Lab Magazine - Fall 2011

Interview by David Fincher

Itís official: Sweden is hot. From the fresh musical stylings of Robyn and Lykke Li to Stieg Larssonís best-selling Millennium trilogy, right now the world is feeling the need for Swedes and thatís quite alright as far as Stellan SkarsgŚrd is concerned. A Scandinavian native hailing from Gothenburg, the accomplished actor has been embracing that international love for quite some time with roles in "Good Will Hunting", "Angels & Demons", "Thor" and two of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies as crustacean-coated villain Bootstrap Bill Turner. Heís currently keeping his American blockbuster status in check, filming scenes for "The Avengers", but this winter fans will see him return to his homeland in David Fincherís interpretation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Ė the first of Larssonís books. Set in Stockholm and the hoary Swedish countryside, SkarsgŚrd plays a suspicious CEO at the heart of the thriller opposite Daniel Craigís investigative journalist. Fincher was more than happy to catch up with SkarsgŚrd for The Lab and ask him all about his process, their shared work ethic, and of course what they both love about Sweden.

David Fincher: How and where are you?

Stellan: Iím very well. Iím in Sweden right now, but I have a small role in that "Avengers" film so Iím flying back and forth to Albuquerque [New Mexico] for filming, which is an interesting place.

Fincher: Thatís a very polite choice of words.

Stellan: Is this a safe line?

Fincher: I think weíre good. I wanted to talk to you mostly about your process, because I would love more actors to be like you.

Stellan: I wouldnít like that competition.

Fincher: How can you exist with so little insecurity and so much ease? How do you do it?

Stellan: Iím incredibly insecure and afraid. For a couple of years I had total camera fright. I couldnít function in front of the camera. That was about thirty years ago. Sometimes this panic cloud can come over you then you freeze up Ė itís really horrifying. So I spend a lot of energy not being afraid.

Fincher: How does that work? Do you decide Iím just going to go to the office today in my underwear, so to speak?

Stellan: Sometimes I imagine myself without pants on, because if Iím that ridiculous, nothing is dangerous anymore. But basically, I prepare a lot and I donít spend that much time in my trailer. Iím on the set because I want to become a part of the process of making the film, part of the crew.

Fincher: I loved that and I think itís infectious for everyone. Thereís so little time in the process of making movies to actually spend time making the movie. So being around on set a lot does create community.

Stellan: It also builds the focus around what weíre actually there to do. It heightens the importance of what weíre doing. I feel Iím a part of this huge organism, which is the film crew and the project and that makes me feel safer.

Fincher: Itís funny you used the word Ďimportanceí of what we do. I canít imagine a more nauseating or anxiety-provoking way of making a living than being in front of a camera, but the effect of what youíre doing is the opposite of Ďimportanceí because it feels so casual and relaxed.

Stellan: And thatís important, because it might be incredibly important to me but that doesnít mean that itís important to the character. What you want to avoid is acting within the lines [of the script] because you donít have to. The line says what it has to say, but you always have to say something else at the same time, which means that you usually just let go of the lines and end up somewhere where youíre thinking of something else; you see the subtext.

Fincher: Itís the blink between the character expressing himself verbally and whatís really going on that I always find interesting. There are a handful of other people who Iíve seen who are as skilled as you are. You have this amazing internal meaning compass. There were some actors on the set of 'Dragon Tattoo' who could effortlessly destroy the meaning of what was being said. While editing the material, Iíve noticed with your performance you can do five or six completely different ideas [for the same set-up] and yet they all have a beginning, middle and end. Itís like multi-track recording Ė you might be doing the bass line in one take or the melody with the lead guitar in another and the drums in a third but theyíre all in concert with an idea and I find that to be miraculous.

Stellan: Thatís what makes it so fun. There are a thousand ways to do it wrong but there are also a thousand ways to do it right. Thereís not just one way that is the right way and the fun thing is to be allowed to try different tracks. Many directors donít have that courage.

Fincher: I want actors to play, especially someone with your kind of virtuosity. There are times when you shoot stuff and you go, I know I have this, and then you keep finding these other interesting nuggets and you think maybe we should try reorienting this scene around that idea. I find looking at the material, there are so many moments that Iím appreciative of now that I wasnít aware of the complexity of at the time.

Stellan: The other reason I like to do several takes is because you can do it with different temperatures. You donít know until the film is put together what kind of temperature you really need at that specific point in the film. Itís good for the director to have a lot of alternatives.

Fincher: I try to encourage people to be sort of selfish. I think an actorís job is to be inside the thing looking out. You should be there and keep responding and weíll try it in different ways. When I see you on the screen, I see somebody who is absolutely listening to those two people who are off camera; somebody who is absolutely seeing something that is happening right there.

Stellan: Every actor is eager to please and wants to be the good pupil and deliver something of value. Whether you like it or not. a certain kind of tension occurs inside you. You canít be tense for 20 takes and so by shooting so many takes it breaks down actors whoíve rehearsed too well at home and come with a too solidified idea about how things should be done. They crumble after a couple of takes and thatís nice.

Fincher: Exactly. They know it inside out; you know where youíre going and now I want you to fall. I want you to stumble.

Stellan: When we met [to talk about the film] you said, ďThis is not going to be fun,Ē and I asked why, and you said, ďBecause I sometimes do 40 takes of each set up.Ē I couldnít see why that couldnít be fun.

Fincher: And you made it fun. It was a real pleasure. Even with the green screen stuff where Iím looking at you thinking this poor guy just has green and flashing lights around him and he has to make this whole scene happen. Thatís when it must be hard.

Stellan: Thatís difficult, but the most difficult thing is when youíre asked to do a scene against a mark on a black box. I donít know how people do that because to me it is not what Iím doing, itís what the other person is doing with me [that creates the moment]. Some actors are very skilled and they prepare very well at home Ė theyíve done it all in front of the mirror Ė they come on set and deliver it. But it doesnít matter how skilled they are because to me thatís still just a shiny solo and they donít really talk to anybody and then the scene dies.

Fincher: Ultimately weíre recording an act of generosity and the generosity has to extend not only from the person whoís speaking but it has to be supported by the generosity of all the people who are listening. And we were making a thriller; itís a pulpy murder mystery, but you still need all of that attentiveness and generosity from one actor to another.

Stellan: You want to bring as much life and detail to the work as you can. You want to take the genre youíre working with to a level where it becomes interesting.

Fincher: Genre tends to become the excuse for its own limitations.

Stellan: Itís like writing poetry in verse. The verse is the limitation, but you can also lift it to other heights next to the limitation.

Fincher: And youíve been well despite all the flying around?

Stellan: Iíve spent more time in airports and on planes than in front of the cameras since I last saw you.

Fincher: I try to make up for that. ďWell, he had to fly eight hours so weíre going to do at least 100 takes of this first shot!Ē

Stellan: Youíre very generous in that way.

Fincher: I do miss Sweden, I really do. Itís interesting when you come back to Los Angeles which has this mini strip mall culture because the European way of life, and the Swedish way of life, is so much more relaxed.

Stellan: And you can walk everywhere.

Fincher: And the funny thing is everybody leaves Stockholm in summer. They all go out to the country. And itís so beautiful in the city.

Stellan: I went for two weeks to the summer house we have on an island. Itís got an outhouse and no running water. It was nice but it was very nice to come back to town because everybody is away. It becomes such a slow-paced city. Itís the laziness of the town that I like.

Fincher: Itís stunning. You forget how little oxygen there is in Los Angeles. Being in Stockholm I could ride a bike for hours and you get to LA and youíre gasping. Riding a bike there was fantastic. You canít do that in New Mexico then?

Stellan: No. Youíve got to have a camel there; itís desert.

Fincher: Are you starting something right away after Avengers?

Stellan: They want me to do a film in Rio in Brazil but Iím hesitant. I havenít made up my mind yet but they want an answer in the next couple of days.

Fincher: That last 48 hours when youíre trying to figure out whether to do a project is the worst because youíre rolling the dice.

Stellan: It is. And youíre trying to think ahead and see the possible dangers with the project. But itís still rolling a dice and the moment you say yes, you immediately think, no, why did I do that?

Fincher: We must sound like whingeing complainers to people outside the movie business, because weíre so lucky to be able to do what we do. But itís hard when a movie youíve worked so hard on doesnít end up being seen or being seen by enough people. Especially as an actor when you have to leave your family for long periods.

Stellan: I shot in Rome once and rented a house up in the hills. I think I had a total of 43 Swedes living there. You canít just bring your family because then they will be too needy when you come home after 14-hour days.

Fincher: You canít bring your family because theyíre all working Ė theyíre all actors.

Stellan: Now they are. Just within the family we can cast most movies now. When is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" coming out? December?

Fincher: Yeah, it better come out in December. Iíve never had to put anything together this quickly before. Weíre working seven days a week and we only have about two more weeks of editing before we have to turn stuff over and say this is going to be it. I think [your character] Martin is tremendous. I have some narrative things I want to clarify and we still have a few more days of pick-ups to do. Are you still having really long summer days in Sweden?

Stellan: Theyíre getting shorter now.

Fincher: I couldnít believe the last night shoot that we did before we left, when we were filming Rooney [Mara] riding up on a motorcycle. When we started setting up for the night exterior, I was timing it with my watch. The sun dipped below the horizon at 11:58pm and rose again at 1:26am and it was unbelievable.

Stellan: Iíve shot in Northern Sweden before where weíve filmed night for day, because you have the same exposure for 24 hours.

Fincher: We shouldíve thought of that. How has everything gone with [Lars von Trierís] "Melancholia"? Has it done well in Europe?

Stellan: Itís an art house movie, but itís done very well and itís very appreciated. People have gotten over the misunderstandings from Cannes I think. [Ed. Director Lars von Trier was declared a persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival after comments he made at a press conference for the film.]

Fincher: Thereís a wonderful picture of you cradling Larsí head. I donít know if it was at Cannes or afterward.

Stellan: It was probably at Cannes.

Fincher: Itís so sweet. Sometimes people just need a cuddle.

Stellan: They do. He called me and he said, ďYou know, Stellan, my next movie is going to be a porno movie and you will have the main lead. Itís the best role Iíve ever written for a man.Ē And I said, ďDo I get to fuck?Ē And he said, ďNoĒ. Heís in a really good mood. Heís had six years of depression and now heís up and running.

Fincher: It took him being excommunicated for him to get over that. Sometimes you just need everyone aligned against you. Sometimes you need to be vilified; you need people to go, ďYou have to leave,Ē to make ?you go, ďNo, damn it! I belong here.Ē

Stellan: Itís such a hard job to be a film director and it takes so much courage to be able to push the envelope in filmmaking. Working against all the financial restrictions you have and everybody wants you to make ?a conventional film that just makes money. Sometimes you need a certain level of aggressiveness to take a stand against it, to be able to produce something that is not just mainstream.

Fincher: Maybe to get over his depression he needed to not have the loving bosom of the French film critics.

Stellan: No, but he needed me to hold his head.

Fincher: He just needed your loving bosom. I think thatís the hallmark of working with you. Because this is a job and you sit in a chair and you try and radiate energy and intention and it is a rare thing to have collaborators that are relaxed and flexible and I donít mean malleable. Itís so lovely to have somebody who comes to work and says, letís bend with it; letís go with it.

Stellan: Weíre dancing together. Everybodyís dancing together and you canít be out of rhythm; youíve got to follow each other.