Tattooed Love Thug

Photo: Peter Mountain/Focus Features

Viggo Mortensen thinks David Cronenberg was robbed. In 2005, A History of Violence received the best reviews of the year—“top tens, all that sort of thing”—and then it got passed over at the Oscars. “Now, when people see it on DVD, they get it,” Mortensen says. “They say, ‘Why didn’t that guy get Best Director?’” His totally unconcealed hope is that “maybe because [Violence] got him a wider audience, people will be ready to give him more credit for this one.” This one is Eastern Promises, which Mortensen calls “a well-crafted and complicated poem.” In it, Naomi Watts plays a London midwife who watches a pregnant Jane Doe die while giving birth and then discovers that the girl had been enslaved as a prostitute by Russian gangsters. Mortensen is Nikolai, the toughest thug: a growling, vicious mobster with some secret motivations, professional body-disposal experience, and a taste for biting.

For the part, Mortensen studied with a voice coach, traveled to Russia, and read up on Russian jails. Fascinated by prison tattoos, he sent pictures of them to Cronenberg, who told him to run with it. In the film, he strips down repeatedly (attention, swooning Middle-earth fans) to reveal a ripped body covered in ink. Mortensen (who will also publish a book with Russian tattoo expert Alix Lambert through his mini–publishing house, Perceval Press) says he realized that “there was a literate bent to some of these—phrases from Russian poems.” His favorite is a picture of a black crow and “these words from a really old Russian song: ‘Black crow, I’m not ready for you to take me yet.’ This film is about survival. And Nikolai, he’s not ready to die.”

Describing Eastern Promises, Mortensen also quotes Montgomery Clift, who said, “The only line that’s wrong in Shakespeare is that art is holding a mirror up to nature. You hold up a magnifying glass.” And sure enough, if the violence in A History of Violence was shockingly rough, here it’s absolutely hard-core, intensely magnified. A fight in a bathhouse will be one of the most talked-about scenes this year. “It all has such a strong impact because it’s done in real time, not in a fancy way,” says Mortensen. “It’s the forces of nature at work, like watching a snake swallow a frog.”

Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg, Focus Features; September 14.

Tattooed Love Thug