During his 41 years as a director — a span that has produced a series of acclaimed (and often disturbingly violent) films including “The Fly,” “Naked Lunch” and the 2005 Oscar nominee “A History of Violence” — Canadian-born director David Cronenberg has rarely worked with the same leading man twice.
Yet for “Eastern Promises,” the quietly powerful tale of a wide-eyed midwife who accidentally stumbles into the murderous depths of the Russian mafia, the 64-year-old auteur reunites with Viggo Mortensen, the rugged “Lord of the Rings” star who helped turn “History” into such a memorable examination of brute violence lurking below a surface of apparent serenity.
Is it possible that Cronenberg has finally found a muse to bring to life his most harrowing visions?
“It’s true that I haven’t often worked with the same actors twice,” he admits. “[Now that I have] it’s probably because I’m such a tyrant, and Viggo is a masochist. But I have a crew that I work with a lot, and we’ve grown old together. We’re not yet showing too many signs of senility.
“With Viggo, he had such a firm grasp on his character in ‘History of Violence.’ For our second movie, we were starting at a higher level of understanding of what we could do together, so it made sense that‘Eastern Promises’ could exceed what ‘History’ accomplished. I don’t feel an egomaniacal need to mess with what’s working.”
For Mortensen, the appeal in both cases was the opportunity to work with Cronenberg, with whom he quickly developed an easy, mutually respectful rapport. Eager not to be typecast as an Orc-slaying swordsman, he was quickly drawn to “History.”
“Eastern Promises” bore the promise of another successful collaboration, one for which the Danish-American star, 48, moved to Russia to perfect his accent and familiarize himself with the culture.
“Although David wasn’t the credited writer, he did a lot of work on the screenplay for ‘History of Violence,’” Mortensen says. “A lot of things that went into the final version came out of our work together, as we got to know each other and shared research. There was a lot more of that on ‘Eastern Promises,’ because it’s about a culture we didn’t know so much about — Russian literature, say, or music.
“The thing that’s really great is David’s security as a director, which allows him to let things work smoothly. We rarely had disagreements. I would go to him, or vice versa, and we would never waste a lot of time because there was no ego investment. A lot of actors get paranoid if a director isn’t talking to them, constantly coaching them, but not me.”
Although the two have no formal plans to collaborate in the future, both seem genuinely delighted by the prospect. “He resents me working with other directors,” Mortensen says. “Because I’m a slut.”
For now, Cronenberg, who claims to consider himself “out of work,” is content to sit back and await the reception for his latest meditation on human savagery.
“I’m always surprised by the reactions to my films,” he says. “That’s a good thing, because it keeps you from thinking that it’s all like clockwork. Hitchcock liked to pretend that he could just manipulate his audience like marionettes and get the reaction he wanted, making them jump and feel afraid. I have a great respect for the unpredictability of audience response. I think of human existence as a crystal with many facets. With my movies, I’m putting together this crystal that reflects my own experiences as a human.”