Playing gangsters require a deft touch


The role of a gangster might seem a rough one at first glance, but playing one onscreen is a delicate art for the actor. Give the audience nothing but brutal pistol whippings and spittle-flying rants, and they will leave the theater unsatisfied. Viewers must be charmed, romanced with kind gestures and bonhomie, lured in by intoxicating style, as the actor sticks in the knife and twists, literally and figuratively.

"If you show in the very beginning, 'Oh, he's a monster,' it's a little bit boring," observes Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays Seymon, a Russian mob leader who presents himself to the public as a grandfatherly London restaurateur, in Focus Features' "Eastern Promises." "Don't open the door too far. Leave it always a little bit closed. People should think about it. I tried to make this character as nice as possible. He's playing with the kids; he's teaching them the violin, telling them, 'You must practice, practice, practice.' In the beginning, it's not clear what kind of person he is. You think, 'Oh, he's a nice man.' Even Hitler was a charming man, but inside he was this great monster. That's very dangerous."

With the power and relative respectability of the New York City Police Department behind him, the character of corrupt Detective Trupo in Universal's "American Gangster," played by Josh Brolin, doesn't have to be so nice. He flaunts his power in the open, with a hard-charging aggressiveness that is evident in every movement he makes, even shaking down the very gangland figures he is supposed to be bringing to justice.

Brolin says the physicality of his performance was inspired by talks with Bob Leuci, a former NYPD narcotics detective, who was the inspiration for the book and the 1981 film "Prince of the City," and "Gangster" executive producer Nicholas Pileggi, who is best known as the screenwriter of director Martin Scorsese's underworld dramas "Goodfellas" (1990) and "Casino" (1995).

"(Pileggi) told me about a cop who people were terrified of, and it was a wonderful hook for me," Brolin says. "The guy supposedly looked a lot like Bobby Darin, and women loved him, and he was dangerous, and he was a scary motherfucker to most of the drug dealers out there. It was all because of how he carried himself and his smile, his uber-confidence, and I wanted to do that."

In a sense, Trupo must out-gangster the gangsters. In one telling scene, he dons a black leather trench coat as if it's some sort of gangster uniform as he and his crew emerge from their car to confront Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington).

"By putting on the coat, does it lend to at least a cosmetic notion of what a gangster is? Is it like putting on a mask before you rob a bank?" Brolin asks, rhetorically. "Yes, I think in a roundabout way for sure. I think the idea of a gangster is much more effective when you inherit the affectations of what a typical gangster is."

But, in truth, the coat was a tool in an elaborate mind trick Brolin was playing to psych himself up for the scene.

"The coat that I was wearing at that moment was made for Denzel," Brolin explains. "He saw it and said, 'I don't want that coat.' I heard that it was made for him, so I wanted the coat desperately, and it fit me. So when I put on that coat, it was basically a 'fuck you' to Denzel, and it made me feel good in that role, because it was something that that guy would've done, so there was an undercurrent of how it made me feel as the character that enabled me to better go head-to-head with Denzel in my mind."

Ben Foster's use of wardrobe to get him into the mind-set of his character Charlie Prince, the psychotic second-in-command to Old West gang leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) in Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," is a more typical example of an actor working from the outside in. The film's costume designer was Arianne Phillips, whose credits include the rock 'n' roll movie musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001) and the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" (2005), as well as numerous music videos. As Phillips, Foster and the film's director, James Mangold, surveyed archival photographs of Western outlaws looking for inspiration, they all came to the same conclusion: Prince is a rock star, with the same sort of flashy clothes, ambiguous sexuality, potential for violence and freedom from accepted social mores.

"The amazing thing about these outlaws is that they were very aware of their own PR, and they would try to get themselves in these penny papers at the time," Foster observes. "They had a very specific kind of flair. Arianne found this jacket, which reminded us of dried bone and had a sense of royalty that went along with the name Prince. We found almost the exact identical jacket in -- I think it was in a Gene Autry movie -- and we just cut it slightly differently up front to make room for the guns. The biggest thing I could hang on to was this pair of pants, which were kind of rust-orange, because I had a pair of outlaw pants that same color when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I've been rehearsing playing outlaws since I was 4. This is just make-believe on a much larger scale."

For real-life gangsters, there is undoubtedly a good deal of playacting involved, replete with costumes (shiny suits, gold chains), props (guns and cigars) and prescripted slang. There is also a vicious cycle of glamorization, with gangsters copying media portrayals in films ranging from 1983's "Scarface" to 1931's "The Public Enemy" and vice versa. The influence of the media can even be seen in the Old West milieu of Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in which Ford (Casey Affleck) is depicted as having devoured dime novels about James as a boy, which spurred dreams of one day riding with the notorious outlaw.

"I think that there are some obvious and valid parallels to modern-day celebrity youth culture," Affleck observes, "but really the overlap is that this is a story about answered prayers. He was 19 years old. He wanted to be famous like Jesse James was -- like probably a lot of kids (today), teenagers or younger, reading comic books who want to be a superhero: They want to be a gunslinger; they want to be an astronaut. Robert Ford thought that he was capable of being an outlaw, which I guess he was. What happens when Jesse dies is his life becomes something that he can't control and what he had hoped for is not exactly as he imagined it would be. Now, I guess that that could be true for tales of fame, but that was never anything that we talked about on the set."

Ford could be seen as a case where playacting became too real, which is a potential risk whether one is a music fan adopting the clothes and mannerisms of his or her favorite gangsta rapper or an actor taking his role as a made man with him off set into Little Italy.

Viggo Mortensen is not an actor who stays in character when the cameras stop rolling, but he is always eager to immerse himself in research for a part, both for the good of the film and his own personal pleasure. For his role as Russian mobster Nikolai in "Eastern Promises," his preparatory process included developing a personal backstory for the character from birth until page one of the script (as he does for every film) by traveling to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the character's native region in the Ural Mountains of Siberia; studying the people and their culture; and learning his lines in Russian and Ukrainian, as well as English, to perfect his accent.

One of the keys to the character of Nikolai and the film's plot is the collection of old-school Russian tattoos that cover his body, from his ankles to his hands, serving as a sort of criminal resume. Unfortunately, the temporary tattoos created by makeup designer Stephan Dupuis (with input from Mortensen) proved to be a little too authentic for some Russian expats.

"The tattoos would last a couple of days, even washing, and the ones on the hands you would always see when I was walking around the streets in London," Mortensen says. "One time I was sitting in this pub having a beer after work, and I heard a man and a woman speaking in Russian. All of a sudden, they stopped talking, and I looked and saw the woman was looking at my hands, freaking out. So I just got out of there. On the one hand, it was good that they looked real to them, but on the other hand, I thought, 'That's a little strange.' And there was another incident sort of like that. Then I started washing them off -- at least the hands."