deconstruction of our idea of family or of nuclear family in both movies. There’s – which is not uncommon in his movies. There’s an identity issue.

But I mean, any good piece of work from an actor or director where there’s a story that involves people… people are complicated. All people are complicated and they’re different every day. Every day when we wake up we sort of 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.

So that’s not freakish or unusual. I would say that the two characters, from my point of view, the one I played in A History of Violence and the one I play in Eastern Promises – I guess one difference you could say is that 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 other character is necessarily – or he feels it’s necessary in History of Violence, deluding himself on some level. And I don’t think that’s the case in this story.

I’m curious – this is sort of a follow-up to the question. What attracts you to these, I guess you’d call them morally ambiguous or morally complicated characters? What is the attraction as an actor that really gets you into playing these roles?

VM: Well I mean, I think all people are morally ambiguous. I think also most – all people are somewhat unaware. With any character, I think the idea is to get to now and be that person.

Well it’s kind of ridiculous because it’s, I think, impossible to fully get to know and be someone that you’re not just like it’s impossible for us to constantly — unless you’re the most perfect monk that ever lived, and self-contemplation 24-hours a day — to fully and constantly know yourself and be aware. So – but it’s still worth a try. And I – no matter how simplistic on the page a character might seem, I always ask myself okay, if he’s described as this bad, bad person why is he bad?

In other words, when is he good? Or 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. 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. But I think that all people are contradictory in their behavior and in their presentation of their personality. I think it’s not unusual.

One of the things that I was struck by with the character of Nikolai were some of his physical characteristics and I’m thinking of the very straight, rigid posture and the slicked back hair, and the sunglasses. And I’m curious if these were details that you came up with on your own or did you collaborate with David Cronenberg on them, and what you think they add to the character?

VM: Well 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, and the director doesn’t make the crew and the cast feel included are movies that don’t usually turn out that well, and they’re not enjoyable shoots.

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 for example, the tattoos or something that was only mentioned in passing in the original script.

But then I found some information, a documentary and then books – that are sort of anthropological studies, specifically about the history of Russian criminal tattoos. I brought those to the attention of David and he took that, and brought it to Steven Knight, and that became incorporated. Then Denise Cronenberg, who’s a long time collaborator with David, she came up with the clothes and we just sort of fine tuned and picked particular kinds of shoes and suits. And it was – the outward – you know, the presentation outwardly of a character is obviously very important, especially because so much is concealed within. And the hair, the squareness and the certain rigidity and streamline look to the hair, the clothes, sunglasses, the watch, the – you know, all went with the posture and the behavior. It was all of a piece, but it was done in complete collaboration which I really enjoy.

You have worked with David Cronenberg, with Peter Jackson, Gus Van Sant, Brian De Palma – all of these fantastic auteurs really of our time. Are there any directors out there today that you are dying to work with? And are there any directors from time in memoriam that you think you would have really clicked with if they were still cooking?

VM: There’s a lot of – well not a lot. There’s not that many. I’d say there’s only a handful of directors that can do what David Cronenberg can do – that are that smart, that have used their experience that well and that are as great as artists. There’s not very many. So I mean, I don’t have complaints. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of people. But if there was someone who has passed away that I would have liked to work with above everyone else I would say it would be Carl Dreyer.

Really?

VM: A great Danish director, directed movies like the Passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud and Day of Wrath. And I – if you haven’t seen it, I recommend the Criterion version of the Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s from 1928, silent movie that’s years ahead of its time in terms of shooting techniques, angles and acting, too. It’s very…

And it made Anna Karina cry in the Godard film in…

VM: Oh, well there you go.

There you go. So what is it about Cronenberg that he brings to the table that is so different, that you think, from other directors?

VM:Well he has – first of all, he never loses his sense of play. He simulataneously takes his work and the storytelling extremely seriously and does not take himself at all seriously, or what we’re – you know, 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’s – basically has the same crew from movie to movie because they really enjoy working with him. And actors, including say Jeremy Irons who like me has worked with him twice – I just finished doing a Western in New Mexico that Jeremy was in, directed by Ed Harris.

Speaking both with Ed and Jeremy since they’ve worked with David Cronenberg and also Chris Walken – everybody has only the highest praise for him.

And I don’t think it’s an accident that actors generally do their best work, or close to it, for him. He is inclusive and he – you can feel it, that he welcomes your suggestions.

He’s smart enough and secure as a person, and as an artist, that he never feels it’s a threat for ideas, for (accidents) to come from the crew, from the cast. It’s all useful and what isn’t useful he has no problem saying so.

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 all 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 pads and – kneepads, elbow pads, wherever. But it was like all of the movie with Cronenberg, 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.

I mean, it really only took us just two days to do it and we did the bulk of it on the first day. The second day was sort of cleaning up some details. But mostly he just let it go, and pretty wide.

You kind of – he’s not really hiding anything and he’s not masking, or embellishing with camera technique or anything. It’s just in your face work of nature and survival. And I thought on an emotional level, on a physical level, on a visual level it was good. It was satisfying.

Well it was very strong because your character is so vulnerable.

VM: And it’s very important. I mean, it’s certainly not gratuitous because at the end of it, when that scene happens and in the aftermath if the character can survive, everything’s changed. Nikolai is quite a wary individual.

He needs to be. He’s on guard and he’s – not much gets by him. But his opponent, or his nemesis — Armin Mueller-Stahl’s character — he knew he was crafty. But he is much more clever than he had imagined. He’s caught off guard by…

Right, because he’s such a hidden character as I think people were talking about before with the sunglasses.

VM: Yeah.

…and his whole identity is hidden.

VM: Yeah. And he’s very good at protecting himself and being a step ahead of everyone else. But as it turns out, Armin’s character is a step ahead of him.

Right. Then they suddenly like totally, literally exposed.

VM: Yeah, and that makes for good drama, that’s for sure.

Did you have to like train especially hard for this film?

VM: Well, I went to Russia for a couple of weeks and one of the things that I found over there were some manuals that were military manuals on the training of hand to hand combat, ways of defending yourself and ways of preempting an attack, or just attacking someone just using your hands or a knife, or defending yourself against someone with a knife, or turning the knife against them. We used some of that. Fortunately the two guys in that fight – one of them was from Georgia in former Soviet Union and had been in the Russian military, and had trained using those techniques. So he understood them and he was helpful to us. He was able to do it as – in an athletic sense. So he didn’t have to be doubled.

The other guy, the big guy, was a British – well Turkish really origin – boxer. So they were both really good athletes and very capable of carrying out that fight. They were good dance partners and very helpful to me … And there are some elements that are similar to some of the moves in History of Violence, but they’re a little different, some of the knife work and some of the ways of turning the knife against the guy and all that.

I’d like to take you right to the last scene of the movie – what we talk about moral ambiguity and the fact that there is no black and white, and that sort of thing. When Nikolai is sitting there in the restaurant and he’s flipping the watch back and forth, and it looks like he’s upgraded his suit a bit. I’d love to know what was going through his mind at that point because he looked like he could have gone in several different directions.

Well that’s one sign that it was a good story, well told – the fact that you even have the questions. Most movies, even halfway decent movies, you don’t walk away with as many questions. And on a second viewing, you don’t have more questions, you have less and you see flaws. With Eastern Promises, I think each time you see it you see more and you have more questions and 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.

Intentionally David put me in the same booth where Armin was sitting before – sort of in the same position, also with a newspaper, a bottle of vodka a suit, and with a particular color of tie to symbolize his ascension, I guess, In a way, I think one feeling you get from it — I did — is beware of what you wish for, because… now what?

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 it will continue, and if you’re particularly impatient, you might feel it’s incomplete. Well life is never complete. I think it asks a lot of questions. It 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.

At the end of History of Violence — just like with Eastern Promises — you ask yourself well now what? What’s going to happen to these people? What’s going to happen tomorrow? What are they really thinking? What is in this character’s mind? Is he going to go one way or another? Is he satisfied? Is he unsatisfied? How much loss is there? How much has he given up in order to do what he feels is the right thing? It’s this sort of relentless determination to take the journey he’s taken and it has put him in a place of no return, which is dramatically interesting.

Extremely, yeah. It kind of forces us to think about our own values that we place on him while he’s there in that position.

VM: Yeah. I think History of Violence, too, it’s like wow – duh, why is he there and what are they going to do now? And can that work? And can she forgive? And will they be good? Will they be bad? Is violence ever justified? All these unanswered questions.

I think that’s interesting; in the end both movies for me are – the possibility of compassion, no matter how brutal the circumstances, or how unrewarding and even dangerous it might be to show compassion to do the right thing only because it’s the right thing – that that’s possible. And it’s fascinating that people do that and it’s hard to explain why.

Why some fall along the wayside and don’t.

VM: Yeah.

Do you see – like in a case where there are open-ended possibilities, do you ever see yourself going back to a character like Nikolai?

VM: It’s funny because there’s several people that have asked that and I think they’ve asked David, and he’s even sort of jokingly asked me, and maybe he’s even thinking about it. You could easily carry on. I mean, just as you could with History of Violence, but especially with this, you know. On some level… is it Bourne Ultimatum? What’s going to happen next?

You could – I don’t know, Nikolai could go to Russia to hide out or he could – who knows what? Or 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, or to exact revenge?

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, or used? I mean, all of those things. It’s true, there is a lot of possibilities. You could tell any number of stories about it.

Not that you have to. First it was like oh yeah, sure, and then laughing we were making up scenarios as we were touring around Europe promoting the movie, David and I. Then you start to think, well hell, maybe it could. I don’t know. I mean… I’d be up – certainly with him directing. If he came up with a really good story idea, why the hell not? It might be interesting?

But that doesn’t mean I think the movie is incomplete. I think it’s perfectly incomplete like life is. I think it really is like History of Violence, an almost perfect — which is also impossible — in an almost perfect construction. It’s creatively, artistically and intellectually satisfying. It works on so many levels and I think that – no disrespect for other directors, including the directors in movies that sort of creep their way through promotion or whatever, or good luck, onto these year end best of lists. I’d say that half of those movies or several of them anyway – and those directors – they may be nice people and well intended, but they are on a much lower level in terms of art and movie-making, and storytelling than David Cronenberg.

There is – in comparison, even if they’re good on their own terms, they are mediocre, and time will prove it. His – Eastern Promises, I think, is a movie that people will look at years from now whether in film school or on DVD, or whatever. Same with History of Violence and you can’t say that about most movies, even ones that people think are good the first time.

Eventually you don’t even want to see them, and when you see them, you go well maybe it’s not so great. The opposite is true of his. They get kind of better in some way with each viewing, I think.

Have you received any critiques from Russian mobsters?

VM: Not mobsters, but from Russian journalists. Several have complimented us on going to great lengths to try to be accurate in some ways about behavior and in some cases, about language, because they’re accustomed to seeing us do a really bad job and just seeing Europeans that are not Russians making movies or playing characters that are Russians. I think it’s on a par with the way it used to be as far as the depictions of Native Americans or Spanish-speaking characters that used to be in the ’40s and the ’50s, and ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and still once in awhile but not so much anymore – that you could do a terrible job with the language and the ethnic aspects of Native Americans and Hispanics, for example and nobody would care. Then once you see it done right a couple of times or better, then there’s a higher standard required. I think that’s going to happen with Russians, as well, when they’re portrayed in movies. I mean, it is the biggest country in the world.

Journalists have told us they were pleasantly surprised to see us go to an effort where other people maybe hadn’t – people who should have known better and just didn’t even really try very hard. So I think that maybe we helped to set the bar a little higher as far as how Russians are depicted. I hope so.


Eastern Promises hits DVD and HD DVD on December 26, for more information click here.

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