Making the Waves - Interview with Stellan Skarsgård

November 11, 1998

Sweden's Stellan Skarsgård is on course for international stardom. Although he has been an actor for more than 30 years, Stellan Skarsgård made audiences in this country sit up and take notice two years ago when he played Emily Watson's paralyzed husband in the Cannes Grand Prix winner Breaking the Waves.

"It was extremely claustrophobic," the Swedish actor remembers. "Usually I don't sit still for five minutes when I'm filming. I pace back and forth on the set all the day but there I was strapped into a bed and it was terrible."

This week Skarsgård suffers from a different on-screen disability as a detective on the trail of a murderer in the Norwegian director Erik Skoldbjaerg's debut feature Insomnia. Although ostensibly a murder mystery, the film is really a character study of a man whose inner demons are brought to
light in the Arctic summer of the land of the midnight sun.

"He's already on his way to breakdown when he comes there," explains Skarsgård. "The continual bright light is partly an image of what's going on inside him and also a trigger for his unbalance. Because he can't sleep, it makes him more vulnerable and breaks him down faster. He's trying desperately to stay in control, to protect his facade of being the perfect cop. What attracted me to the role was that everything was going on inside him and he was not letting anything out. He's like a pressure cooker."

While Skarsgård did not himself suffer from insomnia, he did find working in 24-hour daylight an unsettling experience. "It creates a certain kind of confusion. You rarely get sleepy but you do get tired and your body clock gets totally mixed up. My kids were out playing at two o'clock in the morning."

The film was shot in Skoldbjaerg's home town of Tromso which, despite the romantic image of sunlight on snow implicit in the "land of the midnight sun" tag, comes over as a desolate and brutally industrialised part of the world. "Erik's not very romantic about his home town," says Skarsgård. "But the bleakness and ugliness that he shows in the film suit the story very well."

Although the film is made in Norwegian, Skarsgård's character is Swedish and he speaks his own language. "The three languages, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, are basically the same. There are some words that are different and the pronunciation is very different but we can understand each other."

Skarsgård has appeared in a dozen or more Swedish films. Some of them, such as Sven Nykvist's The Ox and Ake Sandgren's The Slingshot, have been widely praised outside his own country. But in the past few years he has been seen increasingly in English-speaking roles and, in a similar way to fellow Swede Max von Sydow some 25 years ago, Skarsgård now seems on course for international screen fame.

As well as Breaking the Waves, he was recently seen as the abolitionist Lewis Tappan in Spielberg's slave drama Amistad and the envious mathematics professor in Good Will Hunting. He was also Denis Quaid's sidekick in the Bosnian war drama Savior and the lascivious German businessman in Hanif Kureishi's My Son the Fanatic. Next week he opens here in John Frankenheimer's action thriller Ronin, in which he, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno are part of an international team of espionage mercenaries made redundant by the end of the Cold War, who are hired to steal a mysterious briefcase. In contrast to the internalised action of Insomnia, Ronin is virtually non-stop external action, with spectacular car chases all over France.

"Action films are fun and quite refreshing if you don't do them all the time, but it's a different technique," Skarsgård explains. "The scenes are never about the characters. You have to try to squeeze some character into a scene which is really about forwarding the plot and give the audience the feeling that he has other dimensions even if he's only showing one."

For the character he plays in Ronin, who is, he says, "totally mysterious and never explained, I made up this enormous back story which actually makes him in his eyes a good guy, even though that doesn't show in the movie".

There is more action for Skarsgård in Deep Blue Sea, a film he made recently in Mexico. "I play shark food," he says dryly. "I get eaten about an hour into the film. The story is about scientists on a research platform out at sea, who are experimenting with genetic tampering on sharks to enhance the size of their brains, which they think will provide a cure for Alzheimer's. But the experiments make the sharks get smarter. I'm the first scientist to be eaten."

Skarsgård started acting as a child and at 16 starred in a popular Swedish television series. He then joined the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he stayed for 16 years. "I learnt my craft by carrying spears, going in and out in different wigs and false beards, and by emulating or rather stealing
from older and more talented actors. But I made sure that I stole from a variety of actors so that no one could trace the theft."

Skarsgård is now a young-looking 47, tall, with slightly receding fair hair and warm blue eyes, sometimes half hidden behind scholarly, wire-rimmed spectacles. He has been happily married for 24 years and has six children ranging in age from 22 to two and a half, but he also has the sort of magnetism which turns female heads when he walks into the room. It's a power he modestly denies. "I can't see myself in that light. I'm definitely not a pin-up. I don't have the body for it."

As far as the possibility of international stardom is concerned, Skarsgård is laid-back to say the least. "I try to make the movies I enjoy most. I don't want to be a star; I want to remain an actor."