IFC - January 10, 2011

The star of "A Somewhat Gentle Man" talks about doing comedy, working with David Fincher and the importance of a warm lunch.

There are few actors as in demand these days as Stellan Skarsgård, who will be appearing in no less than three of the year's most anticipated films - and strangely all with Scandinavian ties - in "Thor," Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" and David Fincher's adaptation of the "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Yet the film industry's desire to cast him is no comparison to the odd pull he has on middle-aged women in "A Somewhat Gentle Man," an idiosyncratic and distinctly Norwegian comedy about a recently paroled criminal who attempts to rebuild his life as a mechanic while reaching out to the family that he deserted and trying to ignore the entreaties of the gang he once served. Although he's only moderately successful at both, Skarsgård's Ulrik is unique amongst former thugs onscreen since he emerges from prison as a people pleaser, whether it's looking out for the pregnant secretary at his garage or dutifully schtupping his landlady who never fails to heat him up a plate for dinner.

Incidentally, one shouldn't underestimate the importance of a warm meal to Skarsgård, since as he'll explain later he nearly gave up filming in his native Scandinavia because of the rigid lunch habits. For everyone's sake, it's good he didn't since "A Somewhat Gentle Man" is the kind of low-key charmer he might not get offered anywhere else, given his reputation as a heavy, but one that seems true to who he is when he's not on camera. A consummate gentleman when he called from his home overseas, the actor's actor talked about his third collaboration with Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, why he might make a solid obstetrician, working with David Fincher and how he became the unwitting patriarch of an acting dynasty.

You've done a couple of lighter films in recent years, but it's not necessarily what you're known for, so is it a nice thing for you to use different kinds of muscles?

No, it's...I don't know. I never get cast as it. Everybody thinks I'm so serious and the dark side is very accessible to me, so of course it's a challenge to do something funny. Hans Petter Moland and I have done two films before that have been really realistic and dark, so nobody thought we could do a comedy, so we had to try. And of course, it's a different kind of comedy. It's more personal in that sense, but it has a lightness. It's about humans, even if they're caricatures in some ways.

I've read it took a little bit of time to develop the script and for you and the director to settle on this in particular. Was it a matter of striking the right tone?

Yes, that was the big problem. We're always looking for things that we can do together because we work so well together and we have so much fun when we do it. So he sent me this script before Christmas two years ago and asked me if I was interested and I thought it was very, very funny. The people that had read it before saw it as a tragedy. [laughs] So I said, yeah, if we can do it within two months because I'm having a baby. So he raised the money in six weeks and then we shot it for six weeks.

The baby came a little early and fucked up our schedule, but in principle, it worked. But when we started working, we had rehearsals. I always rehearse with this director, which is very nice, not to decide everything, but to figure out the tone of the scenes and of course, all the actors started playing in their own films, very different films. So we had to find the tone for all the actors -- they're very good actors. It was easy to rein them in and get them to be in the same movie I was.

That's interesting you were expecting a child when one of the story threads is about a father reconnecting with his son. Was there any special resonance for you?

No, not really. [laughs] The baby came during the shoot, so we closed down for three days. You can do that on small independent films. You can never do it on a big film. And it was very civilized. The only way our personal lives interfered with the film was that when the girl delivers her baby in my car. When we shot that scene, I was there and Hans Petter Moland, the director, he had six kids and I also had at the time also six kids, so we were trying to teach this girl everything about what it looks like and feels like to give birth. And that was a hilarious situation - two middle-aged men teaching a woman about how to give birth!

What was it like reuniting with Hans on this film? It's been more than a decade since you last worked with him.

I didn't know it was so long because it doesn't feel like it and we talk frequently, so it feels like it was just a couple of years ago. But it feels fantastic because we know each other so well. We pull each other further than we usually go, both of us. We become a little braver together. That's probably because we're not alone. [slight laugh]

Is it true that you have a contract stipulation on your Scandinavian films to require a hot lunch?

Yeah. When you work in Norway, you actually have to have a contract about lunches because Norwegians don't eat lunch normally, so they just throw out a loaf of bread and some coldcuts. And when I did "Insomnia," I lost eight kilos, which is like 20 pounds during the shoot and that was not being method. That was just starving. And then I promised the Norwegian crews that I'll never work in this country again unless we get good catering of the highest European standards. So I always have that in the contract that everybody should have good food and I reduce my salary to make it possible. But they don't have it. It's not in the tradition, not even the schoolkids have hot lunches in Norway. They bring a couple of sandwiches from home. But I can tell you the crews like it.

Has it been interesting to be one of the lone Swedes working on the American production of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"?

It's been interesting in the sense that it was an American film that up until now has been shooting in Sweden, together with basically a Swedish crew, so since I belong to both worlds, I was the only one who understood both sides when there was any sort of cultural collision. And that was fun. I mean, I didn't interfere in anything. I just smiled and looked at it.

You've been in some very highly anticipated films before, but has "Dragon Tattoo" felt any different?

I don't think about the anticipation for the film I'm doing. I'm just thinking of the work and I really like working with Fincher. He takes a lot of takes and he takes his time, but it's not about perfecting some idea he had at his desk. He's actually investigating the scene and seeing what you can get out of that. I like that. I don't mind doing 40 takes if you can do them differently just to find something in the scene.

But is it different having a film where you know audiences have very particular expectations of the character you're playing?

It is and...it bores me a little. I try deliberately to avoid filling people's expectations and do things that they don't expect. As an actor, I don't want to be me. [laughs] I want to be the role and I want them to see a new person every time that has nothing to do with me.

You're also working with Lars von Trier again on "Melancholia." What was it like reuniting with him?

That was great. We haven't worked since "Dogville" and I was also surprised that was such a long time ago. I think it was the sixth time or something we collaborated and it was like coming home in a way. I don't have a leading role in it, but it was really nice being on the set together and his way of working. He's such a close friend as well.

Your son Alexander was in this one as well.

Yeah, Alexander was there. That was great. Trier immediately said [in thin Scandinavian accent] "Stellan, he's much better than you." "I know, Lars. It's called evolution," I said to him.

Three of your other sons - Bill, Gustaf and Valter - are also getting into the act. Did you have any idea you'd preside over an acting dynasty?

No, I never thought of that and I never encouraged them. I just encouraged them to make their own choices and be good people and be brave people and obviously they are, but the nice thing is they're extremely good. And that's true of a lot of kids, I guess. [laughs] But it's really comforting because it would've been terrible if they weren't.