- Spring 2003 - "Exorcist: The Beginning"
[photo from "Time Code"]
Stellan Skarsgård hasn't been sleeping well lately. Maybe it's because he needs
a new pillow. Maybe it's because he's acting in a sequel to one of the scariest movies
ever made. Or, maybe it's because he's stepping into the shoes of a legend.
"A lot of journalists ask me the question, 'Do you think you're big enough to fill
the shoes of Max Von Sydow?' and I wasn't worried about it. But obviously, unconsciously I
was, because I had this dream the other night that I was walking down the street. Max Von
Sydow comes walking towards me, and I'm happy to see him and he's happy to see me, but
when he gets close, I find out that he's actually nine feet tall. Which says something
about my relationship with him. Unconsciously, I guess I am a bit worried."
In the upcoming prequel to the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist,
Skarsgård has been cast as conflicted priest Lankester Merrin, a name which will forever
stir images of a tired old man in vestments doing battle with a possessed adolescent girl.
While Skarsgård doesn't expect to make people forget about Von Sydow's deadly
confrontation with Linda Blair, he does ask that they give him the chance to make some
images of his own.
"I'm putting my own spin on the character. I can't do what Max can do, I can only
do it my way. It's also not necessary. His character was at the end of his life, an old
man, and what he was like when he was younger, you can't tell. So, I have freedom to
create the character in my own way."
Skarsgård has created lots of characters his own way, from the paralyzed oil-rigger in
Breaking the Waves to the no-nonsense Professor in Good Will Hunting to the
sleepless cop in the (original) Insomnia. In his native Sweden, however, he grew up
in the significant shadow of fellow countryman Von Sydow. For many years, he was viewed as
the heir apparent to the star of such landmarks as The Seventh Seal and The
Greatest Story Ever Told. How appropriate then, that they will soon forever be linked
in the minds of moviegoers all over the world.
Exorcist: The Beginning takes place some thirty years before the events of the
original film, when Merrin deals with the devil for the first time. But, cautions
Skarsgård, the new movie isn't content to tread in the same water as the old.
"It's very different. The first film was not about Father Merrin, really. He was a
strong character, but this film is very much about Merrin's journey towards the first
exorcism, and his doubts. The first Exorcist took place in a normal suburb, where
only one person got possessed. This one is in a very exotic setting in Kenya, and not only
one person gets possessed."
The call has gone out to Paul Schrader to revive the franchise by making something that
has nothing to do with those video store bargain bin tapes. And when your director can get
rewrites free of charge from the man who did Raging Bull and Taxi Driver
(himself), that makes it hard for an actor to say no.
"The script is very well written (Stellan smiling). Paul Schrader is a brilliant
scriptwriter and he's been doing a lot of work on it. It's very character driven for a
film of this size. If you look at Schrader's films, many of them are about men in
crises, and so is this one. He is very interested in actors and in character. I want to
work with directors who are like that."
Skarsgård holds his director in extremely high regard, and says Schrader was perfect
"He's a very smart man, and he's got an interesting past. He grew up under very
hard religious circumstances (Calvinist upbringing) and wasn't even allowed to see movies.
He saw his first one, in fact, when he was seventeen. Schrader has seen the bad side of
It would seem that Schrader could bring a unique view to the story of a priest
struggling with the devil. But aren't his films usually a tenth of the size of this huge
summer tentpole? Skarsgård agrees, and that's why he loves the idea of the two of them
being turned loose with a studio pocketbook.
"When you think about this movie, it's a big Hollywood, big budget movie
(laughing), "but it's directed by Paul Schrader, who's a very interesting independent
director, and it's being played by me - who normally does weird little films. I don't know
if Morgan Creek is being daring or stupid."
Perhaps a little of both, but at least we know this team won't play by the rules. The
two seem intent on making a movie that recalls the shrieks and uneasiness of the original,
but is very much its own beast.
"It's not necessary that it has Exorcist in the title, but I believe that
Warner Bros. is happy to have it there. If a movie is a good one, it doesn't matter what
the title is."
So maybe Skarsgård isn't afraid of tarnishing a classic. Or of being compared to an
actor who already defined the role he's going to play. But perhaps he should be looking
out for the mythical "Exorcist curse", which plagued the Beginning shoot
early on when original director John Frankenheimer (Ronin) passed away and the
previous Fr. Merrin candidate, Liam Neeson, dropped out. Skarsgård laughs off any rumor
of a curse, saying that the devil would have better things to do. And he knows that he's
meant to be on this set, too - because he had another sleepless night recently.
"I had a dream about Liam Neeson (chuckling) and he was only three feet