Viggo Mortensen: Every sin left a mark in ‘Eastern Promises’

The film “Eastern Promises” did not get an Oscar nomination, nor did the director David Cronenberg who reteamed with his “A History of Violence” leading man and friend, Viggo Mortensen.

Mortensen was nominated for his outstanding performace as Best Actor, and last night at the Oscars, the featured clip that showed Viggo (Nikolai) removing all identifiable features of a mob victim while casually dousing his lit cigarette on his tongue has reignited a new interest in the film, a movie that many are hoping will be followed up with a sequel to continue Nikolai’s story.

Cronenberg’s film exposed London’s Russian vory v zakone, or “thieves in law,” – a shady underworld of criminals who are bound by an 18-point code of conduct, and etch their histories and deeds in their flesh with elaborate tattoos that cover their entire bodies.

Oscar winning makeup artist, Stéphan Dupuis creating the compelling tattoos for the film’s stars – especially for Mortensen, whose character Nikolai has to engage in a violent bathhouse brawl while completely nude.

Mortensen traveled to Russia prior to principal photography to perfect the accent, polish his Ukrainian and gather materials on appropriate tattoos for his character.

“Viggo went and did his research in Russia for awhile, he met with former gangsters in Los Angeles and we watched the Russian prison documentary ‘The Mark of Cain’, a very graphic film, and he also had two books full of Russian prison tattoos, these books were quite something to look at too,” shared Dupuis. “Viggo picked the most significant designs he wanted his character to have.”

“I had a selection that was appropriate for the character, and Stephan and I worked on the placements, and then he had stencils made for the film.  Then, after screen tests, we fine tuned the tattoos, figured out the ones that we liked,” said Viggo Mortensen.  “They are really old school hardcore Russian prison tattoos that represented Nikolai’s life story, they are Nikolai’s calling card,” Mortensen added.

In Russian prisons, tattoos emerged as a visual mode of communication, linked with social division. The images of churches, Christs, cats, Madonnas, dolphins and bears, to name just a few, became part of a secret, political language that allowed for clandestine communication both in and out of the system.

Dupuis explained further. “The trio of cupolas on his back signifies three prison terms for Nikolai; the crucifix on his chest marks his rank in the thief hierarchy.  The Russian Cathedral tattoos on Viggo’s back were the most difficult ones for me, the spires and curves combined with dealing with the structure of his back, that particular set of tattoos took a long time.”

“The tattoo ink was alcohol-based, it didn’t come off easily, and many times Viggo would just go home with them on,” said Stephan. “After the shower scene, with all the blood stuff and water, everything had to be redone, and then there was a lot of work after that on covering the bruises all over Viggo.”

The scene where Nikolai is being “made” and in the process gets his tattoos on his chest and knees was a classic Cronenberg scene, according to Dupuis, who first worked with the director on 1978’s “Scanners.”  “That machine for the tattooing was typical David,” says Dupuis with a laugh.

“It was some sort of homemade concoction that would ring a bell, a mechanism inside the box that moved the needle up and down, I believe this weird mechanism he devised was made to look just like a Russian prison crude tattoo machine, of course we had to shoot those close up shots of his knee in progressions, I had to recreate the redness, and irritation that you would have seen from a real tattoo application, a bit of blood.”

Mortensen became acutely aware of the effect his tattoos had while on location, noting he “had scared the shit unwittingly” out of some Russian immigrants in London restaurants. “I had to remove the visible ones when I went out anywhere, they really did scare some people.”

“I also wanted my character to have a Russian accented English that you would hear in London, versus Brighton Beach or West Hollywood, so I really listened to Russian immigrants there to get the accent just right,” added Viggo.

This is the second film he’s worked on with Cronenberg – the first being 2005’s “A History of Violence” – Mortensen had nothing but praise for the Canadian director.

“David had a lot to do with the final script for ‘Eastern Promises’.   His films are layered, nuanced and you see something new each time you watch, he’s a genius. David’s work is on another level, intellectually, artistically, than most of these guys out there.  He doesn’t reference other people’s work; his films get better and better.  He just treats people right on set.”

Mortensen had hoped Cronenberg and other key crewmembers on the film would get the recognition they deserved in this year’s award season.

“The work that (production designer) Carol Spier did in building Semyon’s club, and the steambaths, the score Howard Shore did for the film, the costuming, and the cinematography by Peter Suschitzky who I also worked with in ‘A History of Violence’ were all just amazing, they were incredibly dedicated. 

I don’t want to be part of the award mechanism. I like to just work and focus on that. But during the filming of ‘Eastern Promises’ I was nominated for the equivalent of the Oscar in Spain, (Goya), for ‘Alatriste’, and that was a real honor for me, I’m not a Spanish actor.  But you know, with awards, it’s just something I am not used to, and I always think of a quote about medals from Winston Churchill: ‘Never seek them, always accept them, and never wear them.’ “

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