Whether taking a role in a blockbuster (Pirates of the Caribbean), drama (Melancholia) or gritty thriller (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake), Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård approaches them all with the same goal: to get to the truth of the character.
Sandwiched somewhere between ABBA and the Millennium trilogy, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of Sweden’s most successful exports. If it’s Danish director Lars von Trier that provided his most potent roles, from his Breaking the Waves breakthrough to this year’s Melancholia, Skarsgård has proved a popular force in America, with blockbusters from Pirates of the Caribbean to Thor dominating his CV. Now, the 60-year-old Skarsgård splices his homeland with Hollywood, starring as CEO Martin Vanger in the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s controversy-baiting take on Stieg Larsson’s first Millennium novel. Sweden won’t know what’s hit it.
How do you choose your roles?
The director is extremely important to me. There are some directors who I say yes to without even seeing the script. [Hans Petter] Moland and [Lars von] Trier, I’ve worked with again and again. The roles… you usually want to do something you haven’t done. At least, I do. I try to find material that is different to what I’ve just been doing. That’s why I also go back to do independent films after doing the big American films. I have to do that—where the stakes are higher. Not the financial stakes, but the artistic stakes.
You can get into trouble if… If the director or some star is pompous or self-obsessed, it’s not nice. I hate it. I don’t care if they’re geniuses; I don’t want to work with them if they’re not decent people and they can’t respect everybody’s work and integrity and create a good atmosphere on the set. It’s not worth it. It’s just a film. But when you get a bit older, and you’ve made 90 films, there’s very few that can come and create an atmosphere that you don’t accept.
How was your experience working with David Fincher on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
That’s a filmmaker who knows everything about the technical side of filmmaking, the imagery. And he has his tools. It’s fun working with him. His way of getting life into his imagery is different to Lars. He does 40 takes instead. And that fucks up the actor enough to make them come alive. I like it. We shoot on Red, on video, and you just roll and roll and roll. And I’m fine with it. I can roll 15 hours, as long as the days are, and feel good. What I hate is when your flow is interrupted all the time. No, we have to tweak the light a little or fix this or that, or change the mag on the camera…
Fincher has a budget of $130m or something. But he spends it all on time. So there are not a lot of trailers and you don’t have enormous pay cheques. It’s just time. He takes eight or nine months to shoot a normal film. Which is wise. He wants it all up on the screen.
Do you feel protective over the material, given it’s from a hit Swedish novel?
I haven’t read the book! I don’t read many crime stories. I saw the first of the Swedish films. That was OK. Noomi Rapace was great in it. But Rooney Mara, she’s great too. She’s a different character. Less of a woman and more of a child. Which is interesting.
What do you wish to achieve through your acting?
To be as truthful as if I was an amateur. If I ever use my skills, it must be invisible. I’m technically extremely skilled; I can hit a mark blindfolded. There’s one film where we didn’t even have marks. I was out of focus several times. And the focus puller said, ‘It can’t be Stellan. It must be something wrong with the lens.’ And it was. But all this technique, I have to destroy all the time. And then working with Lars, when you get all that freedom, you can try everything. That has also influenced my way of working with more traditional directors. I crave more freedom and I crave the opportunity to make mistakes now. I tried to be perfect once. I don’t try that any more.
You just worked with your son, Alexander, in Melancholia. How was that?
Ah, it’s great. I have three sons that are actors, and I’ve worked with all of them. It’s fun because you see… First of all, being in a room with your family is nice. But also when you start working, it’s very easy when you start talking about the scene; you reach a point of understanding so much faster because you think the same way. Also, you know each other so well, and you recognise things in each other and laugh at them. It’s very funny. It’s also a warm feeling. And it was nice to see him work so well with Lars, and Lars loved him so much. After every take, Lars came up to me and said, ‘You see, he’s much better than you are!’ I’d say, ‘Lars, that’s evolution for you!’
Are you amazed by Alexander’s success in True Blood?
Yeah, but the kind of success in terms of fame, you cannot predict. But I saw him in Generation Kill, where he was very, very good. Flawless American accent. That was a great, great job. When I saw my son naked on the front of Rolling Stone magazine, then I realised he’s gotten somewhere!
You’re coming up in the ultimate Marvel film, The Avengers. Will it be the greatest superhero film of them all?
I don’t know. There are a fucking lot of people [in it]! Poor Joss Whedon is writing it, and he’s got to get all those characters in, all those stars happy, and still have a story that somebody can follow. It’s a tough task but I think he’s done a wonderful job. •