FILM FILE / Sweden's Stellar Stellan Skarsgård

November 27, 1996

The American film-going public has been well-served by Swedish imports. Greta Garbo. Ingrid Bergman. Inger Stevens. And Stellan Skarsgård - tall, blond, svelte, well-accented and a pretty well-kept secret from U.S. audiences (although he was in The Hunt for Red October, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and was Raoul Wallenberg in Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg). Right now, he's starring in two remarkable movies, neither of which will establish him in the American mind as a romantic leading man, per se. Just as an actor of considerable range and daring.

One is the celebrated Breaking the Waves, Danish director Lars von Trier's Christ allegory, in which a simpleminded young Scotswoman (Emily Watson) is propelled toward sexual debasement, suffering and death by her paralyzed husband. Skarsgård is the husband. The other is Zero Kelvin, a Jack London-esque psycho-drama from Norway's Hans Peter Molland about three hunter-trappers near the North Pole - a scientist, a writer and a filthy, soul-scarred psychopath whose dementia fuels their destruction. Skarsgård. of course, plays the disturbed hunter.

In person, over breakfast in Manhattan - eggs, potatoes, ham and liberal slathering of ketchup, all of which Skarsgård gobbles like a man who's been stuck in the Arctic - he's urbane, funny and a far cry from either the befouled Randbaek of Zero Kelvin (which opens today at Manhattan's Film Forum) or the oil-rig worker of Breaking the Waves (which has opened in New York, and begins Friday at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington). Working on Zero Kelvin was, of course, the more rigorous shoot. "It was closer to the North Pole than to a hospital. Or a good Italian restaurant," Skarsgård said. "The Italian restaurant was the big problem."

Shot a hundred or so miles above the Arctic Circle, on the remote Norwegian island of Spitzbergen in the Arctic Ocean, Kelvin posed serious danger. "We had a crew of about 20 people, living on this old boat so we could move around," Skarsgård said. "The skipper was this fanatic religious man from southern Norway. He'd never been up there and he didn't have, whattya call it, a depth meter. Which is stupid up there. We went on a rock, got stuck. It was very scary because if you fall into the water, you survive about 30 seconds."

Polar bears weren't so much of a problem, "because everybody was so well armed. Even the director wore this huge Magnum .44. You have to have a Magnum, 'cause you can't stop them otherwise."

"I'm an indoor man," the actor said with a laugh. "I don't do sports and I don't leave the home between October and May." Even so, he said, "I want to go back. The landscape is breathtaking, especially the glaciers. You have this wall of turquoise ice that's 50 yards tall . . .  We had this crazy 'copter pilot who liked to fly in the glaciers. The cracks there are very wide sometimes, and he'd fly into them."

The grizzled Randbaek is an actor's dream - a character who's unique not just physically but psychologically. Skarsgård's role in Breaking the Waves, on the other hand, is despicable without the romantic overtones. But it did give him the opportunity to work with the fascinating von Trier.

"Lars is extremely neurotic, extremely hypersensitive, extremely intelligent, and of course being so sensitive costs," he said. "But working with him is not like working with a neurotic. It's working with a very calm, very trusting guy and the atmosphere on the set is warm and generous. And he trusts you, he gives you total freedom. You can do whatever you want. The camera has to chase you wherever you go. You're allowed to make mistakes. You're encouraged to make mistakes. So you're prepared to take risks. You can do things that even surprise yourself."

Skarsgård's acting career included 16 years with Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theater, in which, he said, you work every day and can't support a family. Life as a Swedish movie star is far superior.

"I have this nice life," he said. "I make a film then I take six months off, spend it with my family." Plus, he said, "I'm respected as an artist. And people know I'm acting; they separate me from my parts. I've done simple action films and stuff in Sweden as well as art films, but I think the Swedish audience expects to see something different each time I show up.

"To me, what's fun with acting is inventing people. It's almost as close to being God, you know, creating life like that?" He pauses. "I got six kids. That's closer to God."