London Film Festival - Larking about with Lars

October 27, 2003

Lars von Trier is not always depicted as the easiest director to work with. His relationship with the star of Dancer in the Dark, Bjork, was widely reported as difficult and, to her, even damaging. And when Dogville premiered in Cannes earlier this year, Nicole Kidman admitted that at first she had problems with his working methods, before "a walk in the woods" with the director eased her mind.

But as far as Stellan Skarsgård is concerned - and he’s acted for von Trier four times since his attention-grabbing role in Breaking the Waves - being on one of the Dane’s sets is "pure joy".

"I don’t consider it working, I consider it playing. I like him very much as a person. It’s a wonderful adventure to be allowed to play with Lars."

One of the most surprising aspects of the film, especially after the quasi-realism of von Trier’s Dogme period, is its pure theatricality. Dogville takes place on a bare stage, with few props and no buildings, the actors merely behaving as though there are.

"As an actor, you really appreciate it when a film director is more interested in the acting than the sets [Laughing] It feels very privileged. The first time I walked onto that sound stage there was a click in my spine and I got that theatre feeling - that you want to take the entire room, cover it with your energy; which you shouldn’t of course, you have to control yourself. Then when we started working, the stage would always be full of actors, electrified by them while you were doing something very intimate and delicate in just one corner - it was a great feeling."

Apparently von Trier’s direction of his cast verged on the eccentric, with actors encouraged to play their scenes in ways - too slow, too dramatic, too funny - that didn’t seem to make sense.

"I had a scene where I was blackmailing and eventually raping Nicole. And after four or five takes of that he suddenly said to me ‘Stellan, couldn’t you try to play it as a romantic comedy’. So I played it as a romantic comedy. Of course the scene didn’t work like that. But there were a few exchanges between Nicole and me, a few seconds somewhere which suddenly became very interesting, because the angle of attack on the scene was different. So we did a really bad scene and that gave us a couple of seconds of gold."

"If you don’t trust Lars, then you shouldn’t work with him, because it can be very painful. You have to accept that a scene doesn’t work - that it’s bad even. Once you’ve accepted that and you know that he’s in control, that he will pick out whatever he needs from all this bullshit that you produce, then you have an enormous freedom, you can do whatever you want. And you can really explore the scene."

As for Kidman, just one of a number of illustrious co-stars in this film, Skarsgård has nothing but praise.

"Nicole is a very smart actress and a very brave one. For a Hollywood star of her magnitude to do something like this and so totally give up control was very courageous."

When he’s not working with von Trier, Skarsgård - heir apparent to Max von Sydow as Sweden’s greatest living actor - has been forging a healthy career in Hollywood, with films such as Amistad, Good Will Hunting, The Hunt for Red October and one he’s just completed, Paul Schrader's "prequel" to The Exorcist (in which he plays a younger version of von Sydow himself).

"Of course some of the really big Hollywood productions are not so interesting from an actor’s point of view because the material is very formulaic and the parameters you can work within are very small - otherwise you destroy the formula that is supposed to bring them millions. It’s fun in a different way. As an actor you’re not that challenged by it, but you can enjoy the lightness of it. It’s Acting Lite. Diet Acting."