Eastern Promises: Viggo Mortensen's Brilliant Performance

“Eastern Promises” is brought to the screen through a unique creative collaboration among a Canadian auteur, a British screenwriter, producers and crew from countries as well as the U.S., and a lead man able to fully inhabit a complex character.

Even before director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen had teamed up for the acclaimed film, “A History of Violence,” screenwriter Steve Knight was searching for a follow-up to his first feature, “Dirty Pretty Things.” Knight wanted to keep writing about intriguing subject matter–and people and places in London that are often overlooked.

Knight reflects, “I wrote 'Dirty Pretty Things' because I was interested in the stories of the 'other London' beneath the surface, the London of newly arrived immigrants. I felt it was an area that could be explored in more than one feature. 'Dirty Pretty Things' was about an African and a Turk, and 'Eastern Promises' is about another community and another experience.”

Originally, Knight had been commissioned to write a one-hour telefilm about Eastern European “people traffic.” Using that trade as a point of origin (both geographically and character-wise), his narrative moved into exploring those who profit from it. This criminal brotherhood is the Vory V Zakone (pronounced “voree sack-o-nee”), “which is a real organization,” reveals Knight. It soon became apparent that the script warranted a feature film.

Cronenberg read the script and was “immediately sucked” into this intense little world of the criminal subculture in London. “In a sense, Steve has reinvented the crime movie, because the script accesses all the great parts of that genre while inverting and subverting them in an interesting way.”

Only One Actor Considered: Viggo

Cronenberg realized that the film offered a wonderful character study–particularly of Nikolai. There was only one actor considered for the lead role of the conflicted Vory V Zakone foot soldier Nikolai Luzhin. Cronenberg muses, “When I worked with Viggo Mortensen on A History of Violence, I noted that he had a kind of Russian or Slavic look to him. He is in fact half-Danish.”

Viggo Mortensen's Brilliance

Says the director: “After our experience on A History of Violence, I wanted to work with Viggo again. In reading the script, I immediately thought of him. Viggo is a brilliant actor, beyond what people realize, and I believe that with 'Eastern Promises, that is going to be more evident.”

Viggo's Character

For Cronenberg, “Viggo's character this time is very precise and controlled, and highly cautious. Nikolai seems at first glance to be a thug, but he also has a softness, and is therefore strong and delicate at the same time.” “When we first meet Nikolai, he's almost dead inside,” adds Knight. “He lives in a world of violence and as such is a violent person. But there is also a gentleness about him that comes as a surprise to Anna.”

Viggo Mortensen on his Role

Mortensen observes: “Nikolai is a man who has a lot of secrets. He came to London by way of the Ural mountain region, which is a kind of dividing mountain range a couple of time zones east of Moscow on the edge of the Siberian plain. He's seen a lot and, being close to Kirill, is on the front lines of the family's doings.”

Preparation in Russia

Viggo's assessment of the character's history comes from an informed perspective; while preparing for the part, Mortensen spent weeks in Russia. He traveled to the Urals, among other places. He immersed himself in Russian culture, watching Russian movies and television, reading or re-reading the works of authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, listening to spoken-word tapes, and testing his knowledge of the language–which he had studied in advance of the trip. He also did research on the sex trafficking trade and the gangs that are based in the Ural area.

Knight marvels, “He went away and immersed himself in that world–and spent time with a lot of very disreputable Russian people! I wrote the lines, but the heart and soul of Nikolai is really from Viggo.” During the film shoot, Mortensen had with him artifacts that he had brought back from Russia, including worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters. He decorated his trailer with copies of Russian icons, and created an atmosphere conducive to maintaining his character, facts that he had brought back from Russia, including worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters. He decorated his trailer with copies of Russian icons, and created an atmosphere conducive to maintaining his character.

Speaking Russian

Cronenberg reports, “Viggo learned to speak Russian quite well for this role. He brings the intensity and humor and subtlety to Nikolai that he brings to every performance, all the while speaking with a Russian accent, so his voice has a different timbre than you've heard in his other movies. It's a complete transformation from the inside out. He played two characters, really, in 'A History of Violence,' and I saw traces of neither one of them in his portrayal of Nikolai.”

Viggo's Attention to Detail

Says Webster, “Among actors, Viggo is completely unique in my experience because of his attention to detail; the research he did–months before we started to film–was incredible. He is an artist in his own right and brings an artist's sensibility to the process, as well as an actor's craft.”

Mortensen says, “Being able to think about what I'd seen, by going to where the character was from, provides something real for scenes. I believe it's helpful to the other actors, too, if I'm convincing.”

Viggo and Naomi Watts

To play opposite Mortensen, the production needed an actress of comparable stature. In Naomi Watts, they found her. Cronenberg notes, “Naomi has such respect in the acting community; there's nobody who doesn't say she's a fantastic actress–as well as a total delight to work with. Both those things proved to be true. She's incredibly easy to direct because she just gets it right away on the most subtle level. I'm sure there's a lot of internal work that she does, but I never saw it. She would come to the set and nail it immediately. She gets the whole picture and accesses the inner life of the character. Of course, she's a great beauty and her beauty is so valuable for her as an actress because it's a down-to-earth, real beauty. It's not so exotic that it's hard for her to play a regular person. She can play a regular person and still glow.

Dressing Virgo as Nikolai

Costume designer Denise Cronenberg (David's wife) explains: “As Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen needed to be intimidating, yet there was a limitation because technically he is a chauffeur for the family. So the trick was to dress him in a suit and tie, dress shirt, coat and gloves, and smart sunglasses, all of which had convey that there is more to him. He would just absorb the character when he put the clothes on–even the shoes helped him get into it.”

Viggo's Tattoos

“Once Viggo Mortensen decides to take on a role, he's completely into it and the greatest collaborator you can have,” remarks David Cronenberg. Naomi Watts adds, “Working with Viggo was extraordinary. He was so into his character that I could tell he was upset to leave Nikolai behind! Paul Webster reveals, “Viggo's one-man research engine helped mold David's thinking about the script “and fed into the script in a great way. It informed our whole process.”

Particularly helpful to all, for an important story and visual element of Eastern Promises, was Alix Lambert's documentary The Mark of Cain, which she had filmed in Russian prisons; Mortensen studied her book (among others) on the same subject, namely, criminal tattoos. Eastern Promises, was Alix Lambert's documentary The Mark of Cain, which she had filmed in Russian prisons; Mortensen studied her book (among others) on the same subject, namely, criminal tattoos.

This facet of Mortensen's research became “a key pivot point for our approach to refining the script with Steve,” notes Cronenberg. “Viggo sent me books on Russian criminal tattoos which were filled with not just photos and diagrams but also texts about the meanings of tattoos. He also sent me The Mark of Cain. There's this whole hidden world of symbolism that is immediately fascinating.”

Cronenberg in turn sent the books and the documentary to Knight, who incorporated the tattoo elements into the screenplay. Cronenberg says, “Tattoos suddenly became an intense metaphor and symbol in the movie. It's a specialized world that is in fact dying because of the changes that have happened in Russia in the last decade.

“The tattoos are tied to an older Russian criminal caste with a real structure and hierarchy–the Vory V Zakone, which is literally translated as 'Thieves in law.' It's a brotherhood of thieves. The old saying goes, “There is no honor among thieves,” but what we found out was that the Vory has, if not honor, than at least a code that is adhered to–and it's a very brutal one.”

Charged with making it somewhat easier on all concerned for the tattoo sequence and shots in Eastern Promises, Carol Spier created a tattoo tool based on her staff's research at the Oxford Tattoo Museum. However, hers was designed to not pierce the skin. The stars being tattooed on Nikolai's knees in the key Vory sequence convey that he will never have to kneel down before authority, as he is raised to the highest rank in the brotherhood. It took one member of Stephan Dupuis's staff 4 hours to apply 43 tattoos on Mortensen for the full-body tattoo sequence. The tattoos, which were transfers, ranged from fingernail-sized to one that covered most of the actor's back. Several encircled his wrists, ankles, and fingers.

Keeping it all in the film family, as opposed to the crime family, Russian dialect coach Olegar Fedoro did double duty by appearing on-screen as the tattooist who works on Nikolai. “Viggo's body was a canvas for me,” he reports. “Instead of a brush, I was using a little electric machine,” the crime family, Russian dialect coach Olegar Fedoro did double duty by appearing on-screen as the tattooist who works on Nikolai. “Viggo's body was a canvas for me,” he reports. “Instead of a brush, I was using a little electric machine.”

Among the 43 tattoos are Skull With Flowers, Smoking Skull, Tiger, Star, Virgin Mary with Child, Woman with Knife, Snake & Dagger, Scorpion, Sailing Ship, Naked Angel on a Wheel, Jesus, Grim Reaper, Hot Cross Button, Coppolas, Epaulettes, Crow, Cross, Cat with Pipe, Candelabra, Button, Barbed Wire, Ankle Chain, and the 7 assorted Finger Tattoos–12 of the tattoos are Russian sayings.

Mortensen notes, “Some of the tattoos were humorous, and some were quite poetic. On the instep of my right foot, one said 'Where are you going' On the instep of the other foot, another said, 'What the hell do you care' One of my favorites said, 'Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream,' which is so beautiful and sad. Another said, 'I'm a slave to fate but no lackey to the law,' which translates to, 'I'll accept my lot in life without complaining, but don't expect me to show you any respect or listen to anything you say; I don't care how hard you hit me.”

“These tattoos tied in with the so-called honorable thief who has a complete lack of respect for authority, no matter where it's coming from. There is, in the Vory, a respect for those who don't respect authority. As crude as they can be, there is real attention to history and imagery. For example, the Ankle Chain ones refer back to the time of Peter the Great, when prisoners were commonly shackled by the ankles. The crucifix on my chest denotes that I am a thief in good standing; it has nothing to do with religion. The three church domes on my back represent three different prison sentences, while the St. Petersburg cross on my finger is a symbol for having been in a prison
there.”

Mortensen's in-character tattoos for Nikolai were so authentic-looking that when the actor visited a Russian restaurant, diners fell silent, thinking that a top Vory had entered. However, once he spoke English, many visibly relaxed–although, reveals colleague Armin Mueller-Stahl, I was told that some of them actually left.”

Viggo and Dostoevsky

The director elaborates, Viggo Mortensen and I were both reading Dostoevsky– as it turned out, the same book: Demons, a.k.a. The Possessed. Much of what's written by that author permeated his portrayal of Nikolai. The combination of the texture of his voice and his face with the weathered streets and the dilapidated interiors gave us a strongly authentic foundation. The coach monitored Mortensen closely: “My goal was that when people in Moscow see this film, they say, 'I didn't know he was Russian.' We began preparing when Viggo came back from Russia, where he was very inspired. He's a stronger linguist than most actors.”

While dialogue coach Andrew Jack also advised on the Russian accents, he mostly concentrated on making sure that actors spoke English with an appropriate Eastern European accent. Extra effort was required by and with Vincent Cassel (who is French) and Mueller-Stahl (who grew up in East Berlin) in particular. Even Naomi Watts' English accent had to be refined, since the English-born actress was raised in Australia.

Viggo on Faust

Says Mortensen: My character makes a kind of Faustian bargain, and from these diverse elements, Cronenberg mines all dramatic and thriller excitement. I consider myself very fortunate to have done two movies in a row with Cronenberg. I think that with this movie, we explored language a little more, whereas in 'A History of Violence,' it was gesture that took precedence. Eastern Promises is a logical follow-up to 'A History of Violence'–there are identity issues, explorations of the traditional family structure, people dealing with perilous situations and moral dilemmas, and the question: Is violence ever justified