Viggo Mortensen was busted the other day for smoking at the Ritz-Carlton, one of the city’s fine hostelries.
“It could be God, and he couldn’t do it,” sniffed one of the hotel’s staff upon discovering an hors d’oeuvre plate full of butts in a room Mortensen had vacated.
Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 14 Sep 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
The actor was mortified when told later of his blunder. He had been on the phone, doing some interviews about his new movie, and lit up, forgetting that it was both improper and illegal.
He smokes a lot, maybe he’s even a chain-smoker, and he used a burning cigarette to great effect as a prop in “Eastern Promises.”
“Even a simple thing, as when he’s cutting the fingers off the corpse with his necktie flung over the shoulder,” said director David Cronenberg, “and putting the cigarette out on his tongue to intimidate this guy who is demeaning him as just being a driver—that’s all Viggo. That’s not in the script. That’s something Viggo came up with that I loved.”
In the noirish thriller “Eastern Promises,” set in the underbelly of modern-day London, Mortensen plays a brooding chauffeur who works for a Russian mob family. Naomi Watts is a midwife who finds the diary of a dead 14-year-old prostitute and, while trying to get it translated, crosses paths with the mob family and Nikolai Luzhin, the chauffeur.
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Jerzy Skolimowski and Sinead Cusack also star. “Eastern Promises” is the work of Steven Knight, whose “Dirty Pretty Things” screenplay earned an Oscar nomination in 2004.
Cronenberg and Mortensen are sitting together in a room at the Ritz. They laugh a lot. Cronenberg loves to tease the actor, who previously worked for him on “A History of Violence,” in 2005. And when it came time to cast “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg had Mortensen at the top of his list for Nikolai.
“We had a very good time on `A History of Violence,’ and so it was natural for me to think that I want to do every movie with Viggo. Even though he went off and did movies with somebody else, I forgive him,” Cronenberg said, laughing. “When I got the script and started to read the role of Nikolai, it reminded me how much I thought Viggo had a Slavic look. He is right here, we can look at him.”
Mortensen made a face.
“I could really see Viggo in that role. You don’t do an actor a favor by miscasting him, even if he’s a good friend and you like working with him,” said Cronenberg, who, to this point, has done all the talking. “I absolutely thought he would be great for the role, and in particular because I know he has a musical ear for languages.”
He wanted Nikolai to be able to speak English with a Russian accent and to speak Russian convincingly.
And Mortensen, known for thoroughly researching his movie roles, introduced Cronenberg to the autobiographical body tattoos favored by Russian criminals. He read about them in a book. And while the storytelling tattoos are pivotal to the plot, they weren’t a part of Knight’s script.
“I’ve always done things the same way,” said Mortensen, who until now has sat quietly, hands clasped, “looking at what has happened since the character was born, from page one of the script, so that I bring a complete person to the director. I feel safe bringing things to David that weren’t on the page, because he knows it’s good for the movie to make people feel safe and like they are truly collaborators.”
Cronenberg chuckled. “Yes, essentially I am very lazy, and I only hire people who will do all the work for me.”
“And then he can take credit for it,” Mortensen said, deadpan.
With “Eastern Promises,” the duo extend their history of violence. This time, there are only blades, no guns.
“For me,” Cronenberg said, “violence is the destruction of the human body. That’s tragic and sad, and so I insist on that in the movies. I don’t let the audience off the hook, because if you use knives, you can’t even pretend to be at a distance from somebody. You have to touch them. If you stick a knife in somebody, you’re feeling them. It is the essence of violence.”
And the scene most likely to have audiences cringing at the violence takes place in a London bathhouse when Mortensen’s character, clad only in a towel, is attacked by two men armed with knives. The scene plays out almost entirely with Mortensen in the nude. He does his own fighting.
The discussion about whether he would be naked lasted about 10 seconds, said Cronenberg. It was necessary.
Mortensen and the villains battle it out on a tile floor, which left them all a little battered.
“My makeup guy told me, `I’m spending more time covering up the bruises than I am putting on the tattoos.’ Naturally, I enjoyed that,” said Cronenberg, grinning.
“Thank goodness they shot it quickly, because if it had gone on much longer, I don’t know,” Mortensen said.
On this day, he was wearing a slightly shiny, dark suit and the pointy beard and mustache he grew for the Western “Appaloosa,” which Ed Harris is directing. He kind of looked like a big-screen Eastern European mobster.
“Nikolai’s suits were nicer, but I do have his shoes,” said Mortensen.
“And I have his watch,” said Cronenberg. “It’s the one on the movie poster.”
“My watch,” Mortensen said.
The shoes are English, ankle-high with a string tie. The watch is by Jaeger-LeCoultre and retails for a few thousand dollars.
“My production designer said these Russians get wealthy very quickly,” said Cronenberg, “and they very quickly come to understand what’s expensive and flashy and has an aura of elitism. They like that, to feel superior, and so they would never drive an Audi, they would only drive a Mercedes. They would only wear Armani or Christian Dior, and so this watch company said they would be interested in providing watches for the movie, and we feel these guys would look for something that is quite elitist.
“I can tell you that the watch Kirill (the mob boss’ son, played by Cassel) wears cost 10,000 pounds, which is over $20,000. This one is less expensive, because Viggo is just a chauffeur.”
“The shoes are pretty nice,” Mortensen said.
“In the movie,” said Cronenberg, “Viggo was wearing Armani. We don’t allow him on the street like that, because he can’t carry off the class when he’s being himself.”