Missy Schwartz
September 14, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The 43 tats that Viggo Mortensen wears in Eastern Promises each tell a story about his character, just as they would on a real-life Russian mobster. The trio of cupolas on his back signifies three prison terms; the crucifix on his chest, his rank in the thief hierarchy. To get these symbols just right, Mortensen traveled through Russia, met with former gangsters in L.A., and studied the Russian prison doc The Mark of Cain. It took Oscar-winning makeup designer Stephan Dupuis’ team four hours to apply the tattoos, which were so realistic that a group of Russians in a London pub mistook the actor for the real thing. ”They were looking at my [tattoo-covered] hands and suddenly stopped talking,” Mortensen recalls. ”It was right when the Litvinenko poisoning happened, and I looked very shady. So I got up and left. They were probably freaked out.”

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