Interview - Breaking Waves: Sweden's Stellan Skarsgård Crashes U.S. Theaters, Big and Small

August 20, 2001

A staple of both Swedish and American cinema, the blond, gravelly-voiced actor Stellan Skarsgård has been working in front of the camera since his teens. Since then, the veteran of Stockholm's acclaimed Royal Dramatic Theatre can count the world's leading filmmakers on his rolodex: Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), John Frankenheimer ("Ronin"), Mike Figgis (Time Code) and most notably, his frequent work with fellow Northern European, Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and the upcoming Dogville), of whom he claims, "He's definitely trying to avoid the easy ways."

Last Friday, Skarsgård's latest film, Aberdeen, hit U.S. theaters, marking his second collaboration with Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland (after Zero Kelvin). In Aberdeen, Skarsgård plays Tomas, the grubby alcoholic father of Kaisa (Lena Headey) who pulls her drunken dad out of a bar one day and takes him on a road trip to visit her dying mother and his ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling). In addition to Aberdeen, Skarsgård has coming up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Glass House, Matt Dillon's Beneath the Banyan Trees (aka City of Ghosts), Istvan Szabo's Taking Sides, and is currently shooting Bob Rafelson's No Good Deed, with Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich. indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke with Skarsgård about playing drunk, directors' weaknesses, being "bankable," and Dogville.

Q: So in Aberdeen you play the most relentless drunk. You were basically drunk the whole movie?

Stellan Skarsgård: It was a fun challenge, because it was interesting to investigate different levels of drunkenness and hangovers for a couple months. But the real challenge was to be able to make the drunkenness the backdrop of the scene. The scenes are never about being drunk; the scenes are about human relations. So the drunkenness had to be there without taking over the scene.

Q: You have worked with Hans Peter Moland before; did that make things easier?

Skarsgård: It did, definitely, because there's not all that initial stuff when you don't know them. But it's also a director that I had a very good collaboration with before; so I already trusted him when we started working. Usually, you spend some time trying to find the weaknesses of the director you're working with, because you'll have to cover for them. But when you know someone so well, as we did, you immediately get into a very tight, very efficient collaboration.

Q: You have worked with some of the smartest directors working today; what sort of weaknesses do you encounter?

Skarsgård: Except for the human (laughs). All directors have their strengths and weaknesses, as all actors have, and all artists. What you try to do is complete the relationship and take care of the stuff that the director won't take care of.

Q: What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are?

Skarsgård: I've got a lot of weaknesses. One of them is that I often get scared and tense when I'm working -- and fear is one of the big threats to any good performance, because it closes you down, and makes it harder for you to produce life in front of the camera.

Q: I find that hard to believe. You¹ve been acting practically your whole life?

Skarsgård: But you don't get less scared. On the contrary, a lot of energy goes to fighting fear. I also have a weakness that also can be a strength sometimes: I deliberately try to fuck up my own work to make it less elegant and professional, so I do a lot of bad takes. And when you do a lot of bad takes, you better have a good director to find the good ones.

Q: But you've had some great roles, worked with some great people; clearly you're doing something right.

Skarsgård: Yeah, or they're doing something right.

Q: So back to Aberdeen - was one of the reasons you chose to do the project because you had this prior relationship with Moland?

Skarsgård: Definitely. Having worked with him before was a very strong reason. But it was also a very tempting role to do, of course. I usually like to find roles with a lot of contradictions. And this had all that. At his worst, he's very disgusting, but at the same time, he's not an evil person. He's a victim at the same time. And his struggle with his love for alcohol and his love for his daughter is very interesting. Alcohol is a horrifying mistress.

Q: Were you one of the first actors involved with the project?

Skarsgård: On Aberdeen, I was approached very early with one of the first drafts, and then Hans Petter had several meetings and discussions about the development of the script.

Q: The entire cast turned out great.

Skarsgård: Lena Headey is wonderful in the role. I didn't know of her work before that. Hans Petter is extremely good at casting, and giving the opportunity for the people he has cast to blossom in front of the camera. He's really one of the best directors I've had in handling actors.

Q: Do you often develop the script with directors?

Skarsgård: When I get approached early enough and I'm fond of the project. I always comment on the script, and with directors that I know well, I often am involved in the script work, as well. It's important for me to be truthful to the director about what I think.

Q: You've done quite well for yourself that you've broken into the Hollywood list of actors.

Skarsgård: It's nothing I've aimed for, but of course, it feels incredibly flattering. It's also good, because if there is a project that I'm interested in, the financiers are less likely to say, "No, you're not bankable," which is a terrifying thing. There are a lot of good actors out there who don't get the roles because of that.

Q: You're also able to straddle both independent and Hollywood films.

Skarsgård: That's very fortunate. I enjoy being able to go between small, complicated films that don't necessarily have a broad audience and the more products of the entertainment industry, which is fun to do. Even if it's not always as rewarding, the challenge is that it's often more of a cartoon character that you have to counteract.

Q: Have you ever done any directing?

Skarsgård: No. I tried to get a film made once, but nobody could come up with the money, so I got bored by that. I don't have the ambition to put "director" on my business card. It would be interesting to see if I could express myself that way. The technicalities of directing are not that complicated, but the interesting thing to see is if you can express yourself through those tools. It would be interesting, but it's not that important to me. I don't have the patience to spend years working on one project.

Q: What do you think of the filmmaking scene currently in Scandinavia?

Skarsgård: Denmark has produced a lot of interesting and daring directors. And Norway has been very successful, as well. Sweden, in the last couple years, has had some dull production, but there's a new generation that's very vital right now.

Q: And there's, of course, Lars von Trier. You're going to be working with him again on Dogville. Have you started working on it?

Skarsgård: We're planning on shooting in January now.

Q: And is it true that there won't be any set, whatsoever?

Skarsgård: I heard that, as well. No set, but it will be written on the floor. I don't know if he's still going to do it that way, but Dogville will be shot on a soundstage and the last thing I heard was that he would just put the village on the floor. He's definitely trying to avoid the easy ways.