Viggo Mortensen Was Prepared For The Pain Of Eastern Promises' Bathroom Fight

In David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) exudes calm ruthlessness from the very first moment he's introduced. Working as the family driver for a dangerous crime family in London, Nikolai acts as a personal bodyguard to Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the crime boss' son. There are several memorable Nikolai scenes in Cronenberg's frenetic gangster drama. For starters, there's a scene in which he is casually about to prepare a frozen corpse, his necktie flung over his shoulder, completely calm and composed. In this scene, Mortensen cements the kind of character Nikolai is by extinguishing a cigarette on his tongue without so much as flinching. 

However, the standout scene in "Eastern Promises" is undoubtedly the raw, realistic bath-house fight scene between Nikolai and two goons, who ambush and attempt to kill him. This is where Nikolai truly shines as a character, as it is a testimony to his sheer strength and dogged determination in a moment of utter vulnerability. Nikolai fights off two dangerous, armed men, weaponless and completely naked, and (spoilers ahead!) manages to kill both of them after a tense, brutal fight. While Cronenberg gets the obvious credit for staging such a visceral scene, it is Mortensen and the stunt choreography that succeed in making the scene work. 

The raw and realistic nature of the scene demanded a certain level of physicality from Mortensen as an actor, and he was prepared for it from the get-go. Mortensen knew that filming the scene was going to be painful, but committed to it nonetheless. Here's how he prepared for it.

Committing to a visceral fight scene

In an interview with Cinema Daily, Mortensen explained how he prepared for the bathhouse scene, which involved incorporating hand-to-hand fighting tactics that he had read in a military manual while in Russia. Then, he asked for the input of the actors he worked with in the scene, David Papava and Tamer Hassan, who were experienced stuntmen and trained in varying fighting styles. The incorporation of a military fighting style added to the authenticity of the scene, coupled with the fact that Mortensen was committed to making it appear as real as possible. And yes, he knew filming it was going to hurt:

"We worked hard on the choreography and I knew, as we were preparing, that, it was going to be painful. It was going to be uncomfortable. And the nudity was really, it just made sense ... It was more being really focused on not getting hurt, obviously, but also getting the bruises to be able to complete the fight successfully and to have it look real and original."

Mortensen is no stranger to committing intensely to a film, no matter what the circumstances (which, in many cases, resulted in physical injuries). It's been widely shared that Mortensen broke his foot while making "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," while a lesser-known fact is that he also lost a tooth while filming the Battle of Helm's Deep. His approach to "Eastern Promises" was similarly devoted. Mortensen brought his own ideas to the fight choreography and did not back down, even after getting bruised while filming. In a commentary about the scene, Cronenberg said that the decision to do the scene naked was Mortensen's, which highlights the trust established between him and the actor since the time they worked together on "A History of Violence."

Getting the scene right was not easy

In the interview linked above, Mortensen also said that while the basic beats of the scene were meticulously worked out by the choreography team, filming took more than a day for various reasons. For one, a couple of close-up shots had to be taken in order to amp up the tension of the sequence. Secondly, it took hours to put on the makeup for the tattoos that adorned Nikolai's body, while all the bruises from the fight scene shot the day before had to be covered up. These factors made filming especially uncomfortable for Mortensen. After all, it is not an easy task to wrestle, tackle, and fight two professionally trained men while completely naked on the slippery floor of a bathhouse sauna. 

Thanks to Mortensen's commitment, the scene in "Eastern Promises" adds immensely to Nikolai's arc and infuses an already-tense narrative with climactic anxiety. For context, two henchmen are sent by a rival gang, and Nikolai's boss allows him to get ambushed and get sacrificed as a pawn. Although Nikolai has no foreknowledge of this, he deftly tackles the two men and engages in a brutal fistfight. He is seriously wounded in the process, as the men knife him and throw him around without mercy. Despite the suddenness of the situation, Nikolai uses brute force to overpower them, managing to gouge one dude's eyes out while slicing the other's throat. Now, that is a serious boss move.