Source:  Rotterdam Film Festival - February 2, 2011

No Rest for the Wicked

“Norway is a small and very nationalistic country that really loves its heroes. But they don’t like to talk much about the dark side.” So says actor Stellan Skarsgård of his latest film, "King of Devil’s Island". “There was a very successful Norwegian film last year about a freedom fighter during the second world war. If that film shows the front of the Norwegian flag, we’re showing the back.”

King of Devil’s Island draws on a disturbing true-life episode from 1915 in which young male inmates of a correctional facility on an island near Oslo revolted against their horrendous conditions. Working with director Marius Holst, Skarsgård plays the institution’s imposing governor, the man responsible for the arduous, punishing regime its teenage prisoners endure.

In a typically nuanced performance, Skarsgård avoids turning the governor into a one-dimensional villain, while never softening his cruel streak. “It’s a genre movie, like 'The Great Escape' or 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'. And of course the function of the governor is to be the oppressor,” says Skarsgård: “I got worried when I read it first because he’s obviously the bad guy, and I don’t believe in bad guys and good guys. So we started adding scenes that complicated his life. Then we realized his function had to be simpler, and so we had to work out other ways of making him richer. But working on those extra scenes was useful: when we took them away, the essence of them still remained in my acting.”

The film is the second recent Norwegian production for the Swedish actor. Before working on "King of Devil’s Island", Skarsgård gave a hilariously droll performance as an aging Oslo ex-con in Hans Petter Molland’s "A Somewhat Gentle Man": “One producer had already turned it down,” Skarsgård recalls when he was sent the script: “He thought it was a very dark and tragic story. And I read it, and thought it was a comedy!”

Alongside such smaller-scale, more edgy European movies, Skarsgård has a high-profile career in Hollywood movies, including "Mamma Mia". “It helps financing the smaller projects,” he notes of these big-budget movies: “The good thing is that backers are not usually smart people. So when they’re going to finance an independent, edgy movie, and they see Skarsgård is in it, they check how much my films have made and then they say ‘Oh, a billion dollars – that must be a great investment’ – and then they invest in this small film that nobody will see!”

Visiting Rotterdam for the first time, Skarsgård has been too busy promoting the film to see much of the city, although he did manage a visit to IFFR’s late-night drinking spot, the Bar Centraal: “A table full of drinks poured over me. It was very nice,” he deadpans. Next it’s back to Sweden to continue shooting with David Fincher on the English-language version of "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo". Admiring the US director’s meticulous approach (“he’s not at all anal, he just wants to try different things, which is great for an actor”), it has nonetheless made for a long shoot. “Originally I was scheduled to end in April,” Skarsgård says, “Then it got pushed to May, then June, then July – and now they’re calling to ask me if I’m free in August!”