Stellar Stellan

October 8, 2004

Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård had a tough time shooting Exorcist: The Beginning. He had to redo everything after a new director was brought in.

He e-mails the reporter directly to set up a time for a telephone interview, neatly circumventing the usual tedious rigmarole of publicists and agents. In the e-mail, he requests politely for the interview to be conducted later on a Sunday, "so that I can sleep in a little on my day off."

Currently shooting a film adaptation of the medieval Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in Iceland, the 53-year-old still takes time out to feed the publicity mill for Exorcist: The Beginning.

The movie, now playing in cinemas, is a prequel to the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. It tells the story of how Father Merrin, played by Skarsgård, became an exorcist. A measure of Skarsgård's professionalism lies in his willingness to help publicize this famously troubled movie.

Exorcist: The Beginning lost its first director, John Frankenheimer, who died suddenly from complications from a spinal surgery before production began. Writer-director Paul Schrader, who wrote scripts for such seminal movies as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, was then recruited. His involvement prompted Skarsgård's participation.

He says: "It was an interesting script, and I'd always wanted to work with Paul Schrader."

According to Skarsgård, Schrader's script and direction focused on the darker aspects of Father Merrin's character. The studio, upon seeing Schrader's movie, decided that it was not scary enough.

Skarsgård says, without mincing his words but in measured tones: "What was said was that we have to put more scary scenes in it, and that there were to be two more weeks of re-shoots. I hate re-shoots. It's like having sex with a corpse. 'Then I saw the ideas for the re-shoots, and they were all extremely silly. I was extremely upset and I didn't want to do it."

After a tussle with the studio, Schrader was fired and director Renny Harlin was brought on board. Harlin's solution was to junk everything and start afresh with another script. That persuaded Skarsgård to stay on.

"There's nothing left of Paul Schrader's version except maybe a couple of wide shots of Africa. It's not the same movie, it's two completely different movies."

Besides the challenges of the shoot, there was the issue of taking on a role identified so closely with its originator: Swedish actor Max von Sydow, best known as the knight who plays chess with Death in director Ingmar Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal.

Skarsgård, who has earned critical raves for his work in director Lars von Trier's movies as well as other independent features, has often been seen as the heir to von Sydow's distinguished crown.

"I thought I wasn't affected by the idea of stepping into Max's shoes. Then one night, I had this dream. I saw someone coming down the street and it was Max. And we're very happy to see each other. I know Max. When he approaches me, I realize he's ten feet tall."

A self-deprecating chuckle erupts from the soft-spoken actor who confesses that he never wanted an acting career.

"I always wanted to be a diplomat," he reveals. But a stint as a teen star in a popular Swedish television programme provided a permanent detour into acting. Ironically, two of his six children have followed in his footsteps and gone into show business.

Skarsgård, who is married to a doctor, says: "I never interfere in their career choices. By the age of 16, your children should be able to take care of themselves and make their own decisions."

Of his two actor/director sons, he says in a matter-of-fact tone that cannot quite disguise his pride: "They also know the business. Fortunately, they're very talented."

As for his own career, he is happy to keep shuttling between big Hollywood projects and small independent features: "That's my uniquely privileged position that I can go between them. It also keeps me sane."

[Singapore newspaper]