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 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
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
"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
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
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."