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
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
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
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
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
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