BOMB MAGAZINE - Larry Grass
Summer 1991, I am an
LA based screenwriter, vacationing on the east coast. I get a call from
Tom Luddy about a Carroll Ballard movie called "Wind", which he has been
producing for American Zoetrope and some Japanese investor. Luddy says
they’re shooting for five weeks in Providence, Rhode Island and
Wendover, Nevada, and am I available to write some stuff for/with
Ballard? He tells me the movie stars Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey,
and there is this other guy Stellan Skarsgård. "Wind" became a
half-decent picture with typically spectacular Carroll Ballard visuals,
and a few light dramatic scenes, the best of which always seemed to
involve this new guy, Stellan Skarsgård. Jennifer, Matthew and the other
co-star Rebecca Miller (currently a movie director herself) always
seemed to do better in the scenes they played with Stellan. He was
riveting, intelligent, funny, and despite the fairly obvious Swedish
accent, you felt that he and the English language got along pretty good
Later back in L.A.,
I met a young director named Michael Fields who proudly showed me his
first major film, an adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s "Noon Wine".
It turned out to have a key supporting performance by none other than
Stellan Skarsgård. For years we figured he was our secret, that one day
we’d get Stellan into an American movie and make ourselves rich and
famous in the process.
Danish director Lars von Trier beat us to it! Complementing Emily
Watson’s tour de force in "Breaking the Waves", Stellan was sane, sexy,
earthy-but-poetic, in a way that grounded the whole film.
So now the whole world is in on the secret. The actor renowned in his
native Sweden for a myriad of films has recently appeared here in
"Amistad", and "Good Will Hunting", and will soon be seen in the
upcoming Norwegian film "Insomnia", (a stylish noir thriller that
received rave reviews at last year’s Cannes) and the
soon-to-be-completed "Ronin". Better connected, and dare I confess it,
more talented people than myself have worn down the path to Stellan’s
door. Still one lives in hope that something you’ve written will be
transformed by a talent like Stellan Skarsgård. We talked trans-Atlantic
It must be nice to be home . . .
It is. I try to get home very often. If I have two days off I fly home
over the weekend.
But this year you’ve been traveling all over the place.
Yeah, I have been mostly in the States and Canada. When I was shooting
on location in Toronto, I brought the family over, brothers and mothers
. . . the whole extended family. I had a nice Swedish colony going. It’s
important for me to keep contact with real life.
What were you shooting in Toronto?
"Good Will Hunting". Right now I’m shooting Ronin, with Robert DeNiro,
Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce. It’s about a bunch of ex-spies who are
out of work after the Cold War, and they’re hired to steal a case from
How has it been working with Frankenheimer?
I like him a lot. He’s good with actors, and he really takes every
opportunity to create a dynamic between the characters. Even if you have
just a few one-liners in a scene, something always happens between the
other characters as you’re saying them.
I became aware of you after the first project you did
in the United States which our buddy Michael Fields directed. It was a
project for American Playhouse as I remember.
Yeah, it was called "Noon Wine". It must have been ’84 or something.
You played an immigrant hired hand, is that right? As I
remember it, you sort of ruined the life of this farmer, played by Fred
No, it was absolutely the opposite. I helped him. I was a very strange
farmhand from North Dakota, and I worked hard and built his farm and
made it work again. But I was being chased by a bounty hunter because I
was somehow mentally disturbed and they wanted to take me to an
Tell me a little bit about when and where you started
acting in Sweden.
I started as a kid really. I got small parts in amateur theaters. Then
when I was 16 I got this big role on television called "Bombi-Bitt" as
the Swedish Huckleberry Finn. We only had one channel at that time in
Sweden, so it was like becoming a rock star; screaming girls, and all
You get used to it. You get bored with it. Then for a while I tried to
combine the theater with going to school, but suddenly I got a role in a
theater that was not in the town I was living in. So at 18, I quit
school and started working there.
Am I correct in thinking that in Europe a professional
career for an actor involves the theater more than it does in America?
Indeed it does. To be an actor in Europe you have to do theater. It’s
uncommon that you just become a star. Almost every actor in Sweden is
Do you have any chance to do it anymore?
I had a chance, but I stopped—or took a pause—eight years ago because I
wanted to be able to spend some time with my kids. I can do a film and
then I can take four months off and be with my family. But working in
the theater, I have to work 80 hours a week and I still can’t support my
family. Still, it’s better for actors in the theater in Sweden than it
is for actors in the States.
Was there one particular theater experience that was of
primary importance or significance for you?
In the Royal Dramatic Theater there were two directors who meant the
most to me: Alf Sjöberg and Per Verner Carlsson. Alfred Bey was a great
director and I worked a lot with him, he also did some films. He won an
award in Cannes in 1951 for his film version of Miss Julie, by
Strindberg. Per Verner Carlsson was more of a modernistic stage poet. I
worked a lot with him. Those were my happiest days in the theater.
Were there any specific roles that you were
particularly fond of?
I did a lot of Strindberg and more experimental stuff. I’ve done some
Shakespeare, some Chekhov, and some Vallejo. He had a piece called "La
Fondaccíon", which was a big break for me in the theater that led to
Just out of curiosity—this is the cliché question—but
did you ever do theater with Bergman?
Yeah, I did Strindberg’s "Dream Play" with him.
How was that?
It was great. The project didn’t turn out that well, but it was great
working with him. He’s very enthusiastic and supportive, and brilliant,
of course, so I had fun.
Any advice that he gave you on movies?
No. The best advice I got on movies was from Bo Widerberg. He taught me
more about movie acting than any other director.
When did you work with him?
In the ’80s. First I did a film called "The Serpent’s Way", and then I
did a version of Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House".
Bo Widerberg is famous in America for "Elvira Madigan",
Yeah, he is. And that’s not his best film. He was a brilliant director.
He had this amazing ear for what was truth. He taught you not to
concentrate on being brilliant yourself, but to concentrate on the other
actors. More to react than act, and I still try to do that. I don’t have
the ambition to shine myself, because a scene is never better than its
weakest link. So if someone else is not good in the scene because I’m
taking the oxygen from them, it’s worthless. I don’t like seeing actors
who are working in a way where I can spot their vanity, where they put
their own personality or their own needs in front of the character
they’re playing. To me, the film is number one; the character is second.
I first became aware of your popularity in Sweden with
a film you did on the life and heroic career of Raoul Wallenberg, who
was a Swedish diplomat involved in trying to save victims of the
Holocaust. That was an important film for you internationally.
It became a very important film for me because it was a tough
experience. We worked in Budapest in the actual ghetto, which was the
only ghetto that survived the war. There were a lot of the old Jews
living there who had experienced all this, and being there and those old
ladies coming out and touching me—they knew I wasn’t Wallenberg, but it
brought everything back to them again. They came crying to me and
touching me and stroking me, and bringing coffee to me. At that moment,
doing a successful movie or even a beautiful piece of art became
absolutely uninteresting. The only thing that became important to us was
to be true to those people and to their lives.
Could you briefly explain what Wallenberg accomplished
during the War?
He came from the most powerful financial family in Sweden. He had
studied in the United States, but he hadn’t really found his place. But
then he managed to get this job where he was funded by the United States
to try and save Jews in Hungary. First he worked with the Germans [he
had a lot to do with Eichmann to try to stop people from being
deported]. He gave out thousands and thousands of Swedish schutz-passes,
which were protective passes and which, in a way, made them Swedes. And
he cheated, and he bribed—he did everything.
In 1991 you made a film for Carroll Ballard
called "Wind". What was it like to work with Carroll Ballard, who was a
pretty important American filmmaker and who had given you a big role?
It was fun. He’s a lovely person and I like him a lot. I don’t know if
he’s afraid of actors and doesn’t know how to handle them, but he takes
one step back when it comes to the actors. He’s very much into the
images. He’s a very cinematic director.
I came on that set and was astonished to discover that
one of the key characters in this story about the American boat racing
industry was Swedish.
He had no choice, I was Swedish. If the actor is good enough, then it
really doesn’t matter if they have a little accent.
No, that’s true. So then the next big thing
you did, I suppose, was "Breaking the Waves."
The next big thing in the United States was definitely "Breaking the
Waves." The producer called me and wanted to work with me and they sent
me three scripts. One of them was "Breaking the Waves."
Had you seen von Trier’s other films?
All of them. I knew his work. I saw "Element of Crime" in a film
festival and when I saw it, I said to myself, “I’d like to work with
this director when he gets interested in people.” SS It was the same
with "Europa", which in the States was called "Zentropa". It’s a
magnificent film, but you don’t get close to the characters. That had to
do with the way von Trier worked. He was afraid of actors. He really
made his film at home at his desk, and then he just executed what he had
already decided, which meant that there was no room for the actors to
expand in their roles. There was no room for the irrationalities that
come from unplanned things.
But obviously he had changed his approach very
drastically by the time it came to "Breaking the Waves."
Yeah, he did it with "The Kingdom". I saw that and I said, “Okay, he’s
ready now. So am I.” He had said that he wanted to work more freely. He
said he found "Zentropa" as being like a block of ice, even if it was a
beautiful, elegant block of ice. I think he had come to the point where
he knew how to handle his tools very well; he thought he could control
chaos, so he let everybody do what they wanted.
What was the relationship between the script you read
and the actual dialogue you spoke in "Breaking the Waves"?
It was very close. He’s a very good writer and the script was so well
constructed, so well written and so dense. Before we started shooting,
we met and read through the scenes and tried to find out how they worked
and how we should make them work, and if there was anything we wanted to
change, we were allowed to change it. But most of the lines were so well
written that they stayed. Then some things are inventions, like Katrin
Cartlidge’s marvelous speech at the wedding in the beginning. She wrote
that herself the night before and then she came up to Lars and said, “I
wrote a new speech, you want to see it?” “No, do it.” She did it.
What was it like to work with Emily Watson?
It was great. It was her first role, we didn’t know what would come
really. We had casting meetings with a lot of girls, but I immediately
spotted that she had a very special and magic translucence that you see
even off screen.
Did you have some say in casting her?
We talked about it, but mainly I was working with all the girls who were
trying for the role, which meant sitting in a room and shaking hands,
and pretending to be shagging girls and doing love scenes one after the
But you didn’t step forward to Lars and say, “This is the one?”
No. We looked at each other and he said, “I think I know who I want!”
And I said, “I think so too!” He was sure of it, I didn’t have to advise
him in that. But this was an English girl, and this was a film that was
being made by a director she had never heard of and involved a lot of
sensitive sexual stuff—which is peanuts for a Scandinavian, but isn’t
peanuts for an English girl—so you didn’t know how she would react when
it came to shooting. Because if she got scared, she would get blocked
and it wouldn’t work. But she was very brave and very smart. She didn’t
try to be professional, she just went for it. Professional is a word I
"Breaking the Waves" was a huge international success
and from that came a flurry of offers to work in the States, the most
immediately important one being "Amistad". How was that to do?
I was flattered that I got it. And scared because the language was an
early 19th-century English with a dialect that was mixed between
mid-Atlantic, Boston, and spiced up with a little Texas because Matthew
McConaughey was in it—and I had about two days to try and sort it out.
It was tough, but also it was the way the film was shot. Spielberg was
doing 40 set-ups a day, which means that the tempo was astonishing. It’s
twice as many set-ups as you usually do in a movie. And with a lot of
actors and a lot of extras so there wasn’t much time to try the scenes
out and try to develop them, it was more or less just get there, action,
and the camera was rolling immediately.
Most of your scenes were with Morgan Freeman.
SS Yeah, he’s wonderful.
And then, from shooting "Amistad", you went right on to
"Good Will Hunting".
Yeah, that was lovely. Working with Gus Van Sant was more like working
with a guy like von Trier. He gives the actors an enormous amount of
freedom and is really interested in finding out what can be in the
scene. Not only what has to be said to bring the story forward, but:
What can be in here? What can we find out and discover about the
characters and their relations, and how complicated can it be really?
Was it tricky? Here you are acting opposite Matt Damon,
the young man who also wrote the screenplay, and the director was
directing him too. Did you find yourself in the crossfire?
Never. Because Matt Damon and Ben Affleck: brilliant young men. They’re
open to everything.
I worked with Matt on one of his first big movies,
"Geronimo", and I know exactly what you mean.
Yeah, not self-obsessed, not pretentious, a really great guy.
That always makes the working not only better, but
I want to have fun when I work, or it’s not worth it to me. I’ve made
too many films to spend time working with assholes.
Does it look like you’re going to be spending more time
in the States?
I don’t know. So far I’ve worked pretty well from a base in Sweden. I
like it here in Sweden and I’ve got all my friends here. If I should
move, I probably would have to move 60 people, and I don’t make that
kind of money.
But is the idea to try and do more American films, if possible?
I don’t really think about where the film is made or where the money
comes from. If the director, if the cast, if the material interests me,
then I’ll do it.