The Playlist - December 21, 2011

Stellan Skarsgård On David Fincher, Lars Von Trier And Channeling Hugh Grant In A Rape Scene

You certainly can’t accuse Stellan Skarsgård of lacking a work ethic. A regular on screens big and small in his native Sweden from the time he was a teenager, since his breakout international role in 1996’s “Breaking the Waves”, he has averaged anywhere from three to eight films per year, mixing Swedish-language fare with blockbusters, voiceover work and TV appearances, to amass a fairly epic filmography. Next year he’ll reunite with regular collaborator (are we allowed use that word in this instance these days?) Lars von Trier and you can read what he had to say about that project here. But first, of course, audiences will see him in David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

When The Playlist got to talk to the actor recently, he confirmed that he took the part of Martin Vanger in that film because of Fincher's involvement, and spoke of how the director’s process of working suited his own; dude’s not exactly lazy either. “[Fincher] is a very energetic person. He doesn’t sit much and when he shoots, he shoots without sitting down for fifteen hours...nobody sits down. That suits me because I don’t want to sit down either.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively Skarsgård is convinced this frenetic shooting style bears fruit in terms of imbuing a certain freshness in the performances, even after the forty something takes that Fincher is inclined to do. “The good thing is you shoot so fast you don’t have time to take a breath... it also wears you down so any ambitious actor who’s done his homework too well, who has decided in front of the mirror how to do it -- all that will be ground down. [And then the performance] becomes life. You become the good amateur that you’re supposed to be. It’s exhausting but after thirty takes you don’t know what you’re going to say, you just stumble around and out of that comes some interesting material.”

This gruelling but fulfilling way of working is one of many parallels the actor identifies between Fincher and von Trier. “I find it rewarding, it’s like when I work with Lars – as a film actor you don’t have any control over your role, so what I enjoy is the process of seeing what the fuck can be in this character, what the fuck can be in this scene.” (We’re not sure if he’s conscious that it’s only ever in reference to his friend von Trier that he lapses into profanity during the interview. It’s kind of sweet.)

He recounts an irreverant anecdote to make his point: “It’s like when [in “Dogville”] I had raped Nicole Kidman five times, very successfully in different ways, and he says ‘Stellan? Do you think you could play it as a romantic comedy?’ and I say, ‘Yes, Lars, of course I’ll try that’ and I’m thinking Hugh Grant, Hugh Grant, Hugh Grant, Hugh Grant, and I go in and I’m very charming and I really try to rape her in a pleasant way for her. And of course the scene doesn’t work but there are one or two lines that, because of the different angle of attack, suddenly oh! you’ve found something interesting.” Von Trier incorporated the lines that worked from that take into the finished film so yes, in a few shots in “Dogville” Skarsgård is apparently channeling Hugh Grant.

But the jokey stories and impressions (his von Trier is kind of hilarious) belie a real, utterly unshakable respect for both him and Fincher as filmmakers. They are “..the two directors I’ve worked with who have this enormous knowledge of all the tools for filmmaking... they can do anything. They know more about the camera than the cameraman, more about the lighting than the DP, more about the postproduction than anyone else. They can express whatever they want, and also have something to express, which is important. They are both fantastic with music. They both create their own universes.”

For Skarsgård, however, impressed though he is by Fincher’s mastery of the various aspects of putting together a film, that’s not the most important component of the director’s skill set. “The core to what makes Fincher really interesting – all the technique and all that, that is not in the center even if it’s a big big part – what is in the center is the characters and he really is interested in that… It’s fascinating to see how he manages [it]: even if the pacing in his films is very very fast, he doesn’t drop the characters in the run, so to speak, he gives exactly enough time for them to be there and chooses the right moments. If you look at the relationship between the two main characters in this film [‘Dragon Tattoo’] – it’s very subtle and it’s so beautiful how they try to get or not get together, and then how something grows between them and it ends in the weirdest kind of love. That is so subtle for a film that is a thriller and goes tcha-tchum-tcha-tchum [makes rhythmic pounding noise].”

When we wonder aloud if a lot of that subtlety might be lost on the average moviegoer, Skarsgård articulates the opinion that in fact it is central to an audience’s enjoyment of Fincher’s movies, and part of the ephemeral and sometimes indefinable allure of the director’s work. “You could probably ask anyone who loves Fincher films and they couldn’t answer why. For people who like this film, if you took out the qualities of the relationship, they might not like it, but they wouldn’t know why, I don’t think they can pinpoint it.” So they don’t know why they are enjoying the films? “You don’t know why you fall in love” he replies.

In fact, Skarsgård has a fully-formed theory about how and why audiences respond to certain films and certain filmmakers: they have the skill to bring out a “human tone” in the performances to which we can all relate. “With [these] filmmakers you can say it’s about manipulation, not as much manipulation as a Spielberg ending but [they] know how to trigger certain things... [They] know how to trigger the human tone in it, and the human tone speaks on a direct level to people.” He cites an example close to his heart: “If you look at Kirsten Dunst’s performance in “Melancholia” which I think is absolutely wonderful – it’s not even in the text because she doesn’t say much, it’s all in her eyes. She doesn’t have to explain what she’s feeling, you just feel it.”

It was “Melancholia” that first saw him act opposite his son Alexander. “I have three sons that are actors, all very successful, but it’s funny when you work with your son… your brains work pretty much the same way which means that when you start discussing a scene, it’s shorthand. But there’s also something ridiculous about it because when you see someone that you know very well as your son or as your father, standing right in front of you pretending to be somebody else, that becomes silly. There’s joy in that, it’s very funny.”

This concept of joy in performing appears central to Skarsgård’s philosophy on acting, and informs not just his arthouse films but the more commercial, genre fare too. “...‘Mamma Mia!,’ that I was in, it’s not a film, it’s a party: what is it that makes it work? The audience just likes those clumsy actors and wanted to be a part of the party… Look at ‘Pirates,’ in spite of Disney’s attempts to make it just an amusement park ride, it’s much more. Gore Verbinski, he loves to see his actors do something they like and so it became an actor’s feast. Everybody was overacting and enjoying themselves and the joy of the actors gets to the audience.” And further, having actors portray characters with whom the audience can share some joy, is, according to Skarsgård, responsible for something of a revolution in the approach to tentpole filmmaking. “That [over]turns the idea of those big event movies. Because it’s not enough to blow up cars. It’s not enough to have gigantic special effects. Marvel has understood this and cast very good actors in their superhero movies.”

While we’re on the subject of Marvel, Skarsgård mentions “The Avengers” (“[I have a]very small role – there are a lot of people in funny costumes fighting for space there”) but is non-committal on the prospect of his return in the mooted "Thor" sequel. “[It’s] not decided because they haven’t got a script yet. They’re working on that, they’ve been talking about it but it could go the other way as well.”

Which is not to suggest that the prolific actor is short on future projects. In addition to “The Nymphomaniac” for von Trier next year, he says “In February I might do another film with Hans Petter Moland who I have done three films with before, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” [our review is here], “Aberdeen” and “Zero Kelvin,” but that’s not decided yet – it’s not official.” And he remains hungry for work with newer talents too. “There are many good [filmmakers] to work with, some probably haven’t done their first film yet and I’d really like to be in their first film.”

But as for having a wishlist of directors he’d like to work with he states simply “I don’t nourish dreams in that sense.” At this stage, we surmise, they pretty much come to him.