|Interview with Stellan about Lars Von Trier
- The Great Dane
December 26, 2003
Stellan as "Chuck" in Dogville
When Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård first visited Lars Von Trier at his
home, the diminutive Danish director introduced himself in his usual distinctive manner:
"I don't like to touch people," he said.
Skarsgård, who towers over Von Trier, promptly embraced him. The renegade filmmaker
was nonplussed - and then delighted. He cast Skarsgård in Breaking the Waves,
the first of three films they have made together.
"I've kept on hugging him, too," Skarsgård says. "He's getting
Talking to EG from a hotel room in Rome, Skarsgård is discussing his latest
venture with Von Trier, the stark and pointed drama Dogville, which also stars
Nicole Kidman. A morality fable that offers a critique of American values, the film is set
in a small Rocky Mountains town during the Depression.
When Kidman's character Grace arrives in Dogville seeking sanctuary, the handful of
residents grant it grudgingly, only to gradually exploit her efforts to become a viable
citizen, first through forced labour and then sexually.
In typically perverse fashion, Von Trier has never been to the United States because of
a fear of flying. But for Skarsgård there was no choice about whether he would be a part
of his friend's latest film.
"I'm interested in whatever Lars does," he says. "I was in Paris
collecting a lot of European film awards for Lars for Dancer in the Dark, and
when we were on the phone afterwards I said, 'Lars, you're getting too commercial'. He
told me, 'Don't worry, I'm writing a film that no one will want to see and I'm writing a
line for you right now'."
That is the kind of pronouncement Von Trier specialises in: a pre-emptive challenge.
His films divide audiences and his personality inspires either great loyalty or enmity
from those who walk on to his sets. Skarsgård is definitely in the former camp, and
says Von Trier is not as ideologically fierce as his reputation has it.
"In Scandinavia, we know a lot more about the beautiful sense of humour he
has," says Skarsgård who, like many, was a fan of The Kingdom, Von
Trier's impishly surreal 1994 TV series. "We don't perceive him as darkly as people
who are only familiar with his latter films."
Having co-authored Dogme 95, a back-to-basics manifesto that called on
filmmakers to strip away artifice by using hand-held cameras, natural light and by
shooting on location, Von Trier has changed tack with Dogville. The film was shot
on a darkened soundstage with chalk outlines on the floor to mark the walls and a few
props for the actors to work with.
For Skarsgård, a veteran of Swedish theatre, it was a familiar sight, albeit one that
required a different approach.
"The moment I stepped onto that stage I felt like I'd stepped back onto a theatre
stage and you get that little extra kick in your spine and the adrenalin rush because you
want to fill that space with your presence," he says. "But in film you have to
do the opposite, you have to be intimate.
"Theatre helped in that you were used to working without props, without a door -
you're used to the sparseness. It's just the actors and the text."
While Skarsgård was aware of this in advance, having seen models of the set, many
of the ensemble cast were not clear on what they were getting themselves into. Alongside
Kidman, Von Trier forged an eclectic group of actors, ranging from Hollywood royalty
(Lauren Bacall and James Caan) to young graduates of the independent scene (Chloe Sevigny
and Jeremy Davies). Skarsgård offered them some simple advice: "I told them to give
up, relax and have fun."
The actors had to get used to Von Trier's shooting methods, an intimate procedure where
the use of 45-minute digital video cassettes meant that scenes could evolve at the
"You can try different things, stop a take halfway through to have a discussion,
you can just stop and go back and do a line several times," says Skarsgård, who
appreciates the creative freedom it gives him.
"You can do whatever you want, but that can be frightening for some actors. A lot
of actors prepare in a very exact manner and they have a firm idea about their character
and how that character would react in any situation.
"That's an illusion of control that actors have in a normal film - Lars takes that
away from you. With Lars it's happening, you investigate the scene, you find out just what
can be squeezed out of it."
In a controlled environment, and without the cost of film to consider, Von Trier was
able to shoot reams of footage to give himself maximum choice in the editing suite. At one
point, after several takes of an emotionally taxing set-up where Skarsgård's character
forces himself on Grace, the director suggested that the scene could be played as romantic
"It was funny, but it didn't work," Skarsgård recalls. "But a few lines
were subsequently useful."
The contrast between Von Trier and the Hollywood studio system, which Skarsgård
has become involved with since his role in Good Will Hunting, could not be more
Skarsgård is promoting Dogville in his spare time on the set of Exorcist:
The Beginning, a prequel to the seminal horror film by director Paul Schrader (Auto
Focus) that is being reshot by Renny Harlin (Die Hard II).
"There's a new script, extra cast members," says Skarsgård. "My first
reaction was that we were digging up an old corpse, but essentially it's a whole new film.
"The stupid side of filmmaking is getting more annoying - they give you too many
marks to hit and too many restrictions because of the lights and camera. The most
important thing in a scene is the acting and that's been forgotten."
With Von Trier, Skarsgård says, "you just act, which is great". The director
even set up a confessional booth, complete with video camera, so that his cast could
record their observations or vent their frustrations.
"I had great fun on Dogville," Skarsgård says, "but if you
were depressed or drunk at four in the morning, it was easy to just go to
Of course, there's no surprise about who ultimately heard these outbursts. "Lars
has all the tapes."