Viggo Mortensen Sees A Connection Between His First Two David Cronenberg Films

Sometimes, it takes a little while for a director to find their latest muse. David Cronenberg worked with many leading men throughout the 20th century — Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Irons, James Spader — but since 2005, his go-to star has been Viggo Mortensen.

The director and actor pair have made four films together. Their first was "A History of Violence," a tale of murder infesting small town America à la the Hitchcock classic "Shadow of a Doubt." Next came "Eastern Promises," a Russian gangster drama set in London. Mortensen was just a supporting player in "A Dangerous Method," playing Sigmund Freud opposite Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein. For their latest collaboration "Crimes of the Future," released in 2022, Cronenberg went back to his body horror roots. Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, a man who spontaneously grows new organs and has his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) surgically remove the aberrant organs in avant-garde art shows.

"Crimes of the Future" is a tonal swing from Cronenberg and Mortensen's previous films, which were all down-to-earth by the director's standards. In fact, Mortensen believes that his characters from "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," while different in many ways, have one thing in common.

Two two-faced characters

In "A History of Violence," Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an Indiana family man. Unfortunately, when he becomes a hero by foiling a robbery, the attention brings Philadelphia gangsters to town. It turns out "Tom" is actually Joey Cusack, a former mobster who fled town and started over after he scarred "made man" Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Joey's struggles to suppress his violent urges worsen and he has to confront his vengeful brother Richie (William Hurt).

In "Eastern Promises," Mortensen is Nikolai Luzhin, a heavily tattooed Russian gangster. Nikolai is the bodyguard of Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the closeted son of local boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He's also not actually a mobster, but an undercover FSB agent. Things get complicated when a nurse named Anna (Naomi Watts) delivers the child of a young girl Semyon raped.

Grayer characters like Stall/Cusack and Nikolai were a real change of pace for Mortensen. He had just played Aragorn, as pure-hearted a hero as you can get, in "The Lords of the Rings." During a 2021 Q&A, Mortensen explained how a key similarity between Cusack and Nikolai led to similar demands on both his performances:

"The similarity of the two characters was that they were pretending to be something. They were not, and they both required a certain stillness trusting that the character would come across in key moments with very little gesture, physical movement, just subtle things."

Mortensen's assessment is correct. Tom Stall is an evil man trying hard to be a good one. Nikolai is a good man playing the part of a villain. Since both men were wearing invisible masks, their physicality needed to reflect that. Notice how Stall never flinches during moments of violence, not even when his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) blows Fogarty away with a shotgun.

A springboard

Mortensen observed during the "History of Violence" production that Cronenberg cared about the same details in his performance and worked to bring them out during the shoot and in editing. This meant he was comfortable working with the director again on "Eastern Promises," and he hasn't come to regret that decision yet. 

For Mortensen, the festival premieres of both films are fond memories. He recalled (via CinemaDailyUS):

"It was my first time at a big premiere of 'A History of Violence.' And while there was, it went to Cannes but then [at] TIFF, because [Toronto is Cronenberg's] hometown, it was an amazing experience. And then, 'Eastern Promises' was truly stunning. I remember being at Roy Thompson Hall, packed house, a lot of important actors [and] directors came to see what David had done or we'd all done... And it was an important springboard for 'Eastern Promises.' You know, a month or so before it's released."

Between their strong working relationship and getting to witness uproarious reception to their work firsthand, it's no wonder that Mortensen and Cronenberg have kept making movies together.