Waves of Success from Stage Left

March 2, 1997

The temptation to compare Sweden's Stellan Skarsgård with our own Oscar-nominated Geoffrey Rush is too great to resist. Both actors have long and acclaimed careers at home. While Geoffrey Rush was building a formidable stage reputation, particularly in association with Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre, Stellan Skarsgård was doing much the same on the other side of the globe for 16 years with Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, working with the likes of Max Von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman.

Both these actors suddenly in the international spotlight are happily married, both have lent more than a touch of class to local television, and both have been catapulted into a maelstrom of international attention by movies that - on paper, at least - sound seriously unlikely to attract much attention amid the speed, splatter and skin that forms the staple of crowd-pulling cinema. Rush's screen creation of pianist David Helfgott in Shine is, perhaps, a marginally more likely subject for success than Breaking the Waves.

In the latter, a rugged Scottish fishing community provides the backdrop for Lars Von Trier's heart-wrenching, mind-bending, mythic and profoundly romantic epic of goodness, virtue, sacrifice and salvation. Von Trier's brilliant film has already garnered a truckload of awards and accolades, including a best actress Oscar nomination for movie newcomer Emily Watson's performance as the faithful Bess.

To bolster that nomination, the award truck is already carrying the Cannes Jury Grand Prix; America's National Society of Film Critics award for best film and best director; European Film of the Year; Entertainment Weekly's Film of the Year; France's Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film; and New York Film Critics' Circle award for best director. Oscar nominee Watson has already been named European Actress of the Year; New York Film Critics' Circle best actress; London Evening Standard Film Awards' best newcomer; and US National Society of Film Critics' best actress.

Although he's been in more than 40 films, Skarsgård has enjoyed more international exposure than Rush. He collected a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his role in Hans Alfredson's The Simple-Minded Murderer and was in such movies as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Hunt for Red October.

As Jan, the dark and ambiguous outsider who marries troubled Bess in Von Trier's wildly acclaimed film, Skarsgård has found himself praised to the skies for a performance that combines credibility with a daunting mystery and masculinity. On the phone from his home in Stockholm, Skarsgård's perfect English is warmed and softened by his Scandinavian baritone. From the outset, he recognized something special in Breaking the Waves.

"It really started with the script," he explains. "It didn't look like anything else I'd ever seen. As I looked at it, in some ways it seemed like a melodramatic equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark!'
But it was at last year's Cannes Film Festival that Skarsgård really recognized the extent to which Breaking the Waves was making waves with the public.

"Two thousand people just stood up after the showing and screamed," he chuckles. "I realised the film was very strong, but you can never be sure. I never thought it would generate quite so much response."

It's a response that makes a kind of sense after you've seen the film, but is slightly baffling otherwise - set, as it is, amid a grindingly fundamentalist Christian group and pervaded by the unfaltering feeling that God watches lost knaves and saintly fools alike.

Now if someone could team Stellan Skarsgard with Geoffrey Rush . . .