Stellan Skarsgård: ‘I never decided to become an actor. I still haven’t decided’
Stellan Skarsgård is one of Hollywood’s top earners, yet he has little time for the system. ‘I just happened to appear in very successful films,’ he says
Stellan Skarsgard: “Men had a tendency to give the stiff upper lip and put the lid on. But we feel the same things you women do.” (Photo by camilla morandi/Corbis via Getty Images)
It has been a very quiet coup but a 64-year-old Swedish actor is currently one of the most bankable stars in the world: “I think I’m 13th on the all-time list,” chuckles Stellan Skarsgård. “That’s not because I contributed very much. I just happened to appear in very successful films. It makes me look good.”
It’s very early morning in London, yet the towering, coiffed father-of-eight is gregarious as ever, as he flits between such diverse topics as cooking, atheism, how he first met his wife, Megan, in the Shelbourne’s Horseshoe Bar (“You do meet a lot of people there”) and his late Hollywood home run.
Having appeared in such box-office hits as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), Thor (2011) and The Dark World (2013), The Avengers (2012) and Age of Ultron (2015) and Cinderella (2015), he can boast about “a good working relationship with Disney”.
He did balk at the House of Mouse’s standard contract that forbids actors from indulging in any behaviour that the film’s audience might find offensive.
“I was surprised that any actor would sign it but it turns out they do,” he says. “I don’t know why. The studios must protect their rights. But it’s abusive.”
Skarsgård can afford to say no. To date, he has been directed by Steven Spielberg (Amistad), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), Antoine Fuqua (King Arthur), Paul Schrader (Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) and David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
“I can get recognised by a three-year-old for Mamma Mia. And by teenagers for Thor or sometimes Nymphomaniac. I might get worried if the three-year-olds knew me from Nymphomaniac.”
Fun with Von Trier
Nymphomaniac marked the latest chapter in the actor’s ongoing collaboration with the Danish auteur Lars von Trier. Skarsgård has appeared in six of that singular director’s features: The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. “I see him as my little brother and we have a lot of fun together. We have the same sense of humour, I guess. His way of working is total freedom. He doesn’t block the scenes; he allows the actor to investigate. There are no boundaries.”
He’s a fan, too, of how von Trier writes for women. “He has fantastic female leads and the male characters are pretty boring. But, as a vehicle for showing emotion, female characters are often better, because traditionally their emotional life has been more exposed. Men had a tendency to give the stiff upper lip and put the lid on. But we feel the same things you women do.”
That is one of the reasons that, having avoided various Scandi-crime shows, the actor was happy to sign up for the BBC detective series River. The winning pitch? He sees dead people.
“In the case of River, what’s going on behind the stiff upper lip was interesting to convey. And then when he encountered manifests, he could show everything. It was like playing one of Lars’ female characters.”
Half the kids
Four of his eight children – one daughter and seven sons – aged between 40 to four, have followed their father into a profession, he says, that was a happy accident.
“My dream was to become a diplomat. I actually never decided to become an actor. I still haven’t decided. Like a lot of life, it’s just something I do.”
Skarsgård and his first wife, My, divorced after 32 years of marriage in 2007. He has subsequently remarried and has two young sons, Ossian (born in 2009) and Kolbjörn (born in 2012).
“It wasn’t much of a break, was it? And then I had to start over. I love it. What else should I do? Play golf? Also I’m different as a father now. I’m much more at ease with life and myself. It’s a great hobby.”
He would never presume to give his kids – who include True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård and the Allegiant sequence’s Bill Skarsgård – career advice: “I don’t, and they don’t ask me. It’s a parent’s job to make sure that they feel loved and worth something. And that they should be nice to people and be on time. That’s it. Then it’s good luck. They have to figure it out for themselves. And I’ll do the cooking.”
The Skarsgårds are happy to confer, nonetheless. Case in point: Our Kind of Traitor. Based on the 2010 John le Carré novel of the same name, the new spy thriller sees an ordinary British couple (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) fall in with a charming Russian money launderer (Skarsgård). Espionage and dirty deals ensue. Skarsgård the elder was happy to take the part as Skarsgård the younger had good things to say about Our Kind of Traitor director Susanna White.
“I put in a phone call to Alexander,” says dad. “Because he had worked with Susanna on Generation Kill. Is she good? Is she nice? We don’t give advice but we do gossip. Put any four or five actors at a table and they’ll always gossip.” It’s not the first time that Skarsgård has played a Russian: he was Sean Connery’s student- turned-pursuer in The Hunt for Red October.
“That was during the Cold War when all the bad guys had to be Russian. There are not enough Swedish parts out there. I have to survive.”
In keeping with other recent film adaptations, notably The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor gives the impression that either le Carré or the realpolitik he draws on is getting bleaker.
“Maybe,” says the actor. “But I remember reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when I was young – I think I was 13 – and there was already a degree of sadness about the state of the world in his work.”
Not long after he read that book, Stellan Skarsgård was catapulted to fame as the titular hero of the TV show Bombi Bitt, Sweden’s freckled answer to Huckleberry Finn.
“They painted the freckles on,” laughs Skarsgård. “I had already done a lot of theatre work so I already liked acting. As a child, when you’re acting, you are treated like an equal as long as you show up on time and do the work. My parents had always treated me like an equal. But the rest of society was far behind. So now I’m 16, I’m on a set, I’m treated like an adult, and I’m surrounded by all this fantastic machinery. It was wonderful. It still is.”