Reel.com - Summer 1999

Stellan Skarsgård: Art-house Action Star?
by Tor Thorsen


Insomnia
was recently released on video and DVD. The sharks of Deep Blue Sea are currently attacking moviegoers nationwide]

Stellan Skarsgråd has always been a talented actor. Since his breakthrough role in Danish director Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the Swedish thespian has racked up an impressive resume, including choice roles in Amistad, Good Will Hunting, My Son the Fanatic, and the upcoming Passion of Mind, co-starring Demi Moore. He also drew critical raves for his portrayal of a burnt-out detective who accidentally commits murder in the bleak Scandinavian thriller Insomnia.

But with two of his most recent roles being in action blockbusters - last year's Ronin and the current Deep Blue Sea - Skarsgård stands on the verge of becoming that rarest of breeds: an art-house actor with action street cred. Reel.com editor Tor Thorsen [who is Norwegian-Wisconsinite, for the record] spoke with the increasingly busy actor on the set of his upcoming period drama Aberdeen in Scotland.

Question: Your first breakthrough in the US was in Breaking the Waves - were you surprised at its success?

Stellan Skarsgård: When I read the script, I went, "Yes! This is the film I want to make, this is a love story I can relate to." I knew it was going to be a very good film, and I also knew Lars von Trier pretty well. What I didn't know was the kind of impact it was going to have on the audience, but you never know that. But I was sure it was going to be very special.

Question: Did you enjoy working with Lars Von Trier?

SS: Oh, yes. He's great fun. The best.

Question: OK, let's talk about Insomnia. Did you do any research for the role of Inspector Engstrom? Did you see any cop films or go on any police ride-alongs?

SS: No, nothing.

Question: Really? [Notes shuffle frantically.] Well then, did the film have any basis in reality? Have there ever been any serial killer cases in Scandinavia?

SS: Not that I can think of. But I think this sort of crime could happen anywhere in the world. Now, when I say I didn't do any research, I mean I didn't do too much real-world research. The problem in making a character like [Engstrom] is not trying to behave in a police-like manner, but rather to get under his skin and figure out what's happening to him mentally, to show his internal conflict. I'm not so much worried about the physical specifics. I think the real key to making any character believable are the human specifics of his profession and his personality.

Question: What do you think sets Insomnia apart from Hollywood serial killer thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs or Seven?

SS: What sets Insomnia apart is the way [director] Erik Skjoldbjaerg made the movie. The entire picture was closed in, it was isolated from the surrounding area, even the way he shot -- the whole thing was claustrophobic. Also, while the film does have a thriller story with a fast pace, etc., that's not what he concentrated on. He focused more on the breakdown of this guy [Engstrom], who was a supercop, but had gradually been destroyed by his work, and this incident [the murder] especially. He also had a reputation he wanted to uphold. He didn't want to take this particular investigation, but he couldn't afford to lose it if wanted to stay a well-respected professional.

Question: Do you think this kind of inner conflict is missing from a lot of films today?

SS: Yeah, it is, but I always try to find inner conflict in every role I play. I try to find contradictions even in characters which, in the script, are very weak, very one-dimensional, because it's no fun to just say the f**king words and get out of there. My view of mankind is that everybody, within them, has many contradictions, many conflicts. If I play a bad guy, I try and find some good in him, or at least something that makes him more interesting, more alive than bad. As for good guys, well, they're often good for reasons that are very selfish. I did a lover once in a Moliére play. But rather than just have him be "in love," I made it so he was in love with himself, and in love with himself being in love, but not in love with the woman he was seeing.

Question: Some European filmmakers complain that European films are too limited to smaller dramas focused on cultural issues. With its suspenseful plot and polished production, Insomnia seemed to break that mold. Do you think more European films should venture into genres like suspense and action which are traditionally dominated by Hollywood?

SS: Well, you have to understand, we Europeans can't compete with American action films simply because we don't have the budget. We have to branch out into other films, into smaller, local drama because we can afford to make them. We have to concentrate on national issues not only because of tradition, but to capture an audience at all. But, it's also nice when there's something besides artiness or cultural relevance to carry the audience's interest through a film.

Question: Around the same time you were working on Insomnia, you were also starring in Amistad for Steven Spielberg. Besides the obvious budgetary disparity, what struck you as the biggest difference between making a European film and a big-budget Hollywood production?

SS: Well, actually I find the production depends mostly on the different directors, on the personality they give the entire shoot. I mean, right after working with Gus Van Sant [on Good Will Hunting] I went to work on Ronin, and there were 10 times as many people running around, it was madness.

Question: What was it like working with Spielberg?

SS: He works terribly fast, shooting as many as 40 setups per day. At first I was very, very scared. I wasn't really familiar with my [Amistad] character, this sort of stone-faced, 19th-century man, and I didn't really have time to research him because of the pace of filming. Toward the end of the shoot, I was more comfortable, but Steven ... he's a very nice guy, he just needs to slow down!

Question: Mainstream audiences probably know you best from your work in Good Will Hunting, but your first high-profile role was as Captain Tupalev in John McTiernan's Hunt for Red October. I heard a rumor your part was heavily edited down from the original version of the film. Is that true? If so, did that embitter you towards Hollywood?

SS: No, no. Sure my part was trimmed a bit, but I still didn't work that much, only a few days. So it wasn't that big a deal. It was edited down from small to minimal. And hey, that picture still gives me residuals! [Laughs.]

Question: You're currently starring in Renny Harlin's killer shark thriller Deep Blue Sea. Your last American film was John Frankenheimer's spy thriller Ronin. With Dolph Lundgren's career all but dead and yourself appearing in all these blockbusters, are you becoming Sweden's main action export?

SS: [Laughs] Not really, I just happened to in be two action movies in a row in the U.S. Right after I finished Ronin, I was in Glassblower's Children, a small Swedish children's film. And right now I'm shooting Aberdeen, a period drama starring Charlotte Rampling. But don't get me wrong, I'm always up for another action movie, they're great. You can walk on the set in the morning and you don't have to know a single line. It's very relaxing. [Laughs.]

Question:: Which do you prefer: acting in smaller films or fighting killer sharks?

SS: I want to do both, because after I do a smaller movie with a lot of deep introspection and hard work, it's nice to do something lighter - and that pays better! [Laughs.]