Bitter Swede Seduction

December 25, 2003

Stellan Skarsgård is no stranger to demanding or unpopular roles, as his rape scene with Nicole Kidman proved.

Stellan Skarsgård is resigned. After several successful decades as an actor in Sweden, he made a late break for international stardom with the likes of Ronin, Good Will Hunting and The Hunt For Red October. And so Hollywood hokum is now all par for his course. Thus, he finds himself in Rome, re-shooting, almost entirely, the Exorcist prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning.

"It's a new film, so we're re-shooting 70 to 80 per cent of it with a new director, new cast," he grumbles good naturedly. "We were going to do a two-week re-shoot and now we're doing a whole new movie. The studio didn't think it was scary enough." And so, Paul Schrader's psychological exploration was all but tossed out and blockbuster action director Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight) was signed up to dumb things down. "Oh well, it is a few chapters for my autobiography," Skarsgård says.

Another chapter might be taken up with Skarsgård's friendship with Lars von Trier. The eccentric Danish director of Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, is one of the founders of the Dogme school of film-making. Dogme eschews traditional film-making techniques, including make-up, lighting, and in the case of von Trier's latest film Dogville, sets. The action takes place on a soundstage, with the film's village setting simply marked out in paint on the floor. It is a village without walls, or doors, or trees: one that seems designed to alienate all but the most committed film buffs.

Skarsgård denies there's anything so unusual about von Trier's approach. "I had done so much theatre so you're used to working with less sets and props. It's when you have to work with less talent that it's hard but that wasn't the case here," he says. That talent included Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Paul Bettany, who  Skarsgård admits he duped into taking the role by telling him von Trier was an easy director to work with.

"Paul I think panicked," Skarsgård laughs. "But eventually he was happy he did it and he's very good in the film. Lars is not uncomplex as a person but I find him extremely easy to work with."

Bettany is one of  Skarsgård's closest friends, naming his new baby with Jennifer Connelly Stellan after his friend. Bettany was not the only actor in a state of shock. Kidman told von Trier she wasn't sure she could go on but then, her character does spend much of the film being raped and brutalised by the village folk. "They came for the ride and they got it," is  Skarsgård's assessment of how his fellow cast members enjoyed their time on set.

Skarsgard's character was the perpetrator of the first rape and when the time came to view it with an audience, at the Cannes Film Festival, he and Kidman walked out together. "I think she can actually see it if she sees it alone," he says. "But she is very alone sitting in front of 300 people staring at her in the theatre as well as on the screen. She is a very brave and smart girl."

Skarsgård himself was less bothered by the fuss. "I've done a lot of sex scenes or love scenes in films. Personally, I don't have a problem with it unless it's awkward for the girl, which sometimes it is because their sex is much more exploited in films. Unfortunately, no one wants to exploit my naked body."

There is no doubt Dogville is a bleak and uncompromising film. Set in a US mountain village in the 1930s, Kidman plays Grace, a young woman who escapes gangsters by hiding out with the townfolk. While she initially endears herself to them by performing simple household tasks, they soon turn on her. But while the film has offended many, particularly American, critics for what it says about society, Skarsgård doesn't take life so seriously.

"I find it bleak but entertaining. I laugh a lot when I see Lars' films," he admits, almost sheepishly. "I don't think it's his view of humanity really, but he likes to construct these really dark fairy tales. He finds joy in very horrible things, but I understand this won't be the regular happy popcorn flick."

Skarsgård enjoys a career alternating between the popcorn flick and more intellectual fare. "You can't live on foie gras,'' he chirps. "Sometimes you want a good burger."

Skarsgård is without a doubt his country's best known actor, but it would seem his fame is more low key than that of Australia's own homegrown heroes, Kidman and Russell Crowe.

"I'm not regarded as sexy as Nicole or as vibrant as Russell," Skarsgård laughs. "Here I just live a normal life, doing the shopping, doing the cooking and everything. Being famous in Sweden is easier than anywhere in the world. For instance, our foreign minister got killed just travelling on the subway."

It's a slightly tortured example, but I think I know what he means.

"It's a small country and you have this tradition of not sticking out. Our richest families travel in Saabs, not Rolls Royces."

Skarsgård is married to a doctor, My. They have six children. "I'm not Catholic,'' he proclaims. "It's great fun and it's nice to have a lot of kids. They take care of each other."

Four of the junior Skarsgårds dabble in acting to various degrees, something Skarsgård has neither encouraged nor discouraged. After all, his own acting career was almost an accident. 

"I wanted to be a diplomat. That was my ambition," he says. "Obviously, I failed."