IF you’re looking for the definition of a brave actor then look no further than Viggo Mortensen. Not only does the Lord Of The Rings star perform one of the most graphic and violent fight scenes in his latest movie, he does it completely starkers.
What’s more, it was entirely his decision to brawl bare in gangster flick Eastern Promises, which is released on October 26.
“The scene takes place in a steam bath where I get attacked by two guys so it would have been silly to have a towel on,” explains Viggo. “This is a realistic and gritty movie so to have a scene where you’re trying to avoid seeing someone’s body would have been just dumb,” he adds with a nonchalant shrug.
The film was directed by David Cronenberg and Viggo adds that he couldn’t have done the scene without the controversial film maker.
“I also worked with him on A History of Violence and feel very safe with him,” he explains. “We understand each other.”
The fight scene further establishes Viggo’s reputation as one of the most fearless actors around. Not content with baring all for the camera, the star, who has just turned 49, also took on the might of the Russian Mafia for the movie.
In the film, Viggo plays the mysterious Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin, a driver for one of London’s organised crime families. His carefully maintained existence is suddenly turned upside down when his path crosses with Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife trying to find out the background of a Russian teenager who died giving birth.
Though the film is shot on location in London, Viggo took himself off to Russia for several weeks, where he learned the language and met some of the country’s most disreputable mob men.
“Nikolai is a man who has a lot of secrets. He came to London by way of the Ural mountain region which is on the edge of the Siberian plains so I went there,” explains Viggo. “I did meet people that were more or less from Nikolai’s walk of life that I normally wouldn’t meet. They were initially a bit reticent to speak with me, then when they realised I wasn’t the enemy they were very helpful,” he continues.
“I brought back lots of artefacts including worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters. I decorated my trailer with copies of Russian icons. Being able to think about what I’d seen, by going to where the character was from, provides something real for the scenes and I think it’s helpful to the other actors too, if I’m convincing.”
The committed actor also spent a painstaking four hours in make-up, having 43 temporary tattoos transferred onto his body – ranging from a tiger, stars, skulls, daggers, a scorpion, a sailing ship, the Virgin Mary and a huge crucifix emblazoned across his chest.
“Some of the tattoos were humorous and some were quite poetic,” recalls Viggo. “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 favourites said ‘Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream,’ which was so beautiful and sad. The crucifix on my chest has nothing to do with religion. It denotes that I am a thief in good standing.”
In fact, the tattoos appeared so authentic that when Viggo walked into a Russian restaurant off screen, diners fell silent believing that a top Mafia boss was in their presence.
Now that he’s a Russian-speaking friend of the mob, the star can add two further qualities to his long list of accomplishments. He’s also a successful painter, writer, photographer, poet and composer.
“I love to learn,” explains the star of his enviable achievements. “That’s the thing I think I like most about being in this line of work is that I go and learn things. I’m forced to learn things.”
Despite his huge success, not to mention sex symbol status, Viggo is still one of the most reticent movie stars around.
Rarely seen on the red carpet, the actor lives away from the limelight on a vast ranch, where his 18-year-old son Henry from his marriage to singer Exene Cervenka is a regular visitor.
Viggo even managed to maintain his closely guarded privacy after his phenomenal success as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings and remains typically laid back about the life-changing role.
“I think I just got lucky,” he says of the epic trilogy. “I was 45 when it happened and had been working steadily in films and theatre before that, then something comes along and you just get lucky. It changed my life because of the friendships I made and memories I now have. But the main thing is that it helped me to get roles like this, because it did so well we all got the chance to do other things.”
Though he’s no doubt busy immersing himself in other worlds in preparation for future roles, the enigmatic star hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Aragorn’s return.
“I heard talk of a Hobbit film and, yes, I’m curious about it,” he says. “I don’t know where Aragorn would fit into that, but if it happens then Peter Jackson would be the best person to direct it.”